If you’ve never delved into the publishing history of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (I had not, until recently), it can be quite an interesting and involved pursuit. One small, but very fine part of the story is represented by one of the several editions of the book that may be found in Special Collections.
In 1881, some twenty-six years after the first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared, the prestigious Boston publisher James R. Osgood & Co. approached Whitman with an offer to publish a new sixth edition. Whitman accepted and, ever the printer and bookmaker, set out to oversee the production details of the new volume. He had reacquired the John C. McRae/Samuel Hollyer 1855 steel plate engraving of himself that had been used, first, in the original edition and, again, in the 1876 printing of the fifth edition. He would include it in the new edition, where it would be placed not as a frontispiece, as before, but within the text, opposite the opening of “Song of Myself.” Whitman also planned to have all of his finished poems—reordered, rearranged, and regrouped—included in the volume under the title, Leaves of Grass. All seemed to be going well, and in October 1881 the book was released. The first thousand copies sold and a second printing was ordered. Special Collections does not have a copy of the 1881 Osgood sixth edition . . . but the story only gets more interesting.
On 1 March 1882, in part at the urging of the The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, Oliver Stevens, District Attorney for Boston, wrote to Osgood & Co. to advise them that Leaves of Grass was obscene literature and that they would do well to suspend publication and to withdraw and suppress the book. After an unsuccessful negotiation between Osgood, the authorities, and Whitman, Osgood, under threat of prosecution, wrote to Whitman on 10 April of their decision to cease circulation of the book. In May, Whitman received from Osgood all of the plates, unbound sheets, and dies of Leaves of Grass, along with a $100 payment.
Reports vary as to whether Whitman was left with 100 or about 225 complete sets of unbound sheets, but there is no doubt about his next move. While seeking a new publisher for his work, Whitman had a new title page printed and bound together with these sheets. The new title page identified the volume as “Author’s Edition” and added the notation, “Camden / New Jersey / 1882.” The book was bound in green cloth rather than the yellow of the Osgood edition. Several accounts of the editions of Leaves of Grass fail to mention this short run edition.
Before the end of June 1882, Whitman had reached an agreement with Rees Welsh, a Philadelphia company, to receive the plates and publish the book. The Rees Welsh edition of 1882 (a copy of which is also available in Special Collections) sold extremely well, perhaps due to the publicity generated by the unpleasantness of being “banned in Boston.” One source reports that it went through several printings and had sold almost 5,000 copies by December of that year. Another report says the first limited printing of a thousand copies sold in two days; another claims between two and three thousand sold on a single day!! The Osgood plates would pass quickly from Rees Welsh to publisher David McKay, and would provide the basis for all further editions of Leaves of Grass published in Whitman’s lifetime.
But the Author’s Edition of 1882 is the subject of this post. Again, it is one of many editions of Leaves of Grass in Special Collections. Our copy is signed by Whitman on the title page that was printed specifically for this edition. At between 100 and 225 copies produced, it is among the rarest of editions of Leaves of Grass. (Of the more significant 1855 first edition, 795 were printed and 158 copies are known to exist, according to a 2006 study by Ed Folsom. Others set the number at closer to 200.) The spine reads “Author’s / Edition / Leaves / of / Grass / complete / Autograph / & Portraits / 1882.” The endpapers, front and back, are a bright, glossy yellow. The title page presents the poem that begins, “Come, said my Soul, / Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)” printed just above Whitman’s signature. It carries the date, 1882, as that is the year it was printed, and the verso of the title page has an 1881 copyright notice. Two portraits of Whitman grace the book, the 1855 engraving of poet as a younger man (shown above) and, towards the back of the book, an image of an older Whitman (also shown above).
Our copy also is inscribed. On the front endpaper, in Whitman’s hand is written: John H. Johnston / from his friend / the author / Jan. 5 1885. Along with the donation of the book, we received a copy of the following obituary notice: “Johnston–On Monday, March 17, John Henry Johnston, in the 82nd year of his age. Funeral services at his late residence 389 Clinton St., Brooklyn. Wednesday March 19, at 2PM. Interment private.”
John Henry Johnston was born in 1837, died in 1919, and was Whitman’s friend and benefactor. Born in Sidney, NY, he came to New York in 1853, found employment in a Manhattan jewelry store and five years later became a partner and owner of the company. In 1873, Johnston purchased from his friend the 1860 portrait of Whitman painted by Charles Hine so that the poet would have enough money to move to Camden, NJ following the death of his mother. In following years, Whitman would often stay at the Johnston home on East Tenth Street when in New York. (The 1860 portrait, by the way, said to be Whitman’s favorite, was the source for the engraving of Whitman that is featured in the 1860 third edition of Leaves of Grass, also available in Special Collections.) In 1877, Johnston commissioned Elmira artist, George W. Waters to paint another portrait of Whitman.
In this 1882 Author’s edition, we have a fine, signed, presentation copy of a rare edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Come see it along with several other nineteenth and twentieth century editions at Special Collections.