Collecting Whitman

Collecting Whitman R. Eden Martin

Editor's note: The following essay is an adaptation of a Caxton dinner lecture, given on March 19, 2003. A Caxtonian since 1977, Eden Martin is a partner in the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood.


'd like to start by telling you about a conversation I had — several times — with one of my law firm partners, whom I had known since law school. Henry died a few years ago. He was a brilliant student and lawyer, and he had a fine library of scholarly books about law, history, literature, and languages — including literature in five or six languages, which he read fluently.

Henry enjoyed a good argument and used to kid me about why I collected first editions. I can understand collecting books, he would say — good editions, on good paper, well-edited, nicely bound. But why collect first editions? Why presentation copies? There is no particular usefulness in a first edition. Indeed, a well-edited modern paperback or cloth-bound volume is better than a first edition since you probably won't want to handle the first edition anyway, and you certainly won't want to make pencil marks in it.

Economically, it's wasteful to sink money into first editions. The investment doesn't produce goods or services, so it doesn't pay dividends. The market is highly imperfect. Dealers and auction houses charge far higher mark-ups and transaction fees than a stockbroker. Whether or not books appreciate depends on tastes, which change in ways that are unpredictable. Most collectors don't even argue that they do it for financial reasons — they just hope they won't lose too much. So — why collect first editions?

The lawyer in me compels me to try to clarify the question at the outset. Unlike the word "is," the word "why" is ambiguous. When we use it, are we asking about causation? Or are we asking for a justification of what we do? Henry and I both understood that we were not talking about the psychological or sociological causes that move people to do things. We were talking about whether I could provide the kind of reasoned explanation that would justify — or perhaps even recommend — the peculiar habit of collecting first or early editions of great works of literature. We also weren't distinguishing — although one could — between the process of acquiring and the ownership itself. Book collecting involves both.

We had several versions of this conversation over the years. I want to suggest an answer to my friend's question — using Walt Whitman as Exhibit A. I feel obligated to tell you at the outset that I am not an expert on Whitman's poetry or his life, and although I have a few of his books, I have not in any sense focused on Whitman; and my collection of his works is quite modest compared to the great collections that were built — and in some cases sold — during the 100 years following his death.


The basic outline of Whitman's biography will be well known to this audience. He was born May 31, 1819, near Huntington, Long Island. His family moved to Brooklyn just before his fourth birthday, and his father worked as a carpenter. Walt spent six years in the public schools, and then went to work at the age of 11 — first, for lawyers running office errands, and then for a doctor. In 1831, when he was 12 years old, Walt started to work in a print shop, which did commercial printing and printed a weekly newspaper. It's likely that this was a fateful step in his life, because it set him on track to work as a newspaperman — to make a living as a writer.

Over the next dozen or so years, Walt worked in a series of print shops and newspapers — some in Brooklyn, some in New York City. He worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He wrote editorials, short stories, essays — and poems, which were conventional in style and subject.

Starting at the age of 17, Walt also taught in various country schools in Long Island — teaching during the school term, and working in print shops when school was not in session. When he wasn't working, Walt often took the ferry over to New York City, where he wandered around the city or went to musical shows and the theater. Other times, he visited his grandparents out on Long Island, getting to know working people and becoming familiar with the natural life of the fields and streams of the island, and with the sounds and rhythms of the sea.

In 1842, when Walt was 23 years old, he wrote and published an extended short story called Franklin Evans, a pro-temperance narrative about a young farmer's apprentice who succumbs to the temptations of the big city. This is sometimes referred to as his first "book" although it appeared in an "extra" issue of one of the newspapers he worked for. He later called it "damned rot — ... of the worst sort" and brushed it off as something he had written in three days under the influence of whiskey.

Walt continued throughout the 40s and early 50s to work as a newspaperman and printer, with a little carpentry work thrown in from time to time. His articles, stories, and poems continued to appear in the papers — but they did not prepare anyone for what happened in 1855, when Walt was 36 years old.


When Ralph Waldo Emerson read the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he wondered about the background of the poet — and about what could have prepared him to produce these stunningly new poems. The story of why and how Walt's creative juices began to percolate, and how he devoted himself during late 1854 and early 1855 to creating a new kind of American verse, has been told elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that Walt apparently wrote or edited many of the 12 new poems, and also much of the text of his 10-page prose introduction, in the Brooklyn print shop, where he helped set the type for the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

I use the term "edition" to refer to pages printed from a single setting of type or plates. Within a single edition, there can, of course, be several different issues. In the case of the first edition of Leaves, there were six issues and several different variants of bindings. All in all, there were 795 copies, of which 337 were bound in June and July 1855 in a green cloth binding, with fancy, gold-stamped ornaments on the front and back covers and on the spine. Whitman's picture appeared opposite the title page, but his name did not appear below the picture or on the title page. The name "Walter Whitman" appeared in the copyright notice, and Walt referred to himself by name in the text of the first poem.

