Walt Whitman and the History of Special Collections

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In preparation for this Thursday’s Walt Whitman Poetry Reading, we would like to highlight our collection of Whitman materials, as well as this particular poet’s significance to the history of Special Collections. In the late 1940s through the 1950s, a group of Tulsa book collectors known as “The Tulsa Bibliophiles” determined to amass as complete a collection of material by and about Walt Whitman as possible. The result was an impressive compilation of Whitman first editions and critical works, as well as a number of Whitman-related ephemeral objects. The collection was placed on deposit with the University of Tulsa in 1956, and in 1966 the surviving Bibliophiles donated the collection to the university. Although the University of Tulsa had been acquiring rare materials since the first decades of the twentieth century, prior even to the creation of a Special Collections department, the majority of our holdings were Native American materials until we received the Tulsa Bibliophiles donation, which became the foundational gift for our literary collections.

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One of our most notable Whitman acquisitions is a first edition Leaves of Grass. First published by Whitman himself in 1855, he continued to edit and revise Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892. Thus, there is great variation between the text of the first edition and that of the final edition. Out of the 795 copies that Whitman produced during the first printing, it is estimated that a mere 200 survive today. Since Whitman employed a handset press, the first edition could not be reprinted as there were no plates. The type was redistributed after Whitman completed the printing. Further, the handset type on the press shifted during the printing, arguably making each first edition unique.

After reading Leaves of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson immediately wrote to Whitman, memorably remarking, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career […]”. Please join us this Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m. in the Ann & Jack Graves Faculty Study for a reading of selections taken from the first edition Leaves of Grass.

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