Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whitman's Lines

As I tumble and stretch through Whitman's 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass (LOG), I find myself unable to dismiss the differences between my Library of Congress edition (which includes the 1855, titleless, LOG) and the "original" manuscript, available online.

To say that I draw differences between the "original" and "replica" seems already to place myself into boiling water. Above, I've posted a photo of, first, the original 1855 manuscript as Whitman himself printed it (Whitman was believed to have set at least 10 pages). And below, a photo of the Library of Congress' (LOC) printing of the 1855, "first," edition. The obvious difference (although surely there are others) between the two is line break. Whitman's print (and here we must mean the text that Whitman's own hand pressed against) runs the line beginning with "Have you reckoned the landscape [..]" to the word "painted." The LOC print runs the line to "that." It's best to realize this by glancing above...

Initially, this seemed of little consequence, but as I finished up Whitman's first edition earlier today, I felt this "difference" (if one eventually decides to call it that) a rich territory to explore. Labeling this as "difference" helps us ask a). what makes a poem a poem (line break?); and b). if the LOC print is supposed to exist as a replica of Whitman's "first" print, then could this issue of line break obliterate (at least in part) its status as such?

At the moment, I'll respond to my own question in the following way: On the one hand, the varying line breaks seem enough to suggest to us that the LOC edition presents one with a particular version of LOG. But there is a way in which we can say that this version (necessarily implying departure, I think) is uniquely tied to Whitman's 1855 print not through difference, but similarity.

Whitman's lines constantly refuse their margins. Perhaps if Whitman could have done it so, LOG would have been a scroll stretching sideways. In this way, the LOC printing of LOG presents to us (in the way in which its lines differ from Whitman's original manuscript) the problem of genre and medium that Whitman's work seems so deeply self-conscious about. Presentation happens through particular mediums, the printed book for example. The page is not limitless, as Whitman shows us when he is forced to break a line only when the margin itself makes him, when the physical, material limitations of the medium forbid the endless stretch. Here, then, one might suggest that the LOC printing of LOG reminds us of and represents us with the very concerns Whitman himself wrote into and about when composing LOG. Leaves of Grass "took substance and form so that it might be" printed in a book, a book whose materiality would ultimately depend upon the particular printing conditions of a particular social world.

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