This essay was written by Brandon Monk.
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
“I exist as I am, that is enough.”
“I tramp a perpetual journey.” ― Walt Whitman
Today, Walt Whitman is an American literary icon. He is, perhaps, the greatest American writer. His voice is identified as uniquely American. Inspiring any number of writers since his passing, he is generally considered the father of truly American literature. So, he must have had an easy time during his life, right? Admired for his genius, wealthy beyond measure, able to hold his head up high in any American establishment, right? This couldn’t be more wrong. Whitman was ridiculed, criticized, and struggled financially for much of his life. Without the support of a publishing house he was left to fund and sell his own art door to door.
What do we think we know? Source: Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992.
Whitman continued to revise and edit Leaves of Grass until his death.
Whitman’s brother didn’t think Leaves of Grass was worth reading.
Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself.
Whitman didn’t even really list himself as the author in the first printings.
Whitman started with only 795 copies and grew from there.
Whitman found one proponent in Ralph Waldo Emerson and that helped his efforts to spread the work.
Whitman’s father died with the book being called trashy and obscene and his son being called pretentious.
The work was, at first, unable to support itself, let alone Whitman.
Without a publisher and the backing a publishing house could provide a new author, Whitman had to print and pitch his work to influential individuals. He had some success in pitching the work to Emerson which surely bolstered his confidence, but mainstream acceptance would not come until much later in Whitman’s life. The work was ahead of its time and was creating a voice that had never existed before. The American poetic voice. For that reason, Whitman was all at once writer, publisher, the marketing department, and, at times, a door to door salesman for Leaves of Grass.
How do you imagine Walt Whitman pitched Leaves of Grass?
He must have read it out loud.
He must have invited people to buy it and read it.
He gave free copies to influential readers.
He revised it repeatedly.
He talked about it to anyone that would listen.
He tried to enlist help from publishing houses.
Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s life work. He had poured his entire energy and knowledge into it. It was not well received by all in the beginning. Every author must accept the possibility of rejection and most face real rejection at some point in their career. Even Whitman’s genius could not avoid this fate.
How do you think Walt Whitman dealt with rejection?
Did he lay awake at night, unable to sleep, wondering why he had failed?
Did he hide his face after particularly harsh criticism came out against his work?
Did he imagine the financial ruin that was inevitable if his work did not succeed?
The work received revisions, but Whitman never abandoned the idea. He never gave up his dream of having the work distributed and read.
The literary critic, Harold Bloom wrote, as the introduction for the 150th anniversary of Leaves of Grass:
If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Bloom, Harold. Introduction to Leaves of Grass. Penguin Classics, 2005.
Success was a life time coming.
A brief plug: Inspired by the work of Walt Whitman, I’m on the Board and am a founding member for a 501(c)(3) called the Walt Whitman Foundation. You can learn more here.
Finally, I would love to hear how you, personally, imagine Walt Whitman pitched Leaves of Grass? Leave me a note in the comments.