On March 4, 1882, a few months after Whitman published the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, he received the following letter from his Boston publisher:
We enclose a letter from the District Attorney, dated March 1st, and received by us yesterday, March 3d. Please read and return it, keeping copy of it if you so desire. We are not at present informed what portions of the book are objected to. We are, however, naturally reluctant to be identified with any legal proceedings in a matter of this nature. We are given to understand that if certain parts of the book should be withdrawn its further circulation would not be objected to. Will you advise us whether you would consent to the withdrawal of the present edition and the substitution of an edition lacking the obnoxious features?
The Boston District Attorney, acting on behalf of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, had just classifed Leaves of Grass as "obscene literature." The District Attorney noted that he was especially offended by particular representations of women in the "Children of Adam" cluster of poems (a cluster of poems that Ralph Waldo Emerson also advised Whitman to remove in 1860) and in the poem, "To a Common Prostitute." Although Whitman stated that he was "not afraid of the District Attorney's threat," he made it clear that he would be willing to revise the offensive passages. Ultimately, Whitman's revisions did not satisfy the District Attorney and he was forced to publish it later that year in Philadelphia.
Although Whitman did not fully capitulate to the District Attorney's demands here, it is very interesting to note that Whitman was willing to revise his poetry to accommodate particular audiences. In fact, the history of Leaves of Grass--which went through six often radically different editions--is a history of revision.
Why should we be interested in issues of revision and censorship in a site devoted to Whitman's views on gender and identity? Whitman himself gives us a clue--in a poem entitled "Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand". In that poem (which is part of the "Calamus" cluster in which he speaks most openly of love between men), we see how Whitman thought of Leaves of Grass as a body--as his own body, in fact. If we take Whitman's metaphor seriously, we can see how the manner in which Whitman constructs his book might tell us a great deal about his own views on gender and identity.
For example, the two clusters of poems in Leaves of Grass that possibly speak most directly to issues of gender and identity--"Children of Adam" and "Calamus"--were added to Leaves of Grass for the first time in 1860, in the third edition. To begin our exploration of Whitman's revisionary process, we should compare the first edition of Leaves of Grass to a later edition in order to see how including those clusters of poem affected the "body" of Leaves of Grass. Peruse, then, through the following editions, noticing how, among other things, that Whitman began by not titling any of his poems or clusters of poems:
(To see all the editions that the Whitman Hypertext Archive has online, click here).
As you are reading, you might ask yourself the following questions:
How does Whitman's famous phrase, "I give the sign of democracy," which appears in section 24 of "Song of Myself," take on different meanings in each of the additions? When he mentions "democracy" at various times in "Calamus," has the meaning changed? How does the "love of comrades" fit into his concept of democracy?
How does his representations of men and women change from one edition to the next? In particular, how would you interpret the following lines
I am the poet of woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men
before and then after you have read the "Children of Adam" and "Calamus" clusters?
Compare the following:
"Not Heat Flames Up and Consumes" (manuscript) and its 1891-92 published version
"I Saw in Louisiana a Live Oak Growing" (manuscript) and its 1891-92 published version
"O You Whom I Often and Silently Come" (manuscript) and its 1891-92 published version
Look closely here at the subtle changes that occur throughout Whitman's writing process. For example, did you notice the single word "you" that is added to the 1891-92 version of "Not Heat Flames Up and Consumes." How does that alter the poem's meaning?
Also notice the original order, title, and overall format of the cluster ("Not Heat Flames up and Consumes" and "I Saw in Louisiana" were the first two poems in the manuscript version). Does the format reveal the cluster's purpose? How does the format and possibly the purpose change in the 1891-92 version?