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Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: Reactions & Revisions

For all of these reasons, readers of Leaves of Grass came away with one of two reactions: either they thought it was genius, or they thought it was filth. On the positive side, Whitman received a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist thinker and the Sage of Concord, hailing Leaves as a work of genius. "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," Emerson wrote. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." 14 On the negative side, people attacked Whitman with vehemence. "Who is this arrogant young man who proclaims himself the Poet of the time, and who roots like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts?" 15 one reviewer wrote.

Whitman, who had been hoping for universal embrace by his countrymen, was despondent. To top it off, his father died in July 1855. Whitman fell into a period of depression during which he drank too much and wallowed in negative thoughts. "Everything I have done seems to me blank and suspicious. -- I doubt whether my greatest thoughts, as I supposed them, are not shallow -- and people will most likely laugh at me," Whitman wrote in his journal in late 1855 or 1856. "My pride is impotent, my love gets no response. -- The complacency of nature is hateful -- I am filled with restlessness. -- I am incomplete." 16

The second edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1856. Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and expanding his masterwork, conscious of every detail down to the image of the words on the printed page. As a former printer, Whitman was as concerned with the look of his words on the printed page as he was with their sound and meter. He was also extremely conscious of how the public responded to his work. More than a century before the advent of blogging, reality TV, and Twitter, Whitman was a master of self-promotion. "The public is a thick-skinned beast, and you have to keep whacking away on its hide to let it know you're there," 17 he said. He wrote anonymous reviews of his own book and planted them in the literary reviews. He also reprinted Emerson's congratulatory letter in the 1856 edition of Leaves, without asking the poet's permission. Emerson was furious. Nonetheless, Emerson's Transcendentalist neighbors in Concord, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, traveled to New York in November 1856 to meet Whitman.

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