Literary Daybook, May 15

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published May 15, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On May 15, Horton the elephant hears a small noise.
-- "Horton Hears a Who" (1954)
by Dr. Seuss

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1855, Walt Whitman registered the title "Leaves of Grass" with the clerk of the United States District Court, New York. The first edition was published seven weeks later, on or about July 4. Over the next 36 years, "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos," would revise and add to the original 12 poems, publishing seven more editions. His mission to "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" realized "the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism" (Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman).

Whitman was a printer by trade, and he helped set the type for the Brooklyn company that printed the initial 795 copies of his poems. Perhaps the first edition was seen from the start as a work in progress: No plates were made, the type was distributed, the manuscript stored at the printers for several years but, said Whitman later, "One day, by accident, it got away from us entirely -- was used to kindle the fire or to feed the rag man." Whitman was also a believer in phrenology; the first edition of "Leaves of Grass" was sold only at the "Phrenological Cabinet" of Fowler and Wells, among "the busts, examples, curios, and books of that study." Like Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster and many eminent others, Whitman had his head read; though not in Webster's skull-range -- said to be to the ordinary skull "what the great dome of St. Peter's is to the small cupolas at its side" -- Whitman was sufficiently proud of his marks in "Sublimity," "Benevolence," etc., to list them as credentials in his early ads for "Leaves of Grass."

Like many phrenologists, Whitman also believed in "animal magnetism." This may bring an additional level of meaning to the disbelief in the pretensions of clothes, class and culture that inform some of his most famous lines:

"I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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