the whitman controversy


Clemens confronts this hypocrisy directly in an unpublished article he wrote in 1882, called “The Walt Whitman Controversy,” appearing here for the first time.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 In the Whitman Encyclopedia, Wesley A. Britton calls “The Walt Whitman Controversy” an “unpublished essay .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.

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