Saturday, November 07th, 2009 | Author:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debates we’ve had in class concerning which edition of LoG was the better one. By the end of everything, however, the results were inconclusive: the few of us that preferred the 1855 edition were still set in our ways, as well as those who preferred the 1891-92 edition.

With that, I can’t help but think that there isn’t any definitive version to read, despite the fact that Whitman preferred his latest. The way our course is structured reflects this: we’ve dealt more critically with the “Drum-Taps” and Civil War editions than any other, while the other campuses take on their own edition reflecting their geography. And no campus really has a “better” edition or Whitman (although I will always be partial to my tender nurse Walt). Rather, each edition is definitive of the Whitman who was writing at the time as well as the country that he wished to save and unify, and each merits an equal amount of studying in order to best understand the changes and person in Whitman. If one wants to read a Whitman wounded from the war, then one should read the 1867 edition. The 1891-1892 is a matured Whitman, dealing with the effects of ill-health and the advent of a new century. Similarly, the other editions reflect other Whitmans, sober, youthful, or mournful.

For example, I’ve been looking at “Ashes of Soldiers,” which appears in the “Songs of Parting” section of the deathbed edition. Until the 1867 edition this poem did not exist; it is a testament to the war and the losses that the nation suffered. 1855 is the triumphant youth of Whitman; the sobered sense of reflection wouldn’t make as much sense here. 1860 is the beginning of the tumult, and 1867 embodies a more sobered Whitman. In 1867, “Ashes” was known as “Hymn of Dead Soldiers,” a title that more closely defines the funereal and mournful outlook facing the nation post-war and post-Lincoln. The poem itself is also completely reworked. “Hymn” plunges into the physical aspects of the soldiers and war within the first several lines. “Ashes,” on the other hand, spends a good ten lines genuflecting on the ethereal aspects of the soldiers, as well as the idea that both North and South are dead. This transition is evident in the notes Whitman made here. Perhaps this is a reflection on Whitman’s older self, one who has had time to withdraw from the passions of war and is able to distance himself. Whitman even physically removes himself in “Ashes,” saying that he “muse(s) retrospective” and that the war “resumes.” The war is past tense and spiritual, rather than fresh and wounding. Rather than purely mourning the soldiers and being obsessed with their loss, Whitman also inserts the common theme of unification, reaffirming that the losses he felt were the losses of all the country. This also serves to reinforce mourning of the fractured nation.

Whitman’s sense of reflection is also evident in the latter parts of the text. Whitman adds the line, “Shroud them, embalm then, cover them all with tender pride.” Time plays an important role in “Ashes;” it literally enshrouds the memories here. While not necessarily softening them, it allows the speaker distance between himself and the war. Most of the changes take in this poem occur between 1867 and 1871. It’s only a span of four years, but the fact that Whitman allowed the poem to remain largely unedited until the deathbed edition may allow one to assume that Whitman’s general feelings on this aspect remain the same. The end lines are the only difference. Whitman places “South and North” to describe the soldiers, again reaffirming the theme of unification within the poem.

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  1. Meghan, I think your thoughts about the structure of this course reflecting the idea that Leaves of Grass can have no definitive version are interesting and true in a lot of ways. Whitman wanted to reach all types of people; that is a large part of the reason why he wrote the way he did. He wanted his “multitudes” to touch multitudes. I see brilliance in all of these Whitman identities and while you grasp tight your tender nurse Whitman (as I admit I am drawn to myself) others might love nationalist Whitman or prophet Whitman. There is a piece of him for all of us, man and woman, thrill-seeker and homebody, introvert and extrovert. Therefore, attempting to pinpoint one edition of the life’s work of this Renaissance man as “the” text is simply unfair to Whitman and to his readers. In class, as you say, we are split on which edition each of us prefers personally which only goes to show how the small nuances in these texts mold our own Whitmans to be quite different despite them being one man. I am so interested in the way Whitman accomplished this and the genius behind LoG because of it that to decide the authority of one of these editions would be to discount a lot of the reason I love Whitman.

  2. Avatar of bcbottle bcbottle says:

    First of all…Wound Dressers for life!

    Reading your post I was reminded about a comment I made a few weeks ago about whether Whitman would want us to read all his versions or whether he would prefer we just read the deathbed edition. I have now come tot he conclusion that I don’t care what Whitman would have wanted. I think the way we studied Whitman allowed me to connect with him in a way I would never have been able to if I’d just read one edition. I feel like i grew with Whitman and learned from his changing experiences rather than just getting them listed off to me.

    I’d really be interested to know how the other schools feel about this since they spent more tiem on the 1855 and 1892 version then we did.

  3. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Once for my long poem seminar I ordered a copy of “Song of Myself” that was published without the rest of LoG to save the students money. Only after I got it, right before the semester, did I realize that the publishers had taken parts of 1855 and parts of Deathbed and combined them, giving what they felt was the best Song possible. I have been mad about it ever since, because to me it violated the sanctity of OMW’s text. But I am in complete agreement with you three who have posted here that it’s okay for each of us to connect to and love the intact version we find most compelling, regardless of Whitman’s directive which may have been as much about cutting out publishing confusions as anything, or to love different things about different versions (example: I like 1855 a lot, but boy I wish it had “and sing myself” in line 1; Dr. E likes line 1 better without it).

    What is not to love about this post? A live link, an engagement with our affiliated schools, and close reading. You’ve made TBJG, Dr. E AND me happy.

  4. meghanedwards says:

    Dr. Scanlon,

    Never ever look at some of the Spanish translations. I’m reading about them for my final project, and one of the very first edition, translated by Vasseur omitted 750 lines of “Song of Myself”–because he didn’t -like- them. He also refused to include several poem, translated only selections of poems that he “deemed worthy” and changed Whitman’s metaphors to those that he thought were better fit. I died a little bit inside when I read that.

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