Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Plates for Leaves of Grass

Plates for 1860 Leaves of Grass, Library of Congress


The plates used for printing the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass have an interesting story. The Boston publisher’s Thayer & Eldridge first owned and used the plates for printing. However around 1877, a new publisher bought the plates and began ‘pirating’ copies of Leaves of Grass.  The Worthington editions were exactly the same as the originals, with an additional eight pages of other Worthington printed (also pirated?) books. I’ll let Walt tell you the rest:


“W. discussed the Thayer and Eldridge plates, in possession of Worthington, New York. Worthington prints edition after edition and sells them. Sometimes W. seems indignant. Sometimes he only laughs the affair away. “Worthington is a humbug – pays me nothing: yet I am averse to going to law about it:  going to law is like going to hell:  it’s too much like trouble even if we win. Worthington no doubt has a theory justifying it which puts me out of his court. In a case so obvious it would seem as though things might very easily be brought to a head in my behalf. But who knows? The law’s a tricksy thing to fool with, even for righteousness’ sake. W. laughed:   It’s a really long story. Worthington is known in the trade as ‘holy Dick’:  he combines piety with this other virtues. ‘Holy Dick’! Well – he has a lot of debris to unload before he can enter the Kingdom. Dave rails at me for not pushing Worthington – and Tom too, says” ‘You should drive him into the Wall.” I say yes, yes, yes: but when it comes to do anything I rather decide for no. Holy Dick! He’s a sour mess to me:  I don’t feel much like having any sort of encounter with him, good or bad.”



Later Walt talked to Traubel about receiving some ‘royalties’ from Worthington for the pirated copies. Walt says:


“W. alluded to Kennedy’s letter in the current Critic dealing with Worthington’s reissues of the Thayer & Eldridge volume. “I would like to rehearse the whole story – it has elements all its own. It is a long story, too. Worthington – ‘Holy Dick’ they call him – bought the plates – has done as he pleased with them ever since – never consulting me. To hell with Walt Whitman! Walt Whitman be damed! Dick wouldn’t use sue vile phrases but that’s what it all comes to. He might easily use vile phrases and be a better man. He is a pious Presbyterian – seems to be a publiserial freebooter (making no bones about it either). Jim Scovel once went to New York and frightened him into making a payment of fifty dollars, that fifty dollars being turned over to me. I think there was another twenty-five dollars paid at another time – I don’t know when. I acknowledged both, on account, as royalty. Worthington wrote to me, at St. Louis, while I was with Jeff, years ago, proposing that I should make five-years’ contract with him- he wanted a new edition, containing new matter ( I should say this was about 1877) – which proposal I turned down quick and sharp, telling him that three later editions or more had made the old plates worthless – except, I might have added, for trouble. I again prohibited his printing and selling of the old book but he went on, no doubt thinking me a ‘soft’, as in fact I have been.  Kennedy does not know about the royalty I accepted. There may be some construction of the law which would interpret my acceptance of any royalty as a consideration – I do not know. You know how Thayer & Eldridge bused during the war – how they were sold out. Worthington got the plates by purchase. He at first pretended that he has bought a big mess of loose sheets – was only using them – but that was a tale out of the whole cloth: I know the printer through whom Worthington bought the plates and he said Worthington was treating me a fish tale. I am averse to litigation – find I must not trouble or worry myself over such matters- make myself subject to the beck and call of courts. I like your suggestion that Ingersoll should be asked to look a little after Hold Dick. I was a for long time wiling to stomach it all, but Worthington has acted so hoggisly, so impertinently, I feel as though I should now shake him up. He is easily frightened, as the Scovel incident shows. Nothing would please Dave McKay better than to have me go at Worthington hammer and tongs- and Dave’s feeling in the matter is not mercenary, but simply righteous anger. If the royalty acceptance should be considered as nullifying my case I should submit to the inevitable processes of the universe.”





Image:  Library of Congress


Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp.195, 250.

Category: Leaves of Grass

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