The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ was banned — and cost him his federal job

An 1854 portrait of Walt Whitman used as frontispiece in the 1855 first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” (Samuel Hollyer/Library of Congress)
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Long before the current wave of book banning targeted titles including “The 1619 Project” and “Everywhere Babies,” Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was banned from libraries across the United States. The backlash against the poetry book even cost Whitman his federal government job.

Whitman was working as a clerk at the Interior Department in Washington when his boss found a copy of “Leaves of Grass” in his desk and was so outraged by sexually suggestive passages in the book that he fired the poet.

“I will not have the author of this book in this department,” Interior Secretary James Harlan declared when he dismissed Whitman in 1865.

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Whitman’s poems about the joys of life contain references to sexual relationships, including same-sex relationships, that were considered shocking at the time. The book stirred protests similar to current outcries over books seen as controversial by some conservative politicians and parents. Florida’s Walton County just banned 58 books from its school libraries. Challenges to library, school and university books nationwide increased nearly fourfold last year, the American Library Association recently reported. Many banned books deal with gender issues and are “considered to be sexually explicit,” the ALA said.

In the mid-1800s, public libraries refused to buy Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” for similar reasons. At the Harvard College library, the only copy was removed from the shelves “and kept under lock and key with other tabooed books,” Justin Kaplan wrote in “Walt Whitman. A Life.” Yale University’s president compared Whitman’s poems to “walking naked through the streets.”

Whitman self-published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855 in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. (it would join New York City in 1898), printing about 800 copies. Its 12 poems were written in free verse, meaning they didn’t rhyme. The poet viewed himself as the voice of the American working man. The first poem begins:

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

One reviewer labeled the book “a mass of filth.” Ralph Waldo Emerson — the leading poet of the day — disagreed, writing to the 36-year-old Whitman about the book: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

But even Emerson had qualms about an expanded edition in 1856 and a commercially published version in 1860 with 178 poems. Whitman added such sensual poems as “Children of Adam (“The female form approaching, I pensive, love-flesh tremulous aching”) and “Calumus,” which spoke of a youth “silently approaching and seating himself near, that he may hold me by my hand.” (Whitman is believed to have been gay.)

In a decidedly mixed review, the New York Times wrote of Whitman’s 1860 version, “If possible, he is more reckless and vulgar than in his two former publications. … Yet it would be unjust to deny the evidence of remarkable power which are presented in this work.” The 1860 edition also included the patriotic poem “I Hear America Singing.”

In late 1862, as the Civil War raged, Whitman went to the front to help care for his brother, a Union officer who had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. The Cleveland Daily Leader reported the next year that Whitman “is now living in Washington City, and having left off writing bad poetry he makes gruel for the sick and wounded soldiers in the hospitals.”

In January 1865, Whitman landed a job as a “second class” clerk at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs office in the big Patent Office Building. His pay was $1,200 a year, equal to about $22,000 now.

“It is easy enough — I take things very easy — the rule is to come at 9 and go at 4 — but I don’t come at 9, and only stay till 4 when I want,” Whitman wrote to his mother, adding, “I have been sent for by the cashier to receive my PAY for the arduous & invaluable service I have already rendered to the government.”

He became an admirer of President Abraham Lincoln. “I see the president almost every day” in the city, he wrote. “What I really like about Lincoln is that there is such a lot of him — Not mere flabby flesh and squashy pulp, but regular downright grit.”

When Whitman learned that Lincoln had been assassinated on April 14, 1865, he was at his mother’s house in Brooklyn, where he noticed lilacs blooming outside the door. In homage to the fallen president, he wrote the poems “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!”

In May 1865, Harlan, a former Republican U.S. senator from Iowa and a devout Methodist, took over as interior secretary. An employee informed Harlan that one of his clerks was the author of an “immoral book.” One night, “Harlan was walking around the empty desks at the Patent Office when he found a marked-up copy of the 1860 version of ‘Leaves of Grass’ in Whitman’s desk,” Garrett Peck wrote in his book “Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.”

On June 30, Whitman received a one-line memo from Harlan: “The Services of Walter Whitman of New York as a Clerk in the Indian Office will be dispensed with from and after this date.” Whitman was fired under a new order by Harlan to oust those who “do not come within the rules of decorum & propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization.” Friends appealed on the poet’s behalf, but Harlan declared, “If the President of the United States should order his reinstatement, I would resign sooner than I would put him back.”

“Our eccentric fellow citizen Walt Whitman has lost his position in the Interior Department at Washington under the general order discharging immoral persons,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported. The paper added that Whitman quickly got a clerk job in the attorney general’s office, “where we suppose they are not so particular about morals.”

A friend came to the defense of Whitman, who was known for his gray beard and wide-brim hat, in a pamphlet called “The Good Gray Poet.” The Washington Star wrote that the pamphlet backing the “smutty poet” aimed to show that “most of the ancient poets were even smuttier than Whitman” and that under Harlan’s dictums, Homer, Dante and other historical eminences “would not have been eligible to office in the Interior Department.”

At the attorney general’s office, Whitman interviewed Confederate soldiers seeking pardons under President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty policies. He published new versions of “Leaves of Grass” in 1867 and 1871. Whitman worked in the new Justice Department and the Treasury Department before suffering a paralytic stroke and moving to Camden, N.J., in 1873.

In 1881, a Boston publisher printed the sixth version of “Leaves of Grass.” About the same time, the noted Irish writer Oscar Wilde visited Boston and told the Boston Globe, “Of all our authors, I consider Walt Whitman far the greatest and noblest. Many of his lines are like a blast fresh from Olympus.”

The next blast wasn’t from Olympus but from Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens, who in 1882 banned sales of the new edition printed by the Boston publisher, calling it “obscene literature,” unless Whitman removed certain material, including the poem “To a Prostitute.” Whitman refused and turned to another publisher to circumvent the ban. The first printing, advertised as “The Suppressed Book,” sold out on the first day.

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Whitman died in March 1892 at age 72. “Leaves of Grass” remained controversial for decades. It was again in the news in 1998 when it was reported that President Bill Clinton had given a copy of the book to the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Today, “Leaves of Grass” is considered one of the greatest books ever written. In the end, the eccentric Washington bureaucrat who wrote a book banned in Boston and in libraries nationwide is widely known as “America’s Poet.”