Turning an Old Leaf

Last Monday afternoon I found myself struggling for inspiration. I had a paper due soon for my class English class on “Readings in American Literature,” but writer’s block knew no deadlines. I was writing a paper comparing the first and second editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and my professor suggested that if electronic transcriptions of the poems weren’t doing the trick, I should try heading over to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to handle the works myself.

Engravings of Walt Whitman from "Leaves of Grass".

That’s right, within its marble walls, the Beinecke held copies of the 150-year old collections I had only ever read about online! Tucked away in the reading room I marveled at the look and feel of the two editions. Not only were the poems edited and altered from one edition to the next, but the physical form of the book – its size, color, and texture – were changed as well. I got to read the poem “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now In Hand” while actually holding the 1851 edition in my hands. Observing the physical forms of these works added a whole new dimension to the way I approached my essay, and I walked out of the revolving door of Beinecke, ready to write.