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Letter by letter, turning Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ into a work of art

July 25, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
In an old industrial building in San Francisco, the lines of American poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” are being printed exactly as they were when the first edition was published in 1855. Jeffrey Brown visits Arion Press, one of the country’s last fine book printers that handcrafts works from start to finish.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, Gutenberg in the age of the digital tablet.

Jeffrey Brown has a story about craftsmanship and a great American poet.

JEFFREY BROWN: “I celebrate myself, and what I assume, you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” the famous first lines of a landmark of American literature, Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

Whitman was 36 years old when he self-published the first edition in 1855. A trained printer, he personally hand-set some of the lines of type in the book. Now Whitman’s work is being printed again, just as he did it in the 1800s, on movable type printing presses, the setting this time, in an old industrial building in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park, where the Arion Press is one of the country’s last fine book printers, and limited edition, handmade works are crafted from start to finish under one roof.

ANDREW HOYEM, Publisher, Arion Press: The making of a book is a very, very complicated process.

JEFFREY BROWN: The man who’s kept it all going for four decades is founder, publisher, and a poet himself, Andrew Hoyem.

ANDREW HOYEM: We do what we do not to be quaint, but to use these techniques of letterpress printing, printing from metal types, because when the type is pressed into good quality paper, it creates an aesthetic effect you cannot achieve any other way.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the foundry where molten lead is turned into either individual letters or lines of type on 100-year-old machines, to the press room where the type is hand-set, letter by letter, line by line and individual pages are fed into the presses, to the book bindery, where bindings are hand-sewn and a hammer is a useful tool, the results are works of art.

They’re not cheap: Books sell from $500 into the thousands. But this is a place where details are everything, and the aesthetic stakes are extraordinarily high.

ANDREW HOYEM: There’s some artfulness that’s involved in making all the myriad decisions about what type you’re going to use, what size of that type. The margins have to lift your soul.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lift your soul?

ANDREW HOYEM: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The margins lift your soul?

ANDREW HOYEM: Yes, because, otherwise, I mean, if you just center the type on the page, you would have this feeling of, oh, I think I’m sinking.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Poetry has been a special focus for Arion from the beginning, as has the inclusion of artwork commissioned specially for projects from leading artists, such as Wayne Thiebaud, Kara Walker, and Kiki Smith.

To mark the printing of Arion’s 100th book, and its 40th anniversary, Hoyem wanted something special, and found it in “Leaves of Grass.”  An iconic portrait of a young bearded Walt Whitman greets readers on the opening page, just as it did in the original. Whitman would revise and republish “Leaves” throughout his life. But it was the first edition that changed everything.

ROBERT HASS, Former U.S. Poet Laureate: I think it is the holy book of American poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Former poet laureate Robert Hass says that Whitman’s language, his directness about democratic ideals, urban life, sexuality, and so much more announced to the world an authentic American voice.

ROBERT HASS: I think it sits right next to the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence as one of the most powerful documents of American culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because?

ROBERT HASS: Because it brought together so many things in the 19th century around certain ideas of what this country was and could be, that it ought to celebrate and not be afraid of its diversity.

JEFFREY BROWN: For their new edition, Hoyem and his team of 12 craftspeople went all out. Hoyem himself hand-fed every sheet that went in and out of the 1920 platen press, a task he did regularly during Arion’s early years.

This is manual labor, right?

ANDREW HOYEM: Sure is.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Handmade cotton rag paper from England was dampened in a time-consuming process to prep it for printing. Twenty-seven-year-old Chris Godek, three years into a four-year paid apprentice program at Arion, spent hours recreating Whitman’s verses.

What do you tell your friends? I mean, what do they think about it?

CHRIS GODEK, Apprentice, Arion Press: They think I’m crazy.

JEFFREY BROWN: They think you’re crazy because…

CHRIS GODEK: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … you’re doing this old-fashioned…

CHRIS GODEK: Yes, doing it the old-fashioned way. Why not just use a normal printer? Why not…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, and why not? What do you tell them?

ANDREW HOYEM: It’s an art. It’s a lost form, to see like you using your hands to create every aspect of the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lost form? Well, not yet. And Arion and a number of other presses around the country are a mission to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Arion raises funds not only for its books, but to preserve the historic equipment, and for the apprenticeship program that’s trained and graduated 20 individuals since 2000. A number have stayed on, including lead bookbinder Sarah Songer, who we watched putting the final touches on the “Leaves of Grass” edition.

SARAH SONGER, Arion Press: This is the piece of stamped letter. It’s been backed in Japanese paper, and we have taken the ends down so that they’re thin. So this piece of leather gets glued off, and then laid down to line up with this grove.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s going to be the spine of a book?

SARAH SONGER: And that’s the spine of the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Andrew Hoyem says he’s confident this traditional craft will continue into the future.

Are there enough young people out in the world to keep this craft, art alive?

ANDREW HOYEM: We hope so. We have people who approach us who are interested in joining us, because they want to do something that is hands-on, produces something physical, tactile, that can be appreciated for the aesthetics of the physical object.

And, remarkably, we have more and more collectors who are joining us, from, you know, the Silicon Valley, people who are involved in high tech. They want to have books that are physical objects that they can appreciate.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, even the masters of the digital age must turn to the old masters for this kind of work. Arion Press is printing just 275 copies of “Leaves of Grass,” with production continuing through the summer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Online, Jeff has an extended conversation with former poet laureate Robert Hass. You will find that on Art Beat.