Whitman: Designing Leaves

The following guest post is by Amanda Zimmerman, reference assistant in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The Library of Congress will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birthday in spring 2019 with a series of exhibits, public programs, and a digital crowdsourcing campaign to showcase the Library’s unparalleled collections of Whitman’s writings and artifacts.

A special Whitman Bicentennial display, on view in exhibit cases in the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress from May 16 to August 15, 2019, is a chance to see original Whitman objects from the Library’s special collections, including Whitman manuscripts and rare books, printed versions of Whitman poems, rarely seen photographs and art works, musical compositions inspired by Whitman, and book design and popular culture items. Don’t miss our Whitman Open House on June 3 for even more Whitmania.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass (from left to right). Brooklyn: 1855; Brooklyn: 1856; Boston: 1860–1861; New York: 1869; Washington: 1871; Camden, New Jersey: 1876; Boston: 1881–1882; Philadelphia: 1888, Philadelphia: 1891–1892. Rare Book & Special Collections Division. 

While Walt Whitman is remembered for his exquisite and innovative poetry, it is generally less well known that he was also intimately involved with the design and publication of his books. This was not typical of the publishing industry in the 19th century, but was rather a direct result of Whitman’s early career in publishing.

At the age of twelve, Whitman began apprenticeships learning typesetting at several Brooklyn newspaper publishing offices, and as a teenager he continued to work in the industry as a journeyman printer. Later Whitman published his own newspapers—first the Long Islander in the 1830s and later the Freeman in 1848—and he continued to work as either compositor or editor of various newspapers throughout the 1840s. This experience in the world of publishing and the technical aspects of book-creation resulted in Whitman’s keen understanding of the importance of visual design to literary and economic success.

In the early 1850s, while composing the poems that would become Leaves of Grass, Whitman worked as a job-printer and developed friendships with other Brooklyn printers. When it came time to self-publish his small book of poems, he asked local printers the Rome brothers to print the work for him. This book, the very first edition of Leaves of Grass, changed the way we understand literature and its inextricable link to the materiality of a text.

The book was rather unusual for 1855. A tall, slim volume of only 95 pages, the first edition contains twelve poems and an untitled preface. The size of the book and arrangement of the poems inside were determined largely by financial limitations (Whitman was paying for the printing himself) and the limitations of the Rome brothers’ press (the shop typically printed legal forms and had never printed a book until Leaves). Because the press was set to accommodate larger paper dimensions, Whitman was obligated to adapt the overall design of the text, inside and out. Whitman was very involved during the printing process as well, and stopped the press at least twice during the press run to correct various issues in the text. Though there were errors in some printed copies, all of the printed copies were sold as Whitman couldn’t afford to discard those with errors.

Cover detail, 1855 edition Leaves of Grass. Houghton-Whitman collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
From America Reads online exhibit.

In spite of these limitations, Whitman injected creativity into every aspect of the physical design of his book. The gold-embossed title, which seems to be sprouting directly from the dark green cloth covers, is surrounded by curling tendrils and patterns of vines echoing the organic nature of the poems inside. Though it is not known for sure, it is generally assumed that Whitman was the designer of this unique title design.

Opening to the title page, the reader is presented again with the title, Leaves of Grass, writ large in an oversized typeface typically reserved for commercial rather than literary uses. Facing the title page is a frontispiece portrait of an unnamed man; no author’s name appears on the title page, nor on the cover or spine of the volume; indeed, there is nothing linking either the frontispiece or the poetry itself to the “Walter Whitman” mentioned as the copyright holder in small print on the back of the title page. This omission allows the character of the author to gradually emerge from the poetry itself, rather than being attached to any particular individual. Indeed in this text, the poet grows out of his poetry, not the other way around.

The second edition (1856) was self-published as well, though it was printed and distributed by Fowler and Wells, to whose weekly magazine Life Illustrated Whitman contributed. In working with a different press, Whitman faced new opportunities and challenges for his second edition. The size and shape of the book are a dramatic change from the first edition. The short, thick volume maintains some of the design elements of the first edition, like the green cloth binding and gold-stamped floral title on the cover and the omission of an author’s name anywhere in or on the volume, but it is with this edition that Whitman begins his lifelong practice of transforming the text inside and out. The number of poems included grew from 12 to 32, and each poem was given a title of its own. The poems themselves changed from the first edition to the second, as Whitman added, removed, and even combined existing lines to give emphasis or to change or clarify his meaning and intention. Whitman continued to make amendments and additions to his text, and the transformation from the second to the third edition is even more pronounced than the transition of the first to the second.

