When Walt Whitman Reviewed His Own Book
Literary society was not quite ready for Walt Whitman when his transformative volume, Leaves of Grass, came out in 1855. Whitman revised and expanded the poetry collection throughout his life and it's now considered an essential part of the American literary canon. But when the collection was released, the contemporary reviews were more than skeptical. One 1856 review suggested that Whitman be sent to an insane asylum, and stated that its author would “not aid in extending the sale of this intensely vulgar, nay, absolutely beastly book, by telling our readers where it may be purchased” [PDF]. As late as the 1880s, a writer for The Atlantic decried its “tedious and helpless prose.”
But Whitman did get a few friendly reviews. Some of them, in fact, came from his own pen. In hopes of bolstering sales, the writer reviewed his own book, anonymously publishing fawning endorsements of his own writing.
One, a September 1855 piece in the United States Review, betrays exactly how highly Walt thought of himself. “An American bard at last!” it declared.
Here’s how Whitman describes himself in the review.
Self-reliant, with haughty eyes, assuming to himself all the attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman into literature, talking like a man unaware that there was ever hitherto such a production as a book, or such a being as a writer. Every move of him has the free play of the muscle of one who never knew what it was to feel that he stood in the presence of a superior. Every word that falls from his mouth shows silent disdain and defiance of the old theories and forms. Every phrase announces new laws; not once do his lips unclose except in conformity with them.
“His scope of life is the amplest of any yet in philosophy. He is the true spiritualist,” he continues. “He recognizes no annihilation, or death, or loss of identity. He is the largest lover and sympathizer that has appeared in literature.
Whitman would prove himself worthy of the “American bard” title in due time, but not that many people seem to have believed his rave reviews. “Apparently, they did not help sales much,” according to Whitman scholar Ivan Marki.
"Though no reliable records have survived, probably very few copies of the book were sold,” Marki explains in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. “A few reviews appeared, some of them discerning and sympathetic, but most of them somewhat bewildered by the new work and also offended by the sexual frankness of some of its passages.”
Lucky for Whitman, over time, other critics began to review his book favorably, so that he didn’t have to keep tooting his own horn.
You can read his 1855 self-review in full over at the Whitman Archive.