Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is arguably one of American history’s most innovative and influential poets. His life story includes time spent in Washington DC during the Civil War where he worked as a male nurse in the Union hospitals. Whitman was so sickened by the horrors he witnessed during those years that it influenced him to write a series of poems that would ultimately be published in 1865 under the title of Drum-Taps. A second edition was soon printed that included additional verse written after Lincoln’s assassination. Both editions are extremely rare and pricey with asking prices anywhere from $3000 to $5000 depending on condition. The work is highly sought after by poetry and literary first edition collectors in addition to those who want the work for its Civil War connection. These poems were collected into a later edition of Leaves of Grass, ultimately growing in importance in the book as the war's historical significance became clearer in Whitman's mind. Whitman would later write that Leaves of Grass "revolves around that four year's war, which, as I was in the midst of it, becomes, in Drum-Taps, pivotal to the rest entire."
I’ve just learned that sixteen of those poems were brought together in 1991 in a deluxe, fine press edition titled Wrenching Times, Poems from Drum-Taps, which were selected by M. Wynn Thomas. According to the publisher, the poems are described as “standing unique as war poetry. Whitman's Drum-Taps continues to offer us an absolutely convincing and compelling poetic account of men at war.” I’m definitely an admirer of fine press books, which is bookmaking as art, and discuss them in an earlier post. It appears to be quite a production, courtesy of the Gregynog Press of Wales for their artistic vision is highlighted by a 30-copy edition printed on handmade paper and in a special binding. It is illustrated with colored wood-engravings by the American artist, Gaylord Schanilec, and features covers of hand-painted calf leather representing a pale blue sky, with multi-colored morocco leather overlays on lower covers forming the image of an abstract mountainscape. (bottom left) Open the book up and one will find linings made of suede. The entire package is presented in a blue cloth folding box. One dealer currently offering a copy describes it as “a beautifully crafted book with a superb hand binding” with an asking price of $5000. Deep pockets, indeed. Also available is a 450-copy edition designed and printed by David Esslemont with Hugh Willmer using Monotype Baskerville type. This version is illustrated with 8 multi-colored wood engravings executed by Schanilec during his residency at the Gregynog Press and printed from the original wood-blocks. This fine press edition is currently available for $500 or so. (bottom right)