Friday, May 31, 2013

How Editions Mean: Walt Whitman Redesigns his Book

It's Walt Whitman's birthday, and today Sally Keith and I read at the Library of Congress to celebrate. I was especially delighted that the Special Collections Librarian had prepared a display of marvelous materials: editions, correspondence, and rarities such as a volume of the Calamus poems combined with Whitman's letters to Peter Doyle -- a most telling combination -- actually signed by Doyle! And printed in an edition of all of five copies, in the early years of the 20th century; those must have been intended for a very special audience.

I have a reproduction of the first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855, but my copy doesn't do justice to the subtlety of the original: the gold lettering on the cover, with the title branching into roots at the bottom of the letters, and the embossing on the cover are more subtle and handsome than I knew.

But what really excited me was seeing the 1856 edition, which Whitman had boldly self-published after the first edition of the previous year sold not a bit. I'd always assumed it followed the same design, but far from it: the new version is small and thick, and it's been trans-formed from a coffee table book for the parlor to a sort of testament -- a volume smaller than the average contemporary paperback, but quite thick. And still green. Just the thing to fit in a good-sized pocket, and looking very much like a testament, which leaves me thinking about how the poet must have understood his book differently, after that year. The new design seems to reflect a new sense of purpose; by 1856, Whitman was going to get that thing into readers' hands.

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