It’s been almost two decades after he first sounded his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and Walt Whitman still can’t seem to sell his new edition of Leaves of Grass.
Even looking past the very personal blow an author feels when a book flops, the unsold copies of Whitman’s latest publications must have been particularly galling. Whitman was a bookman at heart. He had experience as a printer (even setting a few lines of the first edition Leaves of Grass), and was directly involved in the design of most of his books. Poor sales also reflected poorly on him as a bookmaker.
Like his poetic style, Whitman’s approach to making and selling books feels both timeless and modern. Above and beyond most authors of his day–and certainly beyond what would have been considered in good taste—Whitman was a shameless self-promoter. He had already gotten into a bit of trouble with his second edition of Leaves of Grass, on the spine of which he prominently stamped a complimentary quote from private correspondence with Emerson – without the renowned Transcendentalist’s approval. Some scholars today call that gilt-stamped impropriety the first modern book blurb.
In 1872, Whitman was busier than ever sending his songs into the world. There was his newly edited Leaves of Grass – the first edition to incorporate poems from his Civil War series, Drum Taps. Proud of his printer’s eye, he took special pleasure in designing the cover for a lovely little poem called After All Not to Create Only: “How healthy the print!—the big clean type!” He had even produced a book of prose, Democratic Vistas, described in one sentence as a “candid survey of the present Literary, Social, Religious, and Political America, with reference to the future.”
Always looking for opportunities to share his work, he jumped on the chance to deliver a commencement poem at Dartmouth College on July 26, 1872. Whitman, that scruffy eccentric figure, invited to an Ivy League school? Was he finally gaining some respect? As a promoter he made the most of it: he pulled connections with newspapers to make sure the press would start talking about it, and afterwards he had a little pamphlet of the event printed called “As A Strong Bird on Pinions Free.”
Yet his books weren’t selling quite as he’d hoped. Ironically, publishers at this time spent more money on books about Whitman than they were ever willing to invest in Whitman’s own publications. Whitman himself had to supply the cash.
Which meant Whitman was all in: on the line was his professional pride, his money, and of course, his very heart on the page.
In the meantime, the unsold copies of Leaves of Grass passed through the stock of at least four different publishers. Whitman knew he needed to do something more. This is what he did:
Walt Whitman Sells Himself
This is Whitman’s own design for a promotional poster. In it we catch a glimpse of his mind from the angle of a designer: Bold, clean choices, with a touch of the wild. In a classic Whitman move, it seems he also included a (relatively) modest plug for Burrough’s biographical sketch “Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person.”
William White sums up the poster’s design merits in this love-hate passage:
This sample of 19th century printing is an admirable period piece. Of the five major classes of type…four, and by stretching a point, five, have been used here. This, however, is an example of reserved display. There were enough grotesque faces available to permit real botchery had this been wanted. The only concession to the eccentric or bizarre is the use of Chamfer for the last line, which speaks well for Whitman’s taste in a period when the ornate was commonplace.
Concession to the eccentric? I know he means that as an insult, but…
This poster is a small miracle today. It was unknown until a cache was discovered in 1954 by the great Whitman collector Charles E. Feinberg, who went on to donate most of them to institutions. Honey & Wax Booksellers has a copy right now which graces our wall, looking down on us as we sell our own books 144 years later. Whitman’s own endeavors at bookselling, captured in this 1872 broad and bizarre poster, provide a heartening bit of atmosphere. Until it sells, anyhow – perhaps to do the same for someone else. [Update: item sold.]
Sources and Further Reading
William White, “A Walt Whitman Poster,” The American Book Collector Vol. X, No. 3 (November 1959): 4-6.
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998 – via the Walt Whitman Archive.
Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2005) – via the Walt Whitman Archive.