Collage of Myself: Walt Whitman and the Making of Leaves of Grass

By Matt Miller | Go to book overview
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Introduction

This book is a case study of the creative process, a demonstration of how Walt Whitman composed his early poems, and a reevaluation of the origins of collage as a practice in Western art. Here, I explore an enduring mystery in American literary studies: the question of how Walter Whitman, a rather undistinguished newspaperman and author of potboiler temperance fiction, transformed himself with astonishing speed into the author of America’s most celebrated collection of poems. This book documents a new and surprising achievement by America’s most famous poet: over a half-century before the word collage was applied to Picasso’s pioneering use of the technique in the visual arts, Whitman was conceptualizing and practicing a similar artistic method with language in the groundbreaking poems of Leaves of Grass.

Many theories have been proposed to explain Whitman’s creative breakthrough, but prior research has faced significant obstacles due to scant and inaccessible manuscript evidence and misunderstandings about the period in Whitman’s life leading up to the first edition of Leaves of Grass. After more than a century of Whitman scholarship, we still know surprisingly little about how he came to write his first mature poems, and almost all investigations thus far have explored his breakthrough by way of speculative accounts of his biography, with most recent scholarship stressing incidents related to his politics and sexuality. Rather than use an outside event to explain his creative maturation, I look at his writing process itself, using the Walt

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