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Walt Whitman to Asa K. Butts & Company, 4 February 1874

Beyond O'Kane's2 copies of Leaves of Grass (200 or about), and the copies (27 was it?) of the '67 edition you got of Shephard,3 four or five weeks ago—with the remaining copies (if any) of the 25 sent by my order two months since to Piper4 & Co.—there are, positively, no other copies in existence, & of course none in the market. There are no other copies in N.Y.—none in Boston—none in Washington—whatever you were "told"—none anywhere in America. A hundred copies were sent by me to England about a year & a half ago.5 But these have certainly been mostly sold. I made & exclusively own the plates, & of course [indecipherable].

What I told you in our interview, upon that subject, you must remember, & can fully depend on & act on. I have somewhere between 300 & 350 of my little book of later poems, "As a Strong Bird on Pinions free," bound & ready, I should like to furnish you with—

Should be willing—guaranteeing the just mentioned—to make over the whole of the copies L of G. and every thing to you on liberal terms, one half cash down, the remainder in three months—with a guarantee that no new edition of L of G. or any of these books shall be put out for at least six months. If you care to have the sole & exclusive command of all my books in existence, take this offer. I am sick & paralyzed—a tedious prospect still before me—& should be glad to have the books off my hands.

About Piper's debt, take this note & collect it when you go to Boston. The one I furnished you with, is for a wrong am't​ . Destroy it.

Please get the books from O'Kane, soon as convenient, & send me receipt specifying number—also receipt for those of ed. '67.

Order on Piper enclosed.

A. K. Butts & co.6[no handwritten text supplied here]36 Day st.[no handwritten text supplied here]N. Y. have had, & have to acc't​ to me for,

27. Leaves of Grass  
 ed. 1867–
9 Drum Taps
Mr. Butts got from Lee, Shepherd & Dill7  
 49 Green st. as per letter Dec. 26 '73,  
 from Mr. Butts
got from O'Kane Feb. 4, 74
got from O'Kane Feb. 4, 74
168 Leaves of Grass
86 Democratic Vistas
?94 As a Strong Bird
42 Notes on W. W. as Poet & Person
18 Passage to India8
2 After All not to Create Only
see his letter Feb. 4. '74


  • 1. This draft letter is endorsed, "To | A. K. Butts | 36 Dey st | N. Y." [back]
  • 2. O'Kane, a New York book dealer, took over the books still in the possession of Michael Doolady (a bookseller to whom Whitman wrote on November 13, 1867) on April 22, 1874. On December 29, 1873, Walt Whitman withdrew his books from O'Kane, and also dismissed Piper, the Boston outlet. At the same time he entrusted the whole matter to Asa K. Butts & Co., which went into bankruptcy in the following year. Though Walt Whitman wrote cordially to O'Kane on April 22, 1874, he later became hostile. Citing only the initials, Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman (1883), in his "official" biography (46), averred that O'Kane and Somerby, Butts's successor, "took advantage of [Walt Whitman's] helplessness to embezzle the amounts due—(they calculated that death would soon settle the score and rub it out.)" This sounds like an interpolation composed by the poet himself; note also Whitman's December 30, 1875, letter to Jeannette Gilder, in which he wrote, "every one of the three successive book agents I have had in N. Y. has embezzled the proceeds." In an address book (The Library of Congress #108) Walt Whitman scrawled on a piece of O'Kane's stationery, "rascal." [back]
  • 3. Lee, Shepard, & Dillingham, booksellers also mentioned in Whitman's April 17, 1873 letter to Francis B. Felt. [back]
  • 4. William H. Piper & Co. were Boston booksellers. In a letter on July 20, 1867, John Townsend Trowbridge wrote that William H. Piper & Co. was willing to take 50 copies of the new edition of Leaves of Grass, and that he could personally recommend the firm. The firm was advertised as Whitman's Boston agent in books published in 1871 and 1872. [back]
  • 5. Redfield sent Democratic Vistas and Leaves of Grass to Sampson, Low & Co., London booksellers. According to a statement dated December 31, 1872, the firm had on hand at that time 48 copies of the prose tract and 41 copies of the poetry (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Library of Congress). According to a notation in his Commonplace Book, the account was closed in 1876, when the firm sent $9 to Walt Whitman through William Michael Rossetti (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). In his December 27, 1873 letter, Whitman noted that Trübner also had copies. [back]
  • 6. Asa K. Butts was a New York bookseller at 39 Dey Street. Walt Whitman was having difficulties— real or imaginary, as his mother might have said—with booksellers. When Walt Whitman wrote this letter, he had decided to let Butts, as he said, "have actual & complete control of the sales." Commenting on one of the letters of Butts, Walt Whitman observed to Horace Traubel, ed., With Walt Whitman in Camden in 1889: "What a sweat I used to be in all the time . . . over getting my damned books published! When I look back at it I wonder I didn't somewhere or other on the road chuck the whole business into oblivion" (III, 561). Butts went bankrupt in 1874. [back]
  • 7. Lee, Shepard, & Dillingham, publishers and booksellers, had offices at 47–49 Green Street, New York. In 1867, John Townsend Trowbridge attempted to interest this firm in the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass; see Trowbridge's letter to O'Connor on March 24, 1867, reprinted in American Literature, 23 (1951), 326. The firm was listed as one of "the mercantile failures" in the September 18, 1875, edition of the New York Times after losing nearly $100,000 after a fire at their Boston office. The booksellers had recovered by February 1876, however, when they published S. B. Perry's Manual of Bible Selections and Responsive Exercises, which advocated the use of the Bible in public school education. [back]
  • 8. First printed as a separate publication containing the title poem, some new poetry, and a number of poems previously published in Leaves of Grass, "Passage to India" was Whitman's attempt to "celebrate in my own way, the modern engineering masterpieces . . . the great modern material practical energy & works," including the completion of the Suez Canal (1869), the Union and Central Pacific transcontinental railroad (1869), and the completion of the Atlantic Cable (1866) (see Whitman's April 22, 1870, letter to Moncure D. Conway). Although Whitman submitted the poem to the Overland Monthly on April 4, 1870, it was rejected on April 13, 1870, for being "too long and too abstract for the hasty and material-minded readers of the O. M." Conway, Walt Whitman's agent in England, was not able to sell the poem to an English journal. John Burroughs observed in the second edition of his Notes on Walt Whitman as a Poet and Person (1871), 123: "The manuscript of Passage to India was refused by the monthly magazines successively in New York, Boston, San Francisco, and London." The poem was eventually included in the final three editions of Leaves of Grass, published in 1871, 1881, and 1891. For more information on "Passage to India," see John B. Mason, "'Passage to India' (1871)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
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