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"Introduction to Gems from Walt Whitman" by Edward Whitley

In 1889, Massachusetts author and reformer Elizabeth Porter Gould published Gems from Walt Whitman, a collection of poems from Leaves of Grass that she selected and condensed into poetic "gems" of about five-to-ten lines each. "Gems" collections were a staple of the nineteenth-century literary marketplace, and Whitman's publisher at the time, David McKay, included Gould's offering in his growing library of Whitman books that included Richard Maurice Bucke's Walt Whitman biography (1883), the seventieth-birthday celebration Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman (1889), and Whitman's own November Boughs (1888), Good-bye My Fancy (1892), and the "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass (1891-92).

Whitman had mixed feelings about Gems from Walt Whitman, as he did other abridged editions of his poetry, such as William Michael Rossetti's Poems by Walt Whitman (1868) and Arthur Stedman's Walt Whitman: Selected Poems (1892). "I never gave my assent to any abbreviated editions which I didn't live to regret," he said. "These gems, extracts, specimens, tid-bits, brilliants, sparkles, chippings," he told his confidante Horace Traubel, "are all wearisome . . . they might go with some books: yes, they fit with some books—some books fit with them: but Leaves of Grass is different."1 He was particularly harsh towards Gems from Walt Whitman: "I never did believe any in the book and don't now," he told Traubel, regretting that he failed to follow David McKay's advice that he and Whitman should have "sat down" on the book from the outset.2 At the same time, however, Whitman hoped that Gems from Walt Whitman would bring him the popular success he craved. After complaining to Traubel that Gems from Walt Whitman was beneath him, he said, "But wouldn't it be funny, Horace, if the book should be a success—should sell?"3 About Gould herself Whitman was similarly inconclusive: He wrote to William D. O'Connor that Gould was "[one] of my most determined friends & understanders," and described her to William Sloane Kennedy as "a noble woman."4 To Traubel, however, he said: "She bristles with conventions. . . . in spite of the best opposite impulses [conventionality] will cling to some people—cling with an ineradicable clinginess."5

While Whitman may have been of two minds regarding both Gould and Gems from Walt Whitman, many of Whitman's reviewers felt that a tasteful and well-edited “gems” collection was precisely what Leaves of Grass needed. For example, in 1880 The Literary World opined in a review of Leaves of Grass, "Walt Whitman has chosen and dared to send forth his jewels unset. . . . It seems a fair question to ask the poet if the gem is not worth its mounting of choice gold." Ten years later the same publication, reviewing Gems from Walt Whitman, wrote, "Miss Gould has performed her difficult task in a sympathetic and intelligent manner. She has chosen extracts that give, perhaps, a more just impression of Mr. Whitman's genius than would be readily received from reading his works as a whole."6

Gould herself expressed two different motivations for creating Gems from Walt Whitman. At one point she said that her goal for making "gems" out of Whitman's poetry came from "seeing women's minds 'so stuck' to a few phrases in his work that they could not soar on the wings of his poetry," and wrote that her guiding principle for choosing what to include and what to exclude from Whitman's poetry was "the advisability of giving to the public eye things meant for the silences."7 This sense that Gould was, in essence, censoring Whitman's poetry has led David Reynolds to describe Gems from Walt Whitman as "a spotless, desexed collection of poetic tidbits . . . [that] would have fit into the most pristine middle-class Victorian parlor," and Ed Folsom to say that the book is the result of a "sanitizing process" that made Whitman "palatable" for "discriminating tastes."8

At the same time, however, Gould wrote in "To Walt Whitman," the dedicatory poem to Gems from Walt Whitman, that her goal was not to censor Whitman but to celebrate him for "boldly entering nature's shrine and seeing there no wrong." The full text of the poem is as follows:

O poet bold and free as is the land that gave thee birth!
A pioneer, "immense in passion, pulse and power,"
Who, boldly entering nature's shrine and seeing there no wrong,
Made willing haste to free the world cant-held so long.
Clad in the robe of truth by strong conviction wrought,
Thou wast as true to self as nature.

Thy rhythm is the rhythm of the earth and sea and star,
Stayed only by the hand of universal law.
Thy art, indeed, knows not nor fears the world's conventional bound
Which feign would limit soul divine to transcribed sound;
Nor does thy thought revolve, but in the orbit free
Of those who seek the whole of being.

The man divine, bound to the perfect law of soul and sense.
This is thy message now, thy legacy for ages hence.9

Whether Gems from Walt Whitman presented a "sanitized" Whitman or a Whitman that is "as true to self as nature," a number of late-nineteenth-century Whitmanites cheered Gould's efforts. John Burroughs, for example, thought that the book was edited with "taste and judgement," and William Sloan Kennedy said, "we need just such a book to make converts with!"10

Gould thought of herself as a dedicated student of Whitman's poetry. She was a dues-paying member of the Walt Whitman Fellowship International, and the selections she included in Gems from Walt Whitman show that she closely followed the poet's career: all of the poems she selected were taken from the 1881 Leaves of Grass, except for the final poem, "Twilight," which was published in the Century Illustrated of December 1887.11 In addition to wanting Gems from Walt Whitman to represent the poet's most recent work, she also used the collection to confirm Whitman's own narrative of his post-Civil War persona as the "Good Gray Poet" and wound-dresser by ending with a brief essay titled "Walt Whitman among the Soldiers."12

Gems from Walt Whitman is, on the whole, well edited, but does contain the following errors: the line "I sing the body electric" is included with an excerpt from "Song of Myself"; the line "I chant this chant of my silent soul in the name of all dead soldiers" from the poem "Ashes of Soldiers" appears as the last line of the poem when, in Leaves of Grass, it appears in the middle; and whole stanzas are removed from "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" without indicating the elision with ellipses (as is done elsewhere in the collection).13

Notes

1. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 9 vols. (various publishers, 1905–1996), 2:349, 3:395-96. (Back)

2. Traubel, 6:58, 4:72. (Back)

3. Traubel, 5:340. (Back)

4. Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, 7 vols., ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–77), 4:302, 5:223. (Back)

5. Traubel, 4:360. (Back)

6. Quoted in Edward Whitley, "Elizabeth Porter Gould, Author of Leaves of Grass: Gender, Editing, and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Marketplace," ELH 75 (Summer 2008), 472–73. (Back)

7. Elizabeth Porter Gould, Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900), 25. (Back)

8. David Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Vintage, 1996), 569; Ed Folsom, "Leaves of Grass, Junior: Whitman's Compromise with Discriminating Tastes," American Literature 63 (December 1991), 663. (Back)

9. Elizabeth Porter Gould, Gems from Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1889), 5. (Back)

10. Quoted in Whitley, 476. (Back)

11. Gould, Gems from Walt Whitman, 52. The original periodical publication of “Twilight” in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine is available here. (Back)

12. Todd Richardson has argued that Gould used her account of "Whitman's ministrations to the sick and dying soldiers in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War . . . as a powerful and direct refutation of [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson's charge that Whitman was a coward for working in the hospitals instead of joining the active military campaigns" (Todd H. Richardson, "From Syphilitic to Suffragist: The Woman's Journal and the Negotiation of Walt Whitman's Celebrity," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 28 [Summer/Fall 2010], 43). (Back)

13. Gould, Gems from Walt Whitman, 44, 38, 29–30. It's possible that these errors are, in fact, deliberate aesthetic choices that Gould made to shape Whitman's poetry according to her own sensibility. For the ways in which Gould appropriates Whitman's poetry to make her own, see Whitley. (Back)


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