Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Bringing Whitman’s first edition of “Leaves of Grass” to Trinity

Richard Ring

Head Curator and Librarian at the Watkinson

In September the Watkinson Library (which holds Trinity’s rare books and archives) announced an initiative to raise funds to acquire one of the greatest rarities of American literature—a first edition (1855) of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  There were 795 copies of the book printed in Brooklyn, New York in 1855, and less than 200 survive.  There are only seven copies in Connecticut libraries—six of those are at Yale (the seventh is at Wesleyan).  A copy recently sold for over $200,000 at auction, but we have an opportunity to acquire one for less than a third of that price.  At this writing we have achieved 20 percent of our goal.

To help raise an awareness of this effort, there will be an “open mic” marathon reading of Whitman’s famous poem “Song of Myself” at Vernon Social on Thursday November 14, from 4:00–6:00pm.  Several faculty members have promised to read (including Chris Hager, Clare Rossini and Dan Mrozowski), and we’re hoping that students will get up in front of the micropohone and get creative!  You can read it “serious” or you can read in a funny voice (Yoda? Rapper? Sports color commentator?).  Raffle tickets will be sold ($1/ticket) for drawings of coupons to Peter B’s (for a free coffee or tea and a pastry) as well as packets of Watkinson Library holiday cards (four styles, each featuring a rare item in the collections). 

“Song of Myself” is the first of twelve untitled poems in the first edition, occupies over 40 pages of the book, and is one of the most influential poems in American literature.  Walt Whitman paid for the publication of the Leaves out of his own pocket.  He designed its distinctive cover, and oversaw all the details of the book’s composition and printing (setting some of the type himself), as well as its distribution and reception. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Ralph Waldo Emerson now-famously wrote in a private letter to Whitman, and indeed Leaves of Grass has since been called America’s second Declaration of Independence, one that (according to one scholar) “ushered in a new era in American letters, describing specifically American experiences in a distinctly American idiom.”  The copy that the library intends  to acquire is owned by a well-respected antiquarian book firm in New York City, and is currently on display in the Watkinson. 

Next semester we will offer an “art print” for sale, inspired by the book and created and produced by local letterpress shop “Hartford Prints!” Run by three sisters, this shop is on Pratt Street in downtown Hartford. Professor Clare Rossini’s First Year Seminar on poetry will be setting a few lines from Leaves of Grass in metal type, and printing them at Hartford Prints!—copies of which will be sent to donors of $50 or more with our thanks. Finally, in conjunction with the English Department, we will sponsor a public lecture on February 20th entitled “I pass so poorly with paper and types”: Walt Whitman’s First 795 Tries at Leaves of Grass” by Dr. Ed Folsom, who is the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at The University of Iowa, and a world authority on Whitman.


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