Great Minds: Walt Whitman’s Quest for Perfection

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is one of the greatest pieces of poetry—American or otherwise—ever created. Some might even call it perfection. So how does one man create so much of that perfection, and a better question, why can’t we do it? The truth is, Leaves of Grass was far from perfect when it was first published 160 years ago.

Depending on who you ask, Whitman went through eight or more editions to get it to the state it’s in today. We’ve compiled a “Leaves of Grass Timeline” to demonstrate Whitman’s process in turning mediocrity into a masterpiece.

1851 – Whitman begins writing Leaves of Grass. It takes him four years to write the twelve poems. To be fair, some of those poems, such as “Song of Myself”, are pretty long.

1855 – Whitman anonymously self-publishes the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Critics find it “reckless and indecent”.

1856 – Whitman publishes the second edition, which contains twenty more poems, some of which are rather racy. Whitman also includes a self-promoting appendix of critical reviews of his work. This combination results in what came to be known as Whitman’s “greatest publishing failure”, and was at the time labelled an affront to American literature and “one of its worst disgraces”.

1860 – Whitman brushes criticism off and publishes a third edition, with 124 new poems.

1867 – Now going full-steam ahead, Whitman adds even more poems and refuses to remove the “immoral” poems despite being threatened with legal actions. Leaves of Grass grows to 236 poems.

1871-72 – Now receiving positive attention, Whitman releases a fifth edition with even more poems. He spends the following year rearranging their order.

1881 –The seventh edition is released with only a few touch-ups. Twenty-six years after its first publication, the book is finished.

1891-92 – Well, except for the actual final edition, which is released a whole decade later. Walt Whitman, who was, at that point, nearly confined to his deathbed, spent his last months fixing—you guessed it—grammatical errors. And then, at long last, he wrote: “[Leaves of Grass] 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.” Whitman’s lifetime achievement, after over three decades of imperfection, was finally, in the artist’s eyes, perfect.

Paris Spence-Lang

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