Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s controversial book of poetry, grew over nine successive editions from a ninety-page folio in 1855 to a book of nearly 440 pages in 1892. Its celebration of the human body and sexuality in frank and explicit language, particularly in the original long poem “Song of Myself,” and in two collections of poems added in 1860—“Children of Adam,” which treats heterosexual love, and “Calamus,” a work of a homoerotic nature—drew fire for the poems’ “indecency.” Ralph Waldo Emerson failed to convince Whitman that inclusion of “Children” would be fatal to his career, and Whitman—as he did throughout his life—remained true to his vision.
On June 30, 1865, Secretary of the Interior James Harlan fired Whitman from his post in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After reading a copy of Leaves of Grass that he found at Whitman’s work site, Harlan decided its author was immoral and must be dismissed at once. In response to this treatment of a poet whom he considered a national icon, the polemicist William Douglas O’Connor wrote The Good Gray Poet, a pamphlet denouncing Harlan’s action and defending Whitman’s character. The publication did much to defuse accusations of indecency and to implant a benign image of the poet in the American mind.
Whitman’s early acceptance in England has been attributed to publication of a selected edition of his poems by London publisher...
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