Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

When I saw Walt Whitman in the lists of banned books, I was surprised. He is such a part of Americana and I recall my eighth grade history book had a few lines of a Whitman poem on the end pages (from“I Hear America Singing”). But I was looking at him with modern eyes, which has a different view than those in the nineteenth century.
I had forgotten that Whitman lived during the Victorian era with all of its sexual hypocrisy. So poems with titles like “To A Common Prostitute” and lines such as “You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart…” were absolutely scandalous. The first two editions of Leaves… were self published, but the third was by Thayer and Eldridge of Boston, an attempt to gain a wider audience, but instead, the book was banned. Though that made the public even more eager to get hold of a copy.
Another element of Whitman’s poetry that offended high society was his themes of the common working man and the language he used to convey them. Prior to Leaves… , American poets copied the proper, lofty language of many European poets, modeled after Byron and others. Today, Whitman’s words feel more formal because of their old-fashioned use, but at the time it was considered very lowbrow.
There was also the fact that Whitman was homosexual, which was something that he had to keep hidden in his lifetime. So most of his poems are not gender specific and some others that seem to refer to females, we now know were actually about men.When I think about the risks and restrictions on his works by hiding such an elemental fact of himself, it’s amazing for such a passionate man.
The original Leaves had only 12 poems, but each new edition had more, including new work that had been published separately, such as Drum Taps, a collection of poems inspired by war. Whitman also continually revised his already finished poems, sometimes changing a word here & there, and other times rewriting entire segments. The poem “Song of Myself” changed quite drastically over time, going from a declaration of individuality to a more Zen view of the world and humankind. It would be helpful to have a volume which held all of the variants, so the reader could compare them and see their evolution. A few months before he died, the ninth version of Leaves was published containing nearly all the poems he had published during his life. It was a much thicker book than the first.
Whitman came from ancestors who settled in New York when it was still called Niew Amsterdam in the 1600′s. He was the second of eight children born to working class parents in 1819; his father was an unsuccessful carpenter who moved the family a lot. Walt left school at 11 and became an errand boy, the first of many jobs including school teacher, printer’s apprentice and newspaper writer. His brother enlisted in the Union army when the American Civil War broke out and when the family was notified that he was wounded, Walt set off to find him, which led to Walt becoming a nurse in various military hospitals for two years of the war. Afterwards he worked in various government offices in Washington D.C. until he had a paralytic stroke at age 56 and had to move to his brother’s home in New Jersey. Though he eventually recovered and was able to travel, he devoted the rest of his life to writing and died at 73.
Contemporaries had mixed feelings about his work. Emily Dickinson dismissed him without ever reading it. Vincent van Gogh praised “Leaves”, saying “…it is all so candid and pure.” Whitman corresponded for years with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had been a sort of mentor to him. And Oscar Wilde, while in the US on one of his speaking tours, went out of his way to visit Whitman and share some elderberry wine with him.
Though the most famous photos of Whitman are of an older man with a bushy white beard, I found some younger pictures where he looks rather handsome. Between those and my newfound information on his background, I am finding additional depth in his work. Scandalous or not, he was a forward thinking man who captured an important era in American history in a remarkable way.

originally published in 1855. Most commonly found is the 1892 edition which runs to 456 pp. Available in traditional format as well as an ebook

7 comments on “Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

  1. Moira
    October 1, 2012

    I’ve known Whitman’s poetry most of my adult life, but I don’t think I’ve ever known anything about him personally … and I certainly never realized that the love poetry was addressed to a man. This was absolutely fascinating stuff, Jackie – thank you very much for expanding my education!

  2. Kate
    October 1, 2012

    Ditto, a fascinating review, and certainly helped me get a grip on why his poetry received the reaction it did at the time. Thanks!

  3. Lisa
    October 1, 2012

    Super review, Jackie.

  4. kirstydunbar
    October 1, 2012

    Thank you so much for this. I am ashamed to say I barely knew Whitman, but want to get to know him now!

  5. john problem
    October 1, 2012

    Ezra had mixed views about him but finally came down on his side. His opinion is available on google.

  6. Hilary
    October 2, 2012

    Thanks so much, Jackie. This has given me so much more information and insight about Whitman than I ever had before. I mostly know Whitman’s poetry because so much of it has been set to music, including several major choral works by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius among others. There have been times when I’ve felt that I was singing words by nobody else! You may be interested to know that Vaughan Williams set Whitman’s words in his cantata Dona Nobis Pacem, a powerful anti-war piece composed after WWI, which incorporated Whitman’s Civil War poem Two Veterans, which RVW recognised as prophetic of the carnage of the Great War. I had no idea Leaves of Grass had ever been banned. Its reception in Britain seems to have been almost wholly positive, certainly from the turn of the 20th century- he was acclaimed by fellow artists, and I am not surprised that Wilde found such a fellow feeling with him.

  7. rosyb
    October 4, 2012

    I loved this, Jackie, and it was very educational too. I love these pieces you do that talk a bit around the subject as well as looking at one book.

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2012 by in Banned Books, Entries by Jackie, Poetry and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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