In a season that is consumed with parties and presents, we decided to slow things down by reviewing Walt Whitman’s book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. First published in 1855 as a collection of 12 untitled poems, Whitman’s work not only defined his career, but American poetry forever. In fact, Whitman continued adding and editing this body of work for the rest of his life. Upon his death in 1892, the collection contained 383 poems that were split into 14 major sections.
Whitman personally designed the cover and typeset, as well as paid for the printing himself. Promptly after publication, he sent a copy to Emerson, who praised it so highly that Whitman included the letter in all subsequent editions. He did so without Emerson’s permission. Among the many compliments detailed in the letter, Emerson said, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” And a great career it was.
The work’s primary topic? America. He tackled various aspects of American culture in an effort to capture its essence, diversity, and democracy. Additionally, Whitman is considered to be the inventor of the American free verse. His long, exhaustive lines are both positive and groundbreaking, and were jarring to a population that was accustomed to the extremely structured and rhythmic British poetry.
Even though the reviews at the time were mixed, critics and creatives alike have long praised this masterpiece since. And for good reason. Whitman’s work has shaped American literature for the better.
Americana is the driving force of this collection, but within it he broaches such subjects as democracy, slavery, the Civil War, the American landscape, the ocean, poverty, love, immortality, aging, education, writing, reading, social change, and spirituality.
“Song of Myself” was included in the original edition, and is considered by many to be Whitman’s masterpiece. It includes moving lines such as, "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles," and spans a whopping 52 sections.
In our opinion, books of poetry always force us to be reflective, which is perfect as we approach a new decade. Regardless of whether you decide to join us in reading Leaves of Grass this month, remember to take some time to slow down and enjoy the season. There is a lot to be thankful for, and even more to meditate on, so do what you can to sit in the silence for a bit longer. You never know what you’ll find there.