Walt Whitman: A Brooklyn Honorary Native Son

Although not born in Brooklyn, poet and author Walt Whitman (1819 –1892) spent a good part of his life in this borough.  He came to Brooklyn with his family when he was only 4 years old, and over time moved to and from this area, following professional opportunity as it surfaced.  Although Whitman was a prolific author, he is probably best known for his collection of poetry entitled Leaves of Grass, which indeed has direct and ongoing ties to Brooklyn.  This book is considered by many as one of the most important and influential collection of American poetry ever written.

Leaves of Grass was first published in Brooklyn on July 4th, 1855 in a small printing shop owned by two of Whitman’s colleagues. The book’s title itself was a play on words, and reflected Whitman’s style and personality.  At the time, "grass" was publisher’s slang for unimportant publications.  And "leaves" were the pages on which these “lower tier” publications were printed. 

The first edition of Leaves of Grass did not include Whitman’s name as author, only an engraving by Samuel Hollyer presenting Whitman in a casual pose, wearing working clothes.  About 800 initial copies were printed.  The book itself, a collection of 12 diverse poems, explained Whitman’s life view and philosophy and was considered explicit on many levels for the times.  It generated significant controversy and was even a target for censorship.  However, others - including Whitman’s colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson - thought the collection to be masterful and very important. Over the course of four decades, the book was constantly updated; Whitman’s final edition included over 400 poems.  The book went through multiple edition updates in the 1855 through 1892 time period. It is interesting to note that the US Government gave out copies of Whitman’s work during WWII to soldiers as by that point in time the book was seen in part as a celebration of all that makes America great. 

For most antiquarian book enthusiasts, owning a first or early edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is certainly a dream entry on their bucket list.  In 2014, Christie’s sold a first edition of "Leaves of Grass," for $305,000 - more than twice its high auction estimate of $150,000!  Today, it is still possible to purchase early and rare editions of this famous tome; upon searching FairSearch, the online search engine developed by AbeBooks for Book and Paper Fairs, I found 60 editions among the Brooklyn dealers who also list on AbeBooks.  These selections range in price from $10,000 for a signed 1876 edition from B&B Rare Books, Ltd. to a $6.95 for a 1940’s edition from John Bale Books LLC.  

John Schulman, a BABF dealer from the Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburg, is offering two interesting editions of Leaves of Grass - a 10 volume set from 1902, Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, NY, and an 1876 author’s edition Published by Walt Whitman and printed by Smith and McDougal, Camden, NJ.  Each of these rarities is $1,500.  Schulman is also a big fan of Leaves of Grass.  As such, ANLAOB spoke with him about Whitman and what makes his poetry still so important today. 

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ANLAOB: Please tell us why you participate in the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair?

John:  This will be my second year. I heard only great things when Getman (Marvin Getman, the show producer) requisitioned the Brooklyn Expo while it was still under construction -- sales were good, people liked the building, young hip crowd, good restaurants nearby, etc. So I signed up for the second year there and was happy with the results, even though I signed up late and was stuck in the last aisle with prints and antiques dealers!  I loved the airy building and how it fit into the neighborhood, and was delighted gain a little weight at an excellent traditional Polish restaurant that weekend.

ANLAOB:  Walt Whitman, and his book Leaves of Grass, are very much a part of Brooklyn. Why do you think his book continues to be so influential, and so referenced, over 160 years past its initial publication?

John:  It is often said that there are two major traditions in American poetry which roughly break down to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian poets are cerebral, concerned with ideas and philosophy and (by the end of the twentieth century), metaphysics and language. In the 19th Century, it is the poetry of Emerson and Dickinson that are the most Apollonian.  In the 20th Century, Ezra Pound, the Objectivists, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets play that role. The Dionysian poets - emotional, chthonic, sensual and sexual, and mammalian - descend from Walt Whitman through William Carlos Williams to Allen Ginsberg, the Beats, Frank O'Hara, Bukowski, et al. Whitman's is a popular, readable, appealing poetry that can still be read with pleasure and feeling.


ANLAOB:  Do you have a favorite poem from the book?   

John:  I don't have a favorite poem, but I have read the entire Leaves of Grass at least five times, and some of the poems are simply stunning. I have been thinking, because of the election, about his poem on Democracy called “For You O Democracy.”  It reads:

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

ANLAOB:   From an antiquarian book lover’s perspective, how would the experience of reading an early, original version of Leaves of Grass differ from reading a newly printed version, or a version on a Kindle?

John:  I think the early editions done in his lifetime (he died in 1892) are especially interesting to read as they came in a variety of formats. We have handled most of the early editions, and while I have never bought and/or sold a copy of the first edition of 1855, a mysterious woman came into the shop about fifteen years ago and asked me to appraise her copy. It was a first issue in splendid condition. Worth about $200,000 at the time. More now. The early editions, some of which were signed by Whitman and have an original photographic portrait as frontispiece, are interesting because of the typography, the different bindings, reflecting Whitman's direct input, his editing of his own poems and sequencing of them, which changes as the Civil War changes the circumstances of the poems and their meanings, and as Whitman's own life circumstances changed (he lived in Brooklyn through the 1850s but worked as a nurse in Washington during the Civil War and stayed there in various positions for many years after, moving in his later years to Camden -- all of which reflects in his poems and in the various editions of Leaves of Grass). Poems tend to work better and read better when they are printed with care and love, and it might be mawkish to say so, but it's true.

ANLAOB:  We could not agree more!  Thank you so much for your time and insight!

Come meet John and the other 100+ dealers specializing in world-class antiquarian books and ephemera at the BABF!  This highly anticipated event, featuring over 100 world-class dealers plus many special events, will be held at the Brooklyn Expo Center, on Friday, September 9th from 6-9pm; Saturday, September 10th from 11am-7pm; and Sunday, September 11th from 11am-5pm.  A variety of ticketing options are available ranging from $7 for a Sunday only ticket to $25 for the preview opening to benefit 826NYC, a program which teaches children how to write creatively; for more information and to purchase tickets please click here.  

The Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair is sponsored ABEBooks and brought to you by Book and Paper Fairs.  The Friday benefit preview opening will be catered by Jessy's Pastries, known for their home-made, fresh Peruvian empanadas and alfajores, Peruvian cookies which the Huffington Post calls “the best cookie you've never heard of.” Book and Paper Fairs produces the top book and ephemera fairs in the Northeast US.  Our professionally managed events have a long history of bringing together the finest buyers and sellers in the industry, and are held in major locations including Boston, New York City, Brooklyn, Concord, NH, and Lexington, MA. For more information and a calendar of our shows, please visit www.bookandpaperfairs.com.