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.
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