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Peddling Whitman: Leaves of Grass and the American Marketplace

by Brady Earnhart



“The poet is a recruiter He goes forth beating the drum–O, who will not join his troop?”[1]



Whatever differences among them, Walt Whitman’s critics have long agreed that Leaves of Grass was not the result of a sustained apprenticeship to literary tradition alone.  Most notably in recent years, Walt Whitman’s America:  A Cultural Biography (1996), by David S. Reynolds, finds influences ranging from pulp fiction to oratory to folk singing.  The hawker’s art, however, is given short shrift in Reynolds’s book and elsewhere as an important factor in Whitman’s education.  Salesmen rarely achieve fame as performers, and it would be hard to make a case for deliberate one-on-one apprenticeship as Reynolds has for Whitman and actor Junius Booth or preacher Elias Hicks.  Nonetheless, we should recognize that the poet’s unusually close involvement in the sale of his writing also helped determine what and how he wrote.


This article seeks first to trace Whitman’s changing attitudes towards self-promotion and second to determine how these attitudes influenced Leaves of Grass.  After giving an overview of literary marketing in the mid-nineteenth century, I describe how Whitman packaged himself and his work for public consumption and explore the interdependence of poetry and advertising in his literary career.  Whitman saw bookselling as both a necessity and an act of self-betrayal, and he expressed this ambivalence in his journalistic and poetic representations of the salesmen of his time.  More important, his consciousness of himself as a salesman resonates deeply in the semi-autobiographical speaker of Leaves of Grass.


When Emerson’s famous July 1855 letter to Whitman is reprinted, one curious sentence near the end often disappears under ellipses:  “I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a post-office.”[2]  Even for Emerson, who often disparaged newspapers, finding an advertisement for the book was a way of making sure it existed.  While it would be unwise to make too much of one contradiction in the life of a complicated man, Emerson’s comment about the Leaves of Grass ad reminds us how important it was for Whitman to announce his debut to the public.  In retrospect, the comment both foreshadows Emerson’s transformation into an unwitting celebrity sponsor and footnotes the rapid rise of book promotion in the United States.


The unauthorized publication of the letter has long been recognized as a blot on Whitman’s name.  He first passed it on to the New York Tribune, where it appeared on October 10th, and later included it as an appendix to the second edition of Leaves of Grass, excerpting on the spine the words, “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career/ R W Emerson.”  A writer for the Christian Examiner in June 1856 pronounced this “the grossest violation of literary comity and courtesy that ever passed under our notice.”[3]  To make matters worse, Whitman himself had anonymously published three glowing reviews of the first edition, two of which he circulated with review copies of the second edition; an 1856 critic for the New York Times lambasted these as acts “which the most degraded helot of literature might blush to commit.”[4]  A good first step toward understanding what Whitman was up to when he took such liberties, and why critics became so angry as a result, is to look at how other books were being promoted at the time.


Changes in the publishing industry in the mid-nineteenth century have rightly begun to take their place alongside the other political and cultural changes that have tended to outshine them in overviews of the period.  Notably, William Charvat’s The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870 (1968) outlines a strong connection between the consolidation of the industry and what has been called “the American Renaissance.”  Charvat’s logic is simple and persuasive:  it would be naďve to discuss the literary productivity of the period without acknowledging that it coincided with authors’ increased hope of making a living from writing books.  Up until the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers had been sponsored primarily by aristocratic patrons.  From then on, political upheavals forced them to seek a living from the open market.  The years 1840-55, which coincide with the writing and first publication of Leaves of Grass (along with so many other seminal literary works), mark the end of this transition in America.


One of the most lasting and influential developments during this period was the standardization of relations between book publishers and the mass media that reviewed and advertised their wares.  In the 1840s, book reviews were unsigned, short, and highly subject to personal relations between the newspaper staff and the given publishing house.  Those who wrote the reviews, often the editors themselves, were under such pressures of workloads and deadlines that they often gave way to the temptation of using the prewritten notices publishers included with review copies.  Relations between publishers and editors became more and more important with an enormous increase in the advertising space devoted to books in the ’40s, and so did the potential for conflicts of interest.  There was a predictably high correlation between the appearance of positive reviews in a paper and the amount of advertising that had been bought by the publisher seeking them.[5]


This arrangement continued until right around 1855.  Charvat traces the beginnings of widespread reform to a scandal that blew up in that year when the publishing house of Ticknor and Fields angrily closed its advertising account in the Boston Daily Evening Traveller.  The newspaper had panned the firm’s new book,  Longfellow’s Hiawatha (“a mass of the most childish nonsense that ever dropped from human pen”).  The Traveller retaliated by printing Ticknor and Fields’ stop notice under the heading “Attempt to Coerce the Press.”  Publishers, editors, and writers in various cities entered and escalated the fray, until it eventually led to general recognition of the need to reform relations among them.  Publishers henceforth began pioneering more straightforward marketing techniques for their books, and editors came to realize that the publishing industry had grown to such a degree that honest book reporting was good copy.


Book marketing in the 1850s took place in what Stephen Fox calls “a half-light of bunkum and veiled appearances,” and the rules were changing almost daily.[6]  The 1856 Times columnist (and, presumably, editor) mentioned above, whose unsigned Leaves of Grass review compares Whitman to “the most degraded helot of literature,” protests too much.  From his criticism that Whitman “was not content with writing a book, but was also determined to review it,” we might surmise that no other author had dared to think of such a thing.  Given the “silent bargain” which had been standard up until a year or two before, however, it is clear that Whitman’s main faux pas were (1) not to play the game of getting another journalist to write his reviews for him (though he would soon learn better) and (2) not to recognize that the appearance of conflict of interest had become a sore spot for publishers and reviewers.  He seems to have taken the fall for a generation of writers and publishers, offering more than one self-righteous critic an opportunity to display his newly washed hands.


