Selected Criticism

Society for the Suppression of Vice
Andriano, Joseph
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Vice societies flourished in the late nineteenth century in many American cities. Funded by the wealthy, these watchdog groups were powerful lobbies for anti-obscenity and anticontraception laws, which they also helped to enforce. Although they eventually earned the ridicule and contempt of a majority of thinking people, they were initially philanthropic in intent and practice, until an overly zealous vice hunter, Anthony Comstock (1844–1915), gave them a bad name by both deviously entrapping suspects and pruriently enjoying the very vices he was supposed to be suppressing.

In 1882 James Osgood was pressured by Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens, himself under the influence of the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (later known as the Watch and Ward Society), to withdraw Leaves of Grass from publication because it violated "the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature." Osgood, not up for a fight, sent Whitman a list of passages and whole poems that would have to be amended or deleted for publication to continue. Included among the allegedly obscene material were "A Woman Waits for Me," "To a Common Prostitute," "I Sing the Body Electric," and "Spontaneous Me." At first, Whitman was willing to make some revisions, but when they were not sufficient for Osgood, Whitman wrote back that expurgation "will not be thought of under any circumstances." Thus began a controversy that would eventually boost the sales of Leaves of Grass, now "banned in Boston."

In 1872 Anthony Comstock, under the auspices of the YMCA, founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. By 1882 his influence and power were so pervasive that several of Whitman's friends (e.g., William Douglas O'Connor) were convinced that the Boston district attorney had merely been his tool. In any event, when liberal reformists and anarchist free-love advocates began to champion Whitman, Comstock became a more direct threat. George Chainey provocatively published "To a Common Prostitute" in Boston, and when he boldly attempted to mail it, ran up against the Comstock Act, which prohibited the distribution of obscene material in the mail. (After three weeks delay in the post office, the postmaster general declared the poem inoffensive.) And Benjamin Tucker, also in Boston, publicly challenged the vice society to prosecute him for publishing Leaves from Osgood's plates. (Tucker had made an offer directly to Whitman, who ignored it, not wanting to be associated with free love and anarchy.) But it was Ezra Heywood, president of the New England Free-Love League, who piqued Comstock enough to make him threaten to suppress Whitman's book if anyone attempted to publish it in New York. Heywood was arrested for publishing (along with anti-marriage literature) "Prostitute" and "A Woman Waits for Me." When these poems were excluded from the indictment by the judge, Whitman was glad to know that Comstock finally "retire[d] with his tail intensely curved inwards" (Correspondence 3:338–339).

William Douglas O'Connor's vituperative diatribes against Comstock—most notably, "Mr. Comstock as Cato the Censor" (New York Tribune, August 1882)—reminded the "mousing owl" of the vice society that the protection afforded literary classics like The Decameron should also be given to the Good Gray Poet's great book. Fortunately, after Heywood's trial, the scandal surrounding Leaves faded. And though Whitman did not like being associated with the free-love league (or being lumped with the likes of The Lustful Turk), the Comstockery of the vice societies in Boston and New York made his book a little more famous, and—apparently more delectable as a piece of forbidden fruit—for a brief while it sold well and made the poet some respectable royalties.


Boyer, Paul S. Purity in Print: The Vice-Society Movement and Book Censorship in America. New York: Scribner, 1968.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

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

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.


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