Through me forbidden voices,
Voices of sexes and lusts… voices veiled, and I remove the veil,
Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigured.
When John Brown Jr. was working at Fowler & Wells in the early 1850s, it’s quite possible he saw Walt Whitman there. Walt never committed himself to abolition as ardently as, say, the Browns did; he had come to Fowler & Wells not to read their abolitionist literature but to have the famous phrenologists read the bumps on his head. Still, in 1855, amid all the furor over slavocracy versus democracy, he would launch a slim volume of verses that expressed the most unreservedly democratic vision yet penned in America, while also utterly revolutionizing American letters. The problem was that very few people read Leaves of Grass at the time, and few of them were in the mood to hear its message.
Walt was born on Long Island in 1819, the second of six sons. His father, Walter Sr., was of English stock, his mother, Louisa, Dutch; both families were yeoman farmers, and also slaveholders until Manumission Day in 1827. “The hard labor of the farm was mostly done by them,” Walt would recall of his grandfather’s slaves, “and on the floor of the big kitchen, toward sundown, would be squatting a circle of twelve or fourteen ‘pickaninnies,’ eating their supper of pudding (Indian corn mush) and milk.” Louisa was Quaker, Walter a radical Democrat with a pronounced streak of revolutionary individualism. He was thrilled to meet Thomas Paine when the latter, by then widely reviled for his antireligionism, was an outcast dying in Greenwich Village. Walter taught his children to read other radicals such as Fanny Wright, the feminist, abolitionist, and freethinker. Although not serious churchgoers, the Whitmans took Walt as a boy to hear Elias Hicks, the abolitionist Quaker who exhorted his listeners to reject authoritarian religion and follow their own “inner light”—“pointing to the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, all worship, all the truth to which you are possibly eligible—namely in yourself and your inherent relations,” Walt wrote many decades later. All of this had obvious influence on the poet who would sing the “Song of Myself.”
Walt grew up in a dozen homes of decreasing size on Long Island and then in Brooklyn as Walter Sr., a carpenter, struggled to provide for his family. As he grew up, Walt would become the family’s principal breadwinner, and play the father figure to his younger brothers and sisters after Walter Sr.’s death in 1855.
Like many other American kids in his time, Walt had haphazard schooling but was an avid reader and autodidact. At eleven he was running errands for a Brooklyn law office, and at twelve he apprenticed at the first of a long list of Brooklyn and New York newspapers for whom he’d work as a typesetter, writer, or editor. In 1842 he was transfixed by a series of lectures given in Manhattan by the New England Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Horace Greeley had been extolling since the first issues of the Tribune for his “profound and luminous perception, forcible expression, and a fervid, innate eloquence.” Emerson’s call for a truly American poetics, not beholden to England, a homegrown poetry that captured “our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boasts and our repudiations,” was another profound influence on the budding poet.
Whitman spent the 1840s and early 1850s as a journeyman journalist. The myth of Walt as a loner and outsider, which he himself would later help to build, fits him better as a poet than as a newspaperman, when he was a well-known member of the trade. He got to know Greeley and Dana; the Tribune published a few of his pieces and would be the first daily to review Leaves of Grass. Walt also became friends with William Cullen Bryant of the Evening Post. The two of them took long walks in Brooklyn. In 1845, Walt wrote two pieces for the Broadway Journal, the literary magazine Edgar Allan Poe bought for fifty dollars—a loan from Greeley—and quickly drove into the ground. Thirty years later, when Poe’s grave in a Baltimore churchyard belatedly got a proper monument, Walt was the only writer of note to attend the ceremony.
Walt’s politics were never deep; they were more emotional and reflexive than reflective. In his early twenties he flirted for a while, as did many other young white New Yorkers, with the nativist movement. When he edited a Democrat two-penny daily, the Aurora, at the height of the controversy over Bishop Hughes’s parochial schools in 1842, his editorials railing against the Irish “bog-trotters” were as nasty as anyone’s. After editing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1846 to 1848, he was fired for his free-soil opinions. He later published his own very short-lived free-soil paper, the two-page weekly Freeman. Like Greeley, he opposed expanding slavery into the territories because he wanted them kept open to white settlers, rather than out of any great sympathy for Negroes.
