On 15 May 1855, Walter Whitman deposited Leaves of Grass for copyright in the Clerk’s office of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York, and the volume was announced for sale by Fowler and Wells in the New-York Daily Tribune, on 6 July 1855. While it would take some time and not a little bit of controversy, these dates would eventually prove to be turning points in American literary history. The slim, oddly sized, self-published book would fundamentally change poetry in the English language and set the stage for later modernist, beat, and confessional poetry of the twentieth century. The Irvin Department is lucky to have not one, but two copies of Whitman’s seminal work.
The first copy of the 1855 Leaves came to the University of South Carolina in 1971. It is an exceptional example of an association copy that belonged to Thomas Rome who, with his brother James, ran the Rome Printing Shop, which produced the volume. The Rome brothers were Scottish immigrants who mostly printed legal documents and texts, and whom Whitman had known since 1849. This copy remained in the possession of the Rome family until November 1970. It was donated to the University Libraries by Mr. & Mrs. James W. Haltiwanger, Jr. and Mr. & Mrs. Charles Haltiwanger in memory of James W. Haltiwanger, Sr., and it is the one millionth volume of the University Libraries.
The second copy is the recent gift of Joel Myerson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. The volume has an ownership signature of “Walter Starbuck | 1867” on the recto of the front free endpaper and a later inscription, “Presented to Mrs. Francis B. Lancy by Mrs. J. M. Dart May 31st 1919,” on the second front endpaper verso. Dr. Myerson, who has written the definitive bibliographies of many major nineteenth century American authors, including Whitman, Dickenson, Emerson, and Fuller, acquired his 1855 copy of Leaves, along with a number of other editions of Whitman, from his dissertation director, Harrison Hayford. This collection formed the kernel of Myerson’s bibliographic research on Whitman.
Later in life, Whitman claimed that “800 copies were struck off on a hand press by Andrew Rome, in whose job office the work was all done – the author himself setting some of the type” (31 March 1885, Correspondence, VI, 30). Whitman’s statement is pretty nearly verified by a statement from the binder that shows 795 copies were bound. The volume has three binding variants of which the Rome / Haltiwanger copy is the first and the Myerson copy is the second, and some were bound in wrappers. These binding variants are evidence that, even with Whitman’s energetic self-promotion, the book sold slowly and copies were bound in batches over the course of several months. Moderate initial sales is further surmised by the fact that the volume originally sold for $2.00 cloth; 75¢ wrappers; however, as late as 14 June 1856 Fowler and Wells were selling copies in cloth for $1.25 and in wrappers for 75¢. A recent census of extant copies of the first edition reveals that nearly 200 copies survive today.
While today Whitman’s poetry is often considered one of the defining achievements of American literature, that sales were initially slow is not the surprising when one considers the type of poetry that most Americans were used to reading in the 1850s. The slim quarto volume, consisting of a preface and 12 untitled poems, bears little resemblance to any poetic output in antebellum American literature. Whitman’s break from traditional poetic rules of rhyme and meter, along with his fervent patriotism and near epic obsession with all aspects of American life, seemed strange and perverse to his first readers. The first edition is in many ways the best example of what Whitman was trying to accomplish with his flouting of the traditional rules of poetry. At 9 3/8” X 5 7/8”, the pages are unusually large for a book of poems and allow Whitman’s long, elliptical lines to seemingly go on and on. That Whitman assisted in the setting of type for the first edition makes his poems all the more fascinating and intimate and is evidence of his commitment to his personal aesthetic and vision.
While some of his contemporaries, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, greeted Leaves of Grass as the beginning of a great career, others, such as John Greenleaf Whittier, allegedly threw their copies into the fire out of disgust. From the very begining, there seems to have been little in the way of middle ground with Whitman — readers tend to be enraptured or confused by his work. Whichever side one may fall on this debate, Whitman’s force is undeniable, and our collections are all the more rich for preserving these volumes.
Michael C. Weisenburg
Reference & Instruction Librarian
Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections