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Suppressing Walt Whitman.




To the Editor of The Tribune.

SIR: I have just learned the details of an outrage so sigual in its character and so sinister in its bearings as to become, in my judgement, a matter of the widest public concern.

The first edition of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Leaves of Grass,” was issued in 1855, the work receiving then the cordial and unqualified commendation of a number of leading minds both in this country and Europe, foremost among them Emerson. In after years, from men less gifted, without fame or weight as critical authority, but controlling access to the press, virulent abuse followed, such as, by a fatal law of our form of civilization, every work of every kind, whether literary or scientific, appears doomed to receive, if of marked novelty or originality; but the book continued its issues, published by its author, constantly assailed and passionately defended, and winning from time to time, at home and abroad, forms scholar and men of letters of the rank of Thoreau, Sumner, John Burroughs, Rossetti, Clifford, of London University, Tyrrell, of Dublin University, Fernand Freiligrath, Ruskin and others, eulogies so ample as to more than atone for the censures of the small, and to forecast the verdicts of the future. Finally, after over twenty-five years of combat, darkened by frequent acts of persecution, and involving bitter suffering to the author, the character of the book received the marked admission of an offer of publication from the house of Osgood & Company, at Boston. In May last, a year ago, they opened negotiations with Walt Whitman, and finally secured a contract with him for ten years, on his express stipulation that the book should be published without any excision. In November, the new edition appeared, and went into active circulation for the three months following. But on the first of March, that line of the author of “Leaves of Grass,” all the more ominous in its significance for its colorless simplicity of statement, in which he records “the never-ending audacity of elected persons,” received one of its most infamous illustrations. On that date the Boston State District-Attorney, Mr. Oliver Stevens, addressed a letter to the publishers menacing the book with “the statutes against obscene literature,” and requiring its suppression under the alternative of prosecution. This amazing demand appears to have been subsequently modified into a requirement for the expurgation of certain passages from the volume as the condition of its continued publication. Of course the author denied that his work, covered by the respect and honor of the best and purest men and women of the century, was a contribution to “obscene literature,” and refused compliance with the insolent requirements of the State District-Attorney. I have no terms that can express the sorrow and disgrace of what followed. It is all contained in three words: the publishers quailed. Last month, April, they abandoned the publication, and the volume ceased to issue. Mr. Oliver Stevens triumphed; and for the first time, I believe, in the history of this country, an honest book, the work of a man of great and admitted genius, has been suppressed by an officer of the law.

If it were not for unduly trenching upon your space, I would like to show you the passages which the State District-Attorney pronounced obscene and demanded expurgated. The list furnished by this holy and intelligent man is before me, and has twenty-two specifications. Four of the passages specified relate to the poet’s democratic theory of the intrinsic sacredness and nobility of the entire human physiology—identical with the famous declaration of Novalis that “the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost”; and involve specially, in one or two instances, a rapt celebration of the acts and organs of chaste love. Another passage describes the identification through sympathy of one’s self with lawless or low-down persons. A sixth passage under ban is devoted to the majestic annunciation of woman as the matrix of the generations—the doctrine that her greatness is the mould and condition of all the greatness of man. Another proscribed passage consists of ten pictorial lines, worthy of Æschylus, in which the poet describes the grand and terrible dalliance of two eagles, high shift in the bright air, abovea river road. A seventh passage specially required to be expunged is the power nobly entitled “To a Common Prostitute”—I say nobly, because even the large sense of the composition is enlarged by its title. The piece is simply indicative of the attitude of ideal humanity in this age toward even the lowest or most degraded, and is conceived throughout in the sublime spirit of our times, whose theory abandons no one nor any thing to loss or rain, recognizing amelioration as the law of laws, and good as the final destiny of all. It is incredible that a poem whose whole staple, on the face of it, is to assure the unfortunate Madalen that not until nature excludes her shall she be excluded from consideration and sympathy, and to promise her the redemption of the superior life—whose entire thesis is plainly and undeniably supreme charity and faith in the human ascension—should appear to any mind as an expression of obscenity. However, as Swedenborg reminds us, to the devils perfumes are stinks. The eighth quarry of the State District-Attorney is the piece entitled, “A Woman Waits for Me.” If the defence of this poem is to carry with it dishonor, I court that dishonor. Nothing that the poet has ever written, either in signification or in splendid oratoric music, has more the character of a sanctus; nothing in modern literature is loftier and holier. Beginning with an inspired declaration of the absolute conditioning power of sex—the poet, using nuptial imagery, as Isaiah and Ezekiel, as all the prophets, all the great Oriental poets, have used it before him, continues his dithyramb in an exalted affirmation of the vital procreative effects of his book upon the women, that is to say upon the future of America. And this glorious conviction of a lofty mission—the consciousness, in one form or another, of every philosopher, every apostle, every poet who has worked his thought for the human advancement—the faith and the consolation of every sower of the light who has looked beyond the hounding hatreds of the present to the next ages—the eminently pure, the eminently enlightened, the supereminently judicial Boston District-Attorney considers obscene! The remaining fourteen passages marked by his condemnation I need not discuss, as they are all included in the first edition of the work indorsed​ by Emerson, and in order that it may be seen what Emerson thought of them, and also in what terms he welcomed the book, I beg leave to here reproduce the letter he sent the author upon its original appearance:

