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Walt Whitman to Richard Watson Gilder, 26 November 1880

 prc_af.00003_large.jpg My dear Gilder

I wonder if you can help me in the matter of wh'​ the enclosed two pp. are a statement—Havn't​ you connected with your establishment some one learn'd in copyright law & its infractions, that could take the thing in hand? injunct Worthington or something?1

—I have sent a duplicate of the two pages to John Burroughs—& asked him to call & see you—I am ab't​ the same as of late years but unable to travel & mainly helpless.

Walt Whitman

Nothing must be done involving heavy fees, as I couldn't pay them

 duk_am.00239_large.jpg Nov:​ 26 1880

R Worthington 770 Broadway New York about a year ago bo't​ at auction the electrotype plates (456 pages) of the 1860–'61 edition of my book Leaves of Grass—plates originally made by a young firm Thayer & Eldridge under my supervision there and then in Boston, (in the spring of 1860, on an agreement running five years.) A small edition was printed and issued at the time, but in six months or thereabout Thayer & Eldridge failed, and these plates were stored away and nothing further done;—till about a year ago (latter part of 1879) they were put up in N Y​ city by Leavitt, auctioneer, & bought in by said Worthington. (Leavitt, before putting them up, wrote to me offering the plates for sale. I wrote back that said plates were worthless, being superseded by a larger & different edition—that I could not use them, the 1860 ones, myself, nor would I allow them to be used by any one else—I being the sole owner of the copyright.)

However it seems Leavitt did auction them & Worthington bo't​ them (I suppose for a mere song)—W. then wrote to me offering $250 if I would add something to the text & authenticate the plates, to be published in a book by him. I wrote back (I was in St Louis at the time, helpless, sick) thanking him for the offer, regretting he had purchased the plates, refusing the proposal, & forbidding any use of the plates. Then & since I thought the matter had dropt. But I have to add that about September 1880 (I was in London  duk_am.00240_large.jpg  duk_am.00241_large.jpg Canada at the time) I wrote to Worthington, referring to his previous offer, then declined by me, and asking whether he still had the plates & was disposed to make the same offer; to which I rec'd​ no answer. I wrote a second time; and again no answer.2

I had supposed the whole thing dropt, & nothing done, but within a week past, I learn that Worthington has been slyly printing and selling the Volume of Leaves of Grass from those plates (must have commenced early in 1880) and is now printing and selling it. On Nov.​ 22, 1880, I found the book, (printed from those plates,) at Porter & Coates' store, cor:​ 9th & Chestnut Sts. Philadelphia. P & C told me they procured it from Worthington, & had been so procuring it off & on, for nearly a year.

First I want Worthington effectually stopt from issuing the books. Second I want my royalty for all he has sold, (though I have no idea of ever getting a cent.) Third I want W. taken hold of, if possible, on criminal proceeding.

I am the sole owner of the copyright—& I think my copyright papers are all complete—I publish & sell the book myself—it is my sole means of living—what Worthington has done has already been a serious detriment to me.—Mr Eldridge, (of the Boston firm alluded to) is accessible in Washington D C—will corroborate first parts of the foregoing—(is my friend)

Walt Whitman 431 Stevens Street Camden New Jersey  duk_am.00242_large.jpg


  • 1.

    Whitman's account of his dealings with Richard Worthington ("Holy Dick" was the poet's epithet later), a New York publisher, is somewhat garbled. (Whitman's version in 1888 was filled with inaccuracies; see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906], 1:195–196, 250–251). Worthington bought the plates of the 1860 edition after they had been sold at auction by George A. Leavitt & Co. for $200 "to a Mr Williams" (see the letter from Whitman to John Burroughs of December 7, 1880). After the plates came into Worthington's hands, he wrote to the poet on September 29, 1879: "As the edition is not complete although subject as I understand to a copyright of ten per cent it seems to me that it would be better for all parties to have it completed. If this idea meets your views on the subject I would be willing to make you an immediate payment of $250.00 on account and will do everything in my power to make the book sell." Despite Whitman's rejection of Worthington's offer, the publisher began to run off copies from the plates.

