Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Taking Possession of Leaves of Grass


Marked 100 in pencil in the upper right corner of the flyleaf, this 1905 edition of Leaves of Grass sat on our bookshelf for as far back as I can remember.

Published in Boston, dark green gold-embossed leather splendor: my father must have picked it up in a used bookstore on Fourth Avenue one rainy day in 1950s Manhattan. A day when he left the office early—a rarity—and headed downtown, perhaps ending with a few drinks in a bar near Washington Square before returning by commuter train to our suburban home.

He had attended NYU’s uptown campus, constructed on a bluff in The Bronx during the late nineteenth century. University Heights, as it was known, was the brainchild of Chancellor Hugh McCracken, who worried that the influx of working-class Italian immigrants into Greenwich Village, where NYU had risen in 1835, would destroy the school.

My father and his brother
NYU graduation, University Heights, 1947

As the diplomat and social observer Arthur Bartlett Maurice once quipped, “Whatever else Bohemia may be, it is nearly always yesterday.” My father, who probably didn’t know of the sharp-tongued Maurice, nevertheless would have believed that he had missed out by not attending the downtown campus even though it was considered less prestigious until the 1960s.

Now the book is in my lap, that same edition of Leaves of Grass, not musty but with a loose binding, 449 pages that include “Song of Myself” and conclude with “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” reflections written five years before the poet’s death in 1892.

My father liked “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Mannahatta,” and the elegiac “When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which memorialized President Lincoln. During the summer of 1975, he asked why I was reading the French Symbolists and not “a more cheerful poet, like Whitman.”  

The reason, pure and simple, was that Bob Dylan had invoked Verlaine and Rimbaud in his transcendent album, “Blood on the Tracks,” released earlier that year. 

Another question concerns the befuddling original owner of this particular copy of Leaves of Grass: James Wallig of Fall River, Mass. I’m not accustomed to being rebuffed by databases, but James is nowhere to be found even if I spell his name six different ways. The best option is Frank Lincoln Willig, a Boston grocer who makes an appearance in the 1915 census.


If Frank was James’ father, he neglected to tell his son not to write in books, although it might not have mattered because James was in a hurry to get to Leaves of Grass. Within a few days of acquiring the book on May 31, 1905, he took an inky pen to its pages to scrawl, sloppily, the dates on which he conquered various poems.


I imagine him sitting on the porch of an old frame house on the day after Decoration Day, possibly not far from “Maplecroft,” the mansion where Lizzie Borden and her sister lived after Lizzie’s acquittal for murder.

He scans the contents of the book and turns to page 298: “To Him That Was Crucified.”

                 We walk silent among disputes and assertions . . .

He marks the date, puts the book down, and picks up the Fall River Daily Herald, which someone has left on the table. He glances at an ad for Talbot & Company:

            Outing suits—new $5.00

            Duck Trousers 98c to $1.50

            Crash Trousers 98c

            Wash Vests $1.00-$5.00

            Straw Hats—all the shapes and sizes

It’s summertime in Fall River, 1905.



  1. I was also told to never write in books. Then you get to college and they give you all colors of highlighters to deface with reckless abandon.

  2. In a way it's a shame that written-in book's are not more valuable! Just being able to imagine the newspaper read by James Wallig in the summer of 1905 make his whole reading delicious. As is: "I am not accustomed to being rebuffed by databases," which is not a bad first line for a poem.

  3. I have never seen an old book marked up like that. Granted I do tear pages out of old worn books to collage with them. But to see it done in 1905 sparks my interest. Perhaps marked up books will garner value in the years to come. I' love to see more.

    It also reminds me of the book Ship of Theseus
    V. M. StrakaNov 2013

    Where several people make comments on the same book. The layering is fascinating.


July Night