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Introduction to Leaves of Grass Imprints

Introduction to Leaves of Grass Imprints

When the young Boston publishers Thayer & Eldridge first contacted Walt Whitman in 1860 and pledged to put his book "into good form, and style attractive to the eye," they were aggressively professing their faith that a third edition of Leaves of Grass could become a major commercial and cultural success. Nowhere is that blind optimism more apparent than in Leaves of Grass Imprints, an elaborate, 64-page promotional pamphlet Whitman and his publishers created to advertise the third edition of Leaves of Grass and to capitalize on the growing celebrity of its author. Circulated freely through the mail, Imprints billed itself as a brochure for "all persons disposed to commence the study" of Leaves of Grass. Behind its significant typographical excesses and rhetorical contradictions, Imprints strives to function as a sort of primer on Whitman’s poetic project and on the political, spiritual, and cultural import of Leaves of Grass.

Examined within the chaotic context of nineteenth-century advertising, the length and complexity of Imprints alone make it an anomaly, but when compared to the restrained promotional practices of other literary publishers, Whitman’s pamphlet stands out in stark contrast as a unique text worthy of careful consideration. While Imprints did not, in its time, come to define this moment of American literary promotion, retrospectively it invites us to consider the methods available for nineteenth-century poets and publishers to distinguish their literary commodities and authorial personas in rapidly expanding and increasingly unpredictable markets. In theory, the success of Imprints as a promotional device hinges on its reader’s willingness to "study" Whitman and his poetry. By flouting emerging advertising conventions that called for clarity, simplicity, and brevity, the odd assortment of material found in Imprints breaks every law of modern advertising: it demands more than mere passive consumption. The cramped pamphlet contains twenty-six individual entries, most of which are previously published reviews of the first and second edition of Leaves, ranging from some of the harshest critiques ever levied against Whitman to overwhelmingly positive puffs, including some the poet published anonymously about himself. Mixed in with these reviews are a number of pieces—including two stories debating Whitman’s rumored stint as an omnibus driver—that focus exclusively on Whitman as a personality rather than his literary work. What we are left with is an incredibly complex and contradictory piece of advertising ephemera, a dense promotional pamphlet that sells Whitman and his poetry by giving readers seemingly indiscriminate access to the positive, negative, and, at times, sensational coverage the poet and Leaves of Grass received in the American and British press.

This curious and compact volume, what Whitman once called "the little book before the war," had a relatively large circulation, thanks in part to Thayer & Eldridge’s penchant for unorthodox marketing techniques. Most print advertisements for the 1860 Leaves of Grass mention Imprints by name, offering to mail the pamphlet to readers simply for the price of postage. As these traditional advertisements were appearing in a variety of periodicals across the country, Thayer & Eldridge also ran—without Whitman’s consent—a cryptic notice in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper that neither mentions the poet nor his publishers by name. This unassuming advertisement published under the enticing title "A Good Book Free" enacted Thayer & Eldridge’s plan to give Imprints a "very wide and telling circulation" by promising to mail "One of the most interesting and spicy Books ever published," packed with "64 pages of excellent reading matter." Assuring readers it was "no advertisement of a patent medicine or other humbug"—a guarantee that should indicate just how outlandish Thayer & Eldridge’s scheme was—the notice vowed to deliver "a handsome and well-printed book" which would both “amuse and instruct” audiences. Of course, that "handsome book" was not Whitman’s poetry, but Leaves of Grass Imprints. In the wake of the Frank Leslie’s campaign, Whitman’s publishers received hundreds of requests a day for Imprints, though the pamphlet’s actual impact on sales is difficult to determine precisely.

Whitman’s shifting attitudes toward the design and circulation of Imprints are as contradictory as the contents of the pamphlet itself. Lingering concerns over Thayer & Eldridge’s overzealous handling of Imprints might, in part, explain Whitman’s protest later in life to Horace Traubel that the pamphlet was “not my book,” insisting to his friend that he had "nothing to do with it." During a different conversation with Traubel, however, Whitman took sole credit for Imprints' design, calling it a "sort of barricade" he "set . . . up" to hold back the "desperate assaults" of his enemies. "When most everybody lied about me," Whitman explained on this occasion, Imprints gave him an opportunity "to tell the truth about myself." Considering the odd assortment of material found in Imprints (especially the inclusion of vicious attacks on Leaves of Grass), neither of Whitman’s characterizations—that he either had no part in the conception of Imprints or that he was the chief engineer behind it—seems entirely plausible. Yet, Imprints falls neatly into Whitman’s evolving promotional strategies for the three antebellum editions of Leaves of Grass. As early as 1855, the poet was including reviews printed from carefully worked-over proofs alongside his poetry, binding this material into later issues of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in a way that clearly anticipated the pre-planned "Leaves-Dropping" annex of the 1856 edition. Leaves of Grass Imprints takes this earlier strategy a step further, adopting an even more expansive approach to literary advertising, creating a separately circulated pamphlet out of the same type of material Whitman had been positioning alongside his poetry since the inception of Leaves of Grass.

