“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” — Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
When Walt Whitman, then a complete nobody, self-published a book of poems titled “Leaves of Grass” in 1855, few outside his friends and family knew about the book, much less cared. Nor did friends and family.
Two months later the publication United States Review included an essay on the book so laudatory — “An American bard at last!” the article began — the public took notice. It added, “He will bring poems … fit for men and women with the attributes of throbbing blood and flesh!”
The Brooklyn Daily Times raved, “No imitation — no foreigner — but a growth and idiom of America.” The American Phrenological Journal called “Leaves of Grass” “the most glorious triumph in the history of literature.”
None of the reviews was signed because all three reviewers were the same person: Whitman.
No doubt Whitman remains one of our greatest poets, and “Leaves of Grass,” although somewhat controversial because of explicit sexual imagery, remains an important contribution to American literature. But at least as much as his poetic talent, his fame is due to his talent as a self-promoter.
After Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom he sent a copy of the book, wrote him a private letter saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Whitman had a newspaper friend publish the letter, infuriating Emerson, who meant the letter to be just between the two of them.
Whitman’s genius included intuitively understanding that controversy also generates interest, so he not only included laudatory reviews — most of which he wrote himself — but also scathing reviews, sensing that causing arguments about the book would generate further interest in the book.
Originally, he also wildly exaggerated the book’s popularity, writing that he had gone through several editions and had sold “ten or twenty thousand” copies. In reality, at the time he had barely sold two dozen copies.
He even carefully cultivated his image. The photo of Whitman accompanying the book has him looking like a workingman, only a defiant one, his hat tilted back and his hand on his hip. Compared to the usual “jacket” photos of authors in three-piece suits, Whitman looked like the poet of the common people, which was precisely his intent.
Whitman, who died this week (March 26) in 1892, rightly believed in his poetic gift, and therefore thought the ends — putting a classic work of art before the public — justified the means, engaging in endless hype and chicanery.
“The public is a thin-skinned beast,” he once said, “and you have to keep whacking away on its hide to let it know you’re there.”