The Changes Between Editions

At the beginning of the week, I was reading “I Sing the Body Electric” while also listening to an audio of it so that I could get the flow of the poem. However, as I was listening there were a few words that were different from what I was reading in the Deathbed edition of the Walt Whitman Archive. I didn’t think much of it (especially since there are so many editions) until I came across some of the questions in the VoiceThread slides. The first question Professor Scanlon asks on slide three (referring to page 85, section 6) is “At the top of the page, how is WW expanding his discussion beyond gender to other forms of equality?” In the Deathbed edition (1891-1892) those lines read as:

“I Sing the Body Electric”

While in the 1871-1872 edition the lines read as:

“I Sing the Body Electric”

Specifically, I want to point out the difference in the line referring to slavery. The Deathbed edition (1891-92) states “No matter who it is, it is sacred—is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?” As for the 1871-72 edition, it states ” No matter who it is, it is sacred; Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?”

In this 1871-72 edition, WW clearly spelled out his intent towards slavery, however, he makes the stanza more ambiguous in later editions by changing the wording. Why do you think that is? Was it for poetic purposes? Was it a political issue? Does it have anything to do with the Civil War? Is there really nothing behind this and I’m just looking too much into it? How does this change affect the way you read and understand what Walt Whitman’s intent was?

This small difference just had my mind asking a lot of questions and I want to hear what you guys think. This is the first time I compared the editions and it makes me wonder what other major (or minor, depending on your stance) changes can be found.

4 Replies to “The Changes Between Editions”

  1. I found significant changes in a couple of his poems especially in regards to male/male attraction and relationships. It appears that Whitman originally made changes in order not to offend his readers at the request of his publisher. However, several of his later poems reveal that making those changes made him feel as if he betrayed the very truth and transparency which he champions. “Scented Herbage of my Breast” appears as a proclamation in which Whitman vows to be true to himself.

    ” Do not remain down there so ashamed, herbage of my breast!
    Come I am determin’d to unbare this broad breast of mine, I
    have long enough stifled and choked.”

    I believe later versions of Whitman’s works are truer to his vision of his poetry because he found the courage to reveal his homosexuality to his public in order to encourage others to do the same.

  2. I think that there could have been a lot of factors that caused the changes. I agree with changing initially due to publisher requests and that might have been just for the purpose of getting his name out there and becoming known. Maybe he made his messages tamer in order to gain more credibility and recognition. I also think that maybe the war changed Whitman’s perspectives and attitudes on some of his topics and he edited his work to reflect his changing mood and attitude as well. As he grew, his work was growing with him.

  3. I don’t think you’re reading to much into it! It’s a really interesting question, and I hadn’t thought about it at all until now. In regards to your question about the use of the word “slave,” it seems really notable that this word specifically changed to “the meanest one in the laborer’s gang,” whereas the “dull-faced immigrants” stayed the same. Immigration has been a consistent aspect of the American experience since its inception, so that didn’t have to change. But the other ones did. Perhaps in 1871, the concept of slavery was still fresh in individuals’ minds–while slavery had been abolished at this point, I expect it was still likely part of the national conversation. By the 1890’s, however, it’s likely that attention had turned away from slavery and toward other oppressed or unrepresented groups of people (I did a quick wiki search and it looks like the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions started in 1881). I also recall in the documentary “13th” that many former slaves were forced into prisons or other binding labor agreements, so while a laborer in a “laborer’s gang” would no longer have been a slave, in some cases, he may have once been a slave.

    (Disclaimer: I say “likely” and “perhaps” a lot because I don’t know history all that well and it would take a lot more research to be sure about this. I’m just wildly tossing my historical assumptions into the world!)

    On ANOTHER note, I also think it’s really interesting that “just as much as the well-off, just as much as you” stays the same in both of them, because it seems like a really presumptive statement. It seems to assume that the reader is likely well-off or in some other way might view themselves as superior to the slave, the laborer, or the immigrant, without acknowledging that people with those experiences might be reading his poetry, too.

  4. This is an interesting observation Christine, and one that I personally had not noticed until reading this post! Perhaps Walt Whitman made certain changes between the original version and the Deathbed version because of political reasons, as he did not want to offend those readers who were more close-minded towards his unique, innovative style of poetry which contained hidden, disguised messages. I do not particularly view it as due to poetic reasons.

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