That first poem was by far the longest one in the book, and, like all of them, it then had no name. But you will remember it. It begins: "I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." A few pages into the poem, Walt refers to himself this way:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual... eating
drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist... no stander above men and women or apart from them... no more modest than immodest.

In July 1855, another 46 copies were bound in boards — but only one or two of these are known to survive. During December 1855 and January 1856, another couple of batches of 169 and 93 were printed and bound in a plain green cloth, with much less gilt decoration. And 150 were bound in yellowish green or pink paper wrappers; of these only two or three copies survive. By this time, Whitman had collected several reviews, and he had these printed and inserted in the front of the bound volumes.

Walt was his own publisher. He paid the printing costs, and he left copies for sale — price: $2.00 — at various bookstores in Brooklyn and New York. He sent some to magazines and newspapers for reviews, and he sent other complimentary copies to prominent literary people, including Emerson. This turned out to be the smartest — or luckiest — thing he ever did.

Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, later one of Walt's literary executors, reported that most of the 1855 books were "lost, abandoned, or destroyed," and he got this directly from Walt. Bucke — or Walt — added that most people considered the poems "meaningless, badly written, filthy, atheistical, and utterly reprehensible." A few of the gift copies Whitman sent out were returned with insulting notes.

The great exception, of course, was Emerson, who promptly read his copy and dashed off a letter to Whitman, whom he had never met, saying, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere." He described the book as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed."

Walt carried Emerson's letter around with him for months. But the letter was too good to keep to himself. So, without asking or receiving Emerson's permission, he permitted it to be published in the New York Tribune on October 10, 1855. The letter was also inserted in copies of Leaves, which Walt sent to other literary people, like Longfellow and Whittier. Whittier looked through his copy of the book and then threw it into the fireplace. Naturally, Emerson found out about the unauthorized use of his letter as a promotional device. He told a friend that he had not intended that his letter be published, that he had given no permission, and that Whitman's conduct "was very wrong, very wrong indeed." But Emerson's irritation didn't prevent him from visiting Walt in Brooklyn later that year.

Walt may have heard rumblings about Emerson's irritation. Many years later, when his friend Bucke was preparing a book about him — with Walt's assistance and intense editorial scrutiny — he caused Bucke to say in his book that Walt had at first refused the request of Charles Dana, editor of the Tribune, to reprint the letter, "but on the second and pressing application, he consented."


In the meantime, Walt was working on new poems and planning a second edition of the Leaves. Again, Walt was to be the publisher. He worked on the poems through the spring and summer of 1856, and the new book was announced in September. Instead of a tall, thin, elegant volume, the second edition turned out to be a less ornate, cheaper, shorter, and fatter volume than the first. He printed 1000 copies.

Sometimes, we tend to regard a second or subsequent "edition" as the later reproduction of an earlier work, which may be changed only slightly, if at all. No such notion would apply in this case. Over half the poems in the second edition of Leaves of Grass — 20 of the total of 32 —were new. Also, Walt made a few textual changes and lots of punctuation changes in the original 12 poems.

If only the 20 new poems had been included in a book with a new title, it would today be regarded as one of the great books of American poetry. On the title page of the second edition, as on the first, Walt's name did not appear. But opposite the title page, Walt's picture appears —the same one that was in the first edition. The long preface that had appeared in the first edition had been eliminated. The book commenced with the familiar, "I celebrate myself, and what I assume, you shall assume," — which was now given the name "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American." This poem was later titled "Song of Myself." One of the new poems was called "Sun-Down Poem," later renamed "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Many people regard this poem as the masterpiece of the first two editions and perhaps the finest he ever wrote. This is the way it started in 1856:

CLASS=quote Flood-tide of the river, flow on. I watch you, face to face;
Clouds of the west! Sun half an hour high! I see you also face to face.

In a later edition, he changed the first line to:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face.

At the end of the second edition, Walt included several promotional items — the Emerson letter, Walt's reply to Emerson, and a number of the reviews of the first edition. Not content with publishing Emerson's letter at the back of the book, he also emblazoned on the spine, in gold letters, the following words: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. R.W. Emerson." This time Emerson was furious, according to friends who were with him when he first saw the new, second edition. They reportedly said that before that day, they had never seen him "truly angry."

