Publish Your Own Book: History of Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

About the famous writer Walt Whitman who self-published the book of poetry Leaves of Grass, history and information.

Publish Your Own Book

Walt Whitman not only had some artistic know-how, he also knew how to wheel and deal. In 1855 he himself set the type for Leaves of Grass on the press of Andrew and James Rome in Brooklyn: 95 pages, 12 poems, somewhat under 1,000 books. He got his review copies out and attracted some notice, but he wrote the best reviews himself. In one of these reviews, Whitman described himself as "of pure American breed, large and lusty, a naive, masculine, affectionate, contemplative, sensual, imperious person."

The 1855 edition had been placed in a bookstore, but when the bookseller bothered to read the poems, he judged them morally objectionable and ordered Whitman to get them off his shelves. Whitman took his books to a shop that specialized in volumes on phrenology, the water cure, and vegetarianism. This shop, Fowlers and Wells, found little market for the poems. Whitman gave away many copies and sold the rest for pennies each to a dealer in publisher's overstock.

The next edition, 21 poems longer, did no better. Reviewers were outraged by Whitman's sexual references. Fowlers and Wells were so frightened by the thunder of the moralists that they handed the entire edition back to Whitman. Emerson himself pleaded with Whitman to delete the more racy passages, but Whitman refused.

In 1860, Whitman found his 1st commercial publisher, Thayer and Eldridge of Boston. The firm sold 4,000 copies of Leaves of Grass at $1.25 each and then went bankrupt.

Whitman's reputation was growing. In England, W. M. Rossetti published an unexpurgated, 28-page volume of Whitman poems in 1868, and other editions appeared on the Continent. Meanwhile, Whitman self-published 2 more editions, losing money on both.

A stroke in 1873 left Whitman in failing health, but did little to affect his entrepreneurial spirits. He recuperated at his brother's Camden, N.J., home and busied himself with writing and filling orders. He may have written the article in the West Jersey Press of January 26, 1876, that described him as "old, poor, and paralysed" and neglected by his ungrateful countrymen. No matter who wrote the article, Whitman sent it to Rossetti in England, and Rossetti began an international furor about the mistreatment of Whitman. Orders for Leaves of Grass flooded into the Camden house. With his full beard and his basket of books, Whitman became a familiar sight about town: poet, self-printer, self-publisher, and delivery boy.

In honor of the 100th birthday of the U.S., Whitman self-published his 6th edition of Leaves of Grass in 1876, bound in half leather and selling for $5. Because of his promotional craft and determination, his books were selling well through the world.

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