Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

Whitman created a sensation in the literary community from the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, but his poems were extremely controversial, and he was abused by critics throughout his career. When Drum-Taps was published in 1865, reviews in the United States tended to be mixed, although critics such as John Burroughs, in his article “Walt Whitman and His Drum-Taps,” were struck by this volume and began to recognize Whitman as a unique and powerful American poet, praising “the rugged faith and sweet solemnity we would describe in Drum-Taps.” The anonymous New York Times reviewer of November 22, 1865, on the other hand, was among the many critics who continued to find Whitman’s poetry obscene: “we find in them a poverty of thought, paraded forth with a hubbub of stray words.”

Negative reactions to Whitman’s poetry, both in the United States and abroad, continued to be problematic. In June of 1865, Whitman was fired from his government job because former Senator James Harlan discovered a copy of Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s desk and found it obscene. The early 1880s saw an increased acceptance of Whitman as a brilliant and important poet, in part because of the support of the major publisher James Osgood. But the District Attorney of Boston banned the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, and Whitman refused to omit the objectionable material. Forced to withdraw further...

(The entire section is 403 words.)