Divided in Two: Annexing Writing in an Attempt to Create a Unified National Image

In 1870, Walt Whitman published his fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman had begun working on this version as early as 1869, and copies were on sale in New York the winter of 1870-1871.  However, Whitman was largely ignored by critics and the public alike which annoyed the poet who thought of the printing as a major publishing event. Thus, he reissued Leaves of Grass with the Passage to India annex, a 120 page section of 74 poems, 24 which were new pieces while the others were pulled from other additions.  This version was published into 1872 but maintained  its 1870 copyright.

As can be observed by the two tables of contents, Whitman clearly distinguishes Leaves from the annex and the additional supplements, After all, Not to create Only and the pamphlet, As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free, and Other Poems . The separate pagination  seen in the table of contents further segregates the older sections with his newer and reformulated work.   Thus the reader encounters an encyclopedic copy of Whitman’s work all bound between two covers while the distinct and deliberate delineation between the sections make it as though one is engaging in different groups of texts.

The Civil War has a significant impact on the 1872 version where Whitman explores his idea of “democratic nationality,”  which he believes could be deferred but not defeated. This notion took form in Passage to India, where the Luke Mancuso believed that the poet conveyed his sense of urgency and deemphasizes the individual for a composite image of national identity. It has been pointed out that the themes of voyaging ships and death characterize the annex, suggesting that Whitman is simultaneously prepared to rebuild this shattered land but acknowledges the death of both thousands of soldiers and antebellum notions of self understanding.  The second annex After all, Not to create Only celebrates the technological ingenuity of American industry, which Whitman thought could act as rehabilitating remedies to the aftermath of the Civil War. In many ways, all three parts of the 1872 version are connected. Poems about the Civil War  and Whitman’s ideas of American identity span the volume, for Whitman thought that this horrendous American conflict shaped national character.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Washington D.C.: Smith and McDougal, 1872).
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Washington D.C.” Smith and McDougal, 1872).

More Than Just a Title Page

First published in 1855, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass caused quite a controversy with general public perception of his poems being that they were too racy and offensive. In fact, ten years later Whitman would be fired from his job at the Department of the Interior when a corrected 1860 copy was found in his desk. The self-reflective and sexual nature of Whitman’s poems seemed to be too much for all but a few people too handle at the time. So it’s no surprise that looking at a title page from an 1860 edition of the collection hints at these subjects.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860. Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

What can a title page reveal? More than just the name of the book and author, that’s for sure. Even a first glance at the title page of Leaves of Grass pictured above gives you an idea of the contents within the pages. The lettering is mostly wispy and loopy, showing an air of lightheartedness but also a hint at deep reflection. It’s reminiscent of lying and looking up at the clouds, musing over life and one’s existence. The text seems simple, stating only the title, year of publication, and publisher. But Whitman’s name is curiously absent from the page (it is penciled in at the top) though he had a heavy influence in its publishing, leaving one wondering why he chose to leave his name out. Perhaps this is meant to enable the reader to self-reflect without thinking of the prominent author behind the words.

Closer inspection reveals even more of the nature of the poems. The wispy lettering of the word “Leaves” alludes to the sensuality and self-awareness of the poems with the cloud-like shape above the word. The way “Grass” is written suggests something rugged in the content, with the vine-like lines and sharp corners coming off of it. Also interesting is the way the year is announced, not as 1860, but instead “Year 85 of the states” which adds to the uniqueness of this edition. Perhaps this edition is a memorial volume with the grandeur phrases, or maybe it’s aimed towards readers of higher social classes. The title page may seem very basic when just glancing at it, but a deeper look shows that it very much reflects the boldness of the contents hidden inside.

Walt Whitman: the Everyman

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1856: Brooklyn, NY). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

With the second edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman sought to create a portable version of the acclaimed first edition, while adding several poems and changing the order of the remaining works. Whitman played a large role in the publishing process of this 1856 edition; his touches are evident in the small size of the work, the frontispiece portrait, and the title page’s failure to bare the author’s name. The frontispiece portrait, which portrays Whitman in his infamous “carpenter pose,” further accentuates the purpose of this edition as an intimate copy from “the people’s poet.” Whitman’s portrait, characterized by his casual pose and working attire, depicts him as someone that the American public could relate to, rather than an aristocratic poet. Whitman’s choice to include this portrait of himself represents the poet’s attempt to shape his readers’ interpretation of him as the Everyman.

