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"Introduction to the British Editions of Leaves of Grass" by Edward Whitley

Walt Whitman has been, and continues to be, used by different people for different purposes, both in America and abroad. As Ed Folsom and Gay Wilson Allen argue, Whitman's writing outside of America "undertakes a different kind of cultural work than it performs in the United States" (2). This site aims to introduce readers of Whitman to the kinds of cultural work the quintessentially American bard was made to perform in nineteenth-century England. During Whitman's lifetime, two major editions of Leaves of Grass were published in England by different editors with different goals: the Pre-Raphaelite William Michael Rossetti aimed to deliver Whitman to the British upper classes; and the Welsh socialist Ernest Rhys tried to bring Whitman to working-class Brits. This site contains the entire text of these editions, along with an overview of the American editions that were printed in the US and shipped to British publishers for distribution, a British forgery made to look like an American edition, and a reproduction of the original 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass.

Poems by Walt Whitman, Selected and Edited by William Michael Rossetti (1868)

William Michael Rossetti's Poems by Walt Whitman was published in 1868 by John Camden Hotten, a controverisal publisher who specialized in Americana, erotica, and avant-garde poetry. Hotten wanted to publish the first British edition of Whitman's poetry, but the close scrutiny he was under due to recent anti-pornography laws made a complete Leaves of Grass seem almost impossible. Whitman, confronted with a willing but cautious publisher, was forced to compromise if he wanted his poems to have a wider distribution in England. It was here that William Michael Rossetti, Pre-Raphaelite and member of the prominent family of poets Dante Gabriel and Christina whose name recognition alone would secure Whitman several high-profile readers, was a key player in turning Leaves of Grass into Poems by Walt Whitman. The belief was that a Rossetti edition would be the best means of paving the way for later publication of a complete Leaves of Grass, and that, in the words of Moncure D. Conway, an American Whitman supporter living in England, "[T]he introduction of you to the general public will come much more gracefully from an English literary man than from any American" (qtd. in Paley 9). True to this prediction, the Saturday Review responded favorably to the Rossetti edition of Leaves of Grass, saying that the previous American editions which had made their way into England had been "indescribably filthy" while the new Poems was presented "to the British public in a comely form" (qtd. in Paley 28).

The "comely form" in which Leaves of Grass was presented to British readers required removing about one-half of the poems from the American 1867 edition it was based on (including "Song of Myself"), attaching explanatory footnotes to various poems, and deleting objectionable phrases from the original 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass which Rossetti included. In a twenty-seven page "Prefatory Notice," Rossetti explains, among other things, his criteria for the inclusion and exclusion of Whitman's poems: "My choice has proceeded upon two simple rules: first, to omit entirely every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age; and, second, to include every remaining poem which appeared to me of conspicuous beauty or interest" (20).

Poems by Walt Whitman also includes several devices which serve to bring Whitman safely across the Atlantic and into the arms of the European literati. Epigraphs from Emanuel Swedenborg, Thomas Carlyle, and Maximilien Robespierre seem to suggest that Europe as a whole—from Scandinavia and the British Isles to the Continent itself—is ready to embrace Whitman, while the juxtaposition on the title page of a drawing of the world with the American continents facing forward placed underneath a quote from Michelangelo suggests years before F. O. Matthiessen that an American Renaissance was underway. Indeed, Rossetti calls Whitman in his "Prefatory Notice," "the founder of American poetry rightly to be so called, and the most sonorous poetic voice of the tangibilities of actual and prospective democracy" (11).

After Hotten died, the publishing firm of Chatto and Windus took over the Rossetti's edition, reprinting the text again in 1886 and in subsequent printings well into the middle of the twentieth century. The 1886 text is identical to the original 1868 edition except for changes in pagination and for a minor note from Rossetti at the end of his "Prefatory Notice" that Whitman was then living in Camden, New Jersey, and that he had published numerous other prose and poetry works since the essay was originally written.

Whitman later referred to the Rossetti edition as "the horrible dismemberment of my book" (Correspondence 2:133). Perhaps, in an attempt to do full justice to Whitman's poetry (or perhaps as a quick money-making venture), Hotten produced a forgery of the 1872 American edition of Leaves of Grass in 1873. Although Whitman received no royalties for the book, it was the only complete British edition of Leaves of Grass to be published in his lifetime.

Leaves of Grass: The Poems of Walt Whitman, Selected, with Introduction by Ernest Rhys (1886)

Both 1868 and 1886 editions of Leaves of Grass selected poems from American editions of Leaves rather than publishing the entire text, but while the 1868 Rossetti edition aimed at introducing Whitman to England's literary elite, the 1886 edition, selected by Welsh socialist Ernest Rhys and published by Walter Scott, was aimed at bringing Whitman to the working class. Rhys marketed the book as the "Whitman" installment in the Canterbury Poets series, what Rhys called the "Everyman Library because of the series' goal of making the works of writers like Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge, Longfellow, Poe, and Whittier available to all. Rhys had hailed Whitman as a fellow democratic socialist in a letter concerning the proposed 1886 edition, saying, "You know what a fervid stir and impulse forward of Humanity there is today in certain quarters! and I am sure you will be tremendously glad to help us here, in the very camp of the enemy, the stronghold of caste and aristocracy and all selfishness between rich and poor!" (38). Rhys's situating of himself within a Crèvecoeur-era depiction of Europe as "the stronghold of caste and aristocracy and all selfishness between rich and poor" speaks volumes of the cultural work he expected Whitman's democratic poetry to achieve in Great Britain. As M. Wynn Thomas says,

When Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855, the American republican ‘experiment' was viewed with hostile skepticism by conservatives and with considerable misgivings even by liberals. But by the time of the publication in 1860 [sic] of Rossetti's influential sanitized selection of Whitman's poetry, Britain had already embarked on a program of social and political reconstruction that was broadly parallel to the American example. Special enthusiasm for Whitman was therefore grounded in a general optimism about 'democracy'. ("Whitman in the British Isles" 13)

England was ready, Rhys seemed to believe, for the populist optimism he saw in Leaves of Grass. He continues in his letter,

At first it seemed rather out of place to have your work in a series of this kind called, rather stupidly, The Canterbury Poets, and got up in a cheap and prettified fashion, with red lines etc. But afterwards it struck me that there might be gain in the end through it. . . . The very including of Leaves of Grass in a series like this gives them a chance of reaching people who would otherwise never see them. . . . an edition at a price which will put it in the hands of the poorest member of the great social democracy is a thing of imperative requirement. . . . What we want then is an edition for the poor, and this proposed one at only a shilling would be within reach of every man willing and caring to read. (38)

The edition sold eight thousand copies in two months. But despite Rhys's optimism for presenting a full and complete Leaves of Grass to the readership he believed so needed it, he too ommitted about one hundred of the poems from the American 1881 edition, including "Song of Myself."

In his introductory essay, titled simply "Walt Whitman," Rhys attempts to remove Whitman from the "sentimental valley of rose and nightingale" and show how Leaves of Grass is "a new poetry of love and comradeship at this time of social misgiving, when rich and poor alike make us keenly feel the need of the spirit of human love" (x). Opening the essay with an excerpt from "Pioneers! O Pioneers!"—"Have the elder races halted? / Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? / We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson" (ix) —Rhys seems to position America as the geographic site of democracy and Whitman's poetry as the means for accessing it for British ends. He seems to be trying to recuperate from Whitman and America the democracy he saw lacking in Victorian England, saying that Whitman "sings of the new, purer Democracy" (xi).

John Camden Hotten's Forgery of the 1872 Leaves of Grass (1873)

From a first look, the 1873 British edition of Leaves of Grass appears to be identical to the 1872 American edition published in Washington, D. C., including the fact that the title page bears the date "1872" and the publishing location "Washington, D. C." Remembering the constraints placed on the 1868 Poems by Walt Whitman which he also published, John Camden Hotten printed 500 copies of Leaves of Grass based on the 1872 American edition and posed as its distributor, rather than publisher, to avoid British censorship laws. Hotten's name doesn't appear anywhere in the book. While an edition in the truest sense in that it was printed from original plates unique to that printing, the pirated British edition is taken word for word from the 1872 American edition. The forged identity of the book stumped textual scholars for a long time until they realized that the ornamental features and line breaks of the forged edition are inconsistent in places with the authentic 1872 American edition. The book was both a forgery and a piracy for which Whitman received no royalties, and it would be the only complete British edition of Leaves of Grass published in his lifetime.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Preface to the Original Edition, 1855 (1881)

This cheaply made, thirty-one page book printed by Trübner and Co. had a limited first printing of twenty-five copies in 1881, expanded later that year to 500 copies. It seems that the release of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Preface to the Original Edition, 1855 coincided with Trübner's distribution of the American 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass and served as a way to generate interest in the book.

Distribution of American Editions in the UK (1855, 1860, 1876, 1881, 1883)

Starting with the first American edition in 1855, English publishers distributed imported copies of American editions of Leaves of Grass and would either tip-in their own title page or stamp or paste the name of their publishing house onto the American publisher's title page. They would sometimes take the unbound pages of an American edition and put them in a binding bearing the impress of the British publisher. These editions were limited in number and received limited distribution.

Bibliography

Blodgett, Harold. Walt Whitman in England. 1934. New York: Russell and Russell, 1973.

Folsom, Ed and Gay Wilson Allen. "Introduction: Salut Au Monde!" in Walt Whitman and the World. Eds. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 1–10.

Folsom, Ed. "Leaves of Grass, Junior: Whitman's Compromise with Discriminating Tastes." American Literature, 63:4 (1991). 641–63.

Ghodes, Clarence. American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1944.

Lease, Benjamin. Anglo-American Encounters: England and the Rise of American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.

Myerson, Joel. "Hotten, John Camden (1832–1873)" in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Eds. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. New York: Garland, 1998. 281–82.

———. "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)" in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Eds. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. New York: Garland, 1998. 589–90.

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

Paley, Morton D. "John Camden Hotten and the First British Editions of Walt Whitman—'A Nice Milky Cocoa-Nut'," Publishing History, 6:1 (1979). 5–35.

Rhys, Ernest. "Letter to Walt Whitman, July 7, 1885" in Walt Whitman and the World. Eds. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 38.

Smith, Sherwood. "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)" in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Eds. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. New York: Garland, 1998. 596.

Thomas, M. Wynn. "British Isles, Whitman in the" in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Eds. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. New York: Garland, 1998. 72–75.

———. "Whitman in the British Isles" in Walt Whitman and the World. Eds. Gay Wilson Allen and Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 11–20.

———. "Walt Whitman's Welsh Connection: Ernest Rhys." Anglo-Welsh Review 82 (1986). 77–85.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

Special thanks to Gerald Wager and the staff of the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., for their help in accessing and working with the British editions of Leaves of Grass from the Feinberg Whitman, Houghton Whitman, and Whitman collections. All reproduced images are from these collections.


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