Leaves of Ass

Why won't anyone finish publishing Walt Whitman's letters?

Walt Whitman
edited by Ted Genoways
The Correspondence, Volume VII
University of Iowa Press

Publish or perish goes the old saw of academic life, but publish and perish seems to be the fate that befell Edwin Haviland Miller and his plans to publish Walt Whitman's collected writings. The series launched with a bang in 1961, but progress has been increasingly tangled and feeble since then. During the '60s, through New York University, Miller shepherded into print several volumes of correspondence, two books of prose, and a "comprehensive reader's edition" of Leaves of Grass. In the '70s, another academic, William White, put out a three-volume edition of daybooks and notebooks, and Miller added a supplementary volume of letters to the pile, which included newly discovered material. In the '80s, yet another academic jumped into the fray and published Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts.

Fast-forward to the year 2004. The entire advisory board of the Miller project, including Miller himself, is now deceased, and there does not seem to be an end in sight. So Whitman watchers can be forgiven a spell of confusion at this fall's news that the University of Iowa Press has brought out Volume VII of Whitman's writings, under a new publisher and a new editor.

Snob, hack, national treasure
Snob, hack, national treasure

This latest volume includes a very grim forward from an academic by the name of Ed Folson who is certainly aware of the curse Whitman's papers have over those who try to organize them. "What is certain," Folson writes, tipping his hat to the new editor, "is that Ted Genoways has extended the life of The Collected Writings by bringing one key area of Whitman's work up to date." Is it me or is Mr. Folson trying to rub some bad mojo off on his colleague?

If there is indeed a curse on Whitman's papers, it would only be appropriate given this poet's checkered path into print. Although he has morphed into a happy-go-lucky, straw-chewing, bardic woodsman in the public imagination, Whitman was actually a struggling writer for much of his life. He joined the staff of a Long Island newspaper in 1831 and spent the next two decades in and out of the newspaper business, as a writer, publisher, editor, and hustling freelancer. He wrote Leaves of Grass between 1850 and 1855 when he was mostly unemployed and living in Brooklyn with his family, taking long walks on Coney Island. The first edition of the book was self-published in 1855 by a group of Whitman's friends. In the next 40 years Leaves of Grass would go through another six editions as Whitman spent the rest of his life adding to and revising the collection.

As it is a supplemental volume, spanning a half-century, this latest installment of Whitman's papers allows us a bird's-eye squint at his evolution as a writer and a thinker, and the glimpse it gives is rather counterintuitive. You would think, given his many frustrations and dead ends, that Whitman would have begun life an idealist and finished a cynic. But it appears to be the other way around. "I believe when the Lord created the world, he used up all the good stuff, and was forced to form Woodbury and its denizens, out of the fag ends," he writes bitterly to a friend in the first letter, from 1840, when Whitman was 21. Indeed, the early Whitman is not a nature-loving populist but a snob who gets rather worked up about having to spend his time with the plebes.

Over the years, though, Whitman softens, and this grab bag of letters shows him warming to his task of being a bard. He sells his book by mail order ($10 back then!), promises to return loans, authorizes the use of previously printed material in anthologies, asks Ralph Waldo Emerson for a letter of introduction so he can get a clerking job. It is a strangely intimate assortment, making awkward bedfellows of the trivial and the profound.

"It is pretty certain that, armed in that way, I shall conquer my object," Whitman wrote in 1862 to Emerson, regarding that letter of introduction. Though he needs no calling card today, how odd, and even sad, it is that this lion of American letters is still struggling to find his way into print.

 
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