I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.—Section 1, “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman, 1855
By the end of his life in 1892, Walt Whitman had published eight revised editions (eight or so; there is some debate on this matter) of his major volume of poems, “Leaves of Grass,” culminating in a ninth edition, what he himself called the “deathbed edition.”
“L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old,” he wrote a friend. He was only 72 when he died, but with his white beard and self-presentation as a man who had existed for the entire country’s history, he seemed older.
It all started on the 4th of July. On this date 160 years ago, Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a book that contained twelve poems, each without a name, and starting with the opener, a poem that became known over time as “Song of Myself.”
The other poems also acquired names over time, and many remain beloved: “Song of Myself,” “A Song for Occupations,” “To Think of Time,” “The Sleepers,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Faces,” “Song of the Answerer,” “Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States,” “A Boston Ballad,” “There Was a Child Went Forth,” “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?” and “Great Are the Myths.”
One of his many biographers, David Reynolds, recounts that Whitman intended to keep the volume brief, 95 pages, so readers could carry the book in a pocket, always at the ready. “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air,” Whitman wrote. He was not yet famous, but he believed with certainty that he would be.
That particular—and charming—ambition was soon superseded by a larger one: “Leaves of Grass” would “contain multitudes,” as he also wrote about himself, and he added to the work for the rest of his life. He would spend “33 y’rs of hackling at it,” as he wrote. (Yes, I find that term so entertaining I quoted it a second time.) The final edition has more than 400 poems in it. It is his “collected works,” as one might understand it; for those poets lucky enough to have a publishing history, most of their final scholarly editions present readers with a similar number of poems.
The book was not a bestseller; fewer than 800 copies were printed, at Whitman’s expense. However, Whitman possessed a talent for marketing that rivaled few; that combination—great writer and great self-advertiser—is often shared by great figures in literature, but is most often seen in great figures in American literature, and Whitman was one of the first. He sent one of the first copies to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who loved the book and wrote a letter full of praise to Whitman.
Whitman seized the opportunity. He quickly assembled a much larger edition of “Leaves of Grass” and included Emerson’s private letter as an introduction by Emerson to the readers. Whitman gave it a Whitman-esque title: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career.” This angered Emerson, but it had its needed effect: the younger poet was now a famous younger poet and someone who people read.
Upon publishing each subsequent edition, Whitman was certain he had finished the book for all time. And then he would return to it.
This most American poet’s debut on the American stage came on America’s birthday, July 4, 1855. One hundred sixty years ago today.
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In 1888, Whitman wrote “America,” a poem that—given his predilection for long lines stretching across the page up to the edges of the right margin and poems of many sections—is a very short poem: five lines. Of course, he could have titled his entire body of work “America,” and no one would have thought it more audacious than “Song of Myself.” America is his subject as much as he is his subject.
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.— “America,” Walt Whitman
A recording of someone reading the first four lines of this poem has been around for the last 40 years, and it is said to be a recording of Whitman on a wax cylinder. I do not think it is; it is too clean a recording for it to be from that era. (Perhaps I will write a longer piece on this subject to explain.)
Thomas Edison wanted to record Whitman, that much is known. One letter in his archives is addressed to a Sylvester Baxter of Malden, MA, dated February 14, 1889. It thanks Mr. Baxter for his suggestion to record the elderly poet. A second letter, written the same day, was sent to Edison’s retail distributor: “In reference to the attached letter from Mr. Sylvester Baxter, Do you wish to act upon this gentleman’s suggestion, and obtain a phonogram from the poet Whitman?” And there the paper trail ends. There is no wax cylinder, nor a label from one from the era, of any such recording.
A recording of a radio broadcast from the early 1950s of recordings made by famous writers appeared in the 1970s, and this early ’50s radio broadcast provides the first appearance of the Whitman recording. No history of the radio broadcast, like the network that produced it or the date it was recorded or broadcast, has been found. The company that manufactured and sold the tape cassette of the recording no longer exists.
Of all the poems that a recording engineer and a famous poet might have decided to record, “America,” is an unlikely one. The first famous lines of “Song of Myself,” would have been obvious. But “America” was a recent poem, one that Whitman might have more readily had in memory to recite to the man with the strange machine and complicated apparatus. Whitman was not a stage performer, but it is said that he had a strong voice.
If it is a fake, however, an actor posing as Whitman being recorded in 1890 or so, why would this poem be the one recorded?
Here is the recording of a voice said to be Walt Whitman reciting “America”:
In 1889, Robert Browning was recorded, and this is a verified recording with an extensive paper trail. You can hear that Browning seems to be yelling even while holding the recording device in front of his mouth or leaning close to it. The one intimate moment comes when he plainly states, “I can’t remember my own verses,” and falls back on leading what sounds like a large crowd in a cheer for Edison’s device.
The scratchy quality of the Browning recording is the reason I doubt the Whitman recording is of Walt Whitman. It is likely we will never know. As Steve Silberman wrote in an article about the matter in Open Culture in 2013, “… I’m glad to make an exuberant leap of American faith and think it’s him. From Edison wax cylinder recording, to radio broadcast, to cassette, to mp3, over more than a century of American poetry—it would be a perfectly Whitmanesque journey.”
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