This thick volume of poetry is bound in olive-green cloth. On the cover, a stamped design of leaves and berries forms a border around the title, which is embossed in gold. As evidenced in the photos, the pages inside suffer from foxing. The compact size of this edition contrasts with the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which utilized larger sheets of paper and was more ornately decorated. The 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, although met with varying degrees of success, represents Whitman’s goal to create a work for the American public. The frontispiece portrait of Whitman outfitted in laboring clothing reiterates the role of this edition as one that was meant to be carried around in the average American’s pocket.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1856: Brooklyn, NY). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

“What Is That You Express In Your Eyes, Walt Whitman?”

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, (Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860). Image courtesy of The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University

What is that you express in your eyes?” Walt Whitman once asked, “It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”

Walt Whitman understood the fundamental power of an image, especially in comparison to the technical qualities of the written word; therefore, it should come as no surprise that he demonstrated particular interest in his own image and, more specifically, his official portraitures.

Pictured above is a photograph of the frontispiece from Whitman’s 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass published by Thayer and Eldridge in Boston. The frontispiece of this book  sits opposite to the title page, and is separated by a thin sheet of wax paper, presumably to keep both of the pages preserved. (To note, both the wax paper and the title page contain an imprinted seal that reads: “The Library of the Peabody Institute,” but the frontispiece does not contain a seal, suggesting that the library wanted to keep the valuable image intact and unmarked.)

The edition from The Johns Hopkins Special Collections also features maroon board covers with rough, vinyl overlay and a classic sewn binding. The spine of the book contains gold lettering, accompanied by detailed thematic imprints on both the front and back covers. In reference to this unique 1860 edition, Whitman once said, “it is quite ‘odd,’” most likely due to the confusing images of a rising sun and a moon obscured behind heavy cloud cover. Interestingly, right after this edition went to print, Thayer and Eldridge fell into bankruptcy, causing Whitman to receive only $250 for this edition.

Luckily, the edition still made it to print because, without this version, readers would have lost a valuable look into Whitman’s development as an author. This frontispiece, in comparison to other portraits of Whitman, presents a much different image of the writer to his readers. Deemed a “poet of the people,” Whitman often posed in common, working apparel, sporting an unruly beard and wide-brimmed hat. In this portrait, however, Whitman appears far more polished – with his hair combed, his beard trimmed, and (gasp!) a large bow tied around his collared shirt. While Whitman still maintains vestiges of his original image (he is by no means wearing a three-piece suit), he wanders into the realm of the refined. As a result, this edition might appeal to a wealthier, more conventional reader base, highlighting, once again, that Whitman successfully transcended the invisible divisions of wealth and class.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, 1855 edition

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn: 1855). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

What makes the first edition of Leaves of Grass so interesting to literary archivists is Walt Whitman’s decision to publish his poems by himself.  Thus, the 1855 edition of this seminal poetic work reflects not the publisher’s intent, as in many published works, but rather the poet’s.  Whitman had complete control over the presentation of his poems in a way that many writers, whose work was published through some intermediary, did not.  In fact, Whitman acted as his own publicity agent of sorts, and the cover of the 1855 edition illustrates how he, as the generator of Leaves of Grass, intended the poem to reach its audience.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn:1855). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The cover features delicate ferns and foliage impressed into the green leather, most likely done by a die-cut stamp. A gold border is also impressed into the cover.    The title “Leaves of Grass.” is stylized with roots and grass growing from the individual letters and picked out in gold leaf.  This emphasis on verdant plant life, paired with the green and gold color scheme makes a bold statement.  Even without knowing the contents of the book, we can see that Whitman is making a claim towards naturalism.

