Recently, when I was searching the shelves for the latest reading room display of Summer Reading Books, I discovered several volumes of Walt Whitman poetry. Two of the original owners of our books on Whitman lived in the late 1800s. A side-by-side comparison of these owners’ copies shows that they had vastly different experiences with Whitman’s poems. The first reader physically removed dozens of pages from his own book, and the second went out of her way to republish and promote the poet’s work.
Leaves of Grass, now seen as one of the most influential works of American poetry, debuted in 1855, containing twelve poems. The book was not widely read, and received mixed reviews from the public. John Greenleaf Whittier allegedly threw his copy into the fire, while Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” The book was revised several times throughout Whitman’s life. Some of the more famous inclusions are “O Captain! My Captain” and “Song of Myself.”
Whitman’s work was certainly controversial. His at times overt discussions of death, sexuality, and transcendentalism were radical for the mid-1800s. William Gardner Barton went so far as to censor his 1872 edition. Opposite the title page, Barton writes:
It would take some time to tell a part of what I think of W.W. I suppose the reason why I have cut out some leaves of this volume is similar to one of the reasons why people wear clothing. Whatever else may be said of the passages referred to, this may be said, that they were not in accordance with what is called ‘good taste.’ I do not always regard ‘good taste,’ but was willing to do so in this case W.G.B.
Barton excised entire sections of the book. In preparation for the 1872 edition, Whitman himself struggled with the concept of self-censorship alongside his colleague William Michael Rossetti, who edited the first British version of Whitman’s Poems by Walt Whitman (1868). According to The Walt Whitman Archive, “Rossetti’s diplomatic approach was to alter no words in Whitman’s poems (though he often changed titles). Instead, if a poem might offend too many readers or provoke censors, he omitted it altogether.”
In stark contrast to the Barton volume, the Phillips Library also holds two copies of Gems from Walt Whitman a selection of Whitman’s poetry as compiled by Elizabeth Porter Gould. A staunch supporter of Whitman’s work, Gould once wrote to Whitman’s close friend Henry Traubel,
It is possible you have seen my little collection of ‘Gems from Walt Whitman.’… I like to think that the little offering finds a home among the lovers of the poet, not because they need it as the great multitude does (as an introduction to him), but because it expresses in a small, though sincere way, a woman’s tribute to the power and wealth of his personality. Would it could introduce many to the work as a whole! In my work of “Topic Clubs” among our society ladies in Boston and the vicinity, I often speak a half hour on the poet’s work and life. I did today to a most interested number of ladies on Newbury Street Boston, not one of whom knew anything especially intelligent of the poems or the poet. So the good work goes on, and someday [sic] the whole world will follow in our footsteps.
Both Gould volumes in our collection include handwritten poems and remembrances of Whitman. Now known as one of the most important poets in American literature, Whitman was clearly a controversial personality in his time. For further information about Phillips Library holdings regarding Walt Whitman, please visit PHILCAT, and to see examples of these two works and many others, please visit our reading room.