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Walt Whitman and the bohemians

14NELitNews - Walt Whitman. (Library of Congress)
Library of Congress

Walt Whitman and the bohemians

Though Justin Martin’s “Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians” (Da Capo) orbits around Pfaff’s basement saloon in Manhattan, it was a Boston publisher that launched the poet’s career. After Whitman self-published two editions of “Leaves of Grass” to little effect, the Boston-based Thayer & Eldridge in 1860 put out the bigger, better edition that established his literary reputation. Martin calls it “gorgeous and obscene, earthy and transcendent.”

Whitman (above) wasn’t much of a drinker, but he hung out at Pfaff’s almost every night from 1858 to 1862. The ringleader of the coterie was Henry Clapp, founder and editor of the Saturday Press, a cranky, short-lived magazine that brought Mark Twain national fame by publishing his story about the jumping frog of Calaveras County. It was after Whitman’s work appeared in the Saturday Press that Thayer & Eldridge, run by two men in their 20s, reached out to Whitman. He had written 100 poems subsequent to self-publishing “Leaves of Grass” and was ready to publish an expanded edition.

Whitman moved to Boston to oversee the printing of his book, selecting typefaces and dictating the spacing between words. At one point, Ralph Waldo Emerson showed up at the publishing house. He failed to persuade Whitman to cut some of the bawdy poems.

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The third edition of “Leaves of Grass” brought Whitman scathing reviews — the Boston Wide World called it “the veriest trash ever written” — as well as recognition of his unconventional literary talent.

Poetry of surveillance

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“Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics” (Black Ocean) originated from an appeal to prominent American poets. Andrew Ridker, who was working at the Boston Review, sought to assemble a selection of poems on the subject of surveillance in the wake of a series of disclosures about the tracking of Americans on the Internet and through phone records by the government and others. The response was so enthusiastic — some of those he approached already had written poems on the subject — that Ridker enlarged his ambitions. Instead of simply publishing a feature in the Review, he brought the idea of putting out an anthology to Black Ocean. The press’s Boston-based publisher Janaka Stucky liked the idea and broadened the call for submissions to include emerging poets.

Stucky hopes the book will broaden and deepen the national conversation about surveillance. Cities have installed cameras that are frequently accompanied by signs forbidding the taking of pictures. “In this way,” Stucky wrote in an e-mail, “the simple act of surveillance alone becomes one wrought with implications of power, and by that same token the capacity for the abuse of that power . . . Whether or not you believe we are currently oppressed isn’t the point so much as that surveillance — the power dynamic of one watching another — creates the potential for it, and by looking at this power dynamic we can help keep it honest.”

Poets Dan Chelotti and Thera Webb will join Harvard professors Stephen Burt and Jorie Graham and former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky in a reading from the book at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Harvard Book Store.

Coming out

 “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster)

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 “Edge of Eternity”by Ken Follett (Dutton)

 “Cosby: His Life and Times” by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster)

Pick of the week

Dana Brigham of Brookline Booksmith recommends “Not Fade Away: A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found” by Rebecca Alexander with Sascha Alper (Gotham): “In this time of many memoirs, this one stands out beautifully. As a bookseller, I know the demand for books to encourage and teach living in the moment and approaching life with grace. Alexander is right there with her own story of loss and obstacles overcome with tenacity, honesty, and humor.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.