Another curiosity of this second edition is that of the nine reviews included at the end of the volume, Walt had written two himself — though, of course, without including his own name as the reviewer. His reviews were, needless to say, favorable.

But apart from his own reviews and a few other friendly critics, most of the reviews were just as negative as after the first edition. Bucke, who got his information from Walt, later wrote that the book was "savagely criticized," that some people in New York wanted Walt prosecuted for obscenity, but the prosecutors declined because they thought Walt was so popular, a jury wouldn't convict him.

Thoreau, however, liked the book — particularly the poem later renamed "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" — which he found "exhilarating, encouraging... very brave and American."

The book somehow managed to receive a broad geographic distribution. Out in Springfield, IL, a young lawyer named Herndon managed to get a copy. He put it on a table in his law office, where the poems were read and discussed by visitors. His law partner, himself a moody, introspective amateur poet, picked it up and read it for a half hour or so. Then he read portions aloud to the small audience in his office. According to one who was there, the country lawyer "commended the new poet's verses, for their virility, freshness, unconventional sentiments and unique forms of expression, and claimed that Whitman gave promise of a new school of poetry." Later, the same amateur poet took the book home with him, and when he returned the next morning, he told Herndon that he had "barely saved it from being purified by fire by the women." I've wondered what ever happened to that copy — perhaps the most desirable copy in the world, next to Emerson's.


In 1857, the year following the appearance of the second edition, Whitman began thinking about a new, expanded volume, which would speak to a larger audience — the nation at large —and express more fully his faith in democracy. By 1860 he was ready. This time he found a Boston publisher — or, more precisely, the Boston publisher, Thayer and Eldridge, found him. There were now 122 new poems to add to the 32, which had appeared in the second edition.

Emerson's irritation had apparently worn off because he continued to recommend Leaves to his friends; and shortly before the third edition was published, he took a long walk with Whitman around Boston Common in order to try to persuade him to omit three of the new "Children of Adam" sequence. The "Children of Adam" poems celebrated the love of men for women. Whitman must have supplied him with a set of the galley or page proofs. Emerson's arguments were not prudish — but strictly prudential. He thought inclusion of the poems in question would shock too many readers and hurt the reception of the book. Here are a few lines from one, which starts:

From that of myself, without which I want nothing,...
From my own voice resonant — singing the phallus,
Singing the song of procreation,...
Singing the muscular urge and the blending,
Singing the bedfellow's song, (O restless yearning!)
From the pent up rivers of myself,...
Singing the song of prostitutes;...

Remember, this is Boston, in 1860.

Emerson apparently wasn't bothered by the so-called "Calamus" poems — which celebrated what Whitman called the "adhesive" love of male comrades for each other. He evidently did not read these poems with the same sensitivity with which they are usually read today.

In any event, Whitman did not agree with Emerson's suggestion to omit the three poems. So they went off and had a nice dinner. Whitman told his friend Bucke years later that the "chief thing" in his mind was that "not one word" which had given "such terrible offense" in the earlier two editions was omitted.

The first 1000 copies of the third edition were printed and bound in mid-May, 1860, and were nearly gone by mid-June, when an additional batch was bound up for distribution. The book had grown to 456 pages. There was a new open-collared, Byronesque picture of Whitman, but his name still wasn't mentioned on the title page. There was no prose introduction, and the ads at the end of the second edition were now omitted, as was the spinal endorsement by Emerson.

In addition to the Children of Adam and Calamus sequences, the new volume contained another poem with a dangerous title — "To a Common Prostitute" — though the title was far more suggestive than the text. There were also the "Chants Democratic and Native American," and the first book publication of a poem Walt called "A Word Out of the Sea" — later renamed "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" — another of his masterpieces. It started:

Out of the rocked cradle,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,...

He later changed the first line to:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking…

Again, if only the 122 new poems had been printed, and if the book had been given a new title, it would — like the earlier two books — be regarded as one of the greatest books of American poetry.

Not only were there many fine new poems, but the organization and flow of the material were improved. As one of Whitman's modern critics, Roy Harvey Pearce, wrote: "The 1855 and 1856 Leaves of Grass volumes are but collections of poems — their organization … rushed and chaotic…[The third 1860 edition] an articulated whole, with an argument. The argument is that of the poet's life as it furnishes a beginning, middle, and end to an account of his vocation. The 1860 volume is, for all its imperfections, one of the great works in that romantic mode, the autobiography." (Pearce, Roy Harvey, in Bloom (ed.), Modern Critical Views - Walt Whitman, 1985, 73.) For these reasons, Pearce believed that this third edition was the greatest, or most important, of all the editions of Leaves of Grass.

