Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Osgood, James R. (1836–1892)
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Born in Fryeburg, Maine, James Ripley Osgood graduated from Bowdoin in 1854 and read law briefly in Portland before clerking for the Boston publishers Ticknor and Fields in September 1855. Rising to partner, with James T. Fields he established Fields, Osgood and Company in 1868. By 1871 the firm had become R. Osgood and Company, with Osgood and Benjamin Ticknor as partners. In 1878, the firm merged with H.O. Houghton, to form Houghton, Osgood and Company, which only lasted until 1880, when Osgood left to form James R. Osgood and Company.

In 1881 Osgood offered to publish Leaves of Grass and agreed to let Whitman "retain all the beastliness of the earlier editions" (qtd. in Ballou 282). On 1 October, Whitman finalized a ten-year contract with Osgood, and the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass (1881–1882), significantly revised by Whitman, was published in November at two dollars a copy. Although Whitman had removed some of the sexual content of Leaves, on 1 March 1882, the Boston district attorney, Oliver Stevens, acting under the influence of the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, classified Leaves as obscene literature. Stevens ordered Osgood to remove several offending poems and passages or cease publication altogether. Although Whitman was willing to make some changes, he refused to completely expurgate Leaves and reached a settlement with Osgood on 17 May 1882: Osgood paid Whitman one hundred dollars in cash and gave him 225 copies of the book along with the stereotype plates.

After the Boston "suppression," Richard Maurice Bucke, John Burroughs, and William O'Connor rallied around Whitman and used the event to promote the poet as a victim of prudishness and comstockery. Using the plates from the Osgood edition, Rees Welsh and Company of Philadelphia sold about six thousand copies of Leaves of Grass (1882). Although not a direct result of the Whitman fiasco, James R. Osgood and Company went out of business in May 1885.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Ballou, Ellen B. The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin's Formative Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Tryon, W.S. Parnassus Corner: A Life of James T. Fields, Publisher to the Victorians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Weber, Carl J. The Rise and Fall of James Ripley Osgood. Colby College Monograph 22. Waterville, Me.: Colby College, 1959.

Winship, Michael. American Literary Publishing in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Business of Ticknor and Fields. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.


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