Whitman’s own feelings on book promotion were seriously divided throughout his adult life, and as his investment in his art increased they became more so.  As an editor in the ’40s he professed a thorough distaste for the exact sort of ploys he would later use himself:  “A new book was sent to us the other day with a highly eulogistic written notice, to be inserted as editorial.  We can’t do such things.[7]  Even more striking, in retrospect, was his virulent criticism of Park Benjamin for betraying the confidence of another writer during a feud in 1846.  In an article entitled “Atrocious Practice of Publishing Private Letters,” Whitman denounced Benjamin’s “despicable and cowardly” violation of  “every dictate of honor and gentlemanly feeling.”[8]  While the animosity of Benjamin’s gesture distinguishes it in spirit from Whitman’s treatment of Emerson, the spine of the 1856 Leaves of Grass made it embarrassingly clear that the poet’s ethics in such matters were highly circumstantial.


There is no getting around the fact that Whitman’s distaste for indiscretion and puffery tempered once Leaves of Grass hit the market.  Eight years after his diatribes in the Eagle, he was writing his own reviews and getting Emerson’s letter published in the Tribune.  A year later he incorporated the letter in the second edition and allowed his publishers to include a handy order form inside the back cover.  He published various human interest stories in the ’60s featuring himself by name; his later notebooks are full of third-person eulogies on his own behalf: 


Do you mind him, as the driver of that handsome Fifth Avenue pulls up, casting at the lounger a friendly and inquiring glance, as much as to say, Come take a ride, Walt Whitman?  For none other than Walt is it . . . that pet and pride of the Broadway stage-drivers.[9]


Whitman edited and helped write John Burroughs’s important 1866 review of Drum-Taps.[10]  In 1873, he sent a long travel narrative entitled “Walt Whitman in Europe” to his old friend Richard Hinton with the instructions, “Sign this with your name at the conclusion, and send it at once to the Kansas Magazine”; Hinton complied, and the article was published.[11]  An understanding of commercial pressures had led Whitman to concede, though reluctantly, to expurgations of objectionable passages from Leaves of Grass as early as 1856;[12] more famously, he allowed William Michael Rossetti to clean up the book thoroughly for its first British publication in 1868.  In the late 1870s, Whitman went on the lecture circuit with a well-received series of talks on Lincoln, even though this meant frequent recitals of his least favorite of his own poems, “O Captain My Captain.”  Whitman safeguarded his “Good Gray Poet” image by changing pronouns from masculine to feminine in love poems (as in “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City”), attributing children to himself (six of them, he told John Addington Symonds), and carefully destroying many manuscripts and diaries to keep them from posterity.[13]  Nor was he blind to the publicity value of being outside the mainstream:  more than once he incorporated negative reviews in his promotional materials,[14] and in the last few decades of his life exaggerated the failure of his great poem as assiduously as he had exaggerated its popularity in the 1850s. In 1888, when Horace Traubel confronted him with a swatch of self-congratulatory prose found on his floor, Whitman simply laughed, “That’s where I lift myself by my suspenders and put myself on a pedestal of my own make.”[15]  At other times he was more defensive.  Traubel once pressed him as to whether he had been bluffing when he claimed, in 1856, that the first edition had “readily sold.”  Whitman answered, “You mean bragging? . . . They were salad days:  I had many undeveloped angles at that time:  I don’t imagine I was guiltless:  someone had to speak for me:  no one would:  I spoke for myself.”[16]


Whitman’s manipulation of his public image is one of the louder dissonances in his career.  How could an avowed maverick commit himself and his work so thoroughly to practices he had condemned?  It is tempting, and of course partly accurate, to point out simply that it is easier to deride advertising from the editorial pulpit than it is to abstain from it once one has a book to sell.  To stop there, however, would be to ignore the broader vision of the marketplace with which Whitman struggled in his career as a poet and, ultimately, in Leaves of Grass itself.  In one of his own reviews of the first edition, he wrote, “Who then is that insolent unknown?  Who is it, praising himself as if others were not fit to do it, and coming unbidden among writers to unsettle what was settled, and to revolutionize, in fact, our modern civilization?”[17]  The fact that he mentions “praising himself” and “revolutionizing modern civilization” in the same sentence invites us to ask what these two pursuits had in common.  Starting a few years before the publication of Leaves of Grass, I would like to follow salesmanship as a subject through some of Whitman’s journalism and poetry, to try and determine how his writing was influenced by his position in the literary marketplace.  I believe it will become apparent that his self-promotion was not a distinct enterprise from the kind of poetry he wrote but instead one of the necessary conditions for it.


An early and telling portrait appears in a New Orleans Daily Crescent article Whitman published in the spring of 1848.[18]  Over his months working for this paper, Whitman had parlayed some of his wanderings about town into a series of profiles of local characters, “Sketches of the Sidewalks and Levees; with Glimpses into the New Orleans Bar (Rooms).”  The opening piece, “ Peter Funk, Esq.,” is of particular interest here:  although it continues in the anti-marketing strain of Whitman’s early work, it also shows similarities arising between the promoter and Whitman’s developing literary persona.


