Walt Whitman and Comstock
or The Whirligig of Time
by Benjamin R. Tucker
Now that Walt Whitman is sure of his pedestal in the American Hall of Fame, the moment is opportune for harking back to a matter of history almost ancient, though I, who figured in it, live to tell the ale.
In the autumn of 1881 the Boston publishing house of James R. Osgood and Company (successors of the famous firm of Ticknor and Fields) issued an edition of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” In the spring of 1882 the Osgoods were advised by Oliver Stevens, district attorney of Suffolk county, Mass., at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, that certain parts of the book were looked upon by the authorities as a violation of the anti-obscenity laws, and that, if the circulation of them was continued, criminal proceedings against the publishers would be instituted. Accordingly the publishers, before issuing a second edition, invited Whitman to omit the poems considered objectionable. Of course, he declined, whereupon the timid publishers violated their contract and turned over the plates to the author, who then entrusted them to David McKay, a Philadelphia bookseller. A Boston periodical, “This World,” then published in a supplement the poem especially complained of “To a Common Prostitute.” The postmaster of Boston, L. S. Tobey, declined to accept the paper at pound rates on the ground that the supplement was not a supplement in the sense of the statute, in which action he was sustained by the postmaster-general. The paper was then offered at third-class rates and was excluded by the postmaster as unmailable because obscene. Intercession at Washington by William Douglas O’Connor and Robert G. Ingersoll induced the postmaster-general to overrule this decision and order the paper to be admitted to the mails, whereupon Washington correspondents telegraphed to their journals that “Leaves of Grass” had been declared mailable. Postmaster Tobey, much annoyed, then sent paragraphs to the Boston papers, declaring that the Washington ruling applied only to a short portion of one poem, and that the book itself was still unmailable.
At that time, I, a pugnacious young man of 28, and since the age of 18 an enthusiastic admirer of “Leaves of Grass,” was attached to the staff of the Boston “Daily Globe,” and in addition was publishing a small fortnightly of my own. It seemed to me that I had the pluck and the power to force the vexed question to an issue. So I procured from Philadelphia a sufficient supply of the book and inserted an advertisement conspicuously in the daily papers of Boston, as well as in my own journal, offering the book for sale, and concluding with the following letter:-
TO OLIVER STEVENS, district attorney of Suffolk county; George Marston, attorney-general of the commonwealth of Massachusetts; E.S. Tobey, postmaster of Boston; Anthony Comstock, secretary and general agent of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and all other enemies of liberty whom it may concern.
You are heareby distinctly notified-all of you in general, and you, Oliver Stevens, in particular-that I have in my possession, and do now offer for sale copies of the work advertised above. If you, or any one of you, believe or affect to believe that, in so doing, I am committing an unlawful act, you are invited to test the question whether twelve men, fairly chosen by lot, can be found in Massachusetts sufficiently bigoted, or intolerant, or hypocritical, to share with you, or pretend to share with you, such belief or affectation of belief. And to avoid unnecessary trouble and make the evidence of sale indisputable, I offer, on receipt from any of you an order for a copy of the work, to deliver a copy to you in my own person, at such place in Boston as you may designate, and take payment therefore.
BENJ. R. TUCKER.
The name of Attorney-General Marston was included among the addresses because it had been publicly charged that he had prompted the attempt to suppress “Leaves of Grass.” None of the addresses made answer, and the only step to interfere with me, so far as I know, was taken by Anthony Comstock, who visited the office of the United States district attorney and begged that official to indict me. I learned from indisputable authority that the request was met by refusal. Continuing to advertise and sell the book, I made the following announcement in the press on August 19, 1882:—
I have offered to meet the enemy, but the enemy declines to be met. The ardor displayed by District Attorney Stevens in opening his campaign against Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” seems to have cooled very suddenly when confronted by an offender who refuses to surrender when bidden to lay down his arms. I still advertise the book for sale, and sell it openly and rapidly. Canvassers are finding a ready sale for the work in Boston stores and offices, but pursue their commendable occupation unmolested by the authorities. The grand jury for Suffolk county has held its usual monthly sessions, but, as its report in no way mentions me, I conclude that its attention has bot been called to my alleged violation of the law. All of which goes to show that they have rights who know them, and, knowing, dare maintain. It is to be hoped that the Boston booksellers will soon recover sufficient courage to keep the book in stock. Till then I shall continue
to supply copies by mail, post-paid, at the rate of $2 each.
On October 14 I made a second announcement as follows:—
“Leaves of Grass” is now sold openly by nearly all the Boston booksellers. I have won my victory, and the guardians of Massachusetts morality have ignominiously retreated. This is well; but much trouble would have been saved if the cowardly Osgoods had only stood up in their shoes, instead of surrendering without a struggle.
Nevertheless I continued the advertising, and on November 11 made public the following letter:—
FOR A SPY’S ENLIGHTENMENT
I am informed by Mr. E. H. Heywood that, in a letter which you recently addressed to him over the false signature of “J.A. Mattock,” in accordance with your usual dishonest practice, you asked these questions: “What is Mr. Tucker’s address and his first name? Was it Franklin or Francis? Could you give me his address?”
