Walt Whitman and the Question of Copyright

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2003


(excerpt) 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.