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The Walt Whitman Controversy: A Lost Document

[clock] 11-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2007

The publication of significant previously unpublished work by one of America’s best-known authors is always a major literary event, but when it is an unpublished piece by Mark Twain about another of America’s legendary writers, Walt Whitman, it is cause for a double celebration. This is especially the case with these two writers whose lives overlapped (Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, nineteen years after Whitman’s birth, and he died in 1910, eighteen years after Whitman), but had so little to say about each other. This seems odd to us since we now think of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain’s many novels as sharing in the very creation of an idiomatic, realistic, gritty new national literature, and so we imagine them as literary compatriots. But it was only during his last years that Whitman even occasionally referred to the novelist, after Samuel Clemens donated money to several fund-raising projects to help out the aged and infirm poet.

Asked in 1889 about Mark Twain as a writer, Whitman said, “I think he mainly misses fire: I think his life misses fire: he might have been something: he comes near to being something: but he never arrives.” While he said that he admired certain aspects of Twain’s work, Whitman probably discounted him as a mere humorist, one of those “writers of the left hand,” who hid not only behind their pseudonyms but also the literary frame that separated them from their vernacular storytellers. And no doubt because Twain hobnobbed with presidents and the trinomials of the literary establishment, Whitman may well have sensed in Clemens a kind of superior distance from the rough democrats his work seemed to celebrate, finding his “weakness” that, while he could capture “the rude Western life,” he always did so “as though with the insinuation, ‘see how far we are removed from all that—we good gentlemen with our dress suits and parlor accompaniments.’”

As for his personal relationship with Clemens, Whitman once said, “I have always regarded him as friendly, but not warm: not exactly against me: not for me either.” Whitman claimed to have known Clemens in 1853 when both writers lived in New York. Clemens, then only seventeen, had journeyed from St. Louis to New York mainly to visit the city’s first World’s Fair, which was held at the Crystal Palace; he ended up working at Gray’s printing house on Cliff Street. Whitman, a former newspaper editor, was then either a house builder or bookseller during those sparsely documented years immediately preceding the publication of the first Leaves of Grass. “I have met Clemens, met him many years ago, before he was rich and famous,” Whitman told Horace Traubel; “like all humorists he was very sober: inclined to talk of the latest things in politics, men, books, a man after old-fashioned models, slow to move, liking to stop and chat—the sort of fellow one is quietly drawn to.” As Clemens kept making donations in the 1880s to the aged poet, Whitman’s attitude toward him warmed; Whitman wrote to Clemens in 1887, expressing “my special deep-felt personal thanks for your kindness & generosity to me.” After receiving word in 1889 that Clemens had sent more money, Whitman exclaimed, “The good Clemens! And that reminds me—I must send him the big book—I have long intended it: now I must make it a particular point.” Whitman and Clemens apparently exchanged books at this point, Clemens sending Whitman A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Whitman sending Clemens the “big book” of his Complete Poems and Prose. At the end of Whitman’s life, as he was working with Arthur Stedman on a small selection of his poems (a volume that the poet wanted to call “Leaves of Grass, Jr.”) to be published by Charles L. Webster & Company, which Clemens then owned, Whitman sensed that Clemens was behind the arrangements: “I almost think I see the friendly hand of Mark Twain in it all: perhaps that is a mistake, but it is my feeling.”

As for Clemens’s attitude toward Whitman, he most likely attended Whitman’s New York Lincoln lecture in April of 1887, and he contributed to the fund set up to purchase a horse and buggy for the poet, and, later, to Whitman’s Cottage Fund (which the poet raided to pay for his mausoleum). Writing to Sylvester Baxter in May 1887 and enclosing fifty dollars for the fund, Twain said: “What we want to do, is to make the splendid old soul comfortable, & do what we do heartily & as a privilege.” When he was asked to send a tribute to Whitman for the poet’s seventieth-birthday celebration, Clemens delayed responding, then finally sent a letter to Horace Traubel that Traubel was clearly afraid to show the poet: “I received a four-page note from Mark Twain, full of generalities, with practically no word about W.W. Have not yet referred to it in W.’s presence.” The letter was eventually published in the volume of birthday tributes to Whitman that Traubel edited, and it does initially seem to bear out Traubel’s characterization, cataloguing the “great births you have witnessed”—steam-press, steamship, railroad, anesthesia, abolition of slavery, and so on—and predicting “marvels upon marvels” yet to come. Clemens goes on to offer Whitman another thirty years stolen from the “bank of life” of his many well-wishers so that the poet can live to see some of the marvels yet to come. Twain manages to sound gracious while seemingly sidestepping any acknowledgment of Whitman’s accomplishment. But Clemens’s tribute may not be as mean-spirited as Traubel assumed: in some subtle but effective ways, he manages to echo Whitman’s work throughout his long paragraph, from the catalogue of technological and social progress that the world has experienced during Whitman’s lifetime to the evolutionary faith that things will get progressively better, culminating in a “formidable Result—Man at almost his full stature at last!” Still, Twain never did have much in the way of a direct compliment to pay Whitman. Bristling that some critics had labeled him a follower of Whitman, he once said, “If I’ve become a Whitmanite I’m sorry—I never read 40 lines of him in my life.”

