"THE PROOF OF A POET IS THAT HIS COUNTRY ABSORBS HIM AS AFFECTIONATELY AS HE HAS ABSORBED IT": RARE FIRST EDITION OF WHITMAN'S LEAVES OF GRASS, THE MOST IMPORTANT AND INFLUENTIAL VOLUME OF AMERICAN POETRY
WHITMAN, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, New York: 1855. Quarto, late-19th-century three-quarter green morocco gilt, raised bands, marbled boards and endpapers. Housed in a custom cloth chemise and full morocco pull-off case. $45,000.
Extraordinarily scarce and important first edition of the most important volume of American poetry. "In Whitman we have a democrat who set out to imagine the life of the average man in average circumstances changed into something grand and heroic… There has never been a more remarkable poem" (Callow). Whitman personally financed, supervised and even in some sections hand-set the type for the small printing of 795 copies. In a handsome morocco binding by James MacDonald of New York.
"No one knows for certain how Whitman raised the money to pay for the first Leaves of Grass… Whitman had taken his manuscript to a couple of friends, the brothers James and Thomas Rome, who had a printing shop at the corner of Fulton and Cranberry Streets. Possibly the author had tried a commercial publisher first and had the book rejected. If so, he kept quiet about it. The Romes did print a few books but specialized in the printing of legal documents. Whitman, a proud and skilled printer, moved in on them to oversee the production of Leaves. They allowed him to set type himself whenever he felt like it. Ten pages or so were his own work. He had a routine and a special chair over in the corner… [The] engraved portrait facing the title page [showed] a person who looked as if he might be the printer rather than the author. He was unnamed… Before a reader reached the dozen untitled poems there stood the barrier of the preface, an off-putting obstacle of ten pages of weirdly punctuated prose in close print, set in double columns. The poems themselves were in a more readable type, laid across a wide format to accommodate the strangely long and irregular lines… The inking was spotty and must have given Whitman some qualms, but he had no money to spare for anything better… The centerpiece of his strange book, in the 'rough and ragged thicket of its pages,' was a sustained poem of fifty-two sections called 'Song of Myself'… If Emerson is, in John Dewey's words, the philosopher of democracy,… then Whitman is indisputably its poet… In Whitman we have a democrat who set out to imagine the life of the average man in average circumstances changed into something grand and heroic… He claimed that he had never been given a proper hearing, and spent his whole life trying to publish himself. A hundred years after his death, the strange fate of his book is known. He said often enough that it had been a financial failure, signing it and himself over to posterity, a 'candidate for the future'… There has never been a more remarkable poem" (Callow, From Noon to Starry Night).
"Always the champion of the common man, Whitman is both the poet and the prophet of democracy… In a sense, it is America's second Declaration of Independence: that of 1776 was political, this of 1855 intellectual" (PMM 340). The most important and influential volume of poetry written in America, Whitman's literary masterpiece, Leaves of Grass is "one of the most magnificent fabrications of modern times… he never surrendered… his vision of himself as one who might go forth among the American people and astonish them…" (DAB). The first edition of Leaves of Grass was a failure with the public, but upon receiving a copy, Emerson responded with his famous letter. "I find it [Leaves of Grass] the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed… I greet you at the beginning of a great career."
Only 795 copies of the first edition were printed; this copy was rebound sometime after 1880 by renowned bookbinder James MacDonald, born and trained in Scotland, who became one of the premier bookbinders in the United States, flourishing between 1880-1910. Second state of copyright page, with printed copyright notice (virtually all copies are in second state—only a handful have been seen without the notice); second state of p. iv, as usual, with "cities and" printed correctly in column 2, line 4; second state of line 2 of page 49, "And the day and night are for you and me and all" (see Gary Schmidgall, "1855: a Stop-Press Revision" in Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 18, Fall/Summer 2000). With the insertion of the eight pages of press notices included in some (typically later issue) copies. In this copy, the portrait has been trimmed to 3-1/4 by 5-1/2 inches, and mounted onto heavy stock, which does not conform with any of the states of the frontispiece described by Myerson; this was possibly done at an early date, perhaps at the time of binding, as this leaf has since been remounted and rehinged. Myerson A2.1.al. BAL 21395. Wells & Goldsmith, 3-4. Grolier American 67. Light pencil underlining and annotations; number "3064" written in ink below the title.
Faint crease and evidence of dampstain to title page, with small repair to inner hinge. Front joint repaired, a bit of edgewear to slightly toned morocco. A very good copy of this important American literary landmark.