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The Would-Be Book of Marriage: Edward Weston and Charis Wilson Remake Leaves of Grass (1942)

Last February I flew back to my old stomping grounds at The University of Louisville for the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900. The reason? To convince a surprisingly robust audience that the American photographer Edward Weston (1886 – 1958) and his wife, the aspiring poet Charis Wilson (1914 – 2009), produced the most strikingly marital edition of Leaves of Grass to date… doing so just as their own marriage fell apart. I’m thinking of the little known, Limited Editions Club Leaves of Grass from 1942, reissued by Paddington Press in 1976. Here’s my argument, in a nutshell, about a book I’m spent more than a few hours absorbed in over the last few years. If you’re ever in a rare books library, stumble upon the reissue, or find yourself in a Weston exhibit, check it out:

The Limited Edition Club’s 1942 release of Leaves of Grass—with accompanying photographs by Edward Weston—did not produce many admirers among those associated with its production. The book’s publisher, George Macy, certainly thought that “the green ‘matt’ [of the text pages] makes each photograph sing out for very joy,” though Weston himself, noting the glossy plates’ green hue, the book’s green cover, and his own signature in (you guessed it) green pen in the colophon, remarked simply that “it stinks.” When Paddington Press reissued the book in 1976, they redesigned the volume into a funereal (and modernist) black tome. They also stripped the book of its most redeeming feature: 46 captions that Charis Wilson-Weston, against her husband’s wishes, selected from Leaves of Grass to accompany his prints. This artistic breach foreshadows a marital one to follow. By 1946 Weston and Wilson will be divorced.

In this paper I return to the suppressed, secretly collaborative edition of this book to argue that—in the light of Charis’s captions—the Weston/Wilson Leaves of Grass captures a series of marriages just before they dissolve. There is the 53-year-old photographer (and womanizer) with his 25 year-old model and bride; there are photographs “designedly dropped” among Leaves of Grass, wedding picture and poem; and there is marriage, in this act and others, of eros and elegy. Undergirding this framework is metaphor—what Aristotle defined as the “similarity of dissimilars”—and I take, by no means uniquely, as a kind of marriage too. My reading then promotes Charis Wilson from “model wife”—the name of one recent exhibit—to rival artist. Her captions express a desire not simply touch Weston’s body, but to touch (via Whitman’s poems) Weston’s body of work.

Derek Mong