Article of Interest

Dedmond, Francis B., ed. "'Here Among Soldiers in Hospital': An Unpublished Letter from Walt Whitman to Lucia Jane Russell Briggs." New England Quarterly 59 (December 1986), 544-548.

Lecture 7: Banned in Boston: Whitman and Censorship

Before beginning this lecture you may want to .. .

Read Walt Whitman's "Poem of Procreation."

This series of postcards from the 1890s represents some of the most daring and risque photography of the time.

After the Civil War, the stakes in the battle of pornographic writings were raised. In 1871, Anthony Comstock established the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a group he served until 1915 as the nation's leading foe of so-called vice. It was interesting timing for Whitman. In 1881, James R. Osgood, a prominent publisher in Boston, offered to publish a new edition of Whitman's poems This was a first for Whitman—being published by a mainstream publisher. It was Whitman's chance to publish a portable, tasteful edition—he hoped that Americans might carry around this smaller version. He'd get twenty-five cents for each copy sold, and ensured Osgood would be his publisher for the next 10 years.

This series of postcards from the 1890s represents some of the most daring and risque photography of the time.

Do you think American is sexually repressed or obsessed? We've already mentioned the repression of nineteenth-century American culture, and the curious contradictions of the "seamy side" to Whitman's America. Significantly, there was no real ban on pornography and the popularity of soft-porn novels, "sensation novels," is greatly evidenced at this time. (Whitman himself began writing a city mystery novel titled Proud Antoinette: New York Romance of Today, involving a young man lured away from his virtuous girlfriend by a passionate prostitute who causes his moral ruin).

Whitman was demanding about leaving in the "racier" early poems of the 1850s and 1860s.

Fair warning on one point—the old pieces, the sexuality ones, about which the original row was started and kept up so long are all retained, and must go in the same as ever.

On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens sent James R. Osgood an order to stop publication of Leaves of Grass on the grounds that it violated "the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature." Wishing to avoid a suit, Osgood sent Whitman Steven's notice along with the list of poems and passages that were to be deleted or changed for publication to continue.

Deleted in part or completely were: "A Woman Waits for Me," "The Dalliance of the Eagles," "Spontaneous Me," "To a Common Prostitute," "I Sing the Body Electric," "The Sleepers," "Song of Myself," and "Unfolded Out of the Folds."

The Dalliance of the Eagles

Skirting the river road (my forenoon walk, my rest),

Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,

The rushing amorous contact high in space together,

The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,

Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,

In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,

Till o'er the river pois'd, the twain yet one, a moment's lull,

A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,

Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,

She hers, he his, pursuing.

How could this poem be considered obscene?

Whitman was willing to make some changes to the poems; he wrote Osgood that he would revise "Woman Waits," "Body Electric," and "Spontaneous Me." But when Osgood informed him that additional changes would be required, Whitman wrote,"The whole list and entire is rejected by me, and will not be thought of under any circumstances."

Osgood paid him royalties (about 1600 copies had been sold) and gave Whitman the plates; the poet eventually brought the business to a small Philadelphia printer named Rees Welch, who later became David McKay and a major publisher of Leaves of Grass.

The banning of the Osgood edition was a culminating moment in America's cultural history. Whitman immediately sent off his anti-censorship essay "A Memorandum at a Venture" to the North American Review, defending what he called his natural treatment of sex against the extremes of repressiveness and pornography. It's a very strong statement describing where Whitman finds fault with American culture of his time.

He discusses two prevailing attitudes towards American culture and sexual matters:

• The conventional attitude of "good folks" and the writing he called "good print," which he views as the repressive side of the culture, where any direct statement of sexuality is considered taboo.

• "The wit of masculine circles, and in erotic stories and talk." He's refer ring here to people or works that aspire to some form of titillation and erotic content.

Whitman sees these two schools developing, identifies them and comes up with his own view on the subject. He called for a new point of view—one in which ...

... sexual passion is a legitimate subject for the modern writer... The sexual passion in itself, while normal and unperverted is inherently legitimate, creditable, not necessarily an improper theme for a poet, as confessedly not for a scientist.

