Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman, an engraving by Samuel Hollyer in the first edition of Leaves of Grass

One of the most important items held in the Crewe Collection in Trinity College Library is a first edition of Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry by the American writer Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Whitman’s poems are a celebration of his philosophy of life and his love of nature, rich in both sexual and sensual imagery.

Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it many times. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first, published in 1855, a small book of twelve poems and the last, published in 1892, a compilation of over 400.

On 15 May 1855, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, Southern District of New York, and received its copyright.

The first edition, published in Brooklyn on 4 July 1855, at the printing shop of two Scottish immigrants, James and Andrew Rome, whom Whitman had known since the 1840s, did not include his name, but contained an engraving by Samuel Hollyer depicting Whitman in work clothes and hat, arms at his side.

The title Leaves of Grass is a pun. “Grass” was a term given by publishers to works of minor value, and “leaves” is another name for the pages on which they were printed.

Leaves of Grass, front cover

Whitman designed the green cloth cover and typeset and paid for the printing of the book himself. Well-known poems, unnamed in the Brooklyn edition, include “I Sing the Body Electric,” “The Sleepers,” and “Song of Myself,” a long poem in fifty-two sections, which is considered by many to be his masterpiece. It contains such notable lines as “I am large, I contain multitudes” and “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.”

Leaves of Grass, p.56

About 800 copies of the first edition of the book were printed although only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover.

The book was placed on sale at Fowler & Wells on Broadway in New York, and at Swaynes on Fulton St in Brooklyn, priced at two dollars. Sales were slow and it was reduced later to one dollar.

Trinity’s copy is from the second issue of the first edition. The first issue had a slightly more elaborate binding. The use of gilt was reduced in the second issue, an exercise in reducing costs for a volume that was subject to an extremely limited distribution, with only a handful of copies dispersed at any one time. The second issue also contains eight pages of press notices, largely the work of Whitman. Sales failed to improve and Whitman ended up giving away most copies personally.

Leaves of Grass was controversial from the moment it was first published in 1855. The critic, Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in The Criterion on 10 November 1855, calling it “a mass of stupid filth”. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians”, one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman’s homosexuality. In 1865, Whitman lost his job as a clerk with the Department of the Interior, when his supervisor found an annotated copy, on display, among Whitman’s possessions at work. In 1870, Yale University President Noah Porter compared Whitman’s offence in writing Leaves of Grass to that of “walking naked through the streets.” The poem was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s and informally banned elsewhere. Most booksellers agreed to neither publicise nor recommend Leaves of Grass to customers, and in 1881, the Boston District Attorney threatened Whitman’s publisher with criminal prosecution, at the urging of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, causing a proposed new edition to be withdrawn from publication.

A few voices spoke up in favour of the poem. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognised the work’s genius, calling Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” and it is recognised today as one of the greatest works of American poetry.

Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton, by George Richmond, chalk, circa 1844, © NPG 3824

The copy of Leaves of Grass in the Crewe Collection belonged to Richard Monckton Milnes, first Baron Houghton (1809–1885), author, poet and man of letters who was at the centre of London literary life in the mid-nineteenth century. Lord Houghton was also interested in contemporary American writing and this is reflected in the holdings of the Crewe Collection.

The front flyleaf of Leaves of Grass contains the inscription below:

Whitman is a New York journeyman printer, entirely self-educated, & a sincere hearty chap, given to drink, original enough to be looked on as a fool by his comrades, but popular among them & without affectation of any kind: he wears a red shirt & Cap[?] continually[?].

Harthorne[?]

Leaves of Grass, front flyleaf

Although we do not know how or when Milnes acquired this copy of the book it may well have been added to his library soon after publication because of his interest in Americana.

One thought on “Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

  1. janesaunte

    “Sales failed to improve and Whitman ended up giving away most copies personally.” Ah, aspiring writers everywhere, take heart from this.

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