Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1929)
LEC #2/1st Series V. 2 in 1929
Introduced by Carolyn Wells, includes Whitman’s preface from the first edition.
LEC #859 of 1500. This edition is a LEC exclusive. Leaves of Grass was reprinted twice after this publication; One exclusive to the Heritage Press in 1950, with a limited 1000 copy print run bound in Moroccan leather and signed by Rockwell Kent and a standard edition (included below). The Limited Editions Club reissued the book — a complete “Deathbed” edition — in 1949 with photographs from Edward Weston.
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Front Binding – Following last month’s comparison of the Heritage and LEC Decameron publications, I wanted to look at one other major work that got multiple treatments from the George Macy Company. Thus, a return to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and a look at the 1929 issue that was the second book ever issued by the LEC. I do have to say, having this fulfills me on a level that’s difficult to explain. Of course, I could say that with many of the books I have in my growing collection, but Leaves is a magical work that I was ecstatic to add in. Whitman has a beautiful way of stating things with his poems, some of which have floored me with their straightforward grace. I recommend him if you want some thoughtful, inspiring, different poetry.
Leaves of Grass is a curiously popular book in the Macy library. Not only is there this fine edition, but there’s one other unique Limited Editions Club version, released in 1942. It features the photographs of Edward Weston and Mark Van Doren’s words providing a preface. I have seen this edition once and it’s high on my wishlist, but it’s also a fair bit more costly. Whitman’s Song of the Open Road would also become a LEC in the Shiff years, in 1990 to be precise, with Aaron Siskind giving it some photogravure magic. There’s also the Heritage exclusive that was published in 1937 or 1938, but I’ll cover that later on in this post. All and all, a very good run for someone known for one major work! Whitman deserves the attention!
This book wasn’t issued with illustrations, but does include a photo of Whitman on the cover page and a few mild embellishments.
Design Notes – Frederic Warde handled the design. From the Quarto:
It’s always great to feature a book with Macy’s commentary from the Quarto — his thoughts provide so much insight into their creation…or his regrets about a particular project. In this case, Macy had much to say; he was woefully unaware about Leaves of Grass‘ publication history, choosing to follow an avid Whitman scholar without doing any research on his own to determine if that was the best course of action. While he is quite harsh on the decision, I feel that the first edition is still a worthwhile effort to reprint, as it does differ from later editions Whitman put out in his life. Secondly, his doubt about the execution of the design springs forth here, with his lament utilizing Warde and his elegant, pretty, and delicate typography clash with the content of Whitman’s words — brash, rebellious and dripping with passionate, erotic energy. Having the book in my hands, I don’t fully agree with Macy, although the book is probably not what Whitman would have preferred himself. At any rate, these factors likely contributed to the later 1937 Heritage AND 1942 LEC editions that used the Deathbed text and a rawer design more suited to the poems.
Title Page – As Macy noted, Warde rendered the book in a very pretty design, that also speaks to book design from Whitman’s era more so than the late 1920s. I feel like the book is older than it is (which is a compliment in itself given it’s from 1929). Carolyn Wells provides an introduction — she is the first woman to be associated with the LEC in any fashion. Her intro remains unique to this edition, as the Heritage would use Whitman’s own and the 1942 LEC would recruit Mark Van Doren. Whitman’s preface from the first edition is also present here.
Colophon – This is #859 of 1500, and Warde signed the colophon.
Examples of text (right click and open in new tab for full size):
Personal Notes – Despite Macy’s personal grumbles, I am very happy to have this book on my shelves! The poetry of Walt Whitman hit me like a brick when I first discovered him, and he quickly became my favorite poet. I am beyond excited to have the second ever LEC in my hands. My collecting as of late has been focusing on the first few years of the Club, and this is a highlight for me. I acquired this from Moe’s via an online order (given the shelter-in-place orders and all).
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (unstated, 1950)*
Sandglass Number 11N
Artwork: Illustrations by Rockwell Kent
Introduced by Walt Whitman, and is a complete, unabridged Deathbed edition of his work.
Exclusive to the Heritage Press, with a limited 1000 copy print run bound in Moroccan leather and signed by Rockwell Kent. This entry is on the standard edition. The Limited Editions Club did two other editions of Leaves of Grass I will cover below.
Click the images for a larger view.
Front Binding – A very nice shade of green for the boards and a distinctive gold inlay that both conveys the title and author initials in one fell swoop. As I mentioned above, this is the standard issue for the book, seemingly well after its initial publication. My copy indicates no year, thus the unstated comment in my header. I have seen pictures of the limited edition of this book, and it’s similar in design but with a leather binding. It has a special colophon noting its limitation of 1000 copies and includes artist and designer Rockwell Kent’s signature.
