Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Heywood, Ezra H. (1829–1893)
Author:
Hammond, Joseph P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Ezra Heywood, a radical proponent and propagandist for social and economic reform, became embroiled in a legal controversy surrounding the 1881 publication of Leaves of Grass. Though Heywood supported Whitman's cause, the poet met his assistance with ambivalence.

Early in 1882 the Boston district attorney, under pressure from Anthony Comstock, advised Whitman's publishers to suspend publication of Leaves of Grass on the grounds that it violated a federal antiobscenity law. Outraged by this attack on Whitman's poetry and the encroachment upon freedom of expression in general, Heywood openly defied legal authority by distributing through the mail two of the objectionable poems, "To a Common Prostitute" and "A Woman Waits for Me." The events surrounding Heywood's subsequent arrest and trial were viewed by Whitman with great interest and some reservation. He was eager to see his poetry stripped of its label as "obscene" literature, but was apprehensive about being associated with Heywood's radical free-love beliefs. Whitman remarked that upon a rare meeting with Heywood, "I treat him politely but that is all" (Whitman 157).

Ultimately, the judge presiding over Heywood's trial dismissed as evidence Whitman's poems and acquitted Heywood of all charges. As a result of Heywood's trial, the stigma of obscenity receded from public perception of Whitman's poetry.

Bibliography

Blatt, Martin H. Free Love and Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 4. New York: New York UP, 1969.


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