Leaves of Grass, by Walter Whitman, Arion Press (2014)

{Ed. Note: Originally published June 2, 2014 and subsequently updated on August 14, 2014. The updates were to add a link to a PBS News Hour segment on Arion Press and the making of this edition, and also I have added a number of quotes from the book after a careful reading.}

Arion Press has just released their 100th publication, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. A huge congratulations to Andrew Hoyem, who in the last forty years has created some of the giants of fine press publications of the last half century (Moby-Dick especially comes to mind, as does The ApocalypseUlyssesThe Physiology of Taste and Don Quixote). 100 publications is a major accomplishment for any private press, and Arion Press decided to use that occasion to pay homage to Mr. Hoyem’s predecessors, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, whose 1930 edition of Leaves of Grass for Random House is generally considered one of the greatest fine press works of the twentieth century.

The Grabhorn edition was handset in a rare type by Frederic W. Goudy, called Goudy Newstyle, in 18 point size. The punches and matrices were destroyed in a fire in 1939, so no more type of it could ever be cast. They used Unbleached Arnold paper, from an English mill, which was dampened for the presswork. It contained 37 woodblock prints by Valenti Angelo and was bound in Philippine mahogany boards with a red goatskin back.  The book was folio in format, 14 1/2″ by 9 3/4″. Here are some photo’s of this seminal edition:

Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Spine and Cover
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Spine and Cover
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Title Page
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Title Page 1
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Title Page
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Title Page 2
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Sample Text
Leaves of Grass, Random House/Grabhorn, Sample Text

In designing Arion’s Leaves of Grass, Mr. Hoyem decided to use a similar format as well as similar production methods and materials. However, he used a new design and, importantly, decided to go with the first edition of this classic (the Grabhorn’s used the 1891/92 edition). The first edition of Leaves of Grass, from 1855, contains just a dozen poems. The first of which, titled Song of Myself, which was to become his most famous, took up half the pages. By the final edition, the collection contained nearly 400 poems! However, as one critic notes:

As Leaves of Grass grew through its five subsequent editions into a hefty book of 389 poems (with the addition of the two annexes), it gained much in variety and complexity, but Whitman’s distinctive voice was never stronger, his vision never clearer, and his design never more improvisational than in the twelve poems of the first edition.

Similar to the Grabhorn edition, the new Arion publication uses an 18 point Goudy typeface for the poetry, called Californian, which was initially designed as a private type for the University of California Press in 1936-1938. Californian was previously used in the very first book ever published by Arion Press in 1975. For this new edition, Arion Press cast fresh type for the entirety of the handset portion of the book in their type foundry, Mackenzie & Harris. It took six weeks to cast and hand-set the poetry. For the introduction, preface and other material, Monotype composition-casting was done in 14 point size. The paper is a special making of Langley from the Barcham Green Mill in England, watermarked with the name of the mill, Arion Press and Arion’s lyre pressmark. The paper was dampened before printing. The paper was ordered in 1985 and saved for a special project, which this is! The presswork was done on a 1915 Thomson Laureate platen press, 14 by 22 inches, which Arion Press tells us is “considered the best machine ever made for hand-fed printing.” This press was also used for printing Arion’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. The book is 156 pages, and is folio in format at 13 7/8 x 10″.  The volume includes a frontispiece portrait of Whitman from the first edition, a steel engraving based on a daguerreotype from 1854, reproduced at twice size in sepia ink. A second color of green was introduced for the title page and colophon; drawings of grass by Rochelle Youk of the press.  The binding uses wooden boards with oak veneer, stained yellow-tan, and the spine is goatskin, green in color. Another of Ms. Youk’s grass images appears with the title on the spine of the book, stamped in gold. The sections of twelve pages are sewn by hand with linen thread over linen tapes. The book-block is rounded and backed and has hand-sewn headbands in green silk thread.

As done with many of Arion’s works, the distinguished Harvard professor Helen Vendler provides an introduction commenting on the text and explaining the importance of Leaves of Grass on literary history. Her introductions are always extremely well done, becoming an integral part of the work as a whole. This is no exception. She talks of the powerful themes that Whitman paints, including “the honest life, sexuality, democratic equality, the love of comrades, poetry, death.

Having spent a few days with Arion’s new edition, I believe it is exceptional. As one would expect, the presswork it marvelous (especially for those who like a real bite of the type into paper). The paper has one of the best tactile feel of any paper in any book in my collection. Unfortunately, photo’s like below can never do justice to that important element of a books design. The binding is luxurious, and a real homage to the 1930 Grabhorn edition. No edition of Leaves of Grass could or should set out to copy or exceed in brilliance such a design masterpiece as the 1930 Grabhorn edition; that would be a fools errand. However, with all classics, there is plenty of room for a fresh take, especially since finding the Grabhorn edition in near fine of better condition is nearly impossible. I give Arion Press credit for giving such well deserved homage to the Grabhorn’s, as well as for having the courage to produce such an edition knowing that such a well thought of rendition does exist with which it inevitably will be compared to. For my part, I do not compare them. One is an icon of the fine press movement in America, truly one of the great editions of the last one hundred years. One is brand new, the work of one of America’s great presses of the last fifty years. Both are outstanding. If one can afford it, both belong on one’s shelf.

