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The Walt Whitman Controversy

ISSUE:  Spring 2007

Notes by Ed Folsom and Jerome Loving



Mark Twain manuscript
The first page of the original manuscript of “The Walt Whitman Controversy” in Twain’s handwriting. Used with the permission of the Mark Twain Papers, The Bancroft Library.

The Walt Whitman Controversy

Sir: I have seen, thus far, only one remotely reasonable argument in justification of the law’s letting old obscene books alone and tomahawking new ones. It is this: the old ones merely (and innocently) mirrored the life of their times, and the indecencies in them were not written with the intent to defile the reader’s mind. Hence they were harmless. That is the one apparently reasonable argument which I have thus far encountered. But when you come to examine it carefully, it seems to be quite insufficient. For this reason: we surely do not make laws against the intent of obscene writings, but against their probable effect. If this is true, it seems to follow that we ought to condemn all indecent literature, regardless of its date. Because a book was harmless a hundred years ago, it does not follow that it is harmless to-day. A century or so ago, the foulest writings could not soil the English mind, because it was already defiled past defilement; but those same writings find a very different clientage to work upon now. Those books are not dead; among us they are bought and sold and read, every day.

If you will allow that the question of real importance is, Which are more harmful, the old bad books or the new bad books? permit me, then, to note some particulars, and institute some comparisons.

I begin with a glance among my book shelves, and at the end of five minutes I have selected and laid out the following volumes—and without a doubt I could have found them in your library in less time:

Tom Jones.
Joseph Andrews.
Smollett’s Works.
Shakspeare. [sic]
Gulliver’s Travels.
Walpole’s Letters.
Mémoires de Casanova.
De Foe’s Moll Flanders.
Balzac’s Droll Tales.
The Heptameron.
The Decameron.
Arabian Nights.
Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles.
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter.

Of course I could find a good deal more of this sort of literature in my library and yours, but this batch is sufficient for my purpose.

Next, I turned my attention to new bad books. At the moment, I was able to call only three to mind—Swinburne’s and Oscar Wilde’s poems, and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Did I lay out these with the others? No—for I didn’t have them. Have you? Are they handy for the average young man or Miss to get at? Perhaps not. Are those others? Yes, many of them.

Now I think I can show, by a few extracts, that in the matters of coarseness, obscenity, and power to excite salacious passions, Walt Whitman’s book is refined and colorless and impotent, contrasted with that other and more widely read batch of literature.

In “Leaves of Grass,” the following passage has horrified Mr. Oliver Stevens by its coarseness:

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *2

[We are obliged to omit it.—ed. post.]

Oliver Stevens, the Boston district attorney who challenged Leaves of Grass on the grounds of obscenity, wrote to Whitman’s Boston publishers James R. Osgood & Company and advised them that Leaves of Grass fell “within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature” and advised Osgood to “withdraw” and “suppress” the book.

Among the lines that Stevens singled out as obscene, Twain must have had in mind the following two (given the Rabelais passage that he contrasts them to): “I keep as delicate around the bowels as around the head and heart, / Copulation is no more rank to me than death is,” from “Song of Myself,” section 24.

It does seem unnecessarily broad, it is true; but observe how pale and delicate it is when you put it alongside this passage from Rabelais—thirteenth chapter. (Hotten’s London edition is illustrated by Doré, and the pictures have carried it all over the world):

3 François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel was in Twain’s library. The British publisher of this edition, John Camden Hotten, was notorious as a publisher of pornography; he was also the first British publisher of Whitman, issuing William Michael Rossetti’s expurgated selection from Leaves of Grass in 1868 and then issuing an unauthorized reprinting of the entire 1872 edition of Leaves, the first unexpurgated edition to appear in Britain. Hotten also published without permission several of Twain’s works, beginning with The Innocents Abroad in 1870 and an alleged work of Twain’s, a collection of stories, some of which Twain either did not want published or claimed he never even wrote while at the Buffalo Express. In retaliation in 1872, Twain publicly denounced Hotten as a pirate and dismissed him as “John Camden Hottentot.” In the same year, Whitman complained that “the English pirate-publisher, Hotten, derives a handsome annual income from a bad & defective London reprint of my Poems.”

“‘How is that?’ said Grangousier. ‘I have,’ answered Gargantua, ‘by a long and curious experience, found out a means to—’”

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *

[We think best to omit the rest of it.—ed. post.]