The Peter Funk of Whitman’s article (probably a fictional or composite character; the name was boilerplate for “con-man”) is a petty scam artist employed by auctioneers to inflate bidding on objects of dubious value.  Whitman devotes hardly any words to his subject’s physical appearance and gives him an “exceedingly uncertain and contradictory” background; indeed, Funk’s very identity is a mystery to the narrator of the sketch:


I hardly know him half the time in the various disguises he assumes, for he scarcely ever dresses the same for two days in succession--being in cap, cloak and whiskers on one day, and the next aliased up in a white or green blanket.[19]


Nonetheless, the narrator bears a number of resemblances to his subject.  At one time, he says, the two were “pretty well acquainted” and even “boarded a while together at the same house.”[20]  More important, the narrator is also a man of many disguises; his descriptions are full of the rhetorical nods and winks that Mikhail Bakhtin calls “intonational quotation marks.”  If Funk’s constantly changing accent and wardrobe obscure his background, the narrator goes him one better by using a dizzying array of voices:  in medias res, as the boys say at college”; “the musical sound of the ‘human voice divine,’ crying out ‘fivenaff, five-n-aff’”; “Peter Funk Primus and Peter Funk Secundus have done all this bidding that makes the crier keep up such a hubbaboo”; “Peter’s conscience makes no coward of him.”[21]


The ambivalence toward the self that Whitman’s narrator demonstrates here and, famously, throughout Leaves of Grass went hand in hand with the poet’s own love of hiding in plain sight.  Summarizing impressions of Whitman’s acquaintances, Reynolds notes the “theatrical style” in his behavior:


When he grew his beard and adopted his distinctive casual dress in the fifties, people on the street, intrigued by his unusual appearance, tried to guess who he might be:  Was he a sea captain?  A smuggler?  A clergyman?  A slave trader? . . . One of his friends, William Roscoe Thayer, called him “a poseur of truly colossal proportions, one to whom playing a part had long before become so habitual that he ceased to be conscious that he was doing it.”[22]


A fluid sense of identity was an occupational hazard among early advertising men.  In at once being very public and revealing little of his private thoughts, Whitman resembled not only Peter Funk but also such figures as Benjamin Franklin and P. T. Barnum, both of whom have been called fathers of modern advertising.  Franklin’s and Barnum’s personalities were so deeply leveraged to the public that neither enjoyed much of what we would normally think of as a private life; indeed, their biographers have sometimes questioned if they had any.  They seem to have existed almost entirely for the audiences they manipulated so successfully, devoting little time to their families or to managing their considerable estates.[23]  One senses a similar constant awareness of the public eye in Whitman’s notebooks, which are, as Ezra Greenspan observes, “virtually as public as the poetry, leaving one in doubt as to where the private self leaves off and the public one begins.”[24]


If Whitman had neither the savvy nor the hunger for personal renown of Franklin and Barnum, his more modest advertising efforts within and without his work do recall another breed of mysterious advertiser:  the Yankee peddler.  When Whitman was writing his first drafts of Leaves of Grass, there were somewhere between ten and twenty thousand peddlers on U.S. roads, rivers, and trails; they were at once so common and intriguing as to have become archetypal.[25]  As an unfamiliar transient bearing goods of uncertain provenance, the peddler was a subject of ghost stories, rumors, jokes, and cautionary tales.  Common anxieties about sex, race, manners, business ethics, and industrialization made him both frightening and attractive.  He was the kind of stranger with whom non-urban Americans were most likely to have contact, and his “mobility and marginality, his rootlessness and strangeness” were central to his mythic connotations.[26]  Whitman shared with peddlers not only charismatic mystery but also chronic restlessness, alienation from the mainstream, and need to make a sale.


The audience of Whitman’s Crescent sketch could easily have recognized Peter Funk as a character out of some traveling salesman joke.  Here is a fairly generic passage, for instance, in which Whitman plays to the reader’s uncertainty about the origins of con-artists:


Some say he was from Old Kentuck, and others again aver he is a North Carolina Tennessean; while “other some” allege him to have been a direct importation from the nethermost corner of Down East--having resided a year or two in Texas by was of a seasoning--and that he is an “own cousin” of the “rat man,” and also of kin to him “wot cleans coat collars.”[27]


Here, on the other hand, is a detail from the speaker’s self-portrait in the first edition of Leaves of Grass:


I am (. . .)

A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,

A Yankee bound my own way . . . . ready for trade . . . . my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,

A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deerskin leggings,

A boatman over the lakes or bays or along coasts . . . a Hoosier, a Badger, Buckeye,

A Louisianian or Georgian, a poke-easy from sandhills and pines,

At home on Canadian snowshoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland[28]


Whitman’s development from newspaper employee to cottage entrepreneur has coincided with a shift in his sympathies.  He has taken the leap from description to identification, leaving behind the negative connotations and attempts at dialect humor.  Yet he has preserved and extended the mystery of his subject’s background:  like the Yankee “ready for trade” in his catalogue, who would certainly have brought to his contemporaries’ minds an idealized image of the Yankee peddler, the speaker is whatever we want him to be.