Since I lack a Sandglass, I’ll let Django6924 share additional insights with you on the design:
The Sandglass in my copy (which is very interesting as it opens with a sombre section describing the anxieties of the times what with the threat of Communism and the fresh memories of WW II), mentions that the co-designer of the book, William A. Kittredge, had already “met his reward in heaven,” which makes me believe the book may have been produced some time before the 1950 date. (A quick Google search revealed Mr. Kittredge passed away in 1945.)
The book was designed by Kent himself in collaboration with typographer Kittredge of The Lakeside Press. It is set in Bodoni and the grass-green linen binding, the cloth originally made for window shades, was chosen by Kent who also designed the monogram on the front board–the initials “WW” drawn to resemble blades of grass. A great book.
Wikipedia mentions 1936 as a year for an edition of Leaves of Grass on Kent’s personal page, but Django6924 observes that Michael Bussacco’s Heritage Press checklist has it first appearing in Series 2, which was issued in 1937-38.
Speaking of Mr. Kent, I’m still a little surprised to see his input was so limited to the George Macy Company. He was one of the most renowned and skilled book illustrators in his day. Beyond this lovely edition, he also supplied his talent to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon for the LEC in 1934, but that’s where the contributions cease. Perhaps Kent’s shift in political ideals and becoming the president of a Communist organization for the International Workers Order in the 1940s had something to do with it. Macy was very much an American patriot, and I imagine Kent’s decision to be so radical ended up severing their ties for good. Django6924 had this to add about this topic:
I expect, as mentioned in Jerry’s blog, that Macy and Kent weren’t on the best of terms. In his pre-LEC/Heritage Press days, Macy had partnered in a small publishing company that produced newer writings, often of a mildly erotic nature, but also mysteries, adventures such as the inimitable Cursed Be the Treasure, and books about the early movie stars such as Valentino and Fairbanks.
One of the mildly erotic works was American Esoterica, a collection of short works which had probably been written for periodical publication but rejected because of concerns over charges of pruriency. This book was illustrated by Kent. Kent did Leaves of Grass for the Heritage press in the mid 30s and Erewhon for the LEC in 1934, then nothing after that. Was it his involvement with the Stalinist Soviet Union and Communism that caused the riff? Macy definitely was a patriot, but one should keep in mind that the LEC subscribers were, on the whole, much more conservative than Macy himself, and may have voiced a dislike of having their books illustrated by Kent. Macy frequently complimented Kent’s work in the Monthly Letters–his work on Moby Dick and especially on Candide — so Macy didn’t let his political views color his critical appreciation. Or was it just that Kent was probably the highest paid commercial artist in America, and may have been outside Macy’s budget?
It’s a good question, one that remains vague. Macy doesn’t espouse any further commentary in the Quarto about the matter for the entry on Erewhon, but he was always taking notes on how the membership reacted to the books he was issuing, and I think Django6924’s comment about their conservative nature was likely a big factor in Kent’s minimal involvement with the George Macy Company.
Spine – Declaring Kent’s involvement and that the book is complete and unabridged made my heart flutter upon spotting it way back when. I love how they reused the classy grass inlay on the spine multiple times, too.
Title Page – The lone colored illustration Kent did in this book is reserved for here, likely representing “Song of Myself”, Whitman’s most famous poem. The inlay from the front is again used here, but with four years buried within the dirt. Django6924 points out that “The four dates buried in the earth on the title page are 1492 (Columbus landed), 1607 (the founding of Jamestown), 1776 (of course), and 1861, the outbreak of the War Between the States.”
I think Kent was a fine choice to be the illustrator, as you’ll see below.
Personal Notes – Ever since I became enraptured with these books, I wanted Leaves of Grass. It took me 6 years to find this, my lone acquisition one time I went to a library book sale in Oakhurst in September 2010. And my delight at it being unabridged and with Rockwell Kent of all people doing the art…I was ecstatic.
* = The book has no year stated on its copyright page, but Django6924 was able to help me narrow down the likely publication year of this printing to 1950. Here’s what he had to say about it:
Mine also has an inked stamp — possibly put in by the original owner — with a date of May 2, 1950. This coincides nicely with the information in Bussacco’s Checklist that it was the next-to-last book in Series N which ran from June 1949-May 1950. The Checklist is less helpful when it comes to determining if this edition is a reprint of the FIRST Heritage Press Leaves of Grass which was the 2nd book in Series A, which ran from June 1937-May 1938.
Thanks so much for all the info, Django6924!
Updated 5/10/2020 by JF