But greatness doesn't necessarily correlate to commercial success. By the end of the year, 1860, the Boston publishers — Thayer & Eldridge — were out of business. The plates used to print the third edition were sold and ultimately passed to one Richard Worthington, who two decades later engaged in several unauthorized printings in New York — despite the fact that he had no copyright. In the meantime, there had been several intervening new editions, with added material.

I noted earlier that when Whitman published the second edition, he included the journalist plugs at the end of the volume. This time the publishers of the third edition printed up a separate promotional booklet — in June 1860, about the same time as the second printing. They described it as "a circular to all persons disposed to commence the study of the Poems." The booklet was flimsy and had paper wrappers. It was given away to reviewers and others. Apparently, not many copies survive. Included in the booklet were (of course) the Emerson letter from 1855 and also a couple of dozen book reviews and literary criticisms written by American and European critics.

Some of these reviews were quite complimentary — including the three anonymous ones Whitman wrote himself. Several were highly critical. For example, the Cincinnati Daily Commercial had criticized the poem, which became "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," as "unmixed and hopeless drivel." The Boston publishers evidently believed that publishing such attacks along with the rave reviews would create interest and promote sales.


By the spring of 1861, Abraham Lincoln was President, and the country was torn by Civil War. Walt — too old for military service — remained in Brooklyn and started to write poems about the war that would later be included in a volume called Drum-Taps.

In early 1863, Walt moved to Washington in order to get away from what he called the "stagnation" of New York. He carried with him a letter from Emerson recommending him for a Federal government job. It took two years, but he finally obtained a clerkship in the Department of the Interior. In the meantime, he did odd jobs and visited wounded soldiers in military hospitals, distributing candy, clothing, writing materials — and encouragement. He also worked on his poems about the war.

But as time passed, and the realities of war were brought home by his hospital visits, the mood of his poetry changed from upbeat — with drums summoning eager young soldiers off to battle — to funereal. In March 1865, Whitman was successful in getting a job with the Department of the Interior, headed by Secretary James Harlan. But his new duties didn't prevent him from working on his new book of poems — Drum-Taps.

On April 1, 1865, Walt ordered 500 copies of the pages for this new book from his New York printer. On April 14, President Lincoln was shot. He died early on the morning of the 15th. On the 17th, Walt inserted a new poem about Lincoln in the new volume — "Hush'd Be the Camps Tonight." But he soon realized that he couldn't publish his new book without more on Lincoln. So he had a few of the 500 copies bound and given to friends — including one to Secretary Harlan, his boss. He put the rest of the pages in storage and started to write new poetry.

About a month later, Harlan fired him from the Interior Department. One story is that Harlan personally found Walt's own copy of Leaves of Grass, with notes he had been making for a fourth edition. He then realized who Whitman was and discharged him. Walt later wrote that Harlan "turned me out for having written Leaves of Grass." (Whitman, "An Indian Bureau Reminiscence.") Many years later, someone asked Harlan why he had fired the poet. Harlan ducked — he said he couldn't recall in detail; it wouldn't be proper to answer because by that time Whitman was dead; but that in any event, he remembered that Whitman's immediate superior had recommended his discharge on the ground "that his services were not needed."

Walt wasn't much hurt by his dismissal, because with the help of friends he soon obtained a position working for the Attorney General, who was either less fastidious or less knowledgeable. By the end of the summer of 1865, Walt had produced a new group of poems, which included: "When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloomed," "O Captain, My Captain," "Dirge For Two Veterans," and one of my favorites, "Reconciliation."

With these additions, Drum-Taps was finally published in October. It consisted of the original sheets (72 pages) bound together with the new 24-page sequel, entitled "When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloomed, and Other Pieces." The earlier version, without the sequel, is much scarcer; but the latter version, with the sequel, is the one that contains the first appearance of several of Whitman's greatest poems.

At the time, "O Captain, My Captain," was deemed the most successful — perhaps because it was more conventional in subject and was written using regular rhyme and rhythm. This is the one poem that was most included in anthologies during Whitman's lifetime, although he did not regard it as one of his better poems.