“How is that? said Grangousier. I have, answered Gargantua, by a long and curious experience, found out a means to wipe my bum, the most lordly, the most excellent, and the most convenient that ever was seen. What is that? said Grangousier, how is it? I will tell you by-and-by, said Gargantua. Once I did wipe me with a gentle-woman’s velvet mask, and found it to be good; for the softness of the silk was very voluptuous and pleasant to my fundament. Another time with one of their hoods, and in like manner that was comfortable. At another time with a lady’s neckerchief, and after that I wiped me with some ear-pieces of hers made of crimson satin, but there was such a number of golden spangles in them (turdy round things, a pox take them) that they fetched away all the skin of my tail with a vengeance. Now I wish St. Antony’s fire burn the bum-gut of the goldsmith that made them, and of her that wore them! This hurt I cured by wiping myself with a page’s cap, garnished with a feather after the Switzers’ fashion.” François Rabelais, Five books of the lives, heroic deeds and sayings of Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty and Peter Antony Motteux (1693).

Or this, from Gulliver’s Travels, (chapter V, Brobdignag,) a book which is in everybody’s house and is daily read by old and young alike:

The location of Clemens’s copy of Gulliver’s Travels, which he purchased in July of 1880, is not known.

“Neither did they [the naked young maids of honor,] at all scruple, while I was by,—”

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *

[We cannot venture to complete the above abstract.—ed. post.]


“Neither did they at all scruple while I was by to discharge what they had drunk, to the quantity of at least two Hogsheads, in a Vessel that held above three Tuns. The handsomest among these Maids of Honour, a pleasant frolicsome Girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her Nipples, with many other Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse me for not being over particular.” In the manuscript of “The Walt Whitman Controversy,” Twain had originally planned to include a second passage from Gulliver’s Travels; he canceled the following fragment: “Or this, from chapter V, Lilliput: ‘The heat I had contra’.” The passage he had in mind was this: “The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by my labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.”

Now what do you really think of those?—especially the one from the popular Doré Rabelais. Yet you know that that isn’t the nastiest thing in American libraries, by any means. No, for there is a story told in the Heptameron, and retold in several other books, which easily surpasses it in filthiness. Under the title of “Merrie Jests of King Louis the Eleventh,” it appears in Balzac’s “Droll Tales,” (illustrated by Doré,) and may be found and consulted in almost anybody’s house—for the Droll Tales are in the shelves of a multitude of elegant people who wouldn’t dare to be caught sheltering a copy of Leaves of Grass in these fastidious days.

But enough of obscenity; you perceive, yourself, that Whitman knows nothing about the genuine article. Let us now consider erotic matters. Whitman’s offenses in this line are contained in the following passages:

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *

[All things considered, it seems best to omit them.—ed. post.]

There is no way of knowing which of Stevens’s specified “obscene” passages Twain had in mind here, but among the “erotic” passages that the district attorney singled out, the following from “Song of Myself” are possibilities: section 5, lines 6–9; section 11, lines 14–15; all of section 28; two lines from section 33 (“I turn the bridegroom out of bed and stay with the bride myself, / And tighten her all night to my thighs and lips”); and section 40, lines 20–21. Stevens also ruled all or parts of the following poems obscene: “From Pent-up Aching Rivers,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “A Woman Waits for Me,” “Spontaneous Me,” “Native Moments,” “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” “To a Common Prostitute,” and “Faces,” as well as scattered lines in other poems.

In our households, one young person in a hundred and fifty thousand has the opportunity to read those passages; but every creature in every household in America has the opportunity to read the following lines from Shakspere (Venus and Adonis),—and it won’t stir him up, either, because it was not written with the intent to stir people up:

“The boar! quoth she; whereat a sudden pale,

*           *           *           *           *

Usurps her cheeks; she trembles at his tale,

And on his neck—

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *8

[This is not proper matter for the columns of the evening post, and we must be excused from printing the remainder of the passage.—ed. post.]

The passage reads in full:

“The boar!” quoth she, whereat a sudden pale,
Like lawn being spread upon the blushing rose,
Usurps her cheek; she trembles at his tale,
And on his neck her yoking arms she throws.
    She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck,
    He on her belly falls, she on her back.

Now is she in the very lists of love,
Her champion mounted for the hot encounter;
All is imaginary she doth prove,
He will not manage her, although he mount her,
    That worse than Tantalus’ is her annoy,
    To clip Elysium and to lack her joy.

