Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

"Anything Honest to Sell Books": Walt Whitman and the Autograph Monster

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

"Anything Honest to Sell Books": Walt Whitman and the Autograph Monster

Article excerpt

Walt Whitman claimEd to have "no rigid rule" for dealing with autograph requests, but towards the end of his life he had become well known among contemporaries for his cautious approach to swarming signature seekers.1 During the mid-nineteenth centur y, the persistence of what Whitman called the "autograph monster"-a growing number of men and women who begged and often lied their way to signatures from the nation's leading poets and novelists-signaled America's rapidly increasing appetite for collecting and consuming celebrity personalities (WWWC, 3:496). For Whitman, this monster was simply a fact of life. "Not a day but the autograph hunter is on my trail-chases me, dogs me! . . . Their subterfuges, deceptions, hypocrisies, are curious, nasty, yes damnable," W hitman complained to Horace Traubel. No request was to be met naively; even a letter from a young girl could bear "the grin of an old deceiver," an "old subterfuge" the poet often met with a laugh (WWWC, 2:82-83; 3:410-411).2 Monsters were everywhere.

Whitman's life would become punctuated by encounters with these persistent collectors. "I have no mail today except an autograph mail," Whitman tells Traubel in 1888: "an autograph mail, yes, and that I get every day. They all write me-hundreds write-strangers-they all beg autographs-tell funny tales about it, give funny reasons (some of them are pitiful-some of them are almost piteous)-I practically never answer them anymore. It takes about all the strength I have nowadays to keep the flies off " (WWWC, 1:366). Though Whitman's autograph would never become as revered by contemporary collectors as those of the signers of the Declaration of Independence-signatures that inspired their own cult following-the poet's canny management of his signature would earn him a unique place among literary professionals. Whitman's relationship with the autograph monster was markedly ambivalent, and, as I will argue, that ambivalence had a tremendous impact on the design and marketing of his final books. Like so many brands before and after him, Whitman would place a signature-his signature, written by hand or reproduced mechanically-at the center of his commercial identity. Spanning from the 1868 British edition of Poems by Walt Whitman, the first Whitman-book to include a facsimile of the poet's autograph, to the 1892 "deathbed" edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman's signature-produced in and on his books and requested every day through the mail-became an increasingly prominent marker of his personality and literary work.

This essay traces W hitman's relationship to the culture of autograph collecting during the nineteenth century. I begin by examining the emergence of the autograph hunter in America, focusing especially on the cultural significance of the celebrity signature after the Civil War and the relationships collectors developed with well-known writers like Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Howells, and Holmes. Whitman was far more protective of his autograph than his poetic peers; that guarded stance came to influence the way Whitman circulated his signature within the covers of Leaves of Grass, where he included it several times as part of a preconceived promotional scheme. Whitman's signature would become a central emblem of his literary brand-it appears in and/or on nearly every volume the poet published from 1881 until his death in 1892-the perfect symbol of what David Haven Blake identifies as "Whitman's remarkable merger of poetry and publicity."3 Whitman's efforts to join his autograph with his poetry tapped into the emergence of what Tamara Plakins Thornton calls the "handwriting romantics"-autograph collectors and handwriting analysts-subcultures with a taste for tokens of celebrity that some believed could reveal the character of their inscriber.4 For Whitman, the autograph was not only a new and foolproof way to drum up business; it was yet another strategy to emphasize the author's place within Leaves of Grass through the signature's "transcendental form of presentness. …

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