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McKay, David (1860–1918)

David McKay was born in Dysart, Scotland, and emigrated to America in 1871. He entered the employ of J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia in 1873, working as a bookseller. In 1881, Rees Welsh convinced McKay to take over his bookselling business, which McKay did. In the following year, McKay took a few hundred dollars of his own and about twenty-five hundred he borrowed and bought both of Welsh's bookselling and publishing businesses, changing the name of the firm to indicate the new owner. The business prospered: McKay sold the bookselling division in 1896 and enlarged his firm by buying a number of smaller ones, including Street and Smith's line of juveniles. At his death, he left a wife and five children.

After the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass was declared "obscene literature" by the district attorney of Massachusetts, and Whitman refused to delete the offending passages, the publisher, James R. Osgood of Boston, withdrew and sold the plates and stock to Whitman on 17 May 1882. On 5 June, McKay wrote Whitman on behalf of Rees Welsh and offered to publish the book. A contract was signed on 22 July and a new edition of Leaves was published on 17 or 18 July, rapidly going through five printings under the Rees Welsh imprint. McKay "formally bo't out and assumed" Rees Welsh's business in October (Whitman 314), and thereafter was Whitman's American publisher. McKay also took over the publication of Specimen Days & Collect from Rees Welsh after one printing, and later published November Boughs (1888), Good-Bye My Fancy (1891), and Gems from Walt Whitman (1889) on his own. After Whitman's death, McKay published Whitman's Complete Prose Works (1892). McKay's contract with Whitman contained one unusual clause: Whitman was allowed to sell copies of his works on his own and keep the profits, which he did, most notably with sales of the Complete Poems & Prose (1888) volume to Britain.


"David McKay, 1860–1918." Publishers Weekly 30 Nov. 1918: 1799.

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

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.

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