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

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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.

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