The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

Oct. 20, 2005

Walt Whitman Featured As Poet, Bookmaker In UI Symposium, Exhibition

Revered American poet Walt Whitman did not subscribe to the aphorism, "You can't judge a book by its cover." Early training as a printer's apprentice gave Whitman such appreciation for the style, type, binding and other physical attributes of a book that his work cannot be understood fully outside the context of the packages he crafted so carefully, said Ed Folsom, Carver Professor of English in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

To facilitate a more detailed scholarly and public examination of Whitman's publishing prowess, Folsom will lead a symposium and guest curate an exhibit at the UI Museum of Art, "Whitman Making Books: Books Making Whitman." The symposium, sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, will be held Nov. 10-12 at the Museum of Art, where the exhibit runs from Nov. 5 to Feb. 12. The exhibit and symposium also are funded in part by an Arts and Humanities Initiative Major Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Free online registration is required for the symposium ( but the museum exhibit is free and open to the public.

Folsom, an Obermann Fellow, said the symposium and exhibit mark the first examination of a major American author as a bookmaker in addition to a writer.

"For his whole life, Whitman never composed a line of poetry without in his mind's eye putting it on a composing stick in the print shop," Folsom said. "His poetry is absolutely shaped out of his experience as a printer. We're now starting to look at Whitman's books for the first time as material objects and considering how would readers have reacted."

For example, the first edition of "Leaves of Grass" was printed on large paper commonly used for legal documents in Whitman's day because that was the only printer he had access to, Folsom said. The second edition was a tiny devotional book and the third edition resembled a bible in size, shape and type. In 1860 as the volume was being prepared for its first commercial printing by a major Boston publisher, Whitman actually went to the print shop to direct the typesetters on the mix of typefaces he had selected.

"He produced this wild page with incredibly diverse types all on the same page-something that is lost in modern reprints," Folsom said. "Considering the country was approaching Civil War, Whitman was actually making a powerful statement about unity in diversity -- he was talking about the United States living together with its diversity all bound under one cover."

The Obermann Symposium will feature many of the nation's leading scholars on Whitman and on book arts, including a keynote by Ezra Greenspan of Southern Methodist University, one of the founders of book studies. Greenspan's lecture "Walt Whitman and U.S. Print Culture: How the Medium Suits the Man," is the UI Center for the Book's annual Brownell Lecture and begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10. Participants will meet all day Nov. 11 to share recent scholarship, and the symposium will conclude Saturday, Nov. 12 with an open panel discussion on "Whitman as Bookmaker," moderated by Alan Trachtenberg of Yale University. A complete schedule is online,

The UI Museum of Art exhibit will include many rare editions of Whitman's work, including the first-ever public display of the largest private Whitman collection in the world, held by Des Moines physician Kendall Reed, Dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Des Moines University. The exhibition will feature editions that demonstrate printing and design innovations from 1855 to the present. It also will be the largest exhibit of fine press responses to Whitman ever displayed, Folsom said, with illustrated editions, miniatures, and the largest "Leaves of Grass" ever printed-a 60-pound mammoth with wooden covers. Folsom and David Schoonover, Curator of Rare Books at UI Libraries, will curate the exhibit and will lead a guided tour on the first night of the symposium, Thursday, Nov. 10.

Also tied to the museum exhibit, Iowa City pianist Dan Knight will present the world premiere of his Walt Whitman Suite -- 11 poems from "Leaves of Grass" -- on Friday, Nov. 18 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The UI Museum of Art, located on North Riverside Drive in Iowa City, is open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and noon to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. Public metered parking is available in UI parking lots west and north of the museum. For more information visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT(S): Media: Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011,;; Program: Ed Folsom,