Whitman Refuses to be Silenced

The quintessential American poet Walt Whitman produced eight different versions of his magnum opus Leaves of Grass.  Each was a labor of love, not only in terms of the additions to the text, but in the physical details of each edition. If I were a collector, I would love to collect each edition in the development of Whitman’s career. Each edition has its own aesthetic and its own story. But I would especially like to find the 1881 Suppressed Issue.


The incredibly scarce 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass, with the later binding

Walt Whitman burst onto the scene in 1855 with his slim, oblong volume Leaves of Grass, printed by personal friends in Brooklyn (whose trade was actually in legal documents). The earliest bound books from this edition are decorated more heavily with gilt than later copies: a little more than halfway through, using gold leaf for the binding proved too expensive to continue, except for the gilt-lettered title. This edition of only 795 copies contains only a portion of what we know today as Leaves of Grass.

The 1856 second edition of Leaves of Grass, with the Emerson quote on the spine

The second edition of 1856 is coveted mainly for its controversy. Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the mentor of many great writers from the 1850’s, exchanged a warm correspondence following the first edition. When the second edition was produced, Whitman printed a sentence from the correspondence on the spine without Emerson’s permission: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson was not pleased.

The 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, with Whitman’s poems from the Civil War

The 1860 edition was produced by two young printers awestruck by Whitman. And Whitman was given complete control of the production. Then came the 1867 edition, most famous for its inclusion of Drum Taps, a group of Whitman’s poems on the Civil War, including “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs in the Dooryard Last Bloom’d.” Give it another 9 years, and in 1876 we have the “Author’s Edition”—every copy signed by Whitman. Each of these editions featured a slightly different style in binding and general production.

The 1876 Author’s Edition of Leaves of Grass, with each copy signed by Whitman

Now we come to the really fun part: the 1881 edition. By now Whitman had written his inflammatory “sexuality odes.” (Click here for more on the Erotic Whitman.) Whitman told publisher James Osgood up front that the he would work with Osgood only so long as the publisher retained, without change, the sexuality odes. Besides that, Whitman didn’t have too many requests: mostly that the book be made with materials appropriate for heavy use, and have a binding “markedly plain and simple even to Quakerness.” 1010 copies of this edition (in a lovely-ugly mustard cloth binding) were published in October, 1881, known today as the Suppressed Issue.

In February of 1882 the trouble started. The New England Society for Suppression of Vice (NESSV)—yes, that was a real thing—met to discuss whether three books corrupted the morals of the youth (Socrates, anyone?). These books were Balzac’s Droll Stories, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and the new edition of Leaves of Grass. In March the district attorney informed Osgood that the book was “obscene,” and that legal proceedings would be initiated if Osgood did not agree to make changes to the book. Two poems in their entirety (one entitled “To a Common Prostitute”) were to be deleted, along with changes in a large number of other poems.  Osgood was cowed. Whitman was not.

Whitman took the plates used to make Osgood’s edition in Boston and moved them to Camden, to produce his own 1882 edition. Only 100 copies were printed in a classic green cloth binding, all of which contained Whitman’s sexuality odes without change.

The 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass, published in Camden from the Boston plates

Whitman’s “final utterance” came in 1889, with his deathbed edition. Every one of the 300 copies, produced “pocket-book style” with a leather flap, was signed by the venerable, grizzled poet. Whitman’s signature is black, bold and distinctive. It is a thing of beauty. Besides the Suppressed Issue, this is the one I covet.

The 1889 “Deathbed edition” Leaves of Grass, with the pocket-book style binding

Which edition would you prefer to own? Or perhaps you’d prefer one of his other works: Two Rivulets, Specimen Day & Collect…?


7 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    If I had to make a choice, it would be his “Deathbed edition”. I like the binding style. However, if I had one I would gladly sell it to you and put the money toward a nice set of Gibbons. I am starting to look for one, but not sure yet what edition I want.

    1. A noble pursuit, my friend.

  2. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Fabulous subject. It would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall when Whitman and Emerson discussed the content of Leaves! But, alas no such “reality” show like Big Brother with all recorded for posterity. p.s. I’m not a
    big fan of “reality” TV. of such nature. A Pawn Stars or American Pickers is more my cup of tea.

    1. A lot of their correspondence and interactions are recorded. You should look into that stuff, I bet you would like it.

      1. R Towns Blethrow says:

        Thank you for that thought. I will certainly look into that audio media resource.

  3. Ted from Accounting says:

    OMG, I read this post as well and feel a bit smarter by doing so. I’m not sure if I’ve actually ever read an entire book. I’m more of a magazine type person. However, I’m going to pick the 1867 edition though because of the nexus to the civil war. It just seems to be the coolest choice.

  4. claire says:

    I just LOVE your blog! Can’t say it enough. I have no original editions, just regular newly-printed copies, but I think the first and the deathbed are essentials.

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