The little book was no better reviewed than the earlier editions of Leaves of Grass. William D. Howells gave it a bad review. A young Henry James, writing anonymously, dismissed it as the "effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular effort, into poetry." James later came to regard Whitman as America's greatest poet.


At the end of 1865, two months after Drum-Taps appeared, Whitman met Peter Doyle, an 18-year-old Irish Catholic, paroled from the Confederate army, who was then working in Washington as a horse-car conductor. Doyle later described their meeting this way: "…Walt had his blanket — it was thrown round his shoulder — he seemed like an old sea-captain. He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me that had the same effect on him. Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip — in fact went all the way back with me.… From that time on, we were the biggest sort of friends."

Doyle apparently had little education and knew nothing about poetry. Nevertheless, he and Walt took rides together, went on long walks, and Walt read him poetry. For five years or so, Whitman devoted himself to Peter Doyle as a friend, cajoled him as an older brother, worried about his health, and tormented himself about his affections for the young man — scribbling coded notes in his notebooks about his compulsive and "humiliating" pursuit — and about his resolution to stop it. He sent Peter bouquets of flowers and tender notes. He also gave Peter the precious manuscript of Drum-Taps, which Doyle later lost.

The friendship lasted for many years. When Whitman suffered a severe stroke in 1873, Peter was one of his friends who took turns serving as his nurse. And when Whitman revised his will that same year, he left his silver watch to Peter — "with my love." Whitman's letters to Doyle from 1868 to 1880 — addressed to "Dear Boy," "Dear Son," and "Dearest Pete" — are collected in a separate volume entitled "Calamus," published in 1897 after Whitman died. Justin Kaplan, one of Whitman's biographers, wrote that "Whitman extended himself with Peter Doyle further than he had with any other man, and at greater risk to his psychic safety."

During the first two years of Walt's friendship with "Dearest Pete," he continued to work on a fourth edition of Leaves of Grass — one which would include 80 new poems; the Drum-Taps poems and other new material, including "Songs Before Parting." By the fall of 1866, Walt was working on draft page proofs. The book was to be printed by a New York printer. Walt himself was again the publisher, this time selling the book largely by mail. Early copies were available in October 1866, though the title page says 1867.

This is the copy of the fourth edition, which Whitman presented to his young friend, Peter Doyle, on April 29, 1868. Also in the book, pasted in opposite the title page, is a picture of Whitman, which he probably gave to Doyle at roughly the same time.


After this fourth edition, there were four subsequent editions and many reprintings of Leaves of Grass during Whitman's life. He died in 1892. Space does not permit discussion of these at length here. But it is worth noting that several of these editions continued to include new or edited material — which makes them something more than simply a newly-printed edition of the original work. Also, these editions have fascinating histories. For example, the next edition, the fifth, published in Washington in 1871, added 28 new poems, including "Passage to India." The book had now grown to 263 poems.

The sixth edition appears also to have been published in Washington in the next year, 1872. Actually, it was a "piracy," entirely reset and reprinted in England during 1873 by a man named John Camden Hotten, who was seeking to make money from Whitman's work and to avoid the British censorship laws, or at least to avoid liability as publisher under those laws. Buxton Foreman later referred to this piracy as "one of the many meaningless swindles of the late John Hotten."

The seventh edition was published by James R. Osgood in Boston in 1881. The book now had 293 poems — 30 more than the fifth. Remember, the first edition had only 12. The first printing of this seventh edition was 1000 copies, with another 1000 printed and bound at the end of the year. Early the next year, 1882, under orders from the Massachusetts' Attorney General, the Boston District Attorney declared the book obscene, sent a list of lines to be stricken, and threatened the publisher, James Osgood, with prosecution if the changes were not made. Osgood tried to persuade Whitman to make the proposed changes, but he, of course, refused. The Boston District Attorney then offered a compromise, indicating that if Osgood eliminated just two poems — "To A Common Prostitute" and "A Woman Waits For Me" — the publication could continue. Osgood tried to get Whitman to agree, but he again refused. Osgood then called off the deal, giving the unbound sheets, the plates and $100 to Whitman. Walt later used these seventh edition plates to print the pages used in the "Complete Poems & Prose" and the so-called "Deathbed Edition."

Midway between these sixth and seventh editions of Leaves, Emerson, in 1874, published Parnassus, a poetry anthology consisting of 500 pages of the representative works of leading English and American poets. It included examples from such eminent American poets as E.C. Stedman and Forceythe Willson — but not a single line from Leaves of Grass — the earliest version of which Emerson had once called "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed."