In his books, as in his life, Whitman constructs himself as a protean figure, matching his identity to his mood by changing his mannerisms and dress, adopting the roles of various writers, fictional characters, and people he saw around him.  Everywhere he turns in the poem eventually called “Song of Myself,” the speaker shudders with identification:  “I am the man . . . . I suffered . . . . I was there” (a deliberate revision of the notebook entry, “He is the man; he suffered, he was there”[29]); “I am the hounded slave”; “I am the mashed fireman”; “I am an old artillerist.”[30]  Toward the end of this poem, however, Whitman modulates from impassioned role-playing to an extended meditation on the relationship of speaker to populace, this time emphasizing factory-produced goods:


The young mechanic is closest to me . . . . he knows me pretty well,

The woodman that takes his axe and jug with him shall take me with him all day,

The farmboy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice,

In vessels that sail my words must sail . . . . I go with fishermen and seamen, and love them,

My face rubs to the hunter’s face when he lies down alone in his blanket,

The driver thinking of me does not mind the jolt of his wagon,

The young mother and old mother shall comprehend me,

The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment and forget where they are[31]


The speaker’s contact with those who know him takes material form; a peddler’s customers, likewise, might be expected to remember fondly who sold them the axes, jugs, or blankets they used.[32]  Such a positive vision of the salesman was not so anomalous as it might seem to us now.  For many settlers in the early 1800s, in fact, the sight of the peddler meant first of all a respite from loneliness and an opportunity to increase material comfort.  Whitman’s persona fits neatly into this description from J.R. Dolan’s study The Yankee Peddlers of Early America:


A peddler was usually welcome at the home of virtually any settler . . . He was invited into a settler’s home, seated, and given a glass of cider while the housewife called her husband from the fields and the family gathered around just to look at a man who had actually been in Marietta or Warren and could tell them all the news and gossip for miles around . . .  A reference to the smell of roasting meat at the right moment might easily result in an invitation to share the family’s meal with them.[33]


Perhaps drawing from his early experience selling door-to-door, Whitman paid brief explicit homage to peddlers in one of his poetic catalogues of American types:  “The pedlar sweats with his pack on his back--the purchaser higgles about the odd cent.”[34]  The more important presence of the peddler in Leaves of Grass, however, is subtle and pervasive, as a model for the speaker himself.  The task of marketing his own book placed Whitman, a fortiori, among the ranks of those who traveled the country as emissaries of American industrialization.  It was only natural that he should use commerce as a metaphor for his far-reaching, democratic embrace.  When he wrote, “I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake,”[35] he adopted precisely the intimate yet detached point of view that traveling salesmen had into the lives of their customers.  “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” reads easily as a salesman’s fantasy,[36] as does “Missing me one place search another, / I stop some where waiting for you.”[37]  In “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand” (1860), Whitman goes a step further and takes on the book itself as a persona:


Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,

Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon hour hip,

Carry me when you go forth over land or sea;

For thus merely touching you is enough, is best,

And thus touching you would I silently sleep and be carried eternally.[38]


These are the words of the über-peddler.  The axe, jug, and blanket of “Song of Myself” have been replaced by the poet’s own commodity.  Closing the circuit between sales pitch and product, Whitman here reaches a vanishing point of his metaphorical relationship with the reader. 



Both the content and the form of Whitman’s poetry betray his deep fascination with his own place in commodity culture.  A notebook draft of the opening to “Song of Myself” figures literature itself as a store:  “literature is full of perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with perfumes”;[39] in highly rhetorical lines of poetry such as “Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,” likewise, we see the poet identifying himself as a salesman eager to place his product.  Whitman’s contemporaries were not blind to the resemblance between passages of his poetry and lists of goods, and few seem to have looked kindly on it.  From the first publication of Leaves of Grass, the use of the catalogue as a formal device has been a point of contention among critics; “it is that catalogue business that wrecks them all,” Whitman lamented wearily in his old age.[40]  Emerson, perhaps miffed at his protégé for using his famous letter without permission, once forwarded a copy of Leaves of Grass to Carlyle saying, “if you think, as you may, that it is only an auctioneer’s inventory of a warehouse, you can light your pipe with it.”[41]  An early reviewer in the London Examiner scoffed that most of Leaves of Grass was only poetry “as catalogues of auctioneers are poems” and set part of a furniture auction catalogue in Whitmanesque lines by way of illustration.[42]  In 1860, a Vanity Fair parody entitled “Counter-Jumps:  A Poemittina.--After Walt Whitman” put the cataloguer back in the store:


I am the Counter-jumper, weak and effeminate.

I love to loaf and lie about dry-goods.

I loaf and invite the Buyer.

I am the essence of retail.  The sum and result of small profits and quick returns.

The Picayune is part of me, and so is the half cent, and the mill only arithmetically appreciable . . . [43]


Nor was Whitman himself entirely comfortable with the idea of combining vision and commerce.  His early newspaper articles evince a strong, if sometimes naďve, antimaterialism:  Whitman believed that money’s true importance lay in how “we attach it to our feelings . . . by identifying it with the human spirit,--through love, through pride, through our craving for beauty and happiness”;[44] he claimed to find it “a very dangerous thing to be rich.”[45]  He maintains this stance in one of the darker portraits from the 1855 Leaves of Grass:  “This face is an epilepsy advertising and doing business (. . .) The man falls struggling and foaming to the ground while he speculates well.”[46]


Consonant with his increasing tolerance of the marketplace, Whitman would later remove the phrase “advertising and doing business”;[47] in 1880 he went so far as to claim that “now Business does it all” and to call business “an immense and noble attribute of man, . . . the tie and interchange of all the peoples of the earth.”[48]  Whitman might have recognized that there was something hypocritical about anyone who claimed not to advertise.  As advertising agent Daniel Frohman wrote in 1869, “The man who doesn’t believe in advertising is constantly doing what he deprecates . . . He labels the articles of his manufacture--that’s advertising . . . He has his name put up in gilt letters over his door--what is that but advertising?”[49]  Even as an old man, though, Whitman railed that the greatest danger to America was posed by “an overwhelming prosperity, ‘business,’ worldliness, materialism,”[50] and he was sensitive to the common, if outdated, perception that poets should earn their living in some way unrelated to the sale of their work:  “If a man sells goods--well, selling them seems all right:  but if he sells poems, selling is degrading, wrong.”[51]