One of the most difficult challenges Whitman and his publishers faced in Imprints was to mobilize criticism of two earlier (and quite different) editions of Leaves of Grass to sell the new, "complete" 1860 volume. In their attempt to distance the Thayer & Eldridge edition from its "temporary and partial" predecessors, Whitman and his publishers continually emphasize the "superb" quality of the new electrotype edition. The contents of Imprints attest to the fierce critical debate over the value of Whitman’s poetry in 1860, but the pamphlet’s typographical eccentricities allude to a fact that few of even Whitman’s most passionate detractors would dispute: Thayer & Eldridge’s edition of Leaves of Grass was a singular, if not beautiful, printed object. George Searle Philips, one of Whitman’s early champions whose "Letter Impromptu" appears in Imprints, described the third edition as "perhaps, the most magnificent specimen of typography ever issued by the American Press." It was the Westminster Review, though, that drew the starkest contrast between the elegance of Thayer & Eldridge’s book and the perversity of Whitman’s verse, marveling at how poetry containing such "obscenity and profanity" could appear amidst "all the glories of hot-pressed paper, costly binding, and stereotype printing."

As an advertisement for America’s "most magnificent specimen of typography," Imprints goes to lengths to display the variety of typefaces and ornamentation that readers could find in Thayer & Eldridge’s volume. Whitman had direct control over the distinctive visual aspects of the 1860 Leaves of Grass, precisely the features Imprints’ layout accentuates. Taking full advantage of the autonomy his publishers granted him, Whitman hand-picked fonts and flourishes for the 1860 edition from several books, most importantly Specimens of Printing Types, Plain and Ornamental, Borders, Cuts, Rules, Dashes Etc. from the Factory of L. Johnson & Co. (Philadelphia, 1859). From Johnson’s massive collection, Whitman selected a dozen or so fonts for Leaves, most of which are also jammed into Imprints where a single page may contain up to six different typefaces. This frenzied typographical display was meant to give readers a sense of the "superior manner" in which Thayer & Eldridge’s edition was printed. The back of the pamphlet promises that the typography of Leaves "will be found to vie in elegance with any thing ever issued from the American or English press." By sampling different typefaces—and by prominently reprinting an illustration central to the 1860 edition, a manicule (or little hand) with a butterfly perched on it—Imprints gives readers a visual approximation of what they would find within Thayer & Eldridge’s "ELEGANT BOOK," enticing consumers with glimpses of what Whitman had in-store for them in his larger volume.

While the primary purpose of Imprints was to sell copies of Leaves of Grass, the pamphlet is equally concerned with establishing and promoting Whitman’s own celebrity imprint. The pun evident in "Leaves-Droppings," the annex to the 1856 Leaves of Grass, suggests to the reader that he or she is listening in on a private conversation between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Whitman, whose letters to one another are included in the edition’s paratextual appendix. More so, "Leaves-Droppings" would have readers believe they are eavesdropping on the beginning of a national conversation, a discussion displaying Whitman’s growing cultural relevance. Leaves of Grass Imprints intensifies the punning of "Droppings." Within the pamphlet, Whitman demonstrates the marks he has made on America through his own writing, itself a type of imprint. The pamphlet moves beyond the tentative "listening-in" quality of "Droppings" and makes a stronger declaration of Whitman’s enduring and recognizable contributions. By 1860 you no longer had to strain your ear to hear Whitman’s name; you could now easily see the imprint of his poetry everywhere. Imprints offers itself as evidence that Whitman was beginning to achieve at least part of the "proof of a poet" he first articulated in the 1855 preface: his country was absorbing him, even if not yet as "affectionately as he [had] absorbed it."


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