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?

 

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