July 4, 1885: Leaves of Grass


AS I lay with my head in your lap, Camerado,
The confession I made I resume—what I said to you in the open air I resume:
I know I am restless, and make others so;
I know my words are weapons, full of danger, full of death;
(Indeed I am myself the real soldier; 5
It is not he, there, with his bayonet, and not the red-striped artilleryman;)
For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them;
I am more resolute because all have denied me, than I could ever have been had all accepted me;
I heed not, and have never heeded, either experience, cautions, majorities, nor ridicule;
And the threat of what is call’d hell is little or nothing to me; 10
And the lure of what is call’d heaven is little or nothing to me;
…Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me, and still urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.

On this day in 1855, WALT WHITMAN published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The first edition consisted of 12 poems, and was published anonymously; Whitman set much of the type himself, and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time; there were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860-61), and the final “death-bed edition,” published in 1891, contained almost 400. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Most of them were written by Whitman himself. The praise was unstinting: “An American bard at last!” One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Emerson felt it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” This wasn’t a universal opinion, however; many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire.

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