It is knowing, however, the contents of Leaves of Grassthat renders the cover’s function even more transparent .  Whitman likens his poetry to blades of grass, something fresh, natural and vital, and the pages of his book of poetry are meant to be figurative leaves of grass.  His claim towards the universality and the equalizing powers of his poetry is evident without even cracking the spine, for what is more unbiased and equalizing than nature itself?


An Elite yet Anonymous Leaves of Grass

Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published for a third time in 1860 by Thayer and Eldridge. The aesthetics of the edition are telling of the audience and priorities of Whitman and the publishers. For this assignment I have focused on the  title page of the book. Though the binding is plane and without decoration, there is ornament around the title “Leaves of Grass.” The lines almost look like they would be found on a magician or carnival’s advertisement. Though they recall the natural-looking ornamentation on the covers of earlier editions, there is a “magical” quality to this detailing rather than natural. It is as if this edition is the formal, fancy version of the previous publications; this version is the more ornate version of this natural poem. This indicates a certain active attempt to appeal to buyers apart from making the volume small and affordable. It at least indicates that the publishers hoped to draw in an audience that believed their publishing to be of a certain ornate, perhaps “magical” quality.

Title page. Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860.

The page has very few words other than the title, all of which are printed in a typeface less standard than that of the title pages in previous editions of Leaves of Grass. This indicates the time and money that went into this page to again create this illusion of a certain standard of quality in this version. Because there are very few words and they are printed in a large font, there is a strong emphasis on what the page reads. Whitman’s name appears no where on the page despite the fact Whitman had a lot to do with the layout and design of the publication. Perhaps he wanted to give credit and thanks to his publishers or the publishers instructed him to make their names bold. Either way, the emphasis on the publishers is interesting because Thayer and Eldridge were just starting up and were not by any means successful or prestigious at the time of this publication. This is probably why the font and size of their names draws so much attention to them; they were  literally making a name for themselves by publishing Whitman. In a way, this title page is more about who published the book than what the book contains.

The last note I will make about this title page is the inclusion of the year in two different ways: the age of the United States and the actual year from the calendar. This suggests that, in line with Whitman’s personal beliefs and feelings, the priority is an audience of Americans who care about America. Once again, as Whitman is known to have had a large hand in the design of this book, it is no wonder that the United States’ name appears on the very first page across from his portrait, the American man.

When Leaves Were Only Just Budding: A Picture of Early Whitman

There is no denying that Walt Whitman embodies the spirit of America with his  bold  and individualistic poetry. Whether you find him egotistical and brash or brave and confident, cocky or self-assured, his presentation of his works and himself is undeniably American. Although perhaps not fully appreciated in his time by the general public (probably due to the perception of his poetry as sexual and coarse), he never waivered in his outspoken believe that he was THE Great American Poet.

Famous for revising his pieces throughout his life and leaving behind multiple editions of the same poems, his first book, Leaves of Grass, was published independently in 1855. Although the content of the poem is undoubtedly different from later incarnation, text is not the only difference from later works worth noting. The frontispiece portrait of Whitman in this original edition is strikingly different than the image of him we are now used to.

Frontispiece portrait from Leaves of Grass 1855 (Brooklyn, New York).Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University

Typically depicted as a wise-looking older man, well dressed with a large beard; this picture of shows a much younger Whitman. Instead of his usual contemplative stare, we see him slouching, one hand in pocket one hand on hip. Additionally, the image is small, especially as compared to the entire page, probably because he printed the engravings himself and could not afford or didn’t have the equipment for a larger image.

A more traditional portrait of Whitman, courtesy of Wikipedia

This small, unusually casual picture of Whitman depicts him not as an academic or a scholar, but as an average American. Perhaps later in life he grew to imagine himself as an intellectual, but this picture is representative of his roots, and suggests how he imagined himself in this early work. The book is thin, lacks a table of contents and the poems inside are jumbled, in need of revision. This is a picture of a man with much work left to do. This is the early Whitman, and when we see this image and read this original version of Leaves of Grass, we are reminded of that. Just as the man in the image has much growth and change ahead of him,so does his poetry. Much like the leaves of grass for which his work is named, Walt Whitman never stops growing.

For more information about the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, see The Walt Whitman Archive.