In the transitional era in which Whitman lived, the aspiring professional author was damned if he sold and damned if he didn’t.  For any author not lucky enough to be born into money, the open market had to serve the same purpose that aristocratic patronage had served in the not-so-distant past.  Whitman, who identified even his favorite British poetry with feudalism, snobbery, and decay,[52] linked the reception of his poems to the success of democracy.  He returned many times to the importance of a fit readership:  “The soul of the largest and wealthiest and proudest nation may well go half-way to meet that of its poets . . . The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”[53]  Poets needed a public which would embrace their works--and, by extension, which would buy their books so that they could go on writing. 


As much as he might exhort his readers to “let the money remain unearn’d,”[54] Whitman could never really afford to do so; he was plagued with his own and his family’s financial problems for most of his life.  In “Song of Myself” he looked forward to the day when “it will not tickle me much to receive puffs out of pulpit or print,” tacitly acknowledging the inevitable importance of promotion for the time being.[55]  We can only imagine the ironic smile on his face as he sent a poem to the New York Sunday Courier in 1860 with the note,  “The price of the ‘Thoughts’ is $10.  I reserve the right of using it in any future edition of my poems.”[56]  How could anyone price a thought, or reserve the rights to it?[57]  In the same year, Whitman wrote his brother a letter about publishers Thayer and Eldridge that epitomizes his mixed feelings about self-promotion:


I won’t allow them to puff the poetry--though I had quite a hard struggle--as they had prepared several tremendous puff advertisements . . . I persuaded them to give me the copy to make some little corrections--which I did effectually by going straight to my lodgings, and putting the whole stuff in the fire--Oh, I forgot to tell you, they have printed a very neat little brochure, (pamphlet,) of 64 pages, called “Leaves of Grass Imprints,” containing a very readable collection of criticisms on the former issues--This is given away gratis, as an advertisement and circular.  Altogether, Jeff, I am very, very much satisfied . . . [58]


The poet leaps in mid-sentence from condemning the publishers’ “puff advertisements” to extolling their brochure which not only served the same purpose but included reviews he had written himself. 


Whitman dramatizes this contradiction in a ventriloquistic passage on slave trading in “I Sing the Body Electric.”[59]  The passage probably draws from Whitman’s exposure to slave auctions in New Orleans around the same time that he wrote his piece on Peter Funk for the Crescent.[60]  Though Whitman was not an abolitionist, the reduction of human beings to commodities was odious to him.  In this passage, here quoted from the 1855 edition, he shows the heresy of slavery through a sort of modest proposal, pretending to participate in a slave auction, only to put the slave’s body beyond price:


A slave at auction!

I help the auctioneer . . . the sloven does not half know his business.


Gentlemen look on this curious creature,

Whatever the bids of the bidders they cannot be high enough for him,

For him the globe lay preparing quintillions of years without one animal or plant

For him the revolving cycles truly and steadily rolled.[61]


The impersonation of the slave-trader is a sleight of hand facilitated by the speaker’s role as tour guide through Leaves of Grass.  As he does constantly throughout the poem, the speaker here turns up similarities between the text and the material world.  Like the grass, the river, and so many other images in the poem, the slave is likened to the page before us by the demand that we look closely at him:  “Examine these limbs, red black or white . . . . they are very cunning in tendon and nerve; / They shall be stript that you may see them.”  Layer by layer, the “auctioneer” dissolves the outward appearance of the man, arriving at the part of him most like a poem:  “There all passions and desires . . all reachings and aspirations: / Do you think they are not there because they are not expressed in parlors and lecture-rooms?”  These two lines sum up perfectly Whitman’s attitude toward his own writing; he once called the highbrow literary world from which he was excluded “a parlor in which no person is to be welcomed unless he come attired in dress coat and observing the approved decorums with the fashionable.”[62]  The implied metaphor of the slave as a poem in human form, painstakingly rolled out by the revolving cycles of the earth, is first powerful in itself:  our empathy with him is enhanced because we have before us the poet’s own socially devalued passions and desires.  However, the casting of poet as slave trader also reflects Whitman’s internal conflict.  He must at once require a price for what he sells and raise its spiritual stock in the minds of his readers.


On the evidence of Whitman’s surviving journals, the first words he wrote in the style of his mature poetry are:  “I am the poet of slaves, and of the masters of slaves.”[63]  The second half of this sentence is of special interest to those who wish for a fuller picture of Whitman’s relationship to his work.  He had mixed feelings towards the abolition of slavery, as he did towards the selling of his book.  On the national level he was, like Lincoln, long reluctant to condone federal intervention in state affairs, preferring that emancipation “come from below and not from above,” i.e., that liberal education might lead to a voluntary and peaceful dissolution of the institution of slavery.[64]  He realized that in his poetry, too, it would not be enough to condemn slavery in the abstract.  Instead, he imaginatively explored the very act he hated. 


