Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Thayer, William Wilde [1829-1896] and Charles W. Eldridge [1837-1903]
Author:
Donlon, David Breckenridge
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Thayer and Eldridge was a Boston publishing firm responsible for the third edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1860). The firm also published Echoes of Harper's Ferry (1860), by James Redpath, and William Douglas O'Connor's Harrington (1860), as well as other abolitionist books and pamphlets. 

When the publishers, who saw Whitman's poetry as consistent with their politics, learned the New York firm Fowler and Wells (printers of the 1855 and 1856 volumes of Leaves of Grass) had severed its relationship with Whitman, they composed a letter imploring the poet to allow them to publish his work. According to William Wilde Thayer's unpublished autobiography (1892), the letter was drafted by Thayer and approved by his partner, Charles W. Eldridge. Whitman readily agreed. 

Whitman oversaw all the details of the printing himself with little interference from Thayer and Eldridge. His letters show that his plans for the book met with skepticism from the printers at first because of its idiosyncratic design, with multiple type-faces and illustrations. But like the poet's two previous editions, the Thayer and Eldridge publication showed that Whitman's ability as a designer was nearly as great as his poetic genius, and even the taciturn Boston printers were won over in the end. 

According to Thayer's account, Whitman's stereotype plates cost $800, apparently the highest figure Thayer and Eldridge ever paid for plates. The poet was to receive a ten percent royalty on the sales of the book. The book was first issued in May, and by July the publishers announced that they expected a second printing to sell out in a month's time, proposing that the third printing be split between a cheaper paperback and a deluxe hardbound edition. 

Buoyed by his publisher's enthusiasm, Whitman planned a new volume of poems, Banner at Day-Break, which Thayer and Eldridge advertised in November. But by December the expectation of prolonged hostilities between the North and South dried up the capital for investments, and Thayer and Eldridge, overextended and victimized by poor business dealings, declared bankruptcy. Neither Whitman's new volume nor the planned third issue of the 1860 Leaves of Grass ever came to fruition. 

After the collapse of the publishing firm, Thayer drifted out of publishing and became a newspaper editor in the Midwest and West, remaining a committed activist and republican. Eldridge maintained a friendship with Whitman for many years, and in fact helped the poet secure his position in the army paymaster's office in Washington, D.C., during the war. 

Bibliography 

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 

Callow, Phillip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. 

Thayer, William Wilde. "Autobiography of William Wilde Thayer." Unpublished manuscript, 1892. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.


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