We read only a little poetry here so it may sadden readers to learn that I’ve never read Leaves of Grass cover to cover, it will probably not surprise you. This state of affairs may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t read plenty of Walt Whitman’s work over the years. In fact, I’ve probably read Leaves of Grass in its entirety at some point or another… just not consecutively in book form the way it was published.
So when I was in New York in Early June, 2019, I went to the exposition of Whitman’s life, work and influence at the New York Public Library.
Now I’d like to take a second to talk about NYPL’s exhibitions. They are wonderful, the place where they are held is just the right size to cover a specialized topic, and I’ll likely walk into the one held at any given moment even if its subject matter isn’t particularly interesting to me (they are free, so you only spend the time you invest). When it’s something like Whitman, though, it’s doubly nice.
On my way out, I grab the booklet you can take and toss it into my to-be-read pile (currently standing at about 90 books and magazines, not counting the separate pile of Road & Tracks from the 70s and 80s), where it eventually cycles through.
In this case, reading it helped fix what I’d seen in the exhibition in my memory and help me remember stuff I might otherwise have forgotten.
Of those little details, the one that interested me most as a writer was that Whitman released Blades of Grass in one form (which flopped, though it was well received by some critics) and then went on adding to it in subsequent editions. That seems strange to me… I always try to get my publishers the best possible version of my work, complete enough that adding to it would only be an exercise in padding. But it definitely worked for Whitman, who eventually turned the book into one of the most influential collections of poetry in history. Unlike other literary giants from America like Poe or Melville, Whitman became a giant in his own lifetime.
No writer could ever ask for more.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in a strange little book called Love and Death in which the characters from one of the linked stories influence the lives of every other character, usually without knowing it. You can check it out here.