Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Printing Business
Author:
Hicks, Dena Mattausch
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

During Whitman's lifetime, innovations in printing technology revolutionized the printing business in America. Improvements in printing presses and typesetting machines in the early decades of the nineteenth century indicated the beginning of an era, the industrial age in the printing craft. The steam-powered cylinder press, introduced in 1814, would replace the slower flatbed press. A method for casting stereotype plates, introduced around 1820, would facilitate the production of multiple editions of a work. The "Hoe Type Revolving Machine," which Whitman would celebrate in his "Song of the Exposition" (1871), would appear in 1847, employing an automatic "fly" for paper removal. Typesetting would improve with the patenting, in 1822, of a keyboard-operated composition machine.

As a result of these innovations the book trade in America soared from 2.5 million dollars in 1820 to sixteen million in 1856, while newspapers increased from two hundred in 1800 to over twenty-five hundred by 1850. As publishing became increasingly geared toward mass production, traditional work arrangements changed. In the early 1800s the head of a newspaper often served simultaneously as proprietor, editor, compositor, press operator, and even distributor. As operations expanded, however, work became increasingly specialized, and in some respects, more impersonal.

In 1831, however, when at the age of twelve Whitman went to work for a small political sheet called the Long Island Patriot, printing was still an artisan craft. There Whitman was initiated into the mysteries of the trade, including the painstaking work of setting type by hand. In 1832 he worked briefly for a Brooklyn printer, then for the Brooklyn Star under successful editor and publisher Alden Spooner. By age sixteen Whitman was a full-fledged "journeyman printer," working as a compositor in New York. From these early experiences Whitman gained an appreciation for craftsmanship and the single-person production technique.

This appreciation would translate into a lifelong desire to control every aspect of the publication of his poetry. Each edition of Leaves of Grass was personally supervised by Whitman in virtually every detail of production. The first edition was produced at the Brooklyn establishment of the Rome brothers, printer friends of Whitman, where he spent much of the spring of 1855 setting type for the volume and revising and correcting proof. Subsequent editions of Leaves received the same careful attention. Whitman designed the covers, selected the type, and supervised the printing. In his final years, too frail to worry his book through the press, he persuaded his friend Horace Traubel to do it for him.

Whitman called printing "the craft preservative of all crafts" (Whitman 45) and said that Traubel's four years working in a print shop were "better than so many years at the university" (Traubel 166). Whitman's controlling hand made each edition of Leaves a unique extension of its author in form as well as content.

Bibliography

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut. The Book in America: A History of the Making, the Selling, and the Collecting of Books in the United States. New York: Bowker, 1939.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's New York: From Manhattan to Montauk. 1963. Ed. Henry M. Christman. New York: New Amsterdam, 1989.


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