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. As he began to study sixteenth-century English history during the summer of 1876 in preparation for writing The Prince & the Pauper, he wrote a mock-pornographic piece called 1601; it was privately and anonymously printed in 1880 and would become a kind of underground classic as it was surreptitiously reprinted again and again in the 1880s and 1890s. The identity of its author was for many years a literary mystery. Clemens was fascinated with the hypocrisy that allowed all kinds of ribald writing to stay in print and to be proudly displayed on bookshelves in respected homes, as long as the material was “classic” and “old.” Rabelais, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Margaret of Navarre, and many others could be as ribald as they wanted, but if a living author tried to say the same things, using the same words, he could be found offensive and be prosecuted. In 1601, Clemens is outrageously obscene but writes in a parodic version of Elizabethan English in order to make the obscenity sound “classic.”

Clemens confronts this hypocrisy directly in an unpublished article he wrote in 1882, called “The Walt Whitman Controversy,” appearing here for the first time. While the piece has been known among a few scholars, it has often been badly misrepresented. In the Whitman Encyclopedia, Wesley A. Britton calls “The Walt Whitman Controversy” an “unpublished essay . . . in which Clemens worried about the sexual frankness in Leaves of Grass, saying the book should not be read by children.” Clemens’s point about Whitman, on the contrary, is that Boston’s latest banned “obscene” author does not come near being as obscene as those writers who have already been dubbed our “greatest” authors. Whitman at his obscene worst, Clemens argues, can’t hold a candle to the offensive passages in the classics. The District Attorney’s charges, Clemens suggests, are absurd, as is society’s finding offense in frank writing about the body and its functions.

We present here the entire letter, and we offer the complete passages from the various authors Clemens quotes and pretends to have originally included. His point, of course, is to make it appear that the passages were censored by the editor of the Boston Evening Post, where he imagined the piece would appear. He knew how tantalizing those asterisks would be and how they would send readers to their bookshelves to rediscover the obscenities in their “classics.”

“The Walt Whitman Controversy” ends with an intriguing sentence fragment: “Whitman’s noble work.” It would have been fascinating to see how Clemens might have concluded his argument. Perhaps he was going to suggest that “Whitman’s noble work” clearly had no evil intent and moreover did not even approach the obscenity of Casanova, Swift, Rabelais, and Shakespeare, so the District Attorney’s judgment against Leaves of Grass was doubly ridiculous. But, apart from the controversy, what lingers in that hovering final fragment is Mark Twain’s affirmation of the nobility of Walt Whitman’s work, something he never affirmed quite so directly anywhere else.

No doubt Twain had fun writing this mock letter-to-the-editor, just as he had fun writing 1601 (which anticipates “The Walt Whitman Controversy” in a number of ways, referring and echoing most of the authors—including Rabelais, Boccaccio, Shakespeare, and Margaret of Navarre—that appear in the letter), but neither his wife with her Victorian sensibilities nor his own fears of offending his future readers with anything remotely connected with obscenity would allow him to publish it. So, as he did with many pieces, Twain just put this one in a drawer and left it unfinished. What would have been in 1882 a remarkable intervention by Mark Twain in The Walt Whitman Controversy has thus been silenced for 125 years.

The manuscript today is in Clemens’s private papers in the Mark Twain Papers & Project, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and appears by courtesy of the Twain Papers and the University of California Press, which publishes the Twain series.



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