Saturday, August 1, 2009
Banned, Censored, Challenged: Leaves of Grass
I know. The above animation is awesome. There are a series of poetry videos like this posted on youtube by the user PoetryAnimations. Besides Walt Whitman, they have Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes. It's genius- and ever-so-slightly creepy.
Walt Whitman's masterpiece is an 1855 book called Leaves of Grass, which he spent his whole life editing.The original publication of the book got Whitman fired from his job at the Department of the Interior. One critic named Griswold called it "a mass of stupid filth" and said that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians" (meaning homosexuality. Historians debate whether Whitman was "guilty", but his poetry does explore the idea).
In 1882, a Boston District Attorney, goaded by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice (I guess every city had one of these. Go figure.) demanded the removal of "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario’s Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers", and "Faces" from the book.
Whitman refused to censor his work and had to shop around for a new publisher.
What I love most about Walt Whitman is the way he defined a nation. Whitman was the first real American poet- one who did not try to borrow from the traditions of Europe, who wrote about American concepts like Westward expansion, slavery and the push for equality.Whitman's poetry has been repeatedly censored. There are many editions of Leaves of Grass, and half of them leave out some of his best work.
Watch this episode of American Experience. It' s poetic, beautiful, fascinating and insightful. And you can watch it online.