On this day in 1855, a slender volume of 12 poems was published in Brooklyn. Its author was a passionate man named Walt Whitman (books by this author). The poems were untitled and the author wasn’t identified in the first edition of 795 copies. Instead, the first edition of what became a masterpiece of American literature, Leaves of Grass, featured a stippled engraving of Whitman, wearing rumpled work clothes and a jaunty hat. Whitman had designed the book and paid for publication himself.
The first edition didn’t sell very well. Lots of people who did read the poems found them offensive and some reviewers burned their copies. But poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson read a copy and loved it. He said, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.”
Walt Whitman revised and rewrote Leaves of Grass for the rest of his life, five editions in all. Twelve poems grew to more than 400. Many of these poems, like “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” are now taught in schools and featured in films and books. The book influenced artists like Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and even singer Lana Del Rey.
Whitman was always convinced that if he’d traveled the country and read the book to people, it would have received a better reception. He lamented, “If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I’d have had my audience at once.”
Nearly 200 copies of the dark green first edition survive. One recently sold for more than $200,000 at auction.
In Leaves of Grass, Whitman called himself “an America, one of the roughs, a kosmos.”