When Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, one of the most remarkable aspects of Whitman's idiosyncratic volume was the engraving of a daguerreotype of the poet that appeared opposite the title page (see Figure 8.1). Since the title page did not contain the author's name, the visual image stood as a kind of surrogate identification, as if the authorizing presence of the volume was more effectively represented by an illustration than by the more conventional linguistic sign. The reader was greeted with a body in print unaccompanied by a name in print.
That engraving has come to be one of the most familiar icons in American literature. Much has been written about the image - how it represented Whitman as a “common man,” a worker instead of an intellectual, a poet whose poems emerged from his body and not just his head, a person who lived outdoors (or at least who was so contemptuous of social conventions that he wore his hat indoors and would not, as he indicated in the preface to his book, take it off to signal subservience to anyone, even - and especially - the president). It was an emblem of the poet of the body more than of the poet of the soul. The image centered on the torso instead of the face, and the portrait indicated that the poetry that would emerge from such a poet would be different from what had come before - earthier and more direct and more sensual. Over the next century, the image would prove to be highly influential: It gradually worked to transform the way most American poets portrayed themselves on their book jackets and frontispieces. A growing number of poets traded their coats and ties and face portraits for a1 fresco body poses in informal clothes - poses that echoed, again and again, Whitman's originating image of the poet as literal outsider.