September 10, 2010

Whitman: Delayed among the printers

"My book is delayed among the printers," wrote Walt Whitman in a letter to his friend John Burroughs dated September 10, 1866. "It is a little over half done, & they promise it shall be done, or mainly so, this week." Whitman's optimism was unfounded; The book in question, the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass, would not see print until 1867. He hoped it would be the final edition — he was wrong on that front too.

"The book is going to suit me pretty well," Whitman explained. It would be 500 pages, similar in style to his book Drum-Taps, only recently published. "I shall feel glad enough when it is completed," he wrote, noting the difficulty he was having:

I have a constant struggle with the printers — They are good fellows & willing enough — but it seems impossible to prevent them from making lots of ridiculous errors — it is my constant dread that the book will be disfigured in that way.

Whitman's publishing woes were substantial enough that he took a month-long leave of absence from his Washington D.C. job and returned to Brooklyn. Finally published by Hotten in 1867, it was the first edition of Leaves of Grass after the Civil War. The book was substantially different: Whitman had left only 34 pages unaltered. Poems were reshaped, clarified, rearranged; some were shortened, about 40 were cut entirely. It was not toned down for its sexuality, however. One poem previously untitled now carried the title "City of Orgies."

Five months after publication, the bindery which published this edition of Leaves of Grass went bankrupt. "I received a portion of the books remaining," Whitman reported. "The most of them were lost."

"If it wasn't for the worriment of the book," he concluded in his letter to Burroughs, "I should be happy as a clam at high water, as they say down on Long Island."

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