Leaves of Grass

Critical response and controversy

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it offensive.[23] Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.[11] Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards."[28] Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth"[29] and categorized its author as a filthy free lover.[30] Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality.[31] Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended.[32] Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.[29]

An early review of the first publication focused on the persona of the anonymous poet, calling him a loafer "with a certain air of mild defiance, and an expression of pensive insolence on his face".[5] Another reviewer viewed the work as an odd attempt at reviving old Transcendental thoughts, "the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston fifteen or eighteen years ago."[31] Emerson approved of the work in part because he considered it a means of reviving Transcendentalism,[33] though even he urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery in 1860.[34]

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature".[35] Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, his letter said: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof." Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario's Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers" and "Faces".

Whitman rejected the censorship, writing to Osgood, "The list whole & several is rejected by me, & will not be thought of under any circumstances." Osgood refused to republish the book and returned the plates to Whitman when suggested changes and deletions were ignored.[23] The poet found a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, which released a new edition of the book in 1882.[36] Whitman believed the controversy would increase sales, which proved true. Though banned by retailers like Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, this version went through five editions of 1,000 copies each.[37] Its first printing, released on July 18, sold out in a day.[38]

Not all responses were negative, however. Critic William Michael Rossetti considered Leaves of Grass a classic along the lines of the works of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri.[39] A woman from Connecticut named Susan Garnet Smith wrote to Whitman to profess her love for him after reading Leaves of Grass and even offered him her womb should he want a child.[40] Though he found much of the language "reckless and indecent", critic and editor George Ripley believed "isolated portions" of Leaves of Grass radiated "vigor and quaint beauty".[41]

Whitman firmly believed he would be accepted and embraced by the populace, especially the working class. Years later, he would regret not having toured the country to deliver his poetry directly by lecturing. "If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I'd have had my audience at once," he claimed.[42]


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