Copyrighting Leaves of Grass

The following cross-post is by Alison Hall, a writer-editor for the Office of Public Information and Education in the U.S. Copyright Office. It also appears on the Copyright: Creativity at Work blog.

Walt Whitman portrait from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division collection.

Walt Whitman portrait from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division collection.

Not only is the Library of Congress celebrating the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth all month, but May is also the anniversary of Leaves of Grass, one of Whitman’s best-known works. Walter Whitman (as he called himself then) registered his copyright for the first edition of Leaves of Grass on May 15, 1855, in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York. Copyright had not yet been centralized at the Library of Congress then. The first edition included an introduction and twelve untitled poems writing in a flowing free-verse style.

July 22, 1876 letter from Walt Whitman to Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

July 22, 1876 letter from Walt Whitman to Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford.

Whitman continued to update his work, issuing nine editions as it grew into a lengthy volume of nearly 400 poems by 1892. He continued to register his copyrights, although he might not have kept the best records. Once copyright was centralized at the Library of Congress, Whitman corresponded with Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who was responsible for copyright registration from 1870 until the first Register of Copyrights was named in 1897. Whitman’s first letter, undated, requested the dates of his copyrights thus far.

My Dear Mr. Spofford

If convenient won’t you inform me soon as possible by letter here, of the dates of my copyrights on Leaves of Grass—I think they were in 1856, 1860, 1866 (or 7) and in 1876,—but want to know exactly.

Walt Whitman

If you have a printed slip or abstract of the copyright laws, please enclose that also.

Copyright registration card for a late edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Copyright registration card for a late edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Spofford responded on July 21, 1876, that the Library had six editions, and the next day, Whitman confirmed that those were the only one he had published. On September 26, 1876, Whitman registered three additional claims to copyright, paying the Library $3.00. Read more about the correspondence between Whitman and Spofford in Copyright Lore: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Whitman, and then his agents, continued to register updated and new editions of Leaves of Grass, through the final edition completed in 1892. It appears they only sent one copy of the later editions, as requests for second editions, as well as a final registration card, appear in the Copyright Office’s Virtual Card Catalog.

The Copyright Office requested a second deposit copy of Leaves of Grass

The Copyright Office requested a second deposit copy of Leaves of Grass.

Visit the Library’s Whitman Bicentennial Display May 16 through August 15, 2019, to view Whitman’s handwritten drafts, published poems, original letters, portraits, and other rarely seen materials.

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 […]

May 30 webinar explores the Library’s digitized Walt Whitman collections

As From the Catbird Seat readers are no doubt aware from the recent string of Walt Whitman posts we’ve featured, the Library is in the middle of a season-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birthday. As part of this celebration, the Library has launched several new online Whitman-related initiatives and resources, including: […]

Celebrating Walt Whitman’s 200th Birthday

The following cross-post is by Paul Sommerfeld, a Reference Specialist in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. It also appears on In The Muse: Performing Arts Blog. Since publishing Leaves of Grass in June 1855, Walt Whitman and his poetry have captured the American imagination. Not until the early twentieth century, however, did […]

‘O Captain! My Captain!’ Walt Whitman, Two Centuries Later

The following post was written by Neely Tucker, a writer-editor in the Library’s Office of Communications. It originally appeared on the Library of Congress Blog. Walt Whitman, that most exuberant of poets, the 19th century bard of transcendent sensitivity, sensuousness and epic vision, was given to intimate correspondence in his personal life, too. As the […]

Starting from Paumanok/Proto-Leaf: Happy 200th Birthday, Walt Whitman!

The following guest post is by Barbara Bair, historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring the life and work of Walt Whitman. 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 […]

A Big Moment for Our Nation’s Poets Laureate

This week there was some exciting national Poet Laureate news that we’re eager to share: The Academy of American Poets announced the awarding of its Laureate Fellows. According to the Academy’s website, fellows were selected “in recognition of their literary excellence and to help support their civic projects. Each has served as a Poet Laureate […]

The Evolution of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

The following post was written by Cheryl Lederle, Barbara Bair, and Victoria Van Hyning of the Library of Congress. It originally appeared on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. 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 […]