What he found there was an image of his dual role as the inhabitant of poems and the master of their commodification.  His imaginative identification with a slave trader in the passage quoted above parallels his view of himself as reluctant salesman of thoughts and dreams.  Would hawking poetry be no more an improvement on crass commercialism than, say, P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of “161-year-old” African-American Joice Heth had been on slavery?  Whitman attempts to marshal the quandary in “A Song for Occupations,” by positing that the difference between master and slave is ephemeral:


Neither a servant nor a master am I,

I take no sooner a large price than a small price . . . . I will have my own whoever enjoys me[65]


No price is high enough to buy a poem; at the same time, the poem/speaker takes care not to condemn book selling.  Even more important than the moral horror of slavery is the extension of rights to the individuals concerned:  each must make his own choice.  The poet’s job is to educate the hearts of his readers, never to pontificate to them.  This is the rule Whitman tried to follow in his advertising as well as his poetry.


The dual role of poet and salesman was a contradiction which (to borrow Elizabeth Bishop’s phrase) Whitman was forced to make his peace within if never with.  Though there is certainly a degree of willful self-deception in his excluding “Leaves of Grass Imprints” from the category of puffery, the distinction he makes between the brochure and the more obvious advertisements (presumably posters or newspaper ads) is a suggestive one.  Whitman knew that it would take instruction for America to understand and absorb him.  In his notebook he wrote, “Always any great and original persons, teacher, inventor, artist or poet, must himself make the taste (...) by which only he will be appreciated, or even received.”[66]  A collection of reviews, particularly those of Emerson and Whitman himself which appeared in the brochure, could more deeply instruct the reader in how to read the poetry. 


In the light of Whitman’s quandary over self-promotion, we might consider the famous line “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then . . . . I contradict myself” as a flustered cop-out:  the poet’s resignation to the paradox outlined above.  Yet if we condemn his self-promotion and praise his poetry, we are being as contradictory as he was, for within Leaves of Grass as well as outside of it he worked hard to make the taste by which he would be appreciated.  In a sense, Whitman’s promotion of his book should be considered not as an endeavor separate from the poems but as a frame for them.  Even early critics who condemned the book noted “unmistakable internal evidence” that the poet and the reviewer were one and the same.[67]  In his overall approach to advertising, in fact, as in his early self-reviews, the difference between Whitman and many other well-regarded writers of his day was not moral but tactical.


Shelley Fisher Fishkin has pointed out usefully that when the child in “Song of Myself” asks, “What is the grass?”, the speaker’s rambling answer “shows the reader what it means to see and structure reality for oneself.”[68]  The series of guesses the speaker offers in response to the child’s question also provide on-the-job training for the reader:  coming near the beginning of the poem, they demonstrate the participatory, imaginative spirit in which Whitman wants us to read the book that contains them.  The poet’s anonymous and ghostwritten self-reviews work to a similar end.  Instead of merely issuing pronouncements on the value of the product, they try over and over to show us how to see and structure it.


The closer one looks at Whitman’s life and works, in other words, the harder it becomes to draw a line between art and advertising.  The same may be said of salesmen as a group.  Whatever opinion generations of jokes have left us of them, honest as well as dishonest peddlers in Whitman’s time were required by their occupation to develop skills beyond the immediately practical.  Lacking much in the way of advance advertising for their wares, peddlers were also necessarily performers.  “Certainly by the 1830s,” Jackson Lears writes, “the notion of the peddler as entertainer was firmly embedded in the dominant culture” of the United States.[69]  Like the actor, the peddler was both inside and outside nineteenth-century society.  He assuaged his customers’ fears and endeared himself to them by performing:  remarking how well a garden was doing, bringing gossip and news from the nearest city, telling jokes, playing the fiddle, preaching, and certainly telling stories which illustrated the particular excellence of a given clock or cold remedy. 


If Whitman was a rapt audience of  “the recitative of fish-pedlars and fruit-pedlars,”[70] his own writing figures a similar confluence of art and commerce; selling was part of his singing.  The earliest and most flagrant instances of self-advertising within Whitman’s writing appear in newspaper articles:  “We are going to say some bold truths!  We are going to dash at once into the impassioned errors of probably four out of every five who will read this article.”[71]  “A flying pic-nic--Greenport, &c.--God bless us all! what an idea! . . . Such a feat, (we flatter ourself,) is not unworthy of special record, even in this era of heaven-telegraphs . . .”[72]  The “we” in these excerpts is exactly as shadowy and self-interested, and yet as devoted to the reader’s enjoyment, as the anonymous persona behind which Whitman wrote his self-reviews.  To return for a moment to the earlier example of Whitman’s Crescent article, we may see a clear parallel between the narrator’s purpose in the text and Peter Funk’s at the auction.  Like the auction, the article offers the consumer an object we might ordinarily think beneath our esteem:  here, the con-man himself.  Just as Funk examines a cheap watch “attentively, and with a very significant look, as though his judgment was perfectly satisfied . . . says deliberately, ‘Thirty-five!,” the narrator examines Funk and finds him worthy of 1,500-some words--many of them at Funk’s expense but to Whitman’s profit nonetheless.  The writer invites us into the auction by telling us, “You’re a gentleman of leisure about New Orleans.”  The identity manufactured by the second-person pronoun is more than skin-deep:  we are, in a general sense, Whitman’s marks, just as the “greeneys” are the auctioneer’s.  Despite the common pattern, however, we leave the sketch having spent no time or money we did not expect to spend, and we have gained a modest insight into human nature.  By adapting Funk’s methods to prose, Whitman figures the reader as the willing victim of a harmless con.


