Jul. 4, 1998

Leaves of Grass (preface)

by Walt Whitman


Today's Reading: Lines from the preface of LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman.

It's INDEPENDENCE DAY, the anniversary in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. War with England had been raging for a year, and on July 2 Congress voted for independence. Drafting the actual Declaration fell to a committee: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Everyone knew that the 33-year-old Jefferson was the writer in the bunch, so with a few exceptions it was his work. Congress rejected two passages in his first draft — a disparaging comment about the English people and a denunciation of slavery — but otherwise adopted it with hardly any change.

It was on this day in 1931 that novelist JAMES JOYCE and NORA BARNACLE legalized their 26-year common law marriage, tying the knot at the Kensington Registry Office in London. It was Joyce's father's birthday. The wedding made front-page news.

It's the birthday in New York, 1927 of playwright NEIL SIMON. He was raised in the Bronx and studied at New York University, then wrote comedy for TV in the late '40s and through the '50s. His break came in 1961 with an autobiographical play, Come Blow Your Horn, and it had a two-year run on Broadway.

It's the birthday in New York City, 1904, of critic LIONEL TRILLING. After brief teaching stints at the University of Wisconsin and Hunter College, he joined the faculty of Columbia University, and wrote on British authors Matthew Arnold and E.M. Forster, two books about Sigmund Freud, and collections of essays, like The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Beyond Culture (1965).

The FIRST EDITION OF WALT WHITMAN'S LEAVES OF GRASS appeared on this date in 1855. Whitman had had no luck finding a publisher, so he brought it out himself. He left his name off the cover, and just put his own portrait on instead. Inside were 12 poems. Whitman constantly re-worked Leaves of Grass, and by the time he died in 1892, the ninth edition held dozens of poems.

The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was published in London on this day in 1848. Its first line: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle," and its last: "Workers of the world unite!" It was just a pamphlet written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but it became the most famous document in Communism.

It was on this day in 1845 that HENRY DAVID THOREAU moved out of his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and took up residence in a little cabin he'd built that spring on Ralph Waldo Emerson's land on Walden Pond. "I went to the woods because I wished to see if I could not learn what life had to teach." He lived there two years.

It's NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE's birthday, in Salem, Massachusetts, 1804. Hawthorne often complained about how uneventful his life was, and even though he published lots of stories and articles, none of these brought him any financial success. He made ends meet by working as a customs agent, writing on the side. In 1848, faced with bankruptcy, he wrote The Scarlet Letter in about two months time, which made him a wealthy man and the country's best-known novelist.

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