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  • Composing the First Leaves of Grass:How Whitman Used His Early Notebooks
  • Matt Miller (bio)

As we look back upon Leaves of Grass today, over a century and a half after the publication of the first edition, we are still at a loss to explain how Walt Whitman came to create such a groundbreaking book. As a result of scant and often misunderstood documentary evidence from the period leading up to the publication of the first Leaves, many scholars have regarded the book's genesis as an insolvable mystery, and those who have tried to explore the puzzle have often been hindered by misconceptions about Whitman's life and his creative process. Readers exploring Whitman's writing process have usually tried to understand what "inspired" Whitman, and inspiration, I would contend, is something easily misconstrued. We tend to look at the idea from the outside, explaining creativity in terms of the kind of events that transform us as people, important incidents in the stories of our lives. But artistic inspiration is often something more closely related to the experience of art itself. Rather than try to use an outside event to explain Whitman's creative maturation, I am going to look to his writing process, using his notebooks and manuscripts to approach the question from the inside. Another misconception is related to a problem that has troubled his readers from the beginning—the question of what creative category we should use to assess him. For most readers, and probably even for most writers, the issue of genre is something rather more fixed and stable than it was for Whitman. He was foremost a poet, so most readers interested in the genesis of Leaves have emphasized the verse in his manuscript notebooks, but in Whitman's case, the focus has been too narrow. This is not to say that Whitman's development of his poetic line wasn't crucial. In fact, his notebooks suggest that it was probably the single most important factor [End Page 103] accelerating his development. But Whitman's prose was fundamental to his line, and it remained critical throughout his compositional process. Another important misconception relates to the chronology of events in his writing leading up to the first edition. Misunderstandings about the dating of his notebooks have led to some substantial misrepresentations in accounts of Whitman's life in the years just prior to 1855. We need to address this issue first to lay the groundwork for exploring the others.

A particularly problematic notebook is one that is usually now called the "Talbot Wilson" notebook, a title derived from a note Whitman wrote to himself on the front cover verso.1 This notebook has often been called "Whitman's earliest notebook," in part because it was labeled that way by twentieth-century biographer and critic Emory Holloway in a note glued to its cover. The notebook is among the most important, but it's certainly not the earliest documenting Whitman's writing toward the first edition. The "Talbot Wilson" notebook's erroneous dating relates to the fact that the notebook was missing from 1942, when it was stolen from the Library of Congress, to 1995, when it reappeared again for auction and was eventually returned.2 During that time, scholars had access only to Holloway's transcription from 1921 and a poor quality microfilm copy from 1934 that itself was believed lost until 1967. In the 1921 transcription, Holloway dated the notebook as from 1847 to 1850, based on an 1847 date found in the notebook and some addresses in Brooklyn that Whitman jotted down on the inside front cover.3 This dating was eventually challenged in 1953 by Esther Shephard, the first scholar to accurately date the notebook.4 Shephard based her argument on the fact that the only other early notebook lines that found their way into the 1855 edition and had been conclusively dated were from 1854—a five or six year gap—and those lines seemed less advanced than the ones in "Talbot Wilson," sometimes, for example, being written in the third person (whereas in the "Talbot Wilson" notebook Whitman writes with his mature, full-scale "I"). Shephard also cited two of...


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