    On August 20, 1880, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke informed Eldridge that he had lately discovered many copies of the 1860 edition (Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931], 197–198). Probably at Bucke's suggestion Whitman wrote on the following day to inquire whether Worthington still owned the plates (see the letter from Whitman to Worthington of August 21, 1880). He probably wrote to the same effect on September 19 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). After Whitman was offered a copy of the pirated book in Philadelphia on November 20, 1880, he decided to take action against Worthington.

    Early in December Scovel went to New York and compelled Worthington to pay a royalty of $50. On December 6 Whitman sent a receipt to the publisher: "Rec'd from R Worthington (thro Jas M Scovel) Fifty-Dollars on account of royalty in selling(?) my book Leaves of Grass W. Whitman" (Whitman's Commonplace Book). It would appear, despite the poet's later observations, that the settlement permitted Worthington to continue his sales (perhaps only of bound copies) so long as he paid a royalty. On December 6 Scovel asked to be reimbursed: "I expended $9.50 in pursuit of the recalcitrant, pirate Worthington, in New York City." Whitman paid Scovel $10 (Whitman's Commonplace Book).

    On May 20, 1881, Whitman informed Osgood & Co. that Worthington had "sold languid surreptitious copies—can be stopt instantly by me & will be." On August 11, 1881, Whitman "call'd on R Worthington . . . & had an interview of over half an hour—I told him emphatically he must not print and publish another copy of L. of G. from the '60-'61 plates—if so it would be at his peril—he offered $50 down if I would warrant his printing a new edition of 500 from said plates, which I peremptorily declined—Mr Williams & one or two clerks in the store heard the conversation—R. W. paid me $25 due me on back sales—I shall not trouble him for any thing past—but shall hold him to strict account for what is done after this date" (Whitman's Commonplace Book).

    Apparently Whitman again must have consented to Worthington's selling bound copies, for on July 25, 1882, the publisher wrote to the poet: "I Enclose you check for 44.50 being Copyright on Leaves of Grass sold since you last received check." In 1888 Whitman recalled only the first payment and "another twenty-five dollars paid at another time—I don't know when. I acknowledged both, on account, as royalty" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 1:250).

    During the 1880s Worthington ran off additional copies. In 1885 Whitman, again disturbed about the publisher's activities, wrote about the piracy in a lost letter to Eldridge, who advised him on August 17 to write to a firm in New York which made "a specialty of copyright cases" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). Evidently Whitman did not write to the firm, but again availed himself of the services of Scovel. About November 5 he noted "from R Worthington $24: through J M S" (Whitman's Commonplace Book).

    David McKay, the Philadelphia publisher of Whitman's writings, became concerned about the plates. On February 12, 1886, Whitman noted "a visit from D McKay, ab't the Worthington plates—subscription to purchase" (Whitman's Commonplace Book).

    In a letter to the editor of The Critic on June 2, 1888, William Sloane Kennedy, without mentioning Worthington's name, asserted: "Mr. Whitman has not received a cent of copyright on them. . . . I hope that this note may be the means of inducing some rich friend of Whitman's to put a lawyer on the case, and bring the New Yorkers who are issuing the spurious books to justice." Interestingly, Whitman neglected to inform Kennedy of the royalties ($143.50) he had accepted (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 1:250). It is also noteworthy that, despite Kennedy's remarks, Whitman refused to stop the publisher: "I am averse to going to law about it: going to law is like going to hell: it's too much trouble even if we win" (Traubel, 1:195 and 251). But he was willing to go to law at someone else's expense.

    Worthington continued to use the plates until they were purchased by the literary executors after Whitman's death (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman [New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1902], 8:280).

  • 2. The lost letter of September 19 (Whitman's Commonplace Book). [back]
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