This was a strategy he would refine over the following years, one which reached its apotheosis in Leaves of Grass, a work so consistent in its self-aggrandizement that one strains to think of adequate examples.  It would be churlish and naďve to dismiss “Song of Myself” as nothing more than a deluded self-portrait, yet whatever rationales we offer for the awesome egotism of the poem we must count the poet and his work among the referents of the pronoun “I.”  Whitman’s protestations of the importance of poetry in his preface to the 1855 edition, together with his speaker’s claims of superhuman perception and empathy, of the limitations of conventional wisdom, of uniqueness, of satisfaction with himself, and of universal welcome among the human race, all bring back to mind disconcertingly the elder poet’s reminiscence that “someone had to speak for me:  no one would:  I spoke for myself.”  It is hard not to wonder how much of the popularity of the poem might stem from its insistence on its own greatness.


The fact that we forgive Whitman this strategy is as interesting as the con itself; it leads us to ask what kind of entertainment it is that sales pitches in general provide us.  How can the great American poem begin with the words “I celebrate myself”?  How can we accept as poetry the advertiser’s specious claim of exclusivity, “I might not tell everybody but I will tell you”?[73]  Tangled in our reaction to his poetry and his career lies something of our mixed reaction to a clever TV commercial:  the familiar wry smile at a well-written skit about beer or toilet paper even though we know its sole raison d’ętre is to make us want to pick up the product on our next trip to the supermarket. 


One of the hardest aspects of advertising to understand is its distance from what it advertises, i.e., that it cannot be of any use to its subject unless it is interesting in itself.  Every advertisement is itself, then, partly a commodity, in much the same sense that a work of art is.  The degree and kind of energy that a given ad devotes to beguiling the consumer--i.e., the art portion of the ad--varies according to its particular strategy, placement, market, and product.  No ad worth the space rented for it can convey information alone.  This was a principle which Whitman’s contemporaries were discovering and excitedly putting into practice.  The most directly influential of these was probably Robert Bonner, whom Whitman called “the hero of unheard-of and tremendous advertising, who fires cannon, fills page upon page of newspapers, and--if he could--would placard the very walls of Paradise with highfalutin handbills.”  One of Bonner’s most famous stunts was to circumvent a moratorium on large print in a rival paper by buying up four columns of space in which he simply repeated, ninety times, the sentence “Fanny Fern Writes for the New York Ledger!”[74]


In his comparative study of P.T. Barnum’s and Benjamin Franklin’s relation to the American public, Michael Zuckerman finds that while Barnum transgressed many conventional mores, he succeeded by holding true to his own maxim that “what gave pleasure to democratic audiences was good.”  Like Franklin, Barnum cherished commoners’ “happy mediocrity”; he gave them what they wanted.  In the hoaxes he perpetrated, he paid crowds what his biographer Constance Rourke defines as “an elaborate form of attention,” and the crowds loved him for it; no one else “had ever taken the pains to delude them on so preposterous a scale before.”[75]  Whitman’s uneasy courting of fame issues from the same continuities in our national character that Zuckerman describes.  He was another idealist whose love for his audience allowed, even required him to fool them for their own good.


In what sense is the advertising Whitman concerned with the reader’s enjoyment?  Leo Spitzer’s genial essay “Reading Advertisements as Literature” offers a few terms with which to examine the interrelationships between commercial and artistic texts.  Spitzer is fascinated by the orange juice brand name “Sunkist,” which “transports the listener into a world of Arcadian beauty, but with no insistence that this world really exists.”[76]  A Sunkist ad creates an ideal world in which the customer at once believes and does not believe; the reader takes “a detour through this word-paradise and carries back the poetic flavor which will season the physical enjoyment of the orange juice he will drink for breakfast the next morning.”[77]


In Spitzer’s article, advertisement and product are clearly distinguishable.  But what if we were to turn the same kind of attention toward the product of literature?  There are of course explicit advertisements for books:  the reviewer’s blurb, the celebrity endorsement, the peer pressure of sales figures.  The rise of the book as commercial product is well-documented.  Yet this product is different in kind from others in that it is made of the same stuff that advertises it and often even works self-advertisement into its own discourse.  Distinguishing between the “word-paradise” and the “physical enjoyment” which it seasons becomes hard when the book is, to paraphrase Baudelaire’s description of the prostitute, “sales pitch and wares in one.”[78]


The rise of advertising as an art might be seen as an outgrowth of the romantic exaltation of pleasure for its own sake.  Irving Babbit has noted nineteenth-century authors’ common skill at “calling attention to themselves” as “only one aspect in short of an art in which the past century . . . has really surpassed all its predecessors--the art of advertising.”[79]  Whitman’s dedication to this art caused and continues to cause chagrin even among his admirers; shortly after the poet’s death, for instance, John Addington Symonds lamented the fact that his friend had “collected and distributed trifling panegyrics of himself, culled from the holes and corners of American journalism . . . and seemed to value people by the amount of personal zeal they displayed in the propagation of his views.”[80]  At the same time, however, Whitman lived humbly, disdained ostentation, and believed ferociously in the value of the work he advertised.  In answering critics of Whitman’s record as a self-publicist, Justin Kaplan is correct in pointing out that “this incessant clamor and posturing possessed a certain purity--it was always and ultimately in the service of the work, Leaves of Grass, not the self.  He never wanted to live in style or rub feathers with the quality for very long.”[81]


Whitman never entirely resolved his ambivalence toward self-promotion.  Recalling his 1887 Lincoln lecture at Madison Square Theatre, for instance, he told Traubel the affair had been “too much the New York jamboree--the cosmopolitan drunk” and said that he “opposed it--tried to be off.”  But to another friend, jeweler and high society contact John Johnston, he called the reception “the culminating hour of his life.”[82]  Leaves of Grass demonstrates the same ambivalence, at once advancing freedom from the world of getting and spending and marshaling all the savvy of Madison Avenue as a poetic tool.



