Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Stevens, Oliver (b. 1825)
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.

In a letter dated 1 March 1882 Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens advised James R. Osgood and Company to cease publication of Leaves of Grass on the grounds that it violated anti-obscenity laws. When Stevens, under pressure from State Attorney General George Marston and Anthony Comstock, threatened legal action if specific passages were not deleted, he ignited a public controversy that launched Whitman's poetry into the center of a national debate over First Amendment rights.

Initially, Whitman received Stevens's threat lightly and agreed to self-censure, thinking the objections applied to only "half a dozen words and phrases." When he learned that three whole poems, "A Woman Waits for Me," "To a Common Prostitute," and "The Dalliance of the Eagles," required deletion, Whitman became obdurate, refusing to make even the slightest revision. Osgood subsequently declined to challenge Stevens's legal authority in the matter, forcing Whitman to secure publication elsewhere.

Whitman, recognizing that Marston and Comstock were the prime movers in the affair, expressed no significant degree of animosity toward Stevens. Little is known about Stevens, a native of Massachusetts who briefly studied law at Harvard, but his apparent silence in the face of abusive attacks in the press by Whitman's defender, William Douglas O'Connor, indicates that he was at least in partial agreement with the morally conservative views of Marston and Comstock.

Bibliography

Freedman, Florence Bernstein. William Douglas O'Connor: Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight. Athens: Ohio UP, 1985.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman's Champion: William Douglas O'Connor. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1978.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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