The HRC manuscript--worn and soiled, after obviously spending some time on the Rome brothers' printing shop floor--consists of, on one side, a heavily revised section of a proto-version of the poem that would eventually become "Song of Myself" (key images of the eventual poem here appear in surprising juxtapositions); on the other side are Whitman's scribbled notes for the arrangement, size, and decoration of the 1855 Leaves. Whitman often wrote notes and drafts on the backs of various documents, including the backs of abandoned drafts of poems. During the years this manuscript has been housed in the HRC, scholars have understandably been far more interested in the side containing the draft of the poem and have ignored the cryptic and seemingly disjointed notes on the verso. But those notes cast light on the mystery of Whitman's plans for the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

Image courtesy Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin;
may not be downloaded or altered without the Center's permission.

HRC manuscript image

The 1855 Leaves consisted of twelve poems, all untitled. On the HRC MS, Whitman lists the twelve poems, but in order to list them he has to give them working titles. The MS thus gives us our first indication that Whitman referred to his poems by name, even though he would withhold the titles in print. He gives most of the twelve poems first-line titles, a practice he would frequently employ during the rest of his career. In the manuscript, the poems appear in an order significantly different from the arrangement he finally settled on: "I celebrate myself" ("Song of Myself") came first (as it would in the printed edition), followed by "A young man came to me" (the poem that would develop into "Song of the Answerer"), "A child went forth" ("There Was a Child Went Forth"), "sauntering the pavement" ("Faces"), "great are the myths" ("Great Are the Myths"), "I wander all night" ("The Sleepers"), "Come closer to me" ("A Song for Occupations"), "Who learns my lesson complete" ("Who Learns My Lesson Complete"), "Clear the way there Jonathan" ("A Boston Ballad"), "Resurgemus" ("Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States"), "To think through the retrospections" ("To Think of Time"), and "Slaves" ("I Sing the Body Electric").

Whitman's use of these shorthand names allowed him to work out an arrangement of poems. Only one of the twelve poems had previously been published, and Whitman continued to call it by the same title under which it had originally appeared in the New York Tribune--"Resurgemus." Perhaps the most interesting working title is "Slaves" (the word is smudged almost beyond recognition on the manuscript), which underscores the fact that a slave auction is the setting of the poem that would become "I Sing the Body Electric." At the time he wrote these notes, "Slaves" was to be the concluding piece, a position that would have intensified the importance of the slavery issue in the book. In two cases, Whitman groups pairs of poems: "A young man came to me" is bracketed with "A child went forth," and "Who learns my lesson complete" is bracketed with and joined by an ampersand to "Clear the way there Jonathan." These subgroups suggest that Whitman had a hitherto unrecognized organizational plan for the book, a plan he would soon abandon in favor of what became the final arrangement.

Anticipating his notes in the 1860 "Blue Book" copy of Leaves, where he compares the number of words in his book withthose in the Bible, the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Inferno, Paradise Lost, and other classics, Whitman here counts the number of letters that appear on average in "one of my closely written MS pages" (he figures 1,600) and compares it to the number of "letters in a page of Shakespeare's poems" (1,120). He makes the comparison of his manuscript pages to Shakespeare's printed pages so that he can estimate how long the printed Leaves will be. Whitman's arithmetic covers the page as he calculates that his book will contain 116 pages. Either his estimates were grossly inaccurate, or, more likely, he had not yet decided on the large page size, since the first edition ended up with only 95 pages, including his ten-page prose preface (which he clearly had not yet written, since it is not mentioned in these notes). He lets us know his Leaves manuscript has "about 127 pages" (this is the first we've known the size of the phantom manuscript). And in one corner of the page of notes he registers that he "left with Andrew [Rome] 5 pages MS," so we know that these notes were written relatively close to the publication of Leaves, since at least some of the book was already being set in type.

Since so much changed between the making of these notes and the completion of the book (including the addition of the preface and the reordering of the poems), this manuscript reveals that Whitman was actively making substantive last-minute changes--reorganizing, adding, and deleting, even while Andrew Rome was typesetting the poetry. One of the revelations of the HRC manuscript is that Whitman divided "I celebrate myself" into five parts. Critics over the past century have argued endlessly about the partitive structure of "Song of Myself," and countless schemes have been proposed. Whitman added to the confusion by the changes he made from one edition to the next: in the first edition of Leaves, he did not section the poem except by inserting frequent spaces between groups of lines, thus creating very irregular stanzas. By 1860, he numbered each of those stanzas, almost like biblical verses, and ended up with 372. In 1867, he added 52 section numbers and retained the stanza numbers; in 1881, he dropped the stanza numbers but kept the 52 sections. Critics have always suspected a partitive structure deeper than that indicated by Whitman's numbering schemes. Edwin Haviland Miller has recently summarized the various "searches for structure," beginning with William Sloane Kennedy's 1896 suggestion of a three-part structure; most of the suggestions range from four to nine parts, with five the most popular number of divisions. The manuscript reveals that Whitman originally divided the poem in five parts, a fact that is perhaps enough to restore one's faith in criticism.

Whitman projected that "I celebrate myself" would run 62 pages, and he indicated the number of pages in each of the five sections. Since the poem in print actually occupied only 43 pages, we need to do some math of our own to locate the approximate places where Whitman conceived of the major breaks in the poem. His notations suggest that he saw the first movement of the poem occupying what became the first fifteen sections of the 1881 "Song of Myself"; his second major division included the eventual sections 16-27; the third part ran from sections 28-34; the fourth from 35 to somewhere in section 42, and the final from section 42 (perhaps beginning with the line "This is the city . . . . and I am one of the citizens") through 52. That turns out to be very close to Carl F. Strauch's early (1938) suggestion that the main parts of the poem break into sections 1-18, 19-25, 26-38, 39-41, and 42-52. While Whitman's notes certainly don't determine the "correct" division, the HRC manuscript does give us our first indication that he conceived of the poem partitively and furnishes scholars with the beginnings of an author-sanctioned reading of the poem in five sections.

The HRC manuscript also indicates that Whitman originally planned to include an illustration in the book, the figure of "A large ship under her full power of steady foward motion." This note suggests that the decorations that the poet finally employed in the 1860 Leaves--a finger with a butterfly, a cloud-encircled globe, and an ocean with a rising or setting sun--were the realization of a longstanding desire to offer such visual accompaniments to his text. We don't know why he abandoned the ship ornament in the first edition--perhaps for financial reasons, or perhaps because the ship-motif had yet to surface in his poems the way it would after the Civil War, when poems like "O Captain! My Captain!" ("The ship has weather'd every rack") and "Passage to India" ("Sail forth--steer for the deep waters only, / . . . And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all") were predicated on the emblematic significance of a ship under full power.

The verso of the HRC manuscript of an early version of a section of "Song of Myself" turns out, then, to be one of the most valuable and instructive of all surviving Whitman manuscripts. It is Whitman's early work sheet, the only record we have of the poet's plans for the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

To explore the verso of this manuscript, on which Whitman has written a proto-version of part of "Song of Myself," see "And to me each minute" on the Index to the left.

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