National Verse

July 4, 1855: The first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published on this day in 1855, the poet clearly choosing Independence Day as the perfect moment for his theme. His Preface to the first edition — almost a poem itself, and almost 10,000 words long — claims that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” one made from the land’s “roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance.”

Whitman was a printer by trade, and he helped set the type for the Brooklyn company that printed the 795 copies of his book. Whitman was also a believer in phrenology; the first edition of Leaves of Grass was sold only at the “Phrenological Cabinet” of Fowler and Wells, among “the busts, examples, curios, and books” on phrenology, then fashionable. Like Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster and many eminent others, Whitman had his head read. Though not in Webster’s skull-range — said to be to the ordinary skull “what the great dome of St. Peter’s is to the small cupolas at its side” — Whitman was sufficiently proud of his marks in “Sublimity,” “Benevolence,” etc., to list them in the second issue” of his first edition at the end of the year. Also added were nine reviews of his poetry, three of them anonymously-written by himself and giving a more complete self-description: “…of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint from top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia, full-blooded, six feet high, a good feeder, never once using medicine, drinking water only — a swimmer in the river or bay or by the sea-shore.”

Henry David Thoreau moved into his Walden Pond cabin on this day in 1845 — this also an Independence Day assertion, though Thoreau’s flag was red rather than waving:

If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion and appearance… through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This Is, and no mistake….