From Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman:
One Hour to Madness and Joy
One hour to madness and joy! O furious! O confine me not!
(What is this that frees me so in storms?
What do my shouts amid lightnings and raging winds mean?)
O to drink the mystic deliria deeper than any other man!
O savage and tender achings! (I bequeath them to you my
I tell them to you, for reasons, O bridegroom and bride.)
O to be yielded to you whoever you are, and you to be yielded to
me in defiance of the world!
O to return to Paradise! O bashful and feminine!
O to draw you to me, to plant on you for the first time the lips of
a determin’d man.
O the puzzle, the thrice-tied knot, the deep and dark pool, all
untied and illumin’d!
O to speed where there is space enough and air enough at last!
To be absolv’d from previous ties and conventions, I from mine
and you from yours!
To find a new unthought-of nonchalance with the best of Nature!
To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!
To have the feeling to-day or any day I am sufficient as I am.
O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
To escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts, with invitations!
To ascend, to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate soul!
To be lost if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fulness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.
* * *
When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, many critics and readers found the work obscene. Booksellers refused to carry the volume; Yale President Noah Porter called it the literary equivalent of “walking naked through the streets”; “a British reviewer urged anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in possession of a copy to ‘throw it immediately behind the fire’”; in 1865, Whitman was fired from his position as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, by the Secretary of the Interior himself, who objected to the immoral character of the book. And then there was of course the “banned in Boston” business. As Ed Folsom and Jerome Loving wrote last year in The Virginia Quarterly Review about Mark Twain’s newly discovered “The Walt Whitman Controversy”,
The publication of significant previously unpublished work by one of America’s best-known authors is always a major literary event, but when it is an unpublished piece by Mark Twain about another of America’s legendary writers, Walt Whitman, it is cause for a double celebration. …
Whether or not it’s true that he never read more than forty lines of Whitman, by the early 1880s Clemens had clearly become familiar with a small handful of lines in Leaves of Grass, the lines that had been singled out by Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens as obscene after Leaves had been issued by the well-known Boston publisher, James R. Osgood & Co., in 1881. The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (affiliated with the infamous anti-obscenity campaigner Anthony Comstock) had complained to the Massachusetts Attorney-General about the availability of Leaves after its Boston sales had gotten off to a good start. On March 1, 1882, Stevens wrote to Osgood and advised the publisher that Leaves of Grass fell “within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature” and advised Osgood to “withdraw” and “suppress” the book. Osgood asked Whitman to prepare a new edition “lacking the obnoxious features,” and he sent the poet the list of passages that the District Attorney had demanded be “expunged” from Leaves. Whitman agreed to a few small changes, but Osgood said “the official mind” would not be satisfied with these and demanded that Whitman agree to the excision of entire poems. When Whitman refused, Osgood ceased publication of the book and wrote to the poet: “as your views seem to be irreconcilable with those of the official authorities there seems no alternative for us but to decline to further circulate the book.” In May, Whitman received from Osgood a payment of $100 and all “the plates, sheets, dies, &c. of ‘Leaves of Grass.’” Meanwhile, the banning became major news, all the more so when a liberal minister quoted one of the banned poems, “To a Common Prostitute,” in a sermon, then had the sermon printed as a supplement to a journal and tested the ban by asking the postmaster whether the material could be mailed to friends and supporters. The controversy raged for the next two years, until Comstock himself lost a case against the radical free-love reformer, Ezra Heywood, who had published two of the banned poems in a journal.
Twain was intrigued by the controversy, in part because Whitman’s banned book was issued by the same house that had published Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper in 1881 and that would issue his Life on the Mississippi in 1883. The fact that this “banned in Boston” scandal had struck his own publisher would have made Clemens particularly interested in just what had been found “obscene” in Whitman’s work, because playing on the edges of obscenity had been something Twain himself had been doing in the years just before the Osgood publication of Leaves in 1881.
Read the rest of the fascinating story here.
An interview with Ed Folsom about “The Obscenity Defense”, from NPR’s “On the Media”
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