Elizabeth Taber Library

Elizabeth Taber Library
8 Spring Street - Marion, MA 02738

Book Clubs

Banned Book Club

Next meeting Date: August 22nd 6:30pm

Long before the current wave of book banning Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was banned from libraries acrossthe United States. 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. 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.” 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.” In 1865 Whitman was fired from his position as a clerk under a new order wirtten by Republican Senator  James Harlan designed 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.”

- Washington Post

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass created an uproar from the moment it was first published in 1855 and all through its subsequent nine editions. This classic work of poetry was deemed "obscene," "too sensual," and "shocking" because of its frank portrayal of sexuality and its obvious homoerotic overtones. In 1865, Whitman lost his job as a clerk with the Department of the Interior, when his supervisor found the annotated copy, on display, among Whitman's possessions at work. In 1870, Yale University President Noah Porter compared Whitman's offense in writing Leaves of Grass to that of "walking naked through the streets." With the single known exception of the Library Company of Philadelphia, libraries refused to buy the book, and the poem was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s and informally banned elsewhere. Most booksellers agreed to neither publicize nor recommend Leaves of Grass to customers, and in 1881, the Boston District Attorney threatened Whitman's publisher with criminal prosecution, at the urging of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, causing a proposed new edition to be withdrawn from publication.

- University of Virginia Library


Related Sources

American Library Association - Banned and Challenged Books