In 1849, Whitman walked into the Fowler & Wells Phrenology Cabinet, a bookshop on Broadway near City Hall. Lorenzo and Orson Fowler (who’d been depicted in the 1848 cartoon reading the bumps on Zachary Taylor’s head), with their brother-in-law Samuel Wells, were the leading publishers and distributors in America of books and periodicals on “Phrenology, Physiology, Psychology, Hydropathy, Phonography, Spirit-rapping and Women’s Rights.” Among their titles were books by Greeley and Margaret Fuller. Phrenology had come to America in the 1830s and had not yet been ridiculed out of all favor. Whitman, Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and many other progressive thinkers explored it as a path to self-knowledge. Whitman wrote for the Fowlers’ magazines and did some work for them as a book agent. Since the Fowlers were also abolitionists, Walt now began to move in that direction as well.
In 1855, about to turn thirty-six, Whitman self-published the twelve unnamed poems in the first version of Leaves of Grass, an astonishing volcano of visionary free verse. It was utterly unlike anything that had been written in America before—or anything that would be written again until the twentieth century. Ecstatic and mystical, earthy and erotic, modernist before modernism, its imagination vaulting from a single atom to the whole whirling cosmos, it was rampantly egoistic and idiosyncratic at the same time that it championed the most truly democratic ideals America had yet produced. Leaves was the poet declaring his love for the whole nation, from its big eastern cities to its farthest frontier, North and South, and every type of person in it, whom he catalogued. “I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself; / They do not know how immortal, but I know. / Every kind for itself and its own.” He included blacks, if awkwardly, along with everyone else in his democratic fervor, something he might not have done a few years earlier.
Whitman published Leaves in an edition of 795 copies, helping to set some of the type himself in a Brooklyn Heights print shop a couple of blocks from Plymouth Church. He arranged with Fowler & Wells to distribute it. They displayed it in their shops in Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Boston, and ran small ads in the Tribune. A couple of other shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn took it, though the Manhattan one quickly sent it back when the proprietor actually read some of it.
It helps to grasp what a shaggy and unruly sport of nature Leaves was in 1855 to know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s metronomic Song of Hiawatha appeared the same year. Hiawatha sold upwards of fifty thousand copies. Whitman later said that Leavessold only ten. But it was not ignored. Whitman and the Fowlers put complimentary and review copies in many hands. Reviewers reacted more to Walt’s egoism, his joyous earthiness and undisguised eroticism, than to his democratic visions. In the Tribune, Dana noted that Leaves contained “bold, stirring thoughts” but considered it “disfigured with eccentric fancies… uncouth and grotesque.” At the Times, Raymond would hold back a review for a year, saying privately that the book’s “sundry nastinesses… will and ought to keep it out of libraries and parlors.” When the lengthy review finally ran in November 1856, it asked, “Who is this arrogant young man who proclaims himself the Poet of the Time, and who roots like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts?” Yet it also conceded, “With all this muck of abomination soiling the pages, there is a wondrous, unaccountable fascination” to it, and “a singular electric attraction.” Other reviewers were much harsher, simply damning Leaves as obscene “rowdyism” or the ravings of a lunatic.
