Walt Whitman (whose 200th birthday we celebrated briefly last week) was 35 years old in 1854 with no job and no prospects. He knew, however, that he wanted to be a poet — a famous poet.
He was well on the way to being a poet. He had already written much of his seminal work, Leaves of Grass. It was the famous part that eluded him.
Whitman, who was living with family in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, at the time, had tried to interest publishers in his work and had had no success. He typeset ten pages of Leaves of Grass on a typesetter owned by some friends in Brooklyn and then ran off and bound 200 copies. He tried peddling them to bookstores but failed. He then got a company that sold phrenology and health-fad books to take it on.
By then it was 1855, and sales of his work were miserable to non-existent. What reviews there were panned the book as obscene because of its sexual language and overtones.
Still, Whitman persisted.
He wrote three anonymous reviews of the book himself, heaping praise on it as a truly “American bard at last.” He sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the great American essayist responded with a thank you letter that called the poem “free and brave thought.” The letter was a private one, not meant for publication, but Whitman published it anyway, giving it to the editor of the New York Daily Tribune without Emerson’s permission.
As Elaine Showalter writes in a recent article in the New York Review of Books:
It was the beginning of Whitman’s huge success, not only as a poet, but also a marketing genius and self-publicist. Whitman’s celebration of himself and promotion of his brand has drawn comparisons with the showman P.T. Barnum, the “Shakespeare of Advertising,” whose autobiography was published the same year as Leaves of Grass. Source: Whitman, Melville, & Julia Ward Howe: A Tale of Three Bicentennials | by Elaine Showalter | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books
Whitman continued to market himself throughout the rest of his life, carefully cultivating the image of the all-American poet, rough-hewn but also profound and insightful with a poetic voice unlike any that had ever been heard before.
Next week: Walt Whitman, the journalist.
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