Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass Imprints (1860)
Author:
Whitt, Jan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In 1860 Thayer and Eldridge of Boston agreed to publish the third edition of Leaves of Grass. In response to Walt Whitman's desire to market himself and his work energetically, the publishing firm simultaneously released a sixty-four-page pamphlet of advertisements called Leaves of Grass Imprints. The imprints were available at no cost to prospective buyers, and the company used them as a unique promotion device. The pamphlet was made up of twenty-five reviews of Leaves of Grass since its 1855 publication. These included Whitman's assessments of his own work.

Throughout his career Whitman was a conscientious overseer of both his poetry and its critical reception. As enthusiastic in marketing as he was in writing poetry, Whitman had developed a reputation for professionalism early in his career. The Rome brothers, owners of a print shop specializing in legal documents, set the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, with Walt Whitman serving as a careful consultant and editor. In fact, the poet himself set approximately ten pages of type.

Unlike Herman Melville and other of his contemporaries, Whitman was not shy about selling himself, and he had throughout his career meticulously collected reviews of his work. It made no difference to him if the reviews were positive or negative, since he considered them all publicity. He also wrote numerous self-critiques. Several of Whitman's biographers express surprise that his collection of reviews included even a particularly harsh moral attack by William Swinton in the New York Times. Swinton attacked Whitman for being self-serving in writing reviews of his own work.

Fortunately, Thayer and Eldridge shared Whitman's zeal for self-promotion and calculated advertising. For prospective buyers, Leaves of Grass Imprints served as a convenient overview of Whitman's style and subject matter. For Thayer and Eldridge, it served as testimony of their intent to make the new volume a success. For Whitman and literary historians, it was a collection of reviews summarizing his critical reception from 1855 to 1860. Largely because of Whitman's involvement in the project, Imprints remains the best documentation of how Whitman was received by the American public prior to the third edition.

Bibliography

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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