One of the major reasons for Whitman arguing that a new attitude toward sex must come out is the Women's Rights Movement. Whitman not only comes out for his own freedom as an artist but also for the freedom of women, who are first beginning to experience equality.

One of the poems that looked directly at women's issues happened to be one of the infamous "banned" poems, "Poem of Procreation," later known as "A Woman Waits for Me."

A woman waits for me, she contains all, nothing is lacking, Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right man were lacking

The use of the word "right" in this context is very interesting. Marriage was not a choice for women at the time. Reformers in the 1850s went as far as to call marriage "legalized prostitution," since countless women were bound to husbands by the law. Marriages were often arranged and based on money, so the concept Whitman puts forth of the "right man" was an enormously radical one. Whitman posited that not just any sex was good, but that sex between partners that liked and deserved and wanted each other was sex that was nat-

Women's Rights Meeting

Sufragettes (L to R) Mrs. Fawcett, Mrs. Mark Pattison, Mrs. Ernestine Rose, Miss Lydia Becker, and Miss Rhoda Garrett at a women's rights meeting at the Hanover Square Rooms in London.

ural and organic and should not be considered taboo. This form of sexual radicalism gave power to those who were disenfranchised at the time.

How were women otherwise restricted, besides marriage rights?

• an inability to own property once married

• limited education and career possibilities

• physically restricted (no sports or exercise; corsets)

But an idea of the "new woman" was emerging, with the help of activists like Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and founder of the first Female Anti-Slavery Society, and Fanny Wright, who shocked conservatives with her electrifying appeals on behalf of women and workers. Also, Ernestine Rose lectured on women's rights in twenty-three states. Because of her foreign accent, Jewish ancestry, and outspoken infidelity, she met with suspicion everywhere, but she won many to the feminist cause with her forceful speeches. These women were all greatly admired by Whitman, who wrote much praise for them.

"Real" Women vs. "Contained" Women z

It was commonly pointed out in Whitman's day that the health of modern American women paled in comparison with that of previous generations, or of women living abroad. In 1858, a writer for Life Illustrated pointed out:

It is notorious, all over the world, that American women are unhealthy, and that the tendency to disease and infirmity is constantly increasing ... the ill health of women is one of the leading causes of the ultimate degeneracy of the American people, and the final overthrow of our republican government.

The clothing that was confining women, such as corsets, was a serious contributor to the ill health of women at this time. The perfect waist size for women was eighteen inches. There were movements during the 1850's that went against this idea of women being confined by society and their own accoutrements. A series of articles published by Fowler and Wells in 1857 known as The Illustrated Family Gymnasium noted "the artificial deformity of the females" and outlined a rigorous athletic regimen illustrated by pictures of women doing exercises and lifting barbells. The health movement flowered in this period, as seen by works such as Dr. Dio Lewis' New Gymnastics for Men. Women, and Children (1863). The censors of Victorian sensibility would find activities like these very undignified for women, and if women were to let go in the way that Whitman was writing about, many thought it could be the possible total degeneracy of American culture.

How do parts of "A Women Waits for Me" work against this idea of female empowerment? Are there sections or words of this poem that seem to herald the stereotypical idea of machismo? If so, why do you think Whitman chooses this view?

For Whitman the procreative capacity of women is an all-powerful concept. It feeds into the idealization he has of the maternal role of women.

A steel engraving of Whitman in his 30s. This portrait appeared on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, published in 1855

First the man is shaped in the woman, he can then be shaped in himself.

—From the banned poem "Unfolded out of the Folds"

There was an obvious attempt on Whitman's part to reach out to female readers. The original Leaves of Grass even looked like a piece of domestic fiction in the hope that it would appeal to women readers. Women are mentioned in half of the 403 pages of the 1892 Edition of Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass is essentially a women's book. The women do not know it. It speaks out the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and wrong of the women's sex, of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all, of the feminine. (Whitman to his friend Horace Traubel)

We can see now how Whitman was censored, and the reasons why he was censored, particularly this idea that he was talking to a female population, which many sought to control. In the next section, we'll see not only how he speaks to his own contemporary audience, but how he projects his voice into the future.


Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems 1855-1892. A New Edition. Gary Schmidgall (ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

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  • Shane Ritchie
    What was walt whitman's other interest besides writing?
    2 years ago

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