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Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaf of Faces’

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In a poem towards the end of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, in 1860 entitled ‘Leaf of Faces’, Whitman explored a printer’s metaphor, the meaning of ‘faces’, comparing the expressive appearance of humans and that of type on the page. Within a poetic structure that resembles both a walk and leafing through a foundry specimen book, Whitman catalogues the faces he sees, describing a human parade, or roadside signs and billboards, labels, broadsides and book pages – descriptions that address emotional and spiritual qualities and never specify exactly whether they apply to human or type faces. As Karen Karbiener (2012) notes in her essay ‘Reading the Promise of Faces’: ‘His descriptions seldom involve physical appearance; race is never mentioned and gender rarely comes up.’ What interests the poet is the importance of physical appearance as an indicator of deeper meaning. In type, the shapes of the letters suggest a meaning independent of their use, a subliminal expressive power that can be read instantly, before the words form in the mind. His belief in phrenology – the then-popular study of the shape of the skull and its correlation to personality characteristics – may have led him to this idea. His employment in the printing and publishing trades from an early age – as a compositor, journalist, editor and publisher – informed a deep interest in the design and production of his books of poetry. Printers’ jargon often turns up in his work, as veiled double-entendres perhaps only explicable to other initiates of the trade.
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Keywords: books; letterforms; poetry; printing; publishing; typography

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Independent scholar

Publication date: March 1, 2011

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