Song of Himself

April 21st, 2007

In 1855, when Walt Whitman anonymously published, at his own expense, his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, he set aside a copy for himself. In 1931 the John Hay Library acquired that copy from the daughter-in-law of a close Whitman friend. Readers who open the now-fragile volume will find pasted inside the front cover a kind of self-promotional scrapbook.

There is, for example, a sheet of galley proofs of anonymous reviews of the book, including one that gushes, “An American bard at last!” Rosemary Cullen, special collections librarian at the Hay, says scholars believe Whitman not only pasted in the glowing reviews but actually wrote them himself.

Also pasted inside is a rare broadside printing of the letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Whitman upon the book’s publication, praising him “at the beginning of a great career.” Printed in the New York Tribune without Emerson’s permission, the letter calls Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”

Whitman constantly revised Leaves of Grass, publishing nine editions in his lifetime. Brown owns a copy of each, including one of the last books Whitman ever signed: a copy of the 1892 “deathbed edition” inscribed to John Hay, class of 1858, on the day before the poet’s death.

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Related Issue
January / February 2006