Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

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Why was Whitman's Leaves of Grass controversial in the mid-nineteenth century?

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Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was so controversial in the mid-nineteenth century due to Whitman's departures from well-established poetic traditions of the mid-nineteenth century and due to the overt sexual content of many of the poems in the book.

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American poet Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass caused an uproar when it was published in 1855. The poems were criticized for Whitman's departures from traditional poetic structure, and Whitman was vilified for the explicit sexual imagery contained in many of the poems.

Whitman wrote the poems in the first edition of the book in unrhymed, unmetered free verse in lines of varying length. Some of the poems have the feel of iambic meter, which closely resembles the rhythm of colloquial speech and gives the poetry a natural flow. Whitman also created a sense of rhythm with his "lists," in which he used the literary device of anaphora, by repeating the first word or phrase in successive lines.

Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!...

Voices of the interminable generations of slaves,
Voices of prostitutes and of deformed persons,
Voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs,
Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion...

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'ouvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer's girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake. ("Song of Myself")

The harsh criticism of the sexual content of Whitman's poems focused primarily on "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," and "I Sing the Body Electric."

The book was officially banned in Boston immediately after its publication. Booksellers in many other cities simply refused to sell it, and libraries wouldn't buy it, which effectively banned the book in those cities as well.

Whitman lost a job with the US Department of the Interior because of the book, and the Boston District Attorney threatened Whitman and his publisher with criminal prosecution for obscenity, which caused an 1882 edition of the book to be withheld from publication.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass contained only twelve poems when it was published in 1855, but Whitman was undeterred by the criticism of his work, and he published a second edition in 1856, which contained thirty-three poems and a copy of a letter Whitman received from Ralph Waldo Emerson praising the book.

Whitman continued to expand the book for the rest of his life, and the final edition of the work, published just two months before his death in 1892, contained 383 poems.

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