Is that healthy poetry for the young? Is there an educated young fellow of nineteen, in the United States, who has not read Venus and Adonis? I pray you let us not deceive ourselves: he does not exist. You diligently hunted out all the improprieties in Shakspeare and the Bible before you were nineteen—you remember it well, now that I call your attention to it—and do you believe that you and I were any more opulently stocked with the naturalest kind of human nature than is this new generation? Go to; the thought is foolishness.

Now, let us plunge into the Heptameron—at random—it is all alike. Try this, from Tale XLVI:

“Going up a little wooden staircase, he found—

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *9

[It is too strong; we cannot print it.—ed. post.]

The Heptameron of Margaret, Queen of Navarre, translated by Walter K. Kelly, from L’Heptameron des Nouvelles de très haute et très illustre Princesse Marguerite D’Angoulême, Reine de Navarre, 1853, reads, “Going up a little wooden staircase he found the girl all alone in bed, fast asleep, and sleeping as she was, he ravished her. The poor girl, waking up, knew not whether it was a man or a devil, and began to scream as loud as she could, and cry for help to her mother, who called out from the foot of the stairs, ‘Do not spare her, sir; give it her again, and chastise the naughty hussey.’ When the Cordelier had accomplished his wicked purpose he went down to the lady, and said to her with his face all on fire, ‘I think, madam, your daughter will not forget the discipline I have given her.’”

After that, Whitman is delicate enough, isn’t he? Now try this, (The Venial Sin,) from Balzac’s Droll Tales—illustrated by Doré, and to be found everywhere:

“This time the said youth * * *, and even ventured so far as to verify if—”

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *

[But that is even stronger; we cannot consent to complete the quotation.—ed. post.]

“This time the said Rene fondled with his hand the pretty limb, and even ventured so far as to verify if the polished knee and its surroundings were satin. At this sight the poor child, armed against his desire, so great was his fear, dared only to make brief devotion and curt caresses, and although he kissed softly this fair surface, he remained bashful, the which, feeling by the senses of her soul and the intelligence of her body, the seneschal’s lady who took great care not to move, called out to him—‘Ah, Rene, I am asleep.’

Hearing what he believed to be a stern reproach, the page frightened ran away, leaving the books, the task, and all. Thereupon, the seneschal’s better half added this prayer to the litany—‘Holy Virgin, how difficult children are to make.’

At dinner her page perspired all down his back while waiting on his lady and her lord; but he was very much surprised when he received from Blanche the most shameless of all glances that ever woman cast, and very pleasant and powerful it was, seeing that it changed this child into a man of courage. Now, the same evening Bruyn staying a little longer than was his custom in his own apartment, the page went in search of Blanche, and found her asleep, and made her dream a beautiful dream.

He knocked off the chains that weighed so heavily upon her, and so plentifully bestowed upon her the sweets of love, that the surplus would have sufficed to render to others blessed with the joys of maternity. So then the minx, seizing the page by the head and squeezing him to her, cried out—‘Oh, Rene! Thou hast awakened me!’”

How does “The Venial Sin” strike you? Does anything in Leaves of Grass approach it for evil effectiveness? And while you have the Droll Tales in your hand, please glance at the second picture on page 211. And read the story, too, by way of conviction. Boccaccio is in everybody’s library, and is praised by Macaulay and other great authorities. I have an English copy, but have mislaid it; so if you will allow me, I will make an extract from a French copy which was lent to me by a neighboring clergyman some time ago. It is a story about a verdant young girl and a young hermit. Try this passage:

“L’hermite se déshabille aussitôt, et le petit ange d’en faire autant. Quand ils sont tout nus l’un et l’autre, Rustique se met à genoux, et fait placer la pauvre innocente vis-a-vis de lui, dans la même situation. Là les mains jointes, it promène ses regards sur—)

“The hermit undressed himself immediately, and the small angel did so as quickly. When each was naked, Rustique dropped to his knees, and put the poor innocent in the same position. There with hands joined, he cast his eyes on—”

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *

[It is impossible to print the rest—we must be excused—ed. post.]

The entire passage, from The Decameron, Third Day, Tenth Novel, in a translation attributed to John Florio (1620):

“Thereupon [the hermit Rustico] took off what few clothes he wore, and stood stark naked; and as soon as the girl had done likewise he fell on his knees as though to pray, and made her kneel face to face with him.

