Whitman’s Typography in Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman wanted to be known as the great American poet. When reading his poetry, one is presented with language and notions that are at once, grandiose and humble, marvelous and subtle. As a poet, he wanted to answer Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cry for “The Great American Poet”, as written about in Emerson’s essay, The Poet.

In 1855, Whitman published a book of poetry called Leaves of Grass. The poems within the collection championed ideas of identity, self-expression and self-awareness. It was considered very controversial at the time of its publishing. Many members of society felt that it was too sexual and sensationalist.

A look at the title page of an 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, however, paints a very different picture, and does little to suggest the controversy and scandal that the book and its author brought about. Hardly any writing can be found on the title page, save the words Leaves of Grass. The words leaves and grass are the largest on the page, and are printed in a bold and elegant, but not overly ornate font.

It is interesting to note that Whitman’s name does not appear on the title page. Given that the content of the poem is grandiosely self referential, one might expect to find Whitman’s name on the title page, perhaps in a font bigger or more attention grabbing than that of the title.

However, the typographical choices made about the title page suggest that Whitman wanted to allow the work to speak for itself. Perhaps he believed that the poem was so self-referential that to mention his name in the title page would be redundant or unnecessary. The simplistic typeface choices probably speak to his desire that his words take precedent over their physical characteristics. He probably wanted his books to be timeless, and a simple typeface with as little writing as possible might allow the book to remain classic throughout the years.

The title page commands the reader’s attention, putting emphasis on the title.

Although any inferences about Whitman’s goals with the aesthetic choices made in the title page are just speculative, it can be certain that he did put a lot of thought into the books typography. Having worked for newspapers and many printers for the majority of his adult life, he was very aware of the power of a well laid-out title page. (Read more about Whitman’s printing experiences here- http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19207 )


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