Posted by: Allyson | September 29, 2008

Banned Books Week, Day 1

So I said I’d re-start my blogging on Saturday, when Banned Books Week kicked off.  Oops.  Between getting the degu recuperated and a yoga workshop, I was busy.  Plus, I now have pinkeye.  Such is life.  Anyway, I want to do a post a day about a banned book.  Some of them will be obviously feminist, some won’t; I don’t feel the need to necessarily limit myself to overtly feminist books for this week.  Besides, I consider attacking censorship to be an important part of feminist activism anyway.  And I’ll be posting extra to make up for the days I missed this weekend.

So to kick off Banned Books Week at this blog, I’ll be talking about one of my all-time favorite books in the history of time, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  There were six distinct American editions printed between 1855 and 1892.  Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s only poetry collection; he just revised it a number of times over the course of his life.  Compare, for example, the 1855 (first) edition and the 1891-1892 (deathbed) edition

The 1881 edition was banned in 1882 by Oliver Stevens, the district attorney of Boston, for “explicit” language, although it was published elsewhere in Philadelphia.  The “obscene” nature of Leaves of Grass was problematic elsewhere as well – Whitman was fired by various employers over the content of the book.  Looking at the poems, they’re hardly erotica; they’re pretty G-rated compared to our standards today.  But Whitman embraced all forms of sexuality, and that celebration is evident in his works.  In addition, Whitman was gay, and you can see that in his works as well.  But not a cuss word in sight; no euphemisms.  Leaves of Grass is upfront about human sexuality in all forms, and that’s what scared people.

Whitman’s poetry is some of the most uplifting I have ever known.  The quintessential “Song of Myself” beings:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I first discovered Whitman in high school, and I needed that opening back then.  When you’re an adolescent, you’re dealing with body image issues and an eating disorder, and you can’t get along with anyone in your peer group, the idea of singing oneself and celebrating onself is almost radical.  That opening line is for anyone who is having trouble with their identity – whether you hate your body, don’t know how to tell people you’re gay, are struggling with your religious beliefs, or wondering if you are a feminist.  No matter what you are, regardless of whether you don’t fit in or not, you are special, wonderful, deserving of celebration.

And of course, there’s a special place my heart for this passage:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I am a feminist, but sometimes I laugh at sexist things or ignore sexist comments.  But that doesn’t mean I’m a bad feminist.  I might have contradicted myself when I saw Tropic Thunder this weekend, but after the film my partner and I had a great critical discussion of the film, in which we talked about the ableist aspect, as well as the lack of women in anything but “support” roles.  I can laugh at the humor and then dissect it afterwards.

Whitman was criticized for obscenity, but his work is a celebration of life in all its forms.  And while it might not be a “feminist” work, there are feminist parts to it, and I think that Whitman was a feminist in some sense.

In speaking of life, I’d like to conclude with the final section of “Song of Myself.”  Knowing I’m going to die someday, I’ve done some thinking about the end of my life, and decided that this poem should be read at my funeral.  Because what else could be so perfect for someone who is not religious, who has loved life, but who also does not fear death?

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my
         gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

P.S. – I know money is tight for everyone right now, but if you have the cash, please suppor the Walt Whitman Archive.

Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like



  1. Ah! You totally quoted my two all-time favorite Whitman passages.

    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

    That is basically my life in a nutshell.

    I love Walt Whitman.

  2. That is basically my life in a nutshell.

    Mine, too. I love that strophe. I think it’s one of the top-10 most profound things anybody has ever said.

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