Skip to main content

Review of Leaves of Grass (1881–82)

Walt Whitman's new publishers, Rees, Welsh & Co of Philadelphia, are evidently cheap sensationalists, quite unfit to issue a great work like "Leaves of Grass." It's to be regretted that Whitman had not the patience to wait for some firm of consequence to take up the task Osgood feebly laid down. The Philadelphia firm advertise in this fashion in the Philadelphia Press:—

"'Leaves of Grass,' by Walt Whitman, is not an agricultural book in the hay-makers' parlance; but it's a daisy, and don't you forget it."

The Critic justly says that "this is a worse blow than that dealt by the Massachusetts Dogberry." These fellows are apparently gamins out of their place. Nothing could be more vulgar than their adoption of "nigger minstrel" slang for so noble a work, and it can only be explained by supposing that they take Anthony Comstock's ignorant estimate of the "Leaves of Grass" for gospel, and count on the patronage of the obscene.1 This seems a great pity, but perhaps it is not so, for it may falsely attract to Whitman through their meaner appetites a class of readers who need to learn his great lessons. Suppose that any one with brain enough reads this great passage,—remembering that Whitman, in his first person, represents the essential man:—

It is time to explain myself—let us stand up. What is Known I strip away— I launch all men and women forward with me into the  
The clock indicates the moment—but what does  
 eternity indicate?
I am an acme of things accomplished, and I an encloser of things  
 to be.
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs, On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the  
All below duly travel'd, and still I mount and mount.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me, Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—I know I was  
 even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the  
 lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid  
Long I was hugg'd close—long and long. Immense have been the preparations for me, Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me. Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like  
 cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings, They sent influences to look after what was to hold  
For it the nebula cohered to an orb. The long slow strata piled to rest it on; Vast vegetables gave it sustenance, Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited  
 it with care.
. . . . . . . I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled  
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge  
 but the rim of the farther systems.
Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always  
Outward and outward and forever outward.
There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage, If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon  
 their surfaces,
Were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would  
 not avail in the long run;
We should surely bring up again where we now  
And surely go as much farther, and then farther and  
A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic  
 leagues, do not hazard the span or make it im- 
They are but parts, any thing is but a part.
I know I have the best of time and space, and was  
 never measured and never will be measured.
I tramp a perpetual journey; My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff  
 cut from the woods;
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair;— I have no chair, no church, no philosophy, I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange; But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a  
My left hand hooking you round the waist, My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents  
 and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.

This must be read, as it is written, in the grand manner, and the reader who does not realize that his guide casts behind him the centuries and exhorts him to a new lookout into eternity had better read no more. There has been no more magnificent attitude of command taken than Whitman takes in these utterances, and sustains in almost all that he has written. The trivial person has nothing whatever to do with Whitman.


1. Anthony Comstock (1844–1915) helped found the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (1873) and became notorious for his crusades against art and literature, including Leaves of Grass, which he considered obscene. [back]

Back to top