CONCORD, Mass., July 21, 1855

DEAR SIR: I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that American has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our Western wits fat and mean.

I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

I did not know, until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New-York to pay you my respects.



I have no hesitation in saying that never in the history of literature has there been a more cordial and absolute indorsement than this of the work of one man of genius by another. No wonder that Walt Whitman said when he received it that he felt “as though he had the charter of an Emperor!” It was Mr. Emerson’s cool, deliberate judgement on “Leaves of Grass,” and although enemies have tried, by invented anecdotes, to weaken its effect, never, to his undying honor, did he retract or qualify it in any way whatsoever. I call your attention to its scope—its utter comprehensiveness. If there was anything in the book of which he disapproved (he, who had commended Rabelais, who had commended Montaigne, who had commended Shakespeare!) he had the plain opportunity to say so, and it was his imperative duty to say so. On the contrary, he gives the poem the most unreserved, the most unqualified, the most unbounded approval. He calls it the most extraordinary piece of intellect and wisdom America has yet contributed; he congratulates the author on the liberty and valor of his thought; and, referring to the very passages which Mr. Oliver Stevens bays at as obscene—fourteen out of the specified twenty-two in the edition before him, and the others all there in germ—he finds especial delight in the courage of treatment which marks the performance, and which, as little men like this lawyer would do well to remember, large perception only can inspire! This is the judgment passed upon “Leaves of Grass” by Emerson—our man of deepest insight, our man of holiest heart. And in April, when all our souls are darkened by his death—when the old landscape we New-England men and women love saddens into an immense vacancy, as if Monadnoc had sunk silently below the horizon—in the very month when the heavens open to receive our noblest citizen—the pentecostal book he had covered with his glowing eulogy is suppressed by law! Mr. Oliver Stevens chooses his time well. The month of Emerson’s burial is a good month for the burial of the book he glorified. Fit souvenir: to make stalk against the bright horizons around that grave the spectre of the black Puritan! Happy thought: to complete Concord with a reminiscence of Gallows Hill!

As for the part taken by Messrs. Osgood & Company in this shameful transaction, what is said should have the conciseness of a brand. It was no new book they had undertaken to publish—it had been the talk of two worlds for over a quarter of a century. They knew its noble repute in the highest quarters, and they also knew what shadows might be cast upon it by booby bigotry, by foul, sour prudery mincing as purity, or by rotten carnality in its hypocrite mask of virtue. Knowing all this, facing possible consequences in their agreement to publish without expurgation, and having voluntarily sought the publication of the volume, I say it was their duty as gentlemen to stand by the bargain they had solicited, and it was no less their interest as men of business to advertise the State-Attorney’s ridiculous menace in the boldest type their printers could furnish, and bid him come on with his prosecution! Time enough to give in when Sidney Bartlett had failed to make a Massachusetts jury see that in literature we must allow free expressions if we are going to have free expression;—time enough to own defeat when Sidney Bartlett or Charles O’Conor failed to make plain, as either would not have failed to make plain to even Mr. Oliver Stevens’s comprehension, the difference between Biblical courage of language and intrinsic intellectual impurity. But Messrs. Osgood & Company leave their Pavia unfought, and lose everything, including honor. They might have braced themselves with the remembrance of Woodfall, standing prosecution heaped on prosecution, in his dark fidelity to Junius. They might have gathered grit by trying to imagine John Murray thnching from the publication of Byron. On the contrary, shaking in abject cowardice at the empty threat of this legal bully, they meanly break their contract with the author, abandon the book they had volunteered to issue, and drop from the ranks of great publishers into the category of hucksters whose business cannot afford a conscience.

It only remains to point the moral and adorn the tale with the name of the Boston District-Attorney, I have called the transaction in which he appears as the prime mover shameful, but the word is limp and colorless in its application to such an outrage upon the liberty of thought as he has committed. The sense of it makes every fibre of one’s being seem intermittent with lightning. On such a subject no thinking man or woman in such a country as ours will reflect with cold composure. The action of this lawyer constitutes a reef which threatens with shipwreck every great book of every great author, from Aristophanes to Moliere, from Æschylus to Victor Hugo; and the drop of blood that is calm in view of such an outrage proclaims us bastard to the lineage of the learned and the brave! To-day Oliver Stevens has become the peril of Shakespeare. He knows well, no one knows it better, that under his construction of the statutes neither Shakespeare nor the Bible could be circulated, and no one better knows than he that neither of those books is obscene. He knows well, Emerson and a host of scholars and men of letters in both continents bearing witness that Walt Whitman’s book is no more within the meaning of the statutes than Shakespeare or the Bible, but he also knows that the charge he has brought against the one lies with at least equal force against the others, and if he does not continue his raid upon great literature, it is only because his courage is not yet equal to his logic. Even his bolder and brassier ally in this holy war, Mr. Anthony Comstock,—even he tempers valor with discretion for the nonce, and says he “will not prosecute the publishers of the classics, unless they specially advertise them”! There are contingencies, it seems, in which the great works of the human mind will be brought under the operation of “the statutes against obscene literature.” Who knows, since fortune favors the brave and enterprising, but that we may yet, step by step, succeed in bringing the fourteenth century into the nineteenth, and reerect Montfaucon—that hideous edifice of scaffolds reared by Philippe le Bel, where the blackened corpse of Glanas swung beside the carcass of the regicide for having translated Plato, and where Peter Albin dangled gibbeted beside the robber for having published Virgil! If this fond prospect is still somewhat distant, it is only, it seems, because Mr. Anthony Comstock lets his I dare not wait upon I would, and delays the initial step until the classics are “specially” advertised. Meanwhile, Mr. Oliver Stevens also waits for fresh relays of courage, and as yet only ventures to attempt to crush Walt Whitman. For that act of daring he shall reap the full harvest of reward. We will see whether in this country and in this century he can suppress by law the work of a man of genius and fail of his proper recompense. He has arrested in Massachusetts the superb book which is the chief literary glory of our country in the capitals of Europe—the book of the good gray nurse who nourished the wounded and tended many of a dying soldier through our years of war—and for that valiant action I promise Mr. Stevens his meed of immortal remembrance. He has the solemn comfort of having been unknown yesterday. I can offer him the glorious assurance that he will not be forgotten tomorrow. In the words of Emerson, I greet him at the beginning of a great career. There is not a State in this Union, there is not a country in the civilized world, in which his deed shall not make him famous forever. I pledge myself to attend to his interests. The persecutors of a good man’s thought are precious to such as I, and we should indeed be recreant to duty if we failed to let it be widely known, and in such a form as to never be forgotten, that Massachusetts has a District-Attorney, named Oliver Stevens, true to the blood of Mather, faithful to the darkest traditions, who wrenched the law from its purpose to crush and extinguish “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed”—the sanest, the largest, the most splendid and enduring literary product which the Celto-Saxon race has given the age. Let this fame console him even in the sad event of his being expelled from the office Concord and Harvard may say he has disgraced and polluted!

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