Walt sent a copy to his distant and unaware mentor Emerson, and when Emerson wrote back a very encouraging letter—with the famous “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” line—Whitman and Dana had it printed in the Tribune, to the older poet’s unhappy surprise. Emerson would quietly back away from Whitman as the poet’s notoriety spread, but for the time being his apparent stamp of approval persuaded other progressives and Transcendentalists to come to Whitman’s defense. Henry David Thoreau recognized something of a kindred spirit, though their egos clashed and Walt’s eroticism embarrassed him. James Parton, who had just written the first book-length biography of Horace Greeley, came on board—but, far more important, so did Parton’s soon-to-be wife, Sara, who, writing as Fanny Fern, was one of the most popular authors and highest-paid newspaper columnists in the land. She’d been educated at the Hartford Female Seminary, founded by the feminist Catherine Beecher, sister to Reverend Henry and novelist Harriet. Her 1853 collection of columns—notably titled Fern Leaves, in a woodsy typeface Walt would borrow—had been a gigantic bestseller, as was her children’s book Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends and her autobiographical novel Ruth Hall, which took its share of abuse because it was considered unladylike at the time for women to write autobiographically. She had just started writing for Tammany’s New York Ledger, where she devoted two bold columns to championing Leaves. Soirees and salons around New York and Brooklyn got buzzing about Whitman and his scandalous verses.
Still, Leaves didn’t sell. A second edition in 1856 fared no better, even with a quote from Emerson’s letter emblazoned in gold leaf on the cover, Fowler & Wells backing it, and Walt writing his own anonymous reviews hailing the author’s genius. He kept feverishly writing new poems and was hoping to put out a greatly expanded third edition when a sharp economic downturn forced Fowler & Wells to suspend all publishing efforts. They had been disappointed with Walt’s sales and embarrassed by the vicious reviews, and probably wouldn’t have handled the third edition anyway.
In 1859, forty and despondent—a “year all mottled with evil and good—year of forebodings!” he called it—Whitman started hanging around New York’s first celebrated bohemians, who gathered to eat, drink, and carouse in a basement rathskeller called Pfaff’s on Broadway near Bleecker Street. This colorful group was mostly poets and frayed-cuff journalists (so much so that newspaper people were frequently called, and called themselves, bohemians), plus some theater people and general bons vivants. The scene revolved around Henry Clapp Jr., a lapsed temperance man from New England and editor of the weekly Saturday Press, in effect the house organ of the crowd. The Pfaff’s crowd was also behind the humor magazine Vanity Fair. Clapp was renowned for his dry wit; one of his best-known quips was that Horace Greeley was a self-made man who loved his maker.
James Redpath met Walt at Pfaff’s and they became lifelong friends. Others in the circle included the free-spirited writer Ada Clare and her notorious actress friend Adah Isaacs Menken, and a two-fisted Anglo-Irish writer, Fitz-James O’Brien, who in many ways was the quintessential bohemian on the scene—or as the Tribune’s Junius Browne put it, “one of the cardinals in the high church of Bohemia.” Born in Cork in 1828 and raised in Limerick, O’Brien was the son of a prosperous lawyer and landowner. When his father died, O’Brien grabbed his handsome inheritance and ran with it to London, where he promptly squandered it living the high life. He came to New York penniless in 1852. A prolific writer of journalism, poetry, plays, and short stories (most notably gothic horror, for which he was dubbed “the Celtic Poe”), he spent what he earned partying with his friends. “O’Brien had a warm heart, a fine mind and a liberal hand,” Browne wrote, “but he was impulsive to excess and too careless of his future for his own good.” His Pfaff’s friend William Winter, a theater and literature critic for the Tribune, noted O’Brien’s “utter and unaffected irreverence for various camphorated figure-heads which were then an incubus upon American letters.” When drunk, O’Brien often escalated a literary argument into a bout of fisticuffs and ended the night in the nearby Jefferson Market jail. He was proud of his broken nose and always ended a fight with a handshake. When the Civil War broke out he would leap immediately into the fray.
Other newspaper and magazine men, including Henry Raymond, also went to Pfaff’s, friendly with if not inside the Clapp circle. Here Whitman found acceptance. He tended to sit to one side and bask quietly in the gaiety the bohemians generated.
By the time he had the third edition of Leaves ready, it had ballooned to five hundred pages. He would come to his next publisher in a way that would again link his name to John Brown’s.