Dangerous American Poets

Why was Walt Whitman’s work considered dangerous and banned?

“Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass created an uproar from the moment it was first published in 1855 and all through its subsequent nine editions. This classic work of poetry was deemed ‘obscene,’ ‘too sensual,’ and ‘shocking’ because of its frank portrayal of sexuality and its obvious homoerotic overtones. In 1865, Whitman lost his job as a clerk with the Department of the Interior, when his supervisor found the annotated copy, on display, among Whitman’s possessions at work. In 1870, Yale University President Noah Porter compared Whitman’s offense in writing Leaves of Grass to that of ‘walking naked through the streets.’ With the single known exception of the Library Company of Philadelphia, libraries refused to buy the book, and the poem was legally banned in Boston in the 1880s and informally banned elsewhere. Most booksellers agreed to neither publicize nor recommend Leaves of Grass to customers, and in 1881, the Boston District Attorney threatened Whitman’s publisher with criminal prosecution, at the urging of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, causing a proposed new edition to be withdrawn from publication.

In this whirlwind of condemnation, a few voices spoke up in favor of the poem. From the very outset, Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized the work’s genius, calling Leaves ‘the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.’

From the University of Virginia Library Exhibit, Censored, Wielding the Red Pen

Read Song of Myself and see if you can identify offending lines.

Read this National Public Radio interview