Leaves of Grass

On the Author 

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 to Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor. His early life was largely spent working as a printer, and, later, a teacher, until 1841, when he began his career as a full-time journalist. Working as an editor at a number of newspapers, Whitman began to develop his own style of poetry, influenced heavily by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalist movement, and published his first collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. The collection, originally comprised of only 12 poems, grew across the span of Whitman’s life; the last edition boasted more than 400 poems. Following the Civil War, Whitman moved to Washington and helped care for the wounded, working in the hospitals there for 11 years. The time spent in these hospitals powerfully influenced his poetry, and marked a shift in the development of his poetic style. Whitman spent his last years laboring over the final editions of Leaves of Grass, and died on March 26th, 1892.

On the Illustrator

Rockwell Kent was born in 1882 in Terrytown, New York. Kent acquired the majority of his background in art and theory at The New York School of Art, and also studied architecture at Columbia University. His first paintings were displays by the Society of American artists, but his first critically acclaimed paintings were a series of paintings on the Monhegan Islands. Kent found inspiration, much like Walt Whitman, from the transcendentalist movement, and was an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He illustrated Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1936.

On the Publisher 

The Heritage Press was founded by George Macy in 1929, and was originally called The Limited Editions Club. It solely published classic illustrated works in relatively small bulk; in 1935, The Limited Editions Club became the Heritage Club, and began to distribute more affordable reprints of the works formerly reprinted by the LEC. It is no longer an active publishing company, and came to its end in 1982.

Book as Object

It is unnerving at first to see the book as a body. We are taught, after all, that books are creatures of the mind—that they are mindful, and also concerned solely with engaging that which is mental, intangible. We are not trained to pay attention to the physicality of the book, and so from the moment we begin to read we are conditioned to pass over the corpus: spine, binding, notches and paper are all seen as means to an end, and are completely disregarded. It is strange to think that, for all our time spent with books, for all our pouring through them, we very rarely think to mind that which the book is, and that which it is of.  Still, to neglect the materiality of a book is to ignore an essential part of its nature, and to disregard a clue to its contents, its context. In the same way that humans are thoughts, ambitions, souls trapped inside an earthly binding, books, too, have bodies, and to ignore their bodies is to ignore where they come from, the ways they move through the world: integral pieces of their being.

With this in mind, examining the 1941 edition of Leaves of Grass, found in John Ringling’s personal collection, becomes a novel task. This final edition of his persistently revised book of poems was first published in 1855 as a book of just 12 poems, and was meant, as Whitman said, “to fit inside your pocket.” The final edition, however, contains over 400 poems, which were penned beginning from 1855 to his death. The book is bound in faded beige cloth, and boasts simple designs snaking across the cover and spine.

Displaying SKMBT_C36415011516040-p19ca0j7euja0djn821vnh1dvo-6.jpgDisplaying SKMBT_C36415011516040-p19ca0j7euja0djn821vnh1dvo-8.jpg


The inside, on thin, delicate pages, contains illustrations by Rockwell Kent, tastefully interspersed, alongside many of the poems and on the primary pages.

Displaying SKMBT_C36415011516040-p19ca0j7euja0djn821vnh1dvo-9.jpgDisplaying SKMBT_C36415011516040-p19ca0j7euja0djn821vnh1dvo-10.jpg

The illustrations are supplements to the content of the poems themselves, and clearly express the sexual imagery which was so controversial for Whitman’s time, for which he ultimately became known. Because of their beauty and delicacy, are the reason this copy of Leaves of Grass found its way into Ringling’s collection at all. Without them, this book would probably not have been added posthumously to John’s personal collection of literature books in the first place. Upon opening the first pages, there is nothing that is particularly noticeable; the only writing to be found is located on the top of the front page where someone has written, in pencil: $25.00, the price it must have been sold for in an independent bookstore before it came into Ringling’s collection. Other than that, it has not been written in at all, and bears little wear, due to its dust jacket. A used copy of the same edition goes for about $47.00 dollars—a little steep, but by no means indicative that the book is a rarity. Unlike some of the other books being examined in Ringling’s collection, this book has not been crafted to look especially aged, is not beautiful enough to be considered a decorative piece; it is very much a book one would find in a library—minimal wear, not especially noticeable save for the poems to be found within it. And—unlike its counterparts—the question of why this book was added to Ringling’s collection following his death does not bear a particularly interesting answer. The content of the book was not the primary factor in its placement into the collection, but the illustrations, and so the poems themselves could almost be treated as a secondary aspect to a book for which they otherwise would have been the only aspect. This, though it begs an interesting inquiry as to how the intentions of a collector or archivist can influence the importance and relevance of a work in changing contexts, is not a particularly riveting mystery to solve.

