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Jason Stacy is an associate professor of US history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He is the author of Walt Whitman's Multitudes: Labor Reform and Persona in Whitman's Journalism and the First "Leaves of Grass," 1840-1855.
Between 1855 and 1860 Walt Whitman channeled his greatest work. How this mediocre journalist and sometime writer of short-stories and verse suddenly erupted with so many astonishingly original poems is one of those delicious mysteries. Some suppose he underwent a spiritual epiphany on a par with that of Rilke or Eckhart Tolle; others say that with the exception of his moving ode to Lincoln, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd" (1865), Whitman's greatest poems were already written and contained in this, his third edition of "Leaves." Nevertheless, he went on writing for another three decades, inserting lesser pieces and rearranging the order of his earlier poems, depriving them of their original context and diluting their overall effect.
In short, if you're looking to be zapped full-force by Whitman's big, friendly voice and inclusive, evolutionary vision, the 1860 edition is Whitman at the absolute peak of his powers. For those looking for an edition of "Leaves" that contains the very best of the 1860 edition plus the juiciest poems from his later years, I strongly recommend "Walt Whitman: Selected Poems 1855 - 1892," edited by Gary Schmidgall.
In 1860, when the United States was on the brink of civil war, Walt Whitman produced a book of poems that he hoped would provide a roadmap for preserving the Union. It was "Leaves of Grass," the third edition.
Reading Whitman is always an exhilarating experience but when reading from this facsimile edition put out by the University of Iowa Press, there's a touch of something else - a sense of history. The introduction by antebellum historian and Whitman scholar Jason Stacy does an excellent job of situating the collection within its historical framework, showing clearly the issues that Whitman was trying to address and how he proposed to do so.
One of Whitman's central ideas for preserving the Union was fervent brotherhood as portrayed in "Calamus," a poem regarding love between men but which gains a deeper political meaning in the 1860 edition:
"States! Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers? By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms? . . .
There shall from me be a new friendship - It shall be called after my name, It shall circulate through the States, indifferent of place . . . Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom, Those who love each other shall be invincible, They shall finally make America completely victorious, in my name. One from Massachusettes shall be comrade to a Missourian, One from Main or Vermont, and a Carolinian and an Orgonese, shall be friends triune, more precious to each other than all the riches of the earth.Read more ›
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