On July 4, 1855, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman was first published – to widespread shock and awe. Today’s literary classic was 1855’s obscenity. Amid the furor over Walt Whitman’s explicit sexual imagery, two New England powerhouses conspired to make sure it was never forgotten.
Fanny Fern strongly defended Whitman’s collection of poems. Fern was not a force to be ignored. Born in Portland, Maine in 1811 as Sara Willis, she had plenty of grit. She fought her way out of the poverty that enveloped her after her first husband’s death.
Fern became a widely read columnist in the New York Ledger, proving her brother wrong. He was a magazine publisher who rejected Fern’s writing as too provincial. For good measure, she published a best-selling roman-a-clef that pilloried her brother. Her main character ignored any responsibility to a struggling sister while actively working to inhibit her career.
So when Leaves of Grass created a hubbub, Fanny Fern couldn’t resist getting into the thick of it.
Walt Whitman published the book because of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem that called for a new voice to examine American culture and mores.
Leaves of Grass shocked proper society. Emerson praised it, but many others did not. According to some accounts, the New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw the book in the fire. Critics decried it as filth. They called Whitman a hack. One even hinted in print that Whitman was homosexual.
Walt Whitman was employed at the U.S. Department of Interior at the time of the initial publication. The Secretary of the Interior thought the work pornographic and summarily fired him. (Whitman would recover with another government job).
All this noise focused Fanny Fern’s firepower on the topic in May of 1856:
“Leaves of Grass thou art unspeakably delicious,” she wrote. “Walt Whitman, the world needed a “Native American” of thorough, out and out breed—enamored of women not ladies, men not gentlemen; something beside a mere Catholic-hating Know-Nothing; it needed a man who dared speak out his strong, honest thoughts, in the face of pusillanimous, toadying, republican aristocracy; dictionary-men, hypocrites, cliques and creeds; it needed a large-hearted, untainted, self-reliant, fearless son of the Stars and Stripes, who disdains to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage …”
The praise from Fern and other critics helped give publishers the spine-stiffening they needed. They kept Leaves of Grass in print as Walt Whitman revised, expanded and reworked his masterpiece for decades.
Thirty years later, Bostonian Oliver Stevens would give Leaves of Grass another needed boost – but in a very different way.
Stevens was the district attorney for Boston. He rose to prominence in 1875 in the trial of the notorious “belfry murder case.” Warren Avenue Church janitor Jim Piper had killed a young girl, Mabel Young, in the church belfry. The girl’s body and the baseball bat used to kill her were hidden in the belfry.
The case against Piper was a difficult one to prove and the attorney general, who usually prosecuted murders, was ill and unable to handle the case. Stevens, the young Suffolk County district attorney, stepped in. He masterfully procured a conviction that launched his 30-year career.
A fixture on Beacon Hill and his summer estate in North Andover, Stevens was part of a movement to clean up the out-of-control crime in Boston at the time. Liquor, prostitution and vice was severely squelched during his time.
Watch and Ward
Stevens worked closely with the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization formed in 1879 to reduce crime and immoral practices in Massachusetts. It would later change its name to the New England Watch and Ward Society and have a 100-year run as the morality watchdog in Massachusetts.
A who’s who of Brahmin society made up the group’s membership. In 1882 the group persuaded district attorney Stevens to intervene with the publisher and censor Leaves of Grass. So Stevens wrote to the publisher and condemned it as obscene. He insisted that the publisher remove the poems “A Woman Waits for Me” and “To a Common Prostitute.” He also demanded revisions to several other poems.
Whitman’s publisher, feeling the heat, asked the author to approve the changes. Whitman refused, and the publisher backed out of the project. But another publisher stepped in. The “Banned in Boston” label and controversy would step up sales, Whitman’s new publisher theorized. And that’s exactly what happened.
The title found new life, and the 1882 version went through five printings. By then, critics warmed to the work. Walt Whitman would continue to revise and republish it up to his death in 1892.
The book again received a boost when the government distributed it to troops serving in World War II as a celebration of the American way of life for which they fought.
This story about Walt Whitman was updated in 2022.