This done, Rustico’s desire was more than ever inflamed at the sight of her beauty, and the resurrection of the flesh came to pass. Seeing this, and not knowing what it meant, Alibech asked: ‘Rustico, what is it thou hast that thrusts itself out in front, and that I have not?’ ‘My daughter,’ quoth Rustico, ‘it is that same Devil of whom I have been telling thee. Dost thou mark him? Behold, he gives me such sore trouble that I can hardly bear it.’

‘The Lord be praised!’ said she; ‘for now I see that I am more blessed than thou in that I have not this Devil.’

Rustico retorted: ‘Thou sayest truly; but thou hast another thing that I have not, and hast it in place of this.’

‘What is that?’ says Alibech.

To this Rustico replied: ‘Thou hast Hell; and will tell thee my belief that God gave it thee for the health of my soul. For, if thou wilt take pity on me for the troubling of this Devil, and suffer me to put him in Hell, thou wilt comfort me extremely, and at the same time please and serve God in the highest measure; to which end, as thou sayest, thou art come hither.’

All unsuspecting, the girl answered. him: ‘My father, since I have this Hell, let the thing be done when thou desirest it.’

Then Rustico said: ‘Bless thee, my dear daughter; let us go at once and put him in his place, that I may be at peace.’

So saying, he laid her on one of their rough beds, and set about showing her how to shut the accursed one in his prison. The girl, who until then had no experience of putting devils in Hell, felt some pain at this first trial of it; which made her say to Rustico: ‘Father, this Devil must indeed be wicked, and in very sooth an enemy of God, for he hurts Hell itself, let alone other things, when he is put back in it.’

‘My daughter,’ said Rustico, ‘it will not always be so.’ And to make sure of it, before either of them moved from the bed they put him in six times, after which the Devil hung his head and was glad to let them be.

But in the succeeding days he rose up many times; and the girl, always disposing herself to subdue him, began to take pleasure in the exercise, and to say such things as: ‘I see now the truth of what the good folk in Capsa told me, that serving God is a delight; for I never remember doing anything that gave me as much joy and pleasure as this putting the Devil in Hell. So I think the people who spend their time otherwise than in serving God must be very foolish.’”

It is rather a long story, but I thought I would put it all in, just to show that when it comes to doing the erotic, Walt Whitman’s ink is altogether too pale. Now let us finish by dipping just once into that richest of all rich mines—I mean, of this kind of literature—Casanova’s Memoires. From chapter V:

“Ravi d’avoir savouré * * * que je venais de goûter complètement pour la première fois, je—”

*           *           *           *           *
*           *           *           *           *

[This is too horrible; let it stop there; we cannot finish the story. We are sorry we cannot better assist our correspondent to make out his argument, but indeed his citations, admirable as they are for the purpose in view, are altogether too strong for a newspaper like ours.—ed. post.]

There—I have finished my quotations. And now I suspect that you will not dare to print them in full. As likely as not, you will cut them down to next to nothing, or even leave them out altogether. But if you do, I shall not complain; for such a course will formidably fortify my position, since it will show that you know, quite well, that antiquity & absence of evil intent can’t take the harmfulness out of indelicate literature. Yes, you know that indecent literature is indecent literature; & that the effects produced by it are exactly the same, whether the writing was done yesterday or a thousand centuries ago; & that these effects are the same, whether the writer’s intent was evil or innocent.

Whitman’s noble work

The passage reads in full, from Jacques Casanova, The Complete Memoirs, translated by Arthur Machen (1894): “Enraptured at having enjoyed my manhood completely and for the first time, I quietly leave my beauty in order to do homage to the other sister. I find her motionless, lying on her back like a person wrapped in profound and undisturbed slumber. Carefully managing my advance, as if I were afraid of waking her up, I begin by gently gratifying her senses, and I ascertain the delightful fact that, like her sister, she is still in possession of her maidenhood. As soon as a natural movement proves to me that love accepts the offering, I take my measures to consummate the sacrifice. At that moment, giving way suddenly to the violence of her feelings, and tired of her assumed dissimulation, she warmly locks me in her arms at the very instant of the voluptuous crisis, smothers me with kisses, shares my raptures, and love blends our souls in the most ecstatic enjoyment.”

“The Walt Whitman Controversy” by Mark Twain, © 2001 by Richard A. Watson and JP Morgan Private Bank as Trustees of the Mark Twain Foundation, which reserves all reproduction or dramatization rights in every medium. Published by arrangement with the University of California Press and the Mark Twain Papers, The Bancroft Library.



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