PBS News Hour did a nice segment on Arion Press and the making of this edition, as you can see here.

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) was an American poet, essayist, journalist and humanist. It is fair to say that most consider him America’s greatest poet and the most influential. His Leaves of Grass is his masterpiece and the greatest work of American poetry. Leaves of Grass reflects Whitman’s philosophy; his love of nature and humanity (the mind, spirit and form). It also exudes optimism and self-confidence. In expressing himself, he eschewed more traditional forms of poetry with its reliance on symbolism and allegory, and its frequent religious focus. Also breaking with the past, Whitman used free verse, almost prose-like in nature.

Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, but Whitman continue to rework it, and add to it, until his death forty-two years later. When initially published Leaves of Grass was controversial, many considering it obscene for its sensuality. He was actually fired from his job at he Department of Interior because his boss considered it obscene! Many critics of the day were very critical of it, with the important exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson who praised it profusely. The controversy often led to publishing issues, though it also increased interest in the book. Today it simply shines as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of American arts.

After re-reading Leaves of Grass via this Arion Press edition, I find the work fresher than ever. Pretty much the entire work is a great quote, so picking out my favorite sections is not easy!  None-the-less, here they are…

In his preface, Whitman points out where the strength and vigor of the Unites States come from, leaving me to wonder if the people have willingly abdicated since this was written:

Other states indicate themselves in their deputies….but the genius of the United States is not best or most  in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even its newspapers or inventors….but always most in the common people.

In his preface, Whitman goes on to define what great poetry should be:

…about the proper expression of beauty there is precision and balance….one part does not need to be thrust above another….the pleasure of poems is not in them that take the handsomest measure and sound…

Past and present and future are not disjointed but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands with them again on their feet….he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson….he places himself where the future becomes present.

The above sentiments seem to take perfect reality to me in Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, which unfortunately is a poem not in the first edition, so you will need to turn to a later edition to read it (such as this one!). In any case, Whitman goes on to say, in words that all freshman English students should be made to memorize:

The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity….The great poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself….What I tell I tell for precisely what it is….You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.

Whitman tells us to not be constrained by custom or precedent or authority, for:

The cleanest expression is that which finds no sphere worthy of itself and makes one.

Early in the poem, Whitman asserts his uniqueness, his being:

My dinner, dress, associates, looks, business, complements, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks–or of myself….or ill-doing….or loss or
lack of money….or depressions or exaltations,
     They come to me days and nights and got rom me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

In a similar vein, later he goes on to say:

What is commonest and cheapest and nearest and easiest is Me,
Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,
Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,
Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,
Scattering it freely forever.

If ‘know thyself’ is the first rule of life, Whitman has it licked!

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is course, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine…

All of this is okay, one is who they are, and Whitman shows us that should be enough:

I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

Finally, calling out himself by name, Whitman says that he is us:

Walt Whitman,  an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos,
Disorderly fleshy and sensual….eating drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist….no stander above men  and women or part from
them….no more modest than immodest
Whoever degrades another degrades me….and whatever is done or said
returns at last to me…

Some of Whitman’s more powerful poems come from his direct firsthand witnessing of war (the American Civil War), much of which writing was to come after the first edition (as the Civil War did not start until 6 years after the first edition). Still, he foresees in brutal imagery:

The hiss of the surgeon’s knife and the gnawing teeth of his saw,
The wheeze, the cluck, the swash of falling blood….the short wild
   scream, the long dull tapering groan,
These so….these irretrievable.

Whitman was a deist, with belief subsuming all religions, and a religious tolerance that once permeated American thinking (at least in ideals, if not practice):

My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing all worship ancient and modern, and all between ancient and
   modern…

He goes on to exalt man, while still contemplating the omnipresence of God:

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s-self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral,
   dressed in a shroud…
And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.
I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least.
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass;

While Whitman writings break from the past in a revolutionary way, he stays grounded in the past:

Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid….nothing could overlay it;
For it the nebula cohered to an orb….the long slow strata piled to rest
   it on….vast vegetables gave it sustence,
Monsterous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it
    with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now I stand on this spot with my soul.

Like implied above, Whitman thinks often of time:

To think of time….to think through the retrospection,
To think of today….and the ages continued henceforward.
Is today nothing? Is the beginningless past nothing?
If the future is nothing they are just as surely nothing.

Earlier he tells us:

See ever so far….there is limitless space outside of that,
Count ever so much….there is limitless time around that.
 
