Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

An Exhibit from the

Special Collections of Drew University Library

The printing history of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is staggeringly complex. Trained as a printer, Whitman was always involved in the design and production of his books, from selecting a typeface and setting type, to designing the layout, decorations, and binding. He experimented constantly. Each edition of Leaves of Grass went through multiple issues, with changes in binding, paper size, frontispiece, contents, cover color and design, and arrangement of poems.

The volumes displayed are from the Whitman Collection of Drew University Library, generous gifts of Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr.

Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, New York, 1855. First edition.

One of the rarest American books. Of the 795 copies of the first edition that were printed, only 179 copies have been located today.

Cover : Whitman chose a green embossed cloth binding to suggest the organic nature of his poetry, which is depicted graphically in his cover design: blind and gold-stamped foliage, and leaves and roots that grow out of his title, itself a pun on “leaves” (or pages) in a book.

Frontispiece : With his casual stance, dressed in rough working clothes and hat, the unnamed Whitman is an American Everyman, one of the masses, rather than an aristocratic poet.

Title-page : Printed without the author's name, to emphasize that he speaks on behalf, and in the voice, of the American people.

First poetry page : Notable are Whitman's irregular punctuation, line lengths both brief and sprawling, and lack of a consistent stanzaic structure.


Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition.

The smaller format was intended to give a more intimate feel, a pocket-sized book to be carried around and dipped into at leisure. Poems from the 1855 edition have been reworked and rearranged, and twenty new ones added.

Spine : The poet's name is now prominently featured. Below it, gold-stamped on green, is an excerpt from the letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Whitman following the 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass, congratulating the poet on his achievement: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman used this quote without Emerson's permission, thereby incurring his displeasure.


Leaves of Grass. Boston, Thayer and Eldridge, Year 85 of the States (1860-61). Third edition.

Frontispiece : No longer in the rough clothes of the Everyman, the poet appears with a Byronic open collar and silk cravat.

Binding : Printed in the last year of peace before the Civil War, the third edition is bound in dark red, portending bloodshed and destruction, rather than the green of hope and renewal. Blind-stamped on the front cover is the American hemisphere, either rising from the clouds or descending into them; the back cover shows the blazing sun, again either rising or setting, reflective of the uncertainly of the times. On the book's spine is the image of a butterfly perched on a pointing finger, a symbol of the union of man and nature, body and soul. As ambiguous as the other images on the binding, butterfly is also a vernacular term for prostitute. All three images appear several times throughout the book as well.

Drew University also owns a copy of this work bound in tan wrappers, issued for the editor in advance of publication. This advance copy is inscribed from Whitman to Henry P. Leland (1828-1868), who published a favorable review of the book in the New York Saturday Press , an influential literary weekly.

Lucy Marks
Special Collections Cataloger
Drew University Library
Madison , New Jersey
September 2008


Early Editions in the Drew University Collections

Leaves of Grass 1855

1855 front cover

1855 frontispiece

1855 title page

1855 poem

1855 preface

1855 front pastedown


Leaves of Grass 1856

1856 cover

1856 frontispiece & title

Leaves of Grass 1860

1860 cover

1860 frontispiece

1860 title page

1860 contents, page 1

1860 contents, page 2

1860 Leland copy cover

1860 Leland envelope


Leaves of Grass 1881

1881 cover

1881 title page

1881 contents page 1

1881 contents page 2

1881 contents page 3

1881 contents page 4