Commentary

Contemporary Reviews

About this Item

Title: "Leaves of Grass"

Creator: Fanny Fern

Date: May 10, 1856

Publication information: The New York Ledger 10 May 1856: 4.

Source: The original electronic text for this file was prepared for Walt Whitman, The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Kenneth M. Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and the transcription was completed by consulting a representation of the original (e.g., photocopy, microfilm copy). Following publication of that volume, Price received an updated transcription file from Cambridge University Press, and the Whitman Archive has used the final file from the publisher as the basis for the electronic text presented here.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00026

Contributors to digital file: Natalie O'Neal, Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Charles Green


"LEAVES OF GRASS."

Well baptized: fresh, hardy, and grown for the masses. Not more welcome is their natural type to the winter-bound,bed-ridden, and spring-emancipated invalid. "Leaves of Grass" thou art unspeakably delicious,after the forced, stiff, Parnassian exotics1 for which our admiration has been vainly challenged.

Walt Whitman, the effeminate world needed thee. The timidest soul whose wings ever drooped with discouragement, could not choose but rise on thy strong pinions.

"Undrape—you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor
discarded;
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether
or no."
*****
"O despairer, here is my neck,
You shall not go down! Hang your whole weight
upon me."

Walt Whitman, the world needed a "Native American" of thorough, out and out breed—enamored of women not ladies, men not gentlemen; something beside a mere Catholic-hating Know-Nothing; it needed a man who dared speak out his strong, honest thoughts, in the face of pusillanimous, toadeying, republican aristocracy; dictionary-men, hypocrites, cliques and creeds; it needed a large-hearted, untainted,self-reliant, fearless son of the Stars and Stripes, who disdains to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage; who does

"Not call one greater or one smaller,
That which fills its period and place being equal to
any;"

who will

"Accept nothing which all cannot have their coun-
terpart of on the same terms."

Fresh "Leaves of Grass!" not submitted by the self-reliant author to the fingering of any publisher's critic, to be arranged, rearranged and disarranged to his circumscribed liking, till they hung limp, tame, spiritless, and scentless. No. It were a spectacle worth seeing, this glorious Native American, who, when the daily labor of chisel and plane was over, him-self, with toil-hardened fingers, handled the types to print the pages which wise and good men have since delighted to endorse and to honor. Small critics, whose contracted vision could see no beauty, strength, or grace, in these "Leaves," have long ago repented that they so hastily wrote themselves down shallow by such a premature confession. Where an Emerson, and a Howitt have commended, my woman's voice of praise may not avail; but happiness was born a twin, and so I would fain share with others the unmingled delight which these "Leaves" have given me.

I say unmingled; I am not unaware that the charge of coarseness and sensuality has been affixed to them. My moral constitution may be hopelessly tainted or—too sound to be tainted, as the critic wills, but I confess that I extract no poison from these Leaves—to me they have brought only healing. Let him who can do so, shroud the eyes of the nursing babe lest it should see its mother's breast. Let him look carefully between the gilded covers of books, backed by high-sounding names, and endorsed by parson and priest, lying unrebuked upon his own family table; where the asp of sensuality lies coiled amid rhetorical flowers. Let him examine well the paper dropped weekly at his door, in which virtue and religion are rendered disgusting, save when they walk in satin slippers, or, clothed in purple and fine linen, kneel on a damask "prie-dieu."

Sensual!—No—the moral assassin looks you not boldly in the eye by broad daylight; but Borgia-like2 takes you treacherously by the hand, while from the glittering ring on his finger he distils through your veins the subtle and deadly poison.

Sensual? The artist who would inflame, paints you not nude Nature, but stealing Virtue's veil, with artful artlessness now conceals, now exposes, the ripe and swelling proportions.

Sensual? Let him who would affix this stigma upon Leaves of Grass, write upon his heart, in letters of fire, these noble words of its author:

"In woman I see the bearer of the great fruit, which
is immortality **** the good thereof is not
tasted by roues, and never can be.
*****
Who degrades or defiles the living human body is
cursed,
Who degrades or defiles the body of the dead is not
more cursed."

Were I an artist I would like no more suggestive subjects for my easel than Walt Whitman's pen has furnished.

"The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently
brush away flies with my hand.
The farmer stops by the bars of a Sunday and looks
at the oats and rye.
*****
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed Sunset,
Earth of the mountain's misty topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tin-
ged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the
river!,
Earth of the limpid grey of clouds brighter and
clearer for my sake!
Far swooping elbowed earth! Rich apple-blossomed earth!
Smile, for your lover comes!"

I quote at random, the following passages which appeal to me:

"A morning glory at my window, satisfies me more
than the metaphysics of books.
*****
Logic and sermons never convince.
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul."

Speaking of animals, he says:

"I stand and look at them sometimes half the day
long.
They do not make me sick, discussing their duty to
God.
*****
—Whoever walks a furlong without sympathy, walks
to his own funeral dressed in his shroud.
*****
I hate him that oppresses me,
I will either destroy him, or he shall release me.
*****
I find letters from God dropped in the street, and
every one is signed by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that
others will punctually come forever and ever.
*****
———Under Niagara, the cataract falling like a veil
over my countenance."

Of the grass he says:

"It seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves."

I close the extracts from these "Leaves," which it were easy to multiply,for one is more puzzled what to leave unculled, than what to gather, with the following sentiments; for which, and for all the good things included between the covers of his book Mr. Whitman will please accept the cordial grasp of a woman's hand:

"The wife—and she is not one jot less than the hus-
band,
The daughter—and she is just as good as the son,
The mother—and she is every bit as much as the
father."
FANNY FERN.

Notes:

1. "Forced, stiff, Parnassian exotics" may refer specifically to a group of nineteenth-century French poets who stressed restraint, objectivity, technical perfection, and precise description in response to what they regarded as the more lax approach of Romantic poetry. However, Fern may refer more generally to any rigid, overly refined, and traditional poet of her time. [back]

2. Borgia-like refers to the Spanish royal family noted for their corrupt involvement in ecclesiastical and political affairs in the 1400s and 1500s. [back]


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.