Walt Whitman Unites Students, Watkinson Library, and Hartford Business

Poetry Students partner with Hartford Prints! to acquire “Leaves of Grass”

In an act of serendipity, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass brought students of Clare Rossini’s first-year seminar, “The Practice of Poetry,” together with Richard Ring of the Watkinson Library and Hartford Prints!, a local letterpress studio. Students had the WhitmanType.jpgunique opportunity to operate a vintage printing press and support the College’s efforts to acquire a first edition of Leaves of Grass. 

So, earlier this week, 16 first-year students arrived at Hartford Prints! to print 500 bookmarks on a Vandercook printing press with type that they set themselves. Each student left with three, and the others will be given to supporters of the Watkinson Library’s acquisition of a first edition copy of Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s collection of poetry published in 1855.

The bookmarks include a line from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself that was selected by the students after a vigorous discussion of various options:

“My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach. With the twirl of my
tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.” –Walt Whitman

Rossini, herself a poet and artist-in-residence in Trinity’s English department, said she wanted to have her students engage with language in a different way. To that end, she said, this project was a great success.

“When you set lines of poetry this way, you’re creating a connection to the words,” said Rossini. “We read a lot of contemporary American poetry in the seminar, and in doing so, talked about the history of free verse. That’s when Whitman’s name first came up: that 19th century guy from Long Island who abandoned European forms and booted American poetry in a new direction. The students loved Whitman’s work and were fascinated by the fact that Whitman hand set portions of his first edition of Leaves of Grass himself. That’s what got me thinking.”


Richard Ring and Devan Suggs '17
 Meanwhile, the Watkinson Library at Trinity just happened to be raising money to purchase that: a first edition of Leaves of Grass, which is currently on loan to the Library. A copy recently sold at auction for over $200,000, but Trinity has an opportunity to purchase one for significantly less, said Ring, Watkinson’s head curator and librarian.

One of the reasons that the first edition of Leaves of Grass is so special, Ring said, in addition to the type having been hand set by Whitman himself, is that Whitman aggressively revised the poems over many decades. So while the first edition is rather slim, he said, subsequent editions grew to be much longer and thicker.

This collaboration between the Watkinson Library and Rossini’s class is just the latest event to highlight the effort to raise funds to purchase the book. Last month, students and faculty participated in a marathon reading of Song of Myself, a selection from the book, at Vernon Social.

On February 20, the College will welcome Ed Folsom, the Roy J. Carver Professor of English at The University of Iowa and an authority on Whitman, for a lecture entitled “I pass so poorly with paper and types: Walt Whitman’s First 795 Tries at Leaves of Grass.

Additionally, Kaitlin Lennon of Hartford Prints! is working on a limited edition piece of art that will contribute to the Watkinson Library’s fundraising efforts.

Clare Rossini is pictured on the home page. More photos from the class's visit to Hartford Prints! can be found here.