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The "Suppressed Edition"

Suppressed edition

Walt Whitman.   Leaves of Grass.  Boston:  James Osgood, 1881. 

This is Whitman's so-called “suppressed edition": the seventh edition, second state, with presumed first binding, according to Myerson (p. 87), and gold-stamped signature on front cover.  This copy was inscribed by Whitman to the journalist Vincent S. Cooke (1854-1917). Whitman took great pride in his spine designs; for this edition, he revived the butterfly-on-hand image from the 1860 edition.  He was excited about having been taken on by the premier publishing house in the United States, where Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Emerson had been authors, too.  Osgood’s contract gave Whitman a 25 cent royalty on a $2.00 retail price.  In anticipation of a book he believed would bring about his breakthrough as a poet, he removed some poems and rearranged others in new groups, retaining older clusters but also creating new ones (“Birds of Passage”; “Sea-Drift”; “By the Roadside”; “Autumn Rivulets”) and reintegrating poems from Rivulets into the body of Leaves of Grass.  He traveled to Boston to supervise the printing. Sales were promising; Whitman himself believed that 3,000 copies were sold, though the actual number is probably closer to half that number (Myerson 87). 

However, on 1 May 1882, the Massachusetts District Attorney labeled Leaves of Grass “obscene” and asked for its “withdrawal ... from circulation” (Myerson 96).   Osgood expressed his concern to Whitman (“We are … naturally reluctant to be identified with any legal proceedings in a matter of this nature”) and asked him to make changes.   While Whitman would change phrases, he adamantly refused to delete entire poems.  On 10 April Osgood wrote again to say that “there seems no alternative for us but to decline to further circulate the book.”  Whitman received the plates, portraits, and dies as well as about 225 copies in sheets and was paid $100 in cash.  On 5 June, David McKay of the firm Rees Welsh & Co., 23 South Ninth Street in Philadelphia, wrote to Whitman to offer his services.  After purchasing the plates from Whitman, McKay brought out his own edition.  Capitalizing on the fact that the book had been “censored” in Boston, McKay quickly sold more than 6,000 copies of the new edition.  In November 1882, McKay bought out the business of Rees Welsh, and by December 1882, he was able to pay Walt Whitman $1,000 in royalties.   Although Whitman would continue to add to the volume over the next decade, Leaves of Grass, with the 1881 edition, had achieved its final form.