Barbara Henry, “Walt Whitman’s Faces”

Title page, frontispiece linocut portrait of Whitman


The first page of the poem (Leaf of Faces), set as a type specimen; the first part of the poem refers to street signs and billboards. A photograph (digital) of contemporary street signs on Bleecker Street in Manhattan is opposite.


The second (billboards) and third page of the poem; the third page represents the second part of the poem where the poet describes the labels on bottles and jars in a pharmacy.


The fourth page continues the second part of the poem (labels) and the fifth page represents the third part, legal contracts and documents.



The sixth page of the poem represents broadsides, or theatrical posters. The seventh page begins the section of book pages.


Artist: Barbara Henry (Jersey City, NJ)

Title: Walt Whitman’s Faces (2012)

Medium/technique(s): letterpress/linocuts/photography

Edition size: 80

Number of pages: 35

Dimensions, open:10-3/4″ x 14-3/4″

Dimensions, closed: 10-3/4″ x 7-1/4″ x 3/8″


Artist Statement:

Walt Whitman’s Faces represents a long involvement with the work of the poet. The first book I set in type — at the University of Iowa in 1978 — was a selection of Whitman’s poems. In 2009 I was asked to write a bibliographical analysis of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass — his first with a commercial publisher. While reviewing the text I encountered the poem entitled “Leaf of Faces”. The poem had been one of the 12 poems in the first edition of 1855; six of these, including “Faces”, were entitled “Leaves of Grass” and six were left untitled. Reading the poem with its new title for the first time, I was struck by the use of printers’ terms. Whitman had been apprenticed to a newspaper printer at the age of twelve and always took a personal interest in the design and typography of his books. “Faces”, I thought, might refer to type faces. The critical history of the poem emphasized human physiognomy and did not include references to typography. I approached Karen Karbiener, the Whitman scholar who had asked me to write the analysis, and she encouraged me to pursue this idea. For me, it was a way to use my typographical training — and my experience of nineteenth-century letterpress technology — to promote a more complete understanding of a poem that had been heretofore neglected by scholars. Whitman’s love of typefaces is evident in the poem; as he looks around him he sees typefaces everywhere — on signs and labels, posters and documents — and they powerfully affect his experience of the world.  Each typeface elicits an emotional response. In order to convey this understanding of the poem, I chose to set the lines as a type specimen, identifying each new face as it was used, and trying to find appropriate faces to convey the meaning of the lines. The poem was written before 1855; it was not possible for me to use the same typefaces that Whitman would have known, so I did what I imagine the poet would have done in my place — I used what was available to me, choosing modern types (and some nineteenth-century faces) that seemed to convey the appropriate emotional meaning. The poem is preceded in the book by two essays, set by hand in Bulmer, that explain the critical history of the poem (by Karen Karbiener) and Whitman’s experience as a printer and my interpretation of the poem (by me). There are a series of linocut portraits of Whitman based on photographs, aging as the book moves forward, and two digitally-printed photographs of street signs: one from Whitman’s time and a contemporary image. The book also contains the only explicit poem that Whitman wrote about type, “A Font of Type”, with its references to the terms used for type sizes before the introduction of the point system. Completing this book felt like coming full circle for me; the practice of printing facilitating a deeper understanding of an important  piece of literature.