Selected Criticism

Comstock, Anthony (1844–1919)
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.

Anthony Comstock, a prominent late nineteenth-century moralist, threatened to suppress the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. The founder and leading spirit of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and a special agent of the Post Office Department, Comstock considered Whitman's book not merely offensive, but plainly illegal.

Comstock had lobbied heavily for the passage of a federal anti-obscenity bill which, when passed in 1873, became popularly known as the Comstock Law. Supported by this statute, he pressured the Boston district attorney into advising Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that the book could not be legally published without alteration. At first, Whitman agreed to self-censorship; but upon receiving the full list of objections, he refused to make even the slightest revision. When Osgood bowed to the threats of Comstock and the district attorney, Whitman secured continued publication with David McKay of Rees Welsh and Company. Although Comstock never took active measures to thwart further publication, he did arrest Ezra Heywood for distributing two of the objectionable poems through the mail.

Comstock's warnings and Heywood's trial piqued public interest in Leaves of Grass, increasing sales and allowing Whitman to enjoy steady royalty payments for the first time in his career.


Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Bremner, Robert. Introduction. Traps for the Young. 1883. By Anthony Comstock. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1967. vii–xxxi.

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


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