Eric Conrad, “The Poet as Printer’s Fist: Walt Whitman’s Indicative Hand” (pp. 54–86)

At the intersection of the professional author’s ascent in the United States and the growing centralization and sophistication of the advertising trade, a new anxiety surfaces in the world of nineteenth-century American publishing: how best to sell the literary text and, in turn, market its author. While a number of vocal literary figures perceived the encroachment of advertising, tainted by its ties to patent medicine fraud, as anathema to the genteel world of letters, Walt Whitman eagerly embraced its promotional potential. Nowhere is that affinity more pronounced than in the visual symbol Whitman used to represent his revolutionary poetics within the third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860): a butterfly perched on an outstretched index finger. Contemporaneous readers would have instantly recognized that curious pointing hand as a manicule or printer’s fist, an icon with deep ties to both manuscript culture and the world of commercial advertising. In this essay I track two trajectories—Whitman’s insistence that his poetry merely gestured toward a future, superior generation of poets and the 1860 edition’s relationship to developments in American book design and literary marketing—to demonstrate that Whitman’s butterfly icon does not simply brand his poetry with a recognizable symbol: by embracing the iconography of nineteenth-century promotion to point readers to their unrealized poetic future, it visually distills the central argument of Leaves of Grass. Understood within these contexts, Whitman’s pointing finger insists that Leaves of Grass is itself an advertisement, an audacious and ephemeral announcement for a so-called new breed of poets.

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