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