Banned Book Club: Leaves of Grass

Title: Leaves of Grass

Published: 1855

Author: Walt Whitman

Challenge status: After Leaves of Grass was originally published, the Boston District Attorney and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice worked to block publication of further copies/editions, and got retailers and bookshops to blackball the book. “With the single known exception of the Library Company of Philadelphia, libraries refused to buy the book, and the poem was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s and informally banned elsewhere“. Book #42 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: Too sensual. Even with a LOT of allegory, Whitman was writing not just about love, but about sex, and very clearly. The outrage was such that the book was panned by critics, was the grounds for Whitman’s dismissal from his job (Whitman worked for the Department of the Interior, but was fired after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read and was offended by the book), and the source of rumors around Whitman’s sexuality (historians are still arguing about his possible bisexual or homosexual tendencies).

First line (from Song of Myself): ”I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”


Whitman is, for all intents and purposes, the father of American poetry – and Leaves of Grass represents his life’s work. I would describe Whitman as a romantic naturalist. Meaning, he pulls in a lot of pastoral scenes and metaphors; his work is romantic (not always sentimental, though) and lush, effulgent, fecund – always an homage to fertility. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of his influences. Incidentally, both Emerson & Mark Twain defended Leaves of Grass from critics/censors.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must not be abased to the other. — Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself”

Though Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, Whitman continued to add to the collection, publishing multiple editions. The version I am thumbing through is a hearty 703 pages – I’ve focused my attention on “Song of Myself“, one of the more infamous poems of the collection, weighing in at roughly 73 pages all by itself. (What is up with epic poetry? Unless you’re Dante Alighieri or John Milton, in which case – I guess it’s ok.) You can check out Song of Myself here. Check out comments on Amazon (I know, never read the comments) and you will see some arguments against my mega-tome (the Deathbed edition) and for the “original” edition (aka the 1855, much skinnier version).

A few comments on the poem itself:

  • The hero’s journey as an internal, existentialist, but ecstatic search (“Urge, and urge, and urge; Always the procreant urge of the world”)
  • Communion with nature as well as with the everyman
  • Cycles of life, universal archetypes, spiritual renewal versus Religious truth (“And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,”
  • Transcendentalism, Emerson-style
  • Undercurrent of patriotism, democratic pride
  • Free-spirit wanderer, as inspired the Beat generation (“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”)

Some of you may remember that Leaves of Grass was involved in a more recent scandal than it’s trial for obscenity. I’m referring to the Clinton/Lewinksy scandal: that Clinton gave Lewinksy a copy of the book was part of the “evidence” revealed to the public. Here’s a fun article that tries to answer the question, what would Whitman have thought of the role of his book in the scandal?

What do you think?

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