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.

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