To focus on one edition of Leaves of Grass without the acknowledgement of the others is reductive to understanding Whitman’s entire vision. Despite the fact that Whitman said of the 1892 edition, “I wish to say that I prefer and recommend this present one, complete, for future printing, if there should be any,” (148) the revolutionary ideas Whitman presented are only fully (or at least more clearly) appreciated when examining all of the texts and how they were changed over time.
Whitman’s dedication to creating one book as opposed to several different volumes is one of his most unique qualities when comparing him to other poets. His desire for Leaves of Grass to become an almost scriptural text rather than simply another collection of poetry is represented in his persistence in revamping and revising the text until he felt it conveyed exactly what people needed to hear in the exact way they needed to hear it (in many ways this can be likened to the varying translations of the Bible). The progression between the 1855 and the “Deathbed” editions, though the text was not extensively altered in content, shows the ways in which the text lived and changed as Whitman lived and changed. There is little to no doubt that Whitman, had he not realized his failing health, would have continued to edit LoG.
After reading Longaker’s “The Last Sickness and the Death of Walt Whitman,” it’s striking to notice how Whitman’s attention to detail prevailed as he cataloged his symptoms, food and medicine intake, amount of sleep, etc., even until his death. This attention is also shown in the slight alterations he made in the versions of LoG across time. Every word counted and he slaved over his texts during each republication in order to make sure each one was in its proper place. Often, he removed imagery that was no longer relevant; for instance, “the camera and plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her daguerreotype” (41) of 1855 is no longer present in 1892 as the use of the daguerreotype diminished at the end of the 1850s. Even slight changes like, “Did you read in the seabooks of the oldfashioned frigate-fight? / Did you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars?” (67) in 1855 to “Would you hear of an old-time sea fight? / Would you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars? / List to the yarn, as my grandmother’s father the sailor told it to me” (227-228) place recognition in the power of the passage of time. This allows the text to insist that events that occur in history do not lose their importance as time distances us from them, a point I believe was at the forefront of his mind at all times during the revision process.
Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a text that has withstood time because it pays so much attention to time. There are few (if any) other writers in history who put as much effort in maintaining the relevance of one sociopolitical text, especially in the poetic realm, as Whitman did. Therefore, to claim a superior importance of any one version of LoG neglects the importance of the entire vision that a text like LoG does not lose its importance over the years, its reader must simply alter the way he or she approaches it in order to appreciate its power and relevance in the current world. Whitman started that process for his readers as he revised, but passed the torch to them to do the same after he was given to the earth and could no longer aid them.