Whitman 1855 What was Walt doing at this time? Late in 1854, Whitman was working in carpentry. He is assumed to have started his writings for what would later be known, and published as Leaves of Grass in late 1854 or early 1855. One of his brothers once commented that Walt would get an idea while working, write it down, then take the rest of the day off. How did Walt get his book published? Allen contends that Walt probably sought out a commercial publisher to take his book at first, though there is no mention or proof of this. However, Whitman took his book to the Rome brothers, James and Thomas, who had a printing shop on the corner of Fulton and Cranberry.
These two men were friends of Walt. They let Walt supervise their work and even help in the setting of some of the type. Whitman is thought to have set about ten pages. However, the frontispiece and probably the binding had to be done somewhere else. Some think that the book went on sale on July 4, but it isn’t probable that any book stores were open on that day.
However, an advertisement appeared in The New York Tribune on July 6 for the book. How did Walt come up with the money for the books? We can’t answer this for sure, but one fact may shed some light on the subject: The Whitman’s bought a house on May 24, 1855, on Ryerson Street. Mrs. Whitman was given legal permission to sign the papers because her husband was ill. The house was purchased for $1,840. Therefore, it is a possibility that Walt got money from his mother. How did Walt advertise the book? The two bookstores that advertised the book in The New York Tribune were: Swayne, No.
210 Fulton St., Brooklyn, and Fowler and Wells, No. 308 Broadway, NY. However, four days later, Swayne withdrew from the advertisement. Fowler and Wells ran it for the entire month. What of the book? How did it come about? What about that picture? Those who looked at the book were confronted with a steel engraved frontispiece portrait of Whitman.
He was wearing work jeans, shirt with unbuttoned collar, and a felt hat cocked to an outrageous angle. This picture was originally a daguerreotype taken in July of the previous year by Gabriel Harrison, a friend of Whitman’s. Whitman placed the order for the engraving with Macrae in NY, but Macrae didn’t have the knowledge or resources for a stipple print, so the order was given to Hollyer, a stipple expert. Years later, Hollyer sent a publisher, Herbert Small, a letter in which Hollyer described a chance meeting with Whitman soon after the engraving was finished. Hollyer met up with Whitman at a restaurant and talked to him about the portrait, asking him what he thought. Whitman said he liked it but would like to have some alterations made.
The next morning, Whitman brought the plate in to Hollyer and told him what he wanted. Hollyer made the alterations quickly, with professional attention. A couple days later, Whitman walked into Hollyer’s office with freshly printed volumes of Leaves of Grass and presented Hollyer with the first copy issued. How did the book itself come across to the American public? There was no author’s name on the book, or on the title page, just his portrait. But, if one looked closely enough, Walter Whitman held the copyright. The book was printed in an odd style.
There were no titles to the poems, and the print ran clear across the page, making the book awkward to anyone in 1855, as this was not the style in which books were printed. Whitman had about a thousand copies printed, but not all were bound. An estimated two or three hundred were bound in cloth, and some were bound in paper covers, being sold by Fowler and Wells several months after the original advertisement at the lower price of seventy five cents. It is estimated that only a couple dozen people bought the book. How did Whitman take the sales, or lack of sales? Whitman made a statement later in the year, in a moment of self advertisement, that the book “readily sold,” but later, in his old age, he stated that not a single copy was bought and that he himself kept only one copy.
More probable is that the extra copies, after having been on the shelves for some time, were given away as gifts by both Whitman and the book store. One such gifts was sent by Whitman, or one of his agents, to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Quite a lucky event! Also, some editions were sent to England and were found by a few receptive readers, paving the way for a great reception of British readers about ten years later. What was going on in Walt’s life outside of the presses and bookstores? On July 11, 1855 Walt’s father passed away. Walt was then shortly distracted from his anticipation of reviews of his book.
Walt, George, and Jeff were all away when the crisis came. They were, however, close enough to be beckoned to their father’s bedside. Mary didn’t arrive in time; Hannah didn’t even hear about it until a week later, as she was in Vermont moving from one boardinghouse to another. She heard of her father’s having passed away when her mother wrote a long letter full of details of her father’s sickness and death. This death, apparently, didn’t have much of an effect on the Whitman family.
They continued on with life as usual. Mary returned to Greenport, George and Jeff to their jobs. It is a mystery as to what Jesse and Andrew were doing at this time. Walt’s attention returned to his book. What did Emerson think of Leaves of Grass? Emerson had received his copy of Leaves of Grass and read it through. On July 21, he wrote to Whitman that he thought it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Whitman is said to have carried this letter around with him all summer long.
This is a piece of armor that Whitman took shelter behind when he got bashed by harsh critics. The fact that there was no name echoed many of the things that Emerson expressed in his own works. Even Whitman’s paragraphs resembled Emerson’s. Some believe that ideas found in the Preface of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass are Emerson’s own, from an essay that he wrote on “The Poet.” What does the biographer think of the works? One of the now famous poems from Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself,” is said by Allen to have confused the reader. Allen puts full blame on Whitman for this. He believes that the ambiguity that Whitman leaves about who is speaking in the poem leaves one baffled.
The poem does speak in an ambiguous tone, only specifically defining the author at a line which reads “..Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs…” Allen comes down hard on Whitman on this issue. Allen states, “Friendly critics later tried to excuse the personal egotism, arrogance, and crudity by making for Whitman the same claim that Thoreau had made in Walden, that he boasted not of himself but for humanity…” Allen goes on to explain that Whitman embraced this theory and held it as true to escape criticism. How did the American public first view Leaves of Grass? Many were disturbed by the sexual imagery in Whitman’s poems. He was very bold and, excuse the pun, de-clothed many taboo subjects. This struck many as amoral, but this is the factor which drew many of his readers into his poetry, particularly women readers. However, the poems are thought by some to have been largely ignored in the until the beginning of the 20th century.
What of the reviews of Leaves of Grass? There was a review of the 1855 Leaves of Grass that was published in the New York Tribune on July 23, 1855, written by Charles A. Dana. The review was rather nice. The author referred to Whitman as an “odd genius.” The review did point out “faults” in the poems, specifically in the language, and seemingly discontinued flow of discussion, but all comments were worded carefully in a non-offensive manner. Whitman himself later confessed to some of these so-called mistakes in his poems.
Whether this was of his own will or to please reviewers and readers we will never really know. There were a few other reviews of Whitman’s poetry that weren’t so nice. These reviews bashed Whitman’s ambiguity and his bold confrontation of taboo subjects. Whitman published three critical reviews of his own work in September. There is high probability that he was pushed on by the publishers of the book to do so.
We need not mention that Whitman would have been eager to do this, as well, to promote his book. What became of Whitman’s relationship with Emerson? Dana, the gentleman who gave Whitman such a careful and nicely worded review, printed Whitman’s letter from Emerson in The Tribune on October 10 without Walt’s permission. Given Walt’s demeanor, Dana didn’t really think anything of it. At first, Walt was fairly upset about it, but he began sending copies of this article with his book. This, perhaps, is the best thing that ever happened to Walt.
This paved the way for him and got his book into many people’s hands who wouldn’t have even looked at it if it weren’t for Emerson’s approving letter. Emerson himself was a bit dismayed at the “rudeness” of printing his letter without permission, but he never mentioned anything about it to Walt. Emerson visited Walt for what is thought to be the first time in December, and this was the beginning of an aquaintance between the two men. Did Whitman go back to work? Walt’s positive business relationship with Fowler and Wells resulted in Walt’s interest in journalism flourishing once again. Walt contributed to Life Illustrated, a weekly magazine distributed in New York between November 1, 1855 and August 30, 1856.