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Everyone knows Whitman as a poet and the author of one of the most studied books of American poetry, Leaves of Grass. What is less well known is that Whitman was trained as a printer and throughout his life spent time in printing shops and binderies, often setting type himself and always intimately involved in the design and production of his books.
Whitman did not just write his book, he made his book, and he made it over and over again, each time producing a different material object that spoke to its readers in different ways. No nineteenth-century American author was more involved in the range of actual activities of bookmaking than Whitman.
He began his career as a newspaper worker, learning typesetting at the young age of twelve as an apprentice on the Long Island Patriot under the tutelage of William Hartshorne —a master printer Whitman called him "the veteran printer of the United States" who later became Brooklyn's city printer.
That poem harkens back to the poet's experiences as a boy in Hartshorne's Brooklyn printing office where he "received from Mr. Ezra Greenspan has made the point that "the printing office replaced the schoolroom as the site" of Whitman's education, and his apprenticeship continued in the early s with other Brooklyn printers like Erastus Worthington and then Alden Spooner, publisher of the Long Island Star, where Whitman finished his apprentice work.
He became a journeyman printer in Manhattan in the mids while still a teenager.
Huge fires in the printing district of New York in sent the young Whitman back to Long Island to teach, but he soon was back in the printing and publishing business, starting his own weekly newspaper the Long Islander in Huntington, employing his brother George as printer's devil.
Whitman, later in his life, recalled how much he "liked printing" in those days as he "learn'd the trade of compositor" and then "bought a press and types" for the Long Islander and "did most of the work myself, including the presswork. In the early s, while writing Leaves of Grass, he ran a job-printing office and became close friends with Brooklyn printers, including some young brothers who had emigrated from Scotland and now ran a small job printing shop on Fulton Street, where Whitman would print the first edition of his book.
All of Whitman's experience as a newspaper editor and printer, designing and composing printed pages, stayed with him during his years as a poet. The first edition of Leaves of Grass was self-published, and Whitman designed the binding, chose the typeface, designed the pages, worked with an engraver on the frontispiece, and even set some of the type himself.
This year is the sesquicentennial of the publication of that first edition, an appropriate time to reconsider this major text in American literary and cultural history and to determine the variety of ways that Whitman's bookmaking skills influenced his work.
Throughout his life, Whitman retained an intimate association with the publishers of his books, worrying over the tiniest physical details. When he would write a poem, he often took the manuscript to typesetter-friends to have the draft set in type or sometimes do the typesetting himselfthen would make his revisions on the proof sheets: He knew the power of print, and he knew the resonance of all of print's permutations.
So he designed and helped set type for the first edition—sitting in the printing shop while the book was being printed, reading proof, and making changes literally as the book was in press—and then designed his second edition ; when in he got a contract from a Boston publisher for the third edition of Leaves, he immediately left for Boston to oversee the production, sitting for weeks with the typesetters, carefully selecting the wildly divergent typefaces, designing the enigmatic decorations, and choosing the binding.
Whitman actually considered himself a bookmaker more than an author. Leaves of Grass ultimately went through six entirely different editions, and each edition had multiple issues, often with different bindings, different paper size, different cover designs, and different configurations of contents.
Whitman was always experimenting with the physical appearance of his book, and his changes reflect his evolving notions of what role his writing would play in the emerging American democracy. Major historical events like the Civil War and Reconstruction had a visible effect on the physical makeup of his books.
When he published his Civil War poems in a separate book called Drum-Taps, for example, he constructed that book during a time of paper shortage, and the very composition of the pages reflects his desire to use every inch of space, leading to an arrangement of poems that has often been read thematically but may in fact have been coerced spatially, a book of war poems rationed so as to conserve paper and space.
After the war, as Whitman tried to figure out how to absorb his Civil War poems into Leaves of Grass, he began by constructing an edition in in which he literally sewed the pages of the unbound copies of Drum-Taps into the back of the newly printed Leaves.
This was the beginning of a long process of post-war reconstruction of Leaves that mirrors the Reconstruction of the nation that was occurring at the same time. Some of the copies of the edition contain Drum-Taps while others do not; the bindings change, too, and this fluidity reflects his indecision over whether Leaves of Grass, which originally set out to celebrate the unity of the United States, could properly contain poems chronicling the divisive war between the states.
This is just one small example of the hundreds of changes Whitman made to his books as he designed and re-designed them, altered the arrangement and number of poems, shifted titles and typefaces, and kept Leaves of Grass a shifting series of quite different texts—each one responding to a particular biographical and cultural moment—instead of a single book.
This evolution of one of the most important texts in American literature has, remarkably, never been examined in detail, in part because of the difficulty of gathering all the variations of the book in one place. These editions are rare and expensive, and even major research libraries that own copies of all six of Whitman's different editions do not own copies of all the multiple variants of those editions some of them in fact have only been discovered in the last several years.ESSAY SCHOLARSHIP CONTEST WINNERS ANNOUNCED.
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