Since his death in 1892, messianic American bard Walt Whitman has been the subject of countless literary and artistic tributes, from composer Benjamin Britten setting Whitman to music to Breaking Bad using Leaves of Grass as a plot device. A design student even made naked-men typefaces based on Whitman’s work.
Perhaps the most gorgeous homage of late is Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself, published by Tin House books. Here, designer and illustrator Allen Crawford illustrates and hand-letters the bearded vagabond’s timeless poem, the cornerstone of Whitman’s famously banned collection, Leaves of Grass. Originally self-published in 1855 and spanning more than 60 pages, Whitman’s “barbaric yawps,” as he called them, bloom and grow into Crawford’s 234-page illuminated manuscript.
“I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd,” Crawford writes in the book’s introduction. That certainly parallels how Whitman felt about his technique. More interestingly, the way the artwork is laid out forces you to think sonically–reading Whitman’s poem out loud is in itself an art. At any rate, it’s satisfying to see “the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind” conveyed through Crawford’s hard-worked blend of text and drawings.
Crawford lives in Philadelphia, where Whitman spent his final years, and where Whitman left a collection of letters, manuscripts, and personal effects for historians and archivists to plumb–and which the designer obsessively studied. He completed the project over the course of a year–Crawford estimates he spent about 2,560 hours laboring over it in his basement, often well into the night, with a simple setup of two drafting tables, tracing paper, pens, vellum, and a light box. When illustrating, he preferred to improvise, not plan. Of his artistic process, he writes:
I try to treat the poem as almost a landscape, in the sense that I’m exploring this unknown territory and I’m taking field notes from the mind of Whitman. He treats ‘Song of Myself’ as this broad, epic sweeping poem where he’s trying to include everything about American life he’s experienced. So it is a kind of landscape, a kind of world. It is a kind of continent in itself. And as you’re traveling through it, you have different impressions, your style will change, the type will change, sometimes the type will take the fore and you’ll get a very pictorial sort of a interpretation, or a symbolic one. Sometimes the image doesn’t necessarily jive, and isn’t depicting something that’s actually in the poem. I’m trying to provide a parallel narrative to Whitman’s in visual form.
Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself is available from Tinhouse Books for $20.