Our rendezvous is fitly appointed….God will be there and wait till we come.
 
I know I have the best of time and space–and that I was never measured,
    and never will be measured.
Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

Going back to the preface a moment, Whitman expounds upon the beauty of liberty. He follows that in the main body of the poem with some thoughts that American’s today, and those in power, seem to have forgotten:

The sum of all known value and respect I add up in you whoever you are;
The President is up there in the White House for you….it is not you who are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you….not you here for them,
The Congress convenes every December  for you,
Laws, courts, the forming of the states, the charter of cities, the going and
   coming of commerce and mails are all for you.
 
All doctrines, all politics and civilization exurge from you,
All sculpture and monuments and anything inscribed anywhere are tallied in you…

Liberty is to be embraced, it is what makes us who we are. Justice secures it, but have we today lost from where justice comes? I think Whitman would say so:

Great is Justice;
Justice is not settled by legislators and laws….it is in the soul,
It cannot be varied by statutes and more than love or pride or the
     attraction of gravity can,
It is immutable….it does not depend on majorities….majorities or
    what not come at last before the same passionless and exact tribunal.

Lastly, we should remember Whitman as a guide, one who knows about happiness what we should all remember:

Happiness is not in another place, but in this place….not for another hour,
   but this hour.

and later he tells us:

…there is no life without satisfaction;
What is the earth? what are body and soul without satisfaction?

All who are here now, reading this, should be satisfied, and so happy:

It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.

Leaves of Grass is simply phenomenal; the greatest American work of poetry, and one of the greatest the world has seen. Whitman defines what it was to be an American, and along with Mark Twain, are perfect symbols of 19th century American culture. This already classic edition from Arion Press befits the exalted status of Whitman and the America he represents.

About the Edition

  • Designed by Andrew Hoyem
  • Poetry hand-set in Goudy Californian Type, which was fresh cast for this edition by Mackenzie and Harris (M&H)
  • Trajan capitals for initial letters and titling
  • Introduction, preface and subsidiary material was composed and cast in Monotype, also by M&H Type
  • Paper is hand-made Langley, from the Barcham Green Mill in England, special ordered in 1985, with watermarks of the Barcham Green and of Arion Press
  • Printing done on a Thomson Laureate letterpress with paper dampened
  • Contains a frontispiece portrait of Whitman from the first edition, a steel engraving based on a daguerreotype from 1854, reproduced at twice size in sepia ink
  • Drawings of grass by Rochelle Youk (of the press) are on the title page, colophon and book spine
  • The binding uses wooden boards with oak veneer, stained yellow-tan, and the spine is goatskin, green in color, with the title on the spine of the book and one of Ms. Youk’s designs stamped in gold
  • The sections of twelve pages are sewn by hand with linen thread over linen tapes; The book-block is rounded and backed and has hand-sewn headbands in green silk thread
  • Limited to 275 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Slipcase Spine
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Slipcase Spine
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Spine and Cover
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Spine and Cover
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Spine #1
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Spine #1
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Spine #2
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Spine #2
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Front Cover
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Front Cover
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Side View
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Title Page
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Title Page
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Contents
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Contents
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #2 (Introduction)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #2 (Introduction)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #3 (Preface)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #3 (Letter to Whitman from Emerson)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Engraving of Whitman and Preface
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Engraving of Whitman and Preface
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Engraving of Whitman
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Engraving of Whitman
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Preface
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #4 (Preface)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Preface
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #4 (Preface)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #4 (Song of Myself)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #5 (Song of Myself)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #5 (Song of Myself)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #5 (Song of Myself)
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #6
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #6
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #7
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #7
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #8
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #8
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #9
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Sample Text #9
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Colophon
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Colophon
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Colophon
Leaves of Grass, Arion Press, Macro of Colophon

10 thoughts on “Leaves of Grass, by Walter Whitman, Arion Press (2014)

  1. Just a question of personal preference, but do most on this site prefer the heavily indented printing in this edition? When it comes to letterpress I have always preferred a slightly indented impression but not to the point where it is so debossed that the impression is visible on the other side of the paper–especially in two-sided printing. I realize that this has become a favored style as a way of loudly proclaiming “this isn’t offset!”–but does anyone else find the result, as seen in the macros above, somewhat distracting?

  2. This new Arion Press edition of ‘Leaves of Grass’ is every bit as beautiful as I was hoping it would be. The book design is restrained and elegant and everything about this 100th publication is exemplary – hand set letterpress printing on a special hand-made paper from J. Barcham Green that was dampened and a beautiful, unobtrusive type which compares favorably to the classic Doves Press type. This book is an instant private press classic in its own right.

  3. Dear Mr Adamson,
    You write in your commentary that the year of publication for the First Edition of Leaves of Grass is 1850. I believe it is 1855. Do you know the source of your information? Thank you for your splendid and ever interesting investigations into the finest of fine printing.

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