Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

“I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.
The pleasures of heaven are with me, and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself . . . the latter I translate into a new tongue.”

Leaves of Grass (1855)

The publication of the first slim edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in 1855 was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of American literary history. Refreshing and bold in both theme and style, the book underwent many revisions over Whitman's lifetime. This exhibition traces the different occupations and preparations that led Whitman to become the author of Leaves of Grass, as well as his subsequent evolution as a poet. Over almost forty years Whitman produced multiple editions of Leaves of Grass, shaping the book into an ever-transforming kaleidoscope of poems. By his death in 1892, Leaves was a thick compendium that represented Whitman's vision of America over nearly the entire last half of the nineteenth century.

As he created and revised his masterwork, Whitman continued to change his persona. Unconventional in character as well as in poetic vision, he reacted to challenges of political upheaval and Civil War, family dysfunction, critical ridicule and praise, censorship, destitution, relocation, illness, disappointments in relationships, and periods of self-questioning. He was buoyed by friends and admirers as well as by his own optimism, and emerged with his reputation intact as the beloved “great gray poet” of American letters.

At the core of this exhibit is Leaves of Grass in its many manifestations. Displayed are selected Whitman manuscript drafts and notes for poems written across the stages of his career, on democracy, sexuality and the body, mysticism, war, mourning, and the death of Abraham Lincoln. There are also drafts of his prose and oratory, and a complete set of first editions of Whitman's master work, as well as a map of his travels around the nation. Whitman was fascinated by photography, and samples of the many studio portraits made of him across the years punctuate the exhibit. There are glimpses of friends and family and caretakers, correspondence Whitman shared with intimates, and a sampling of the translations of Leaves of Grass as it went forth and influenced world literature.

As the home of the most extensive holdings of rare and unique Whitman materials in the world, the Library of Congress is uniquely suited to present this exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass. On display are treasures from the Library's collections donated by Whitman's heirs and close friends, Thomas Harned and Horace Traubel, rare first-edition books collected by Carolyn Wells Houghton, and choice selections from the incomparable collection of Whitman manuscripts, photographs, and books amassed by Charles E. Feinberg.

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