Today in History: May 31

By the end of his life in 1892, Walt Whitman had published eight revised editions (eight or so; there is some scholarly debate whether some editions constitute a full edition) of his major volume of poems, Leaves of Grass, culminating in a ninth edition, what he himself called with dark humor his “deathbed edition.” Walt Whitman was born on this date in 1819.

“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 seemed to have existed for the entire country’s history, he seemed older.

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That particular—and charming—ambition was soon superseded by a larger one: Leaves of Grass would “contain multitudes,” as he also wrote about himself, and he added to the work for the rest of his life.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.

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. Whitman sent one of the first printed 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 to Whitman as a public introduction by Emerson to American readers. Whitman gave the letter-now-preface a Whitman-esque title: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career.” This stunt angered Emerson, but it had its desired effect: the younger poet was now a famous younger poet and someone whose works people read.

Who better to hear read “Song of Myself” than Orson Welles:

 
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The U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 was signed into law by President George Washington on this date in 1790. It was the first copyright law in the new country and it covered books, maps, and charts for 14 years with a provision that it could be renewed for another 14 if the creator was still alive at that point in time.

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“The Stake Out,” the first regular episode of Seinfeld, aired on this date in 1990. The pilot episode had been broadcast almost a year before, in July 1989. Four episodes were broadcast the spring of 1990 and did well enough to win the series a second half-season in 1991.

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Timothy Leary died 20 years ago today.

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Fred Allen was born on this date in 1894. Norman Vincent Peale was born in 1898 on this date. Don Ameche was born on this date in 1908.

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Clint Eastwood is 86 today. Peter Yarrow is 78. Terry Waite is 77. Joe Namath is 73. Sharon Gless is 73. Chris Elliott is 56. Lea Thompson is 55. Brooke Shields is 51. Colin Farrell is 40.

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