Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass, 1876, Author's Edition
Author:
Keuling-Stout, Frances E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The 1876, or Centennial, edition of Leaves of Grass is technically not a new edition, because it was printed from the 1871 plates, yet Whitman made a number of innovations in this printing, both by splitting off previously annexed and new material into a companion volume, Two Rivulets, and through alterations in the title page and intercalations in the text.

The 1876 Author's edition of Leaves of Grass mirrors Whitman's and the nation's struggle to define themselves in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is a well-known fact that Whitman never wavered from his initial concept of regarding poetry as a living, breathing organism: "Who touches this [book] touches a man" ("So Long!"). Yet by 1876, his role, mission, and imaginative form and method have shifted towards a poetics of accommodation during a period of Reconstruction. The poet's complex aim is to reflect his conflicting but not self-canceling responses—to the war in the face of peace, to life in the midst of death, to the body straddled between the soul and the Eternal Soul, and to America moving in and out of time.

Much had happened to Whitman since the last, 1871–1872, Leaves was published. In 1873, he had a stroke, his mother died, and he unceremoniously exited Washington for Camden, which left him separated from his intimate friend, Peter Doyle. Given all these psychic traumas, Whitman channels his poetic energies differently and says as much in a Camden newspaper in 1876: "he soars more and sings less than ever" (Whitman, "Literature"). By shifting into a poetics of "sight over sound," he experiments with displaying himself on the page in as many ways as the visual and tactile mediums permit. Stated in more specific printerly terms: his 1876 Leaves carries more "sock" than "kiss" (Lieberman 40).

Whitman's use of the visible mediums of print and photo to "talk to" (his rhetorical strategy in the 1876 Leaves) the verbal medium of poetry dramatizes his sense of the work as a living form, a human personality. To enrich the texture and give physical density, Leaves contains a number of graphic firsts.

Whitman himself, for example, pastes "intercalations" (paper scraps of poems, titles, and parts of a table of contents page) onto a finished text (Leaves of Grass. Author's Edition, With Portraits and Intercalations). He also mixes different type sizes and typefaces for the two S's in the word GRASS on a title page (Leaves of Grass. Author's Edition, With Portraits from Life). He places an epigraph poem on a title page and personally autographs it. He inserts two "Portraits" into the text by having them face their companion verses. He adds the imprint "Author's Edition" on the title page.

These striking firsts more than compensate for the small number of new poems (five) contained in the 1876 Leaves: four intercalated poems and the title page's "Come, said my Soul," revised from its first appearance in the 1874 Christmas issue of the New York Daily Graphic.

Approaching his verse through typography and photography offer alternative ways to examine his poetic composition and compelling evidence that the 1876 Leaves is a text to be reckoned with. And this method is provocative enough to reinvigorate the poet of the 1870s along with his image-in-verse experiment.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Benton, Megan and Paul. "Typographic Yawp: Leaves of Grass, 1855–1992." Bookways: A Quarterly for the Book Arts 13 & 14 (1994–1995): 22–31.

Lieberman, J.B. Types of Typefaces: And How to Recognize Them. New York: Sterling , 1967.

Myerson, Joel. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Author's Edition, With Portraits and Intercalations. Camden, N.J.: Author's Edition, 1876.

____. Leaves of Grass. Author's Edition, With Portraits from Life. Camden, N.J.: Author's Edition, 1876.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. "Literature/Walt Whitman's Works, 1876 Edition." Camden New Republic 11 Mar. 1876: 2.


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