Book as book

After mulling through the physicality of this book, one then can turn to its contents, and begin an entirely different investigation of its “thoughts,” its motivations, reception. Though the original edition of Leaves of Grass was met with relative acceptance, including a favorable review by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the subsequent editions were met with increasing vehemence and backlash from the community. Its focus on the body as well as the spirit was quite unusual for the time period, and its rather overt sexual imagery was not received well by a society bent on Christian values. In a review in The Criterion, the work was called a “mass of stupid filth,” and Emerson himself encouraged Whitman to ease off the very obvious sexual undertones within his poems. Still, the controversy surrounding his work had the adverse effect of increasing its sales, despite the fact it was apparently banned by a number of retailers.

The text itself is a body of celebration, exploration, death, spirituality, and growth. Because the poems featured in the 1941 edition have been revised and changed by Whitman over many years, they act as evidence of personal transformation, the growth of an individual during the later years of his life. It encompasses obsession, revelation, and appreciation for nature and all that stems from it. It pays respect to the individual self, to the physical and the spiritual journeys each of us undertakes, and it speaks out in truthful rapture about desire, lust, love, and that which is forbidden to us. It is, in many ways, a preservation of his life in death, a changing, shifting tomb. What began as twelve poems meant to fit inside one’s pocket became a massive, coveted collection of a poet’s devotion to growth and change and spirit, a brave and truthful mind frozen between a body of binding, pages, spine: leaves and grass.



Annotated Bibliography

Howsam, Leslie. “Book History Unbound: Transactions of the Written Word Made Public.” Canadian Journal of History 38.1 (2003): 68-81. Print.


Howsam begins her exploration of book history and its benefits by tracing it back to its

beginning, as l’histoire du livre, which, when translated into English, loses much of its duality as both a history and a story. The article aims to examine the relevance of book history, and addresses the problem in defining the “book” itself, attaining that definition has proven to be more difficult than any historian expected. Ultimately, Howsam posits that the true value in the field of book history, and the success in exploring the “body” of the book—the culmination of its authorship, publication, and materiality—is the slow discovery of the interactions between each of its pieces. She urges us, in the borrowed words of Natalie Zemon Davis, to: “consider the printed book not merely as a source for ideas and images, but as a carrier of relationships.”

Maclean, Marie. “Pretexts and Paratexts: The Art of the Peripheral.” New Literary History 22.2 (1991): 273. Print.

This article attempts to distinguish “text” and “paratext,” paying close attention to what Maclean dubs the “periphery:” the auxiliary details of a work that, though they are so often ignored, “raise some extremely central questions about literature.” In the same way that Derrida is especially concerned with those miniscule, seemingly unimportant details, Maclean argues that the exploration of these minute pieces can lead to larger insights into not only the specific text, but literature as a whole: its ambitions, successes, and failures. Maclean also examines the relationship between the text and its “frame,” or the content of a work and the physicality that encloses it. She uses the example of a poem surrounded by blank space–which the reader can choose to ignore, can incorporate into the meaning of the words, or can find burdensome to the poem—or, in the same vein, a piece of art, which, aside from its symbolism and meaning, must exist on a canvas, a body, from which it cannot be separated. Maclean argues that the frame is what “relates a text to its context,” and goes on to posit that “the frame may act as a means of leading the eye into the picture, and the reader into the text.”

Seaboyer, Judith. ““The Haunting of (un)Burial: Mourning the ‘Unknown’ in Whitman’s America.”.” Re-reading Derrida: Perspectives on Mourning and Its Hospitalities. Lexington, 2013. Print.

Soussloff, Catherine. “The Aesthetics of Publishing: The Art Book as Object from Print to Digital.” Visual Resources 24.1 (2008): 39-58. Print.

In this collection of essays discussing the transition from the physical to the digital and its relation to the artbook, Catherine Soussloff and a number of other essayists explore how the novel concentration on digitalization influences the way publishers approach the idea and creation of the artbook, and discuss how the science of aesthetics factors into this transformation. The problems and concerns addressed by these essayists are reminiscent–though they are of a different field—of those explored by librarians and archivists who are concerned with the repercussions of translating physical information to a digital space.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s