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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Collage of Myself presents a groundbreaking account of the creative story behind America's most celebrated collection of poems. In the first book-length study of Walt Whitman's journals and manuscripts, Matt Miller demonstrates that until approximately 1854 (only a single year before the first publication of Leaves of Grass), Whitman-who once speculated that Leaves would be a novel or a play-was unaware that his ambitions would assume the form of poetry at all. Collage of Myself details Whitman's discovery of a remarkable new creative process that allowed him to transform a diverse array of texts into poems such as "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers." Whitman embraced an art of fragments that encouraged him to "cut and paste" his lines into ever-evolving forms based on what he called "spinal ideas." This approach to language, Miller argues, represents the first major use in the Western arts of the technique later known as collage, an observation with significant ramifications for our reception of subsequent artists and writers. Long before the modernists, Whitman integrated found text and ready-made language into a revolutionary formulation of artistic production that anticipates much of what is exciting about modern and postmodern art. Using the Walt Whitman Archive's collection of digital images to study what were previously scattered and inaccessible manuscript pages, Miller provides a breakthrough in our understanding of this great American literary icon.

Excerpt

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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