[1]. Walt Whitman, Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts.  Ed. Edward F. Grier.  6 vols.  (New York: NYU, 1984) 1: 116.

[2]. Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982) 1326.

[3]. Milton Hindus, ed., Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971) 63.

[4]. Hindus 70.

[5]. In this regard, relations between Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune and Whitman’s distributors Fowler and Wells were typical.  Fowler and Wells regularly advertised their authors in the Tribune and published books written or edited by Greeley, who reciprocated by running favorable reviews of Fowler and Wells’s books.  See Ezra Greenspan, Walt Whitman and the American Reader (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1990) 97.

[6]. Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and its Creators (New York: Morrow, 1984) 15.

[7]. Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. (New York: Peter Smith, 1932) 1: 126.

[8]. Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman:  The Song of Himself (Berkeley:  U of California P, 1999) 107.

[9]. Whitman, Notes 1: 473.

[10]. David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Random House, 1996) 459.

[11].  Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980) 341.

[12]. Loving 213.

[13]. The marginalia of Whitman’s clippings on famous poets are remarkably more interested in their careers than in their poetry.  “To read Whitman on Wordsworth with the expectation of being lifted to a higher plane of insight is to be disappointed,” notes Greenspan with some justification (75).  The only comment Whitman scribbled on one Wordsworth review was, “So it seems Wordsworth made ‘a good thing,’ from the start, out of his poetry.  legacies!  a fat office!  pensions from the crown!”

[14]. Loving 184.


[15]. Traubel 2: 105.

[16]. Traubel 4: 152.

[17].  Price, Kenneth M., ed.  Walt Whitman:  The Contemporary Reviews (New York: Cambridge UP, 1996) 13.


[18].  Holloway 1: 199.

[19]. Holloway 1: 202.

[20]. Holloway 1: 201.

[21]. Holloway 1: 199-202.

[22]. Reynolds 161.

[23]. Michael Zuckerman, “The Selling of the Self: From Franklin to Barnum,” Benjamin Franklin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Representation of American Culture, ed. Barbara B. Oberg and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford, 1993) 158.

[24]. Ezra Greenspan, Walt Whitman and the American Reader (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1990) 106.

[25]. J.R. Dolan, The Yankee Peddlers of Early America (New York: Bramhall, 1964) 231.

[26]. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance:  A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994) 65.

[27]. Holloway 1: 202.

[28]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 42.

[29]. Whitman, Notes 1: 109.

[30]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 64-66.

[31]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 84.

[32]. The image also prefigures Whitman’s desire for soldier Tom Sawyer to wear “something from me” around his body; see Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York:  New York UP, 1961-77) 1: 181.

[33]. Dolan 67.


[34]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 40.

[35]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 57.

[36]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 50.

[37]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 88.

[38]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 271.

[39]. Holloway 2: 74.

[40]. Traubel 4: 324.

[41]. qtd. in Reynolds 343.

[42]. Hindus 92-93.

[43]. Florence B. Freedman, “Caricature in Picture and Verse: Walt Whitman in Vanity Fair, 1860” Walt Whitman Review March 1964: 23.  Freedman also acknowledges Henry Saunders’s Parodies on Walt Whitman (New York: American Library Service, 1923).

[44]. Walt Whitman, The Complete Writings, ed. Richard Maurice Bucke et al. (New York: Putnam, 1902) 1: 119.

[45]. Holloway 1: 38.

[46]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 126.

[47]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 577.

[48]. Reynolds 533.

[49]. Frank Presbrey, The History and Development of Advertising (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, & Co., 1929) 255.

[50]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 1057.

[51]. Traubel 1: 368.

[52]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 1058 (“British Literature”), 1152 (“A Thought on Shakspere”).

[53]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 26 (1855 preface to Leaves of Grass).

[54]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 307 (“Song of the Open Road”)

[55]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 75 (“Song of the Open Road”)

[56]. Whitman, Correspondence 1: 47.

[57]. The poem “Thoughts” itself included the proto-socialist lines “Of ownership--As if one fit to own things could not at pleasure enter upon all, and incorporate them into himself or herself; / Of Equality--As if it harmed me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself--As if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same (Internet: Whitman Works Project:  http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/whitman/works/; 1860 LG, 410).

[58]. Whitman, Correspondence 1: 53.

[59]. “I Sing the Body Electric” was originally entitled “Slaves”; Loving suggests that the slave auction was originally the opening to the poem (198).

[60]. Loving 119.

[61]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 123.

[62]. Whitman, Notes 1: 144.

[63].  Internet:  Library of Congress, Notebook 1, 68.

[64]. Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet (New York: Oxford UP, 1989) 47.

[65]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 89.

[66]. Whitman, Notes 1: 149.

[67]. Hindus 70.

[68]. Shelley Fisher Fishkin,  From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985) 47.

[69]. Lears 65.

[70]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 54.

[71]. Holloway 1: 108 (Daily Eagle, Mar. 23, 1846).

[72]. Holloway 1: 118 (Daily Eagle, June 27, 1846).

[73]. Whitman, Poetry and Prose 45.

[74]. Reynolds 344.

[75]. Zuckerman 153-4.

[76]. Leo Spitzer, “Reading Advertisements as Literature” 117.

[77]. Spitzer 118.

[78]. Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing, and Zola (New York: Methuen, 1985), 10.

[79]. Hindus 8.

[80]. Hindus 225.

[81]. Kaplan 22.

[82]. Reynolds 555.