Leaves of Grass, 1855

Ed Folsom, University of Iowa

Part of The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman and American Culture

This site offers you the opportunity to explore the origins of one of America's greatest poems, Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." Available here are facsimiles and transcriptions of all the surviving manuscript drafts of the poem. One of the great mysteries in American literary scholarship is the genesis of the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass. Since virtually all of Whitman's manuscripts of the volume's twelve poems and prose preface have disappeared, critics and biographers have usually presented Leaves as an artistic immaculate conception, apparently emerging from nowhere. We are left with very few traces of Whitman's creation of the book that redefined American literature. There are several passages in a couple of the poet's notebooks and some very rare holograph proto-versions of some passages of poetry. But the printer's copy of Whitman's manuscript has never been found, and biographers and critics have assumed that Whitman--a printer himself who tended to value his poetry only when it was set in type--simply tossed the manuscript onto the floor of the printer's shop when the compositors were done with it.

Whitman told Horace Traubel in 1888, "You have asked me questions about the manuscript of the first edition. It was burned. Rome [Andrew Rome, the printer] kept it several years, but one day, by accident, it got away from us entirely--was used to kindle the fire or to feed the rag man." At another time he told Traubel, "The first manuscript copy of Leaves--1855--the first edition--is gone irretrievably lost--went to the ragman" (WWC 2:56). In a recent article in Resources for American Literary Study, Michael Feehan notes that "we know that [Whitman] participated in setting type for the first, 1855, Leaves, though we cannot be sure of the extent of his contribution. Unfortunately, we lack the manuscript, so we do not know whether Whitman designed the book while he was writing it or later on, after consultation with his publishers."

But in fact we do have some original manuscript fragments left, and they trace the evolution of the 1855 Leaves of Grass from first rough notes through preliminary drafts on through to pieces of a what appears to have once been a complete early draft of the poem Whitman would eventually name "Song of Myself." In the index on the left-hand side of this page is a list of these manuscript fragments. They offer you the opportunity to trace the development of "Song of Myself" from Whitman's earliest notebook jottings through to the 1855 appearance of the poem. The first group of manuscripts consists of pages from a remarkable notebook that Whitman kept in the 1840s and 1850s. In this notebook, now housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, we can see Whitman's earliest articulation of ideas that would become central to Leaves of Grass. Evidence suggests these notes were made in the years just prior to Whitman's publication of Leaves in 1855. The pages included here are those on which we can see first drafts of lines, images, and phrases that would become part of the poem he eventually named "Song of Myself." The second group of manuscripts comes from the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. These manuscripts are particularly interesting because they are parts of what was apparently a complete draft of "Song of Myself" that is very different from the version Whitman published. They offer the first evidence we have of a kind of proto-version of "Song," with many lines and images identical to the final version, but appearing in this draft in sometimes wildly different order and juxtapositions. The third group of manuscripts comes from the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. They appear to be intermediary drafts of various sections of "Song of Myself," some quite close to the final version, others remarkably different.

Before exploring the drafts, however, we first need to begin with a remarkable manuscript preserved in the University of Texas Humanities Research Center (HRC), a manuscript that gives us some exciting new evidence about how Whitman conceived of the structure of "Song of Myself," and that also gives us some substantive answers to Whitman's involvement in the design of the first edition. Biographers and critics have always assumed that Whitman was actively involved in the design and even the typesetting of the 1855 Leaves, but the HRC manuscript provides the first actual evidence of Whitman's structuring of the book. From this manuscript, we can gain insight into the extent of Whitman's involvement in the design and production of his volume, and we can finally confirm some previously unsubstantiated claims about the first edition--including Whitman's recollection that his prose preface to the first Leaves was added at the last minute ("It was written hastily while the first edition was being printed in 1855" [Corr 2:100]).