Whitman also published several books under different titles. Some of these were books of poetry with titles other than "Leaves of Grass," but which eventually were folded into a later edition of Leaves. Some were collections of literary essays and reminiscences.

Perhaps sensing his approaching death, Whitman sought to leave in a single publication all of his poems and prose, in what he believed would be their final form. In 1888, he published this one-volume Complete Poems and Prose — a bulky volume, reprinting pages from previous collections of his works, but with revisions and corrections. There were 600 copies, each of which he inscribed. Mine is number 158.

In fact, this turned out not to be the last version. There were more reprints of Leaves, including the so-called "Deathbed Edition" — which was actually a reprinting, not a separate edition — and which appeared a few months before Whitman died, on March 24, 1892.


To celebrate his 70th birthday, Whitman's friends in Camden, NJ, where he lived, decided to hold a huge birthday party for him. There were speeches, eulogistic letters, and telegrams — all collected in a commemorative volume by Whitman's longtime friend, Horace Traubel, entitled Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman, Philadelphia, 1889. This little volume contained a short "Autobiographic Note" which Whitman contributed for the occasion.

Whitman saw the note through the press himself and corrected the text by hand before it was finalized. This is the printer's proof of the note, with Whitman's hand-written corrections.


So — why collect first editions, or important later editions, or presentation copies — or, for that matter, original manuscript material? When most people ask the question, I think they are asking not so much what causes you to engage in such seemingly ridiculous behavior. They want a reasoned explanation of why you find such collecting satisfying or enjoyable — or perhaps an argument for why your spouse should not start commitment proceedings.

The problem, it seems to me, is that all such tastes and interests exist beyond the proper sphere of argument or analysis. You have heard the old Latin maxim: "De gustibus non est disputandum." Certain kinds of things are simply beyond argument.Why do you like a particular fine wine? Or the music of Mozart? Or a painting by Picasso? Why does one of my partners enjoy collecting old sports cars, which he rarely has time to drive — while many others love everything connected with golf?

A first edition of any book by a great writer is an artifact of literary history. If you enjoy the novels and poems that we now regard as great, if you read them as a child or as a student in school, or if you read them for pleasure, or satisfaction, or inspiration as an adult, if they have entered into your vocabulary and your consciousness, how could you not be interested in the people who wrote them? And how could you not be interested in the way the books looked and felt when they were first given away by their creators, or read by the first generation of their readers? And if these things interest you, how could you not be even more interested in those copies themselves?

Why collect Whitman in particular? If you grew up with him, were struck by his uniqueness and his thoughtfulness, his in-your-face immediacy, his intimacy and his evasiveness, his big-hearted Americanism, his lack of gentility or respect for old rules, if you see his influence on other writers you value, like Hart Crane or Wallace Stevens, then how can you not want a copy of his books as they were first read, reviewed, or even tossed in the fire? So much the better if you can have the very copy he gave to a writer he admired, or to a cherished friend.

So, why collect first editions? To use an expression more often used in a different context, for those who are fascinated by artifacts of literary history, no argument is necessary. For those who are not, no argument is possible.

Author's note: In addition to Whitman's own works, I have consulted the following secondary sources.

Allen, Gay Wilson, The Solitary Singer, New York, 1967.

Blanck, Jacob, compiler, Bibliography of American Literature, Vol. 9, New Haven, 1991.

Bloom, Harold, editor, Modern Critical Views – Walt Whitman, New York, 1985.

Bucke, Richard, Walt Whitman, Philadelphia, 1883.

Bucke, Richard,. editor, Calamus, A Series of Letters Written During the Years 1868-1880 By Walt Whitman to A Young Friend (Peter Doyle), Boston, 1897.

Callow, Philip, From Noon To Starry Night, Chicago 1992.

Francis, Gloria A. and Lozyusky, Artem, Compilers, Whitman At Auction, 1899-1972, Detroit, 1978.

Furness, Clifton Joseph, editor, Walt Whitman's Workshop, Cambridge, 1928.

Kaplan, Justin, Walt Whitman, A Life, New York, 1980.

Library of Congress, Walt Whitman, A Catalog, Washington, 1955.

Myerson, Joel, Walt Whitman A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburgh, 1993.

Rogers, Cleveland, and Black, John, editors, The Gathering Of The Forces By Walt Whitman, New York, 1920.

Cover of first edition of 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. All illustrations in this article are from the collection of Eden Martin.

Photo of Walt Whitman in 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Title page of 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Cover of second edition (1856) of Leaves of Grass.

Spine of the 1856 edition.

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