In 1860 Whitman was offered a contract with a new (though already well-respected) abolitionist Boston publisher, Thayer & Eldridge. Whitman rushed to Boston to oversee the publication of a new expanded edition of his work, and continued to lay a heavy hand on the production process throughout. The resulting third edition is a massive 456 pages long, printed to a high aesthetic standard. It was bound in cloth of either green, brown, or orange, and embossed on the covers and spine with decorative designs which some scholars believe Whitman designed himself. The typography and illustrations inside are much more intricate and varied, and the materials used for the volume’s construction and printing were of a much finer quality than previous editions. Much of this modification was possible due to the financial backing of Whitman’s new reputable publisher, but money alone does not account for the dramatic display, as no other Thayer & Eldridge publication is as complex and varied. Whitman’s creative approach to his work, along with his familiarity and involvement with the printing process, allowed this edition to reach new heights of design. The third edition was so beautifully executed that the publishers highlighted the book’s elegance in their advertisements, and reviewers often mentioned the book’s splendid, striking, unique, and original design.

Original brass die used for 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Feinberg-Whitman Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

Some of the modifications in the third edition reflect changes in Whitman’s thinking about himself, his work, and his place in American literature. For example, the frontispiece in this edition no longer portrays a young working-class Whitman, but instead depicts Whitman as a slightly older genteel romantic in a silk cravat. Current events also influenced Whitman’s construction of this edition. Scholars have noted the “dark mood” that pervades the work, perceived in the poems themselves, but also from various design and structural changes Whitman made with this text. In 1860 America was on the brink of civil war, and Whitman’s anxiety over the state of the nation is made evident in the arrangement of the third edition. His attempt to highlight unity is especially clear on the title page; by giving the publication date as “Year 85 of The States (1860-61),” Whitman underlines his view of America as a united nation, and celebrates his book as a work of uniquely American poetry. The large volume contains 146 new poems but no longer includes a preface. Previously published poems were revised and given new or different titles, but for the first time the overall order changed to present the poems in thematic groupings or clusters. The largest of these clusters, “Chants Democratic and Native American,” contains poems that reflect Whitman’s political outlook and celebrate American democracy and unity.

From the first self-published edition in 1855 through the “deathbed” edition in 1892, Whitman constantly reworked Leaves of Grass both inside and out. He would add, remove, and rename poems from earlier editions, design and select a wide variety of typefaces for the setting of the words within, and change the binding colors and decorations to reflect symbolic changes in the state of the nation, himself, and his work. His knowledge and familiarity with the world of publishing put him in a position to make certain demands and decisions regarding the publishing of his own work while other authors at this time could not.

The portion of the Library’s Bicentennial display titled “Whitman: Designing Leaves” examines not only Whitman’s influence on the poetry of a new America, but also in his involvement in America’s growing 19th century publishing industry. This post has barely scratched the surface, looking only at the first three editions of this work, but there are (arguably) nine editions that evolved and changed over the course of Whitman’s lifetime. We encourage you to dig deeper, peruse each edition, and appreciate each as a unique representation of Whitman at a given time in his life and in American history.

Visit our online Whitman Exhibit, “Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass.”

For additional information and resources, please visit our Walt Whitman LibGuide.

3 Comments

  1. Cynthia Zimmerman
    May 14, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    Very interesting to learn of Whitman’s involvement in the publishing and design of his work. Especially curious was that he renamed some of his poems, changed typefaces and formats and kept this an evolving process. With this exhibit one will be able to appreciate his artistic and technical prowess beyond the writing itself. Thank you.

  2. Caitlin Rizzo
    May 15, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    Love this take on Whitman’s understanding of his own work through the publication process–especially this idea of removing his byline as a way to push readers to discover him through the poems themselves. So rich to think about the ways that publishing pushes us to perform and imagine ourselves, especially when considering the rich tradition of poets’ engagement with fine press and artist books.

  3. Peter
    May 16, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    I had no idea that the famous larger format 1st edition is because the printer printed legal forms – that’s fantastic. Thanks Amanda! What a great time to be leaning more about our nation’s premier poet. I can’t wait to see the exhibit.

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