I do not know whether Mr. Heywood has accommodated you with the desired information; therefore, permit me, lest he has not done so, to impart to you the knowledge of which you are in search, though knowing full well that, hypocrite that you are, you ask for what you already know and have known for some years past, your sole purpose in so asking having been to mislead Mr. Heywood into the belief that he was dealing with an honest inquirer instead of with a sneak and a spy.
My name and address you will find appended to this letter. Anything bearing that address will pretty surely reach me. Any commands of a business nature (I decline all other correspondence with you) so received in response to advertisements of mine I shall take pains to fulfil with my usual faithfulness, whether purporting to issue from Anthony Comstock or one of the numerous individuals whose names he has befouled by falsely assuming. I recommend you, however, to use your own name hereafter, and thus make no blacker the disgraceful record of what would be your shame were you not
Accept, sir, the earnest assurance of my profoundest contempt.
BENJ. R. TUCKER
Box 3366, Boston, Mass.
November 11, 1882
This ended the conflict. I published my final advertisement of the book on January 20, 1883. If I had been indicted and convicted, I could have been sent to prison for ten years, and doubtless would have received a sentence of at least one year. I took the risk and won the fight, single-handed.
I did not have the pleasure of Whitman’s personal acquaintance, nor, if my memory serves me, did I ever write a letter to him in my life. Long after the Osgood affair, I saw him once on the streets of Boston, but was too shy to venture to speak to him, not realizing that he must be familiar with my name. But after his death it became evident that he was always grateful to me, and this in spite of the fact that I had occasion, in 18838, to lash him fiercely a propos of a short poem that he sent by wire to a daily paper in honor of the just-deceased Emperor of Germany, Wilhelm I., whom he lauded as a “faithful shepherd of his people.” My article fell under the eyes of Whitman’s most eloquent champion, William Douglass O’Connor, who had not heard of the poem in question, and who, sharing my view, at once sent to Whitman a severe letter of protest. But the gentle Walt took no offense, remembering O’Connor’s service and my own. Abundant evidence of this appears on sundry pages of the work ‘With Walt Whitman in Camden,” issued in 1908 by the poet’s Boswell, my old friend, Horace Traubel, and consisting mainly of conversations between hero and disciple. Indulge me in a few quotations bearing on the matter in question—
Page 22—Monday, April 9, 1888.: “Tucker,” said W., ‘has been giving me the very devil for calling the Emperor Wilhelm a ‘faithful shepherd’ in my poem. In fact, Tucker is not alone: I have got a whole batch of letters of protest-one, two, three, a dozen; but too many of the fellows forget that I include emperors, lords, kingdoms, as well as presidents, workmen, republics.” We talked the matter over for some time. W. was good natured about it all. Yet he was disposed to regard the criticism rather seriously. As he said: “It is all from my friends. Take William O’Connor-take Tucker himself-they deserve to be listened to.” In winding up our chat he said: “I see I must be careful in such things, or maybe the boys will think I am apostate.”
Page 58—Sunday, April 22, 1888: Referred to Tucker: “He has thumped me some for my emperor piece, but is still my friend as I am still his friend. I don’t think a fall or two taken out of a fellow hurts him in the long run. Tucker did brave things for ‘Leaves of Grass’ when brave things were rare. I could not forget that.” To O’Connor” “He, too, fell afoul of me for my emperor piece. Why, that piece almost threatens to create a split in the church! William is quite as radical as Tucker, though much less interested in political study.”
Page 350—Monday, June 18, 888: Spoke of some of the fellows: “There is Tucker, now-Benjamin: I love him: he is plucky to the bone…he is a safe risk.” “I suppose William (O’Connor) tops us all for vehemence and consecutiveness of life.”
Page 460—Friday, July 13, 1888: A letter from O’Connor. Whitman said of it: “O’Connor never forgave me the William piece-nor did Tucker…I am sure, however, that William will come to see it all right by and by-will realize that my position is not what he now thinks- that he will then come round. He is true, true-everlastingly true-and so is Tucker, too, for that matter: and I guess it is good to have these demurrers put in.”
Whatever one may think of the “emperor piece,” the present is no time to dwell on a poet’s weakness, for this is the day of glory. In the Pantheon we find the tomb of Rousseau, author of the “shocking” Confessions; the tomb of Voltaire, whose “Candide” was lately excluded from the United States; the tomb of Victor Hugo, who, in “Les Misérables,” glorified the word of Cambronne; and the tomb of Emile Zola, whose “L’argent,” when I translated it, was summarily thrown out of a Boston printing office (though nearly half of it was already in type) by the liberal Unitarian proprietor. And now the author of “Leaves of Grass” enters the American Hall of Fame! The whirligig of time is doing famously. However, other wrongs remain to be righted-a task for the youth of today.