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Walt Whitman and the Question of Copyright
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American Literary History 15.2 (2003) 248-275



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Walt Whitman and the Question of Copyright

Martin T. Buinicki

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Walt Whitman is not the first author who comes to mind when one considers the question of copyright in nineteenth-century America. Despite careful consideration of Whitman's publishing career, little has been said regarding his views on the subject and the apparent contradiction between the poet's now-famous declaration of 1855, "I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose 1 27), and his staunch defense of his literary property rights. 2 The omission is most glaring when we consider how Whitman's support of an international copyright law put him in direct opposition to printers, bookbinders, and typesetters—the very artisans Whitman so often aligned himself with in his writing—who argued strenuously against such a law for over 50 years. Such contradiction is not simply a matter of artistic beliefs diverging from professional realities. Taking out a copyright would have had serious implications for a poet whose philosophy was built on the notion that the poem belonged as much to the reader as the poet and, furthermore, that the book was more than a book: "Camerado, this is nobook,/ Who touches this touches a man" (611). Taken at face value, Whitman's careful tending of his copyrights appears not only to contradict his democratic declarations but also to trouble his bold assertions of artistic independence: by scrupulously protecting his copyrights, Whitman turns to an institutional mechanism to ensure control of his "embodied" text. Copyright would seem literally to ensure self-possession instead of encouraging the scattering and diffusion of his words on which his poetic identity was based. Yet despite these apparent contradictions, a closer examination of Whitman's concerns with copyright—both with the controversy that raged throughout his literary life over international copyright, as well as his own occasionally tangled business dealings—reveals how Whitman viewed copyright not as a necessary evil of publishing or a necessity of self-interest, but as an essential [End Page 248] element of the open, democratic exchange he attempted to foster with his poetry.

Whitman was aware of the appearance of contradiction between his feelings about copyright and his poetic ideals. On 5 March 1891, two days after the international copyright bill was passed by the US Congress, Horace Traubel records Whitman's response: "We have our international copyright at last—the bill is signed today. The United States, which should have been the first to pass the thing, is the last. Now all civilized nations have it. It is a question of honesty—of morals—of a literature, in fact. I know it will be said by some—Here, now, how is it that you, Walt Whitman, author of 'Leaves of Grass,' are in favor of such a thing? Ought the world not to own the world in common? Well, when others do, we will, too. This copyright bill is the doing as we would be done by" (8: 54-55). The somewhat grumpy pragmatism evident in Whitman's "do unto others" defense of his views is offset by the revelation that the international copyright law was more than a business matter for Whitman; it was "a question of honesty—of morals—of a literature, in fact." His observation that the US should have taken the lead in passing the copyright law indicates how he saw the issue tied to broader democratic principles. These remarks echo statements he had written in support of international copyright, both publicly and privately, for nearly 50 years, beginning during his days as a journalist and continuing throughout his years as author of Leaves of Grass. 3 While many authors supported international copyright, Whitman's view of copyright as a component of his democratic beliefs and poetic practice instead of simply a matter of fair trade distinguishes him from authors like James Russell Lowell, who spoke out more frequently regarding the issue. 4 More than a question...