“I will not have the author of this book in this department,” Home Secretary James Harlan said when he fired Whitman in 1865.
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Whitman’s poems about the joys of life contain references to sexual relationships, including same-sex relationships, considered offensive at the time. The book sparked protests similar to the current outcry against books considered controversial by some conservative politicians and parents. Walton County in Florida just banned 58 books from its school libraries. The challenges facing books in libraries, schools and universities nationwide nearly quadrupled in the past year, the American Library Association recently reported. Many banned books deal with gender issues and are “considered sexually explicit”, the ALA said.
In the mid-1800s, public libraries refused to purchase Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” for similar reasons. At Harvard College’s library, the lone copy was pulled from the shelves “and kept locked up with other taboo books,” wrote Justin Kaplan in “Walt Whitman. A Life.” The president of Yale University likened Whitman’s poems to “walking the streets naked.”
Whitman self-published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855 in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY (she would move to New York in 1898), printing about 800 copies. His 12 poems were written in free verse, meaning they did not rhyme. The poet considered himself the voice of the American worker. The first poem begins:
And what I guess you’ll guess,
For every atom of mine like good is of you
One reviewer called the book “a mass of dirt.” Ralph Waldo Emerson – the leading poet of the day – disagreed, writing to Whitman, 36, of the book: ‘I find it to be the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet brought. I salute you at the start of a great career.
But even Emerson had qualms about an enlarged edition in 1856 and a version commercially published in 1860 with 178 poems. Whitman added sensual poems such as “The Children of Adam (“The feminine form approaching, I am pensive, trembling and painful flesh of love“) and “Calumus”, which was about a young “silently approaching and sitting next to him, so he could hold my hand. (It is believed that Whitman was gay.)
In a decidedly mixed review, The New York Times wrote of Whitman’s 1860 version: “If possible, it is more rash and vulgar than in his two previous publications. … Yet it would be unfair to deny the evidence of remarkable power that is presented in this work. The 1860 edition also included the patriotic poem “I Hear America Singing”.
In late 1862, with the Civil War raging, Whitman went to the front to help treat his brother, a Union officer who had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. The Cleveland Daily Leader reported the following year that Whitman “was now living in Washington, and having ceased to write bad poetry, he cooked gruel for sick and wounded soldiers in hospitals.”
In January 1865, Whitman landed a job as a “second class” clerk in the office of the Indian Affairs Bureau of the Department of the Interior in the large Patent Office building. His salary was $1,200 a year, which is about $22,000 now.
“It’s pretty easy – I take it very easy – the rule is come at 9am and leave at 4am – but I don’t come at 9am and only stay until 4am whenever I want,” wrote Whitman to his mother, adding, “I have been sent for by the cashier to receive my pay for the arduous and invaluable service I have already rendered to the government.”
He became an admirer of President Abraham Lincoln. “I see the president almost every day” in the city, he wrote. “What I really love about Lincoln is that there’s so much – Not just flabby flesh and squashy pulp, but downright even grain.”
When Whitman learned that Lincoln had been assassinated on April 14, 1865, he was at his mother’s house in Brooklyn, where he noticed lilacs blooming outside the door. In tribute to the deposed president, he wrote the poems “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain!” My captain!”
In May 1865, Harlan, a former Republican U.S. senator from Iowa and a devout Methodist, took over as Home Secretary. An employee informed Harlan that one of his clerks had authored an “immoral book”. One night “Harlan was walking through the empty offices of the Patent Office when he found an annotated copy of the 1860 version of ‘Leaves of Grass’ on Whitman’s desk,” wrote Garrett Peck in his book ” Walt Whitman in Washington, DC”
On June 30, Whitman received a one-line memo from Harlan: “The services of Walter Whitman of New York as a clerk in the Indian Office will be terminated effective this date.” Whitman was fired under a new order by Harlan to oust those who “disregard the rules of propriety and propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization”. Friends appealed on the poet’s behalf, but Harlan said, “If the President of the United States ordered his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would fire him.”
“Our fellow eccentric Walt Whitman lost his job at the Department of the Interior in Washington under the general order to fire immoral people,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle. The newspaper added that Whitman soon got a job as a clerk in the attorney general’s office, “where we’re guessing they’re not that high on morals.”
A friend came to the defense of Whitman, who was known for his gray beard and wide-brimmed hat, in a pamphlet titled “The Good Gray Poet.” The Washington Star wrote that the pamphlet supporting the “pig poet” was intended to show that “most of the old poets were even dirtier than Whitman” and that according to the sayings of Harlan, Homer, Dante and other historical eminences “n would not have been eligible for a post”. at the Ministry of the Interior.
At the Attorney General’s office, Whitman interviewed Confederate soldiers asking for pardons under President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty policies. He published new versions of “Leaves of Grass” in 1867 and 1871. Whitman worked in the new Department of Justice and the Treasury Department before suffering a paralytic stroke and moving to Camden, NJ, in 1873 .
In 1881, a Boston publisher printed the sixth version of “Leaves of Grass”. Around the same time, the famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde visited Boston and told the Boston Globe, “Of all our authors, I consider Walt Whitman by far the greatest and noblest. Many of his lines are like an explosion fresh from Olympus.
The next outburst came not from Olympus but from Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens, who in 1882 banned the sale of the new edition. printed by the Boston publisher, calling it “obscene literature”, unless Whitman removed certain elements, including the poem “To a Prostitute”. Whitman refused and turned to another publisher to circumvent the ban. The first printing, advertised as “The Suppressed Book”, sold out on the first day.
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Whitman died in March 1892 at the age of 72. “Leaves of Grass” remained controversial for decades. It made headlines again in 1998 when it was reported that President Bill Clinton had given a copy of the book to White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Today, “Leaves of Grass” is considered one of the greatest books ever written. Ultimately, the eccentric Washington bureaucrat who wrote a book banned in Boston and in libraries across the country is widely known as the “American Poet.”