“AMERICA’S SECOND DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE”: RARE FIRST EDITION OF WHITMAN’S LEAVES OF GRASS, THE MOST IMPORTANT AND INFLUENTIAL VOLUME OF AMERICAN POETRY—A BEAUTIFUL COPY
WHITMAN, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, New York: 1855. Quarto, original dark green cloth, gilt-lettered title, blindstamped triple-rule borders, blindstamped leaf-and-vine designs, gilt-lettered spine, yellow endpapers. Housed in custom chemise and slipcase.
Extraordinarily scarce and important first edition in original cloth-gilt 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.
“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 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, signed 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 seven hundred ninety-five copies of this first edition were printed; this notoriously fragile book is exceedingly rare in the original cloth. This copy is one of the two hundred and sixty-two copies in the rare state B binding, with gilt-lettered title and blindstamped triple-ruled borders, spine titled in gilt (Myerson A2.1.a1). Frontispiece portrait on china mounted on heavy paper (BAL state B); 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); state B of p. iv, with “cities and” in column 2, line 4; corrected state of p. 49, line 2. BAL 21395. Wells & Goldsmith, 3. Grolier American 67. Myerson A2.1.al. PMM 340. Feinberg/Detroit 269. Johnson, High Spots 79. Schmidgall, “1855: a Stop-Press Revision.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 18, Fall/Summer 2000, 74-6.
A touch of foxing to portrait, far less than usual; slightest edge-wear to original cloth. A beautiful copy.