Selected Criticism

Leaves of Grass, Variorum Edition
Golden, Arthur
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The textual history of Leaves of Grass is very complicated. Over the span of a thirty-seven year career, Whitman issued six separate editions in 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, and 1881. Thereafter, using the corrected plates of the final 1881 edition for later impressions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman added the supplementary annexes "Sands at Seventy" (1888) and "Good-Bye my Fancy" (1891–1892) to make up the so-called Deathbed edition of 1891–1892, to which Whitman gave his final approval.

Beginning with the second (1856) edition, Whitman not only added new poems to succeeding editions, but also made it his practice to revise previously published poems, by adding or deleting lines, phrases, and words. Occasionally, he shifted lines from one poem to another, or used lines from a rejected poem to form a separate poem, and the like. Along the way there were further refinements. The twelve poems of the first (1855) edition were untitled and without stanza numbers. In subsequent editions, he structured the poems with separately numbered stanzas. In other instances, individual poems that were numbered under cluster headings were later given titles. And throughout, he altered titles, so that, for example, the untitled opening 1855 poem was in 1856 titled "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" and from 1860 to 1871 titled simply "Walt Whitman," before he finally settled in 1881 on the familiar "Song of Myself."

With the third (1860) edition, Whitman began his practice of grouping both previously published and new poems thematically. Among others, he formed such separate "clusters," as he termed them, as "Enfans d'Adam" (later "Children of Adam"), "Calamus," and the nationalistic "Chants Democratic and Native American," whose distinctive title was dropped after 1860, with the poems distributed. Additionally, over the years Whitman issued separately such collections as Drum-Taps (1865), Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865–1866), and the 120-page Passage to India (1871), of which twenty-four poems were new, including the title poem. These separately paginated volumes were then bound-in with editions of Leaves of Grass closest to their respective dates of publication. In 1881 these poems appeared as an integral part of the Leaves of Grass canon.

For the reader to understand how Leaves of Grass grew from edition to edition, some sense had to be made of these often bewildering textual permutations. Indeed, one of Whitman's publishers, David McKay, was the first to recognize the importance of variant readings in assessing the development of Whitman as a poet by issuing in 1900 a single-volume Leaves of Grass which also stated on the title page, "including a facsimile autobiography, variorum readings of the poems, and a department of gathered leaves." Although McKay was able to alert the reader through variants and selected manuscript citations to the "growing as well as the grown Whitman," this edition proved to be a well-meaning but inadequate affair, compounded by his puzzling choice of the 1871 edition—not the 1891–1892 Deathbed edition—as copy-text. The variant readings are for editions up to 1867, with notes on additions to 1871. The variants are incomplete and contain errors.

Two years later, Oscar Lovell Triggs, in the third volume of the Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (1902), offered a more ambitious attempt at providing "Variant Readings," along with selected manuscript selections. Triggs's textual variants were more comprehensive than McKay's, but were similarly marred by omissions and at times errors. Also lacking was a comprehensive supporting apparatus. In 1924 Emory Holloway reprinted Triggs's variorum text in his "Inclusive Edition" of Leaves of Grass, cautioning that while these readings were taken verbatim from Triggs, where "omissions or inaccuracies have been noted, corrections or additions have been made" (540).

In 1955 the centenary of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, New York University Press announced the new Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, under the general editorship of Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley. Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett were to edit the variorum text. In 1965 they edited a preliminary one-volume text of Leaves of Grass, the Comprehensive Reader's Edition (available as a Norton paperback). After a number of delays, William White and Arthur Golden were brought in to complete the textual variorum. In 1980 a three-volume Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems: 1855–1891 appeared, with manuscript variants to follow.

With the 1891–1892 Deathbed edition as copy-text, the Variorum offers the reader an overview of all the variants appearing over the six separate editions of Leaves, the annexes, and a fresh editing of the posthumous "Old Age Echoes." As such, the Variorum provides both a textual and historical perspective of the growth of Leaves, with the successive variants enabling the reader to reconstruct a given (or rejected) poem as it appeared in any specific earlier edition, beginning with the 1855. Additionally, facsimiles of title pages and tables of contents of the editions are provided. Also included are such separate sections as "Cluster Arrangements in Leaves of Grass," "Collated Editions, Supplements, Annexes, and Impressions of Leaves of Grass," "A List of Variant Readings within Editions of, and Annexes to, Leaves of Grass," as well as "A Chronology of Whitman's Life and Work."

The Variorum shows that Whitman finally excluded nearly one of ten poems from 1855 to 1881. The Variorum makes available for the first time an account of all the printed Leaves of Grass variants, with the manuscript variants to follow.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "Editing The Writings of Walt Whitman." Arts and Sciences 1.2 (1962–1963): 7–12.

____. "The Growth of Leaves of Grass." The New Walt Whitman Handbook. By Allen. New York: New York UP, 1975. 67–160.

Bradley, Sculley. "The Problem of a Variorum Edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass." English Institute Annual: 1941. Ed. Rudolph Kirk. New York: Columbia UP, 1942. 129–157.

Folsom, Ed. "The Whitman Project: A Review Essay." Philological Quarterly 61 (1982): 369–383.

Myerson, Joel. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.

Triggs, Oscar Lovell, ed. "Variorum Readings of Leaves of Grass." The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman. Ed. Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel. Vol. 3. New York: Putnam, 1902. 83–255.

White, William. "Editions of Leaves of Grass: How Many?" Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 111–114.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. David McKay. Philadelphia: McKay, 1900.

____. Leaves of Grass: Inclusive Edition. Ed. Emory Holloway. Garden City: Doubleday, 1924.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. The Walt Whitman Archive: A Facsimile of the Poet's Manuscripts. 3 vols. 6 parts. Ed. Joel Myerson. New York: Garland, 1993.

____. Walt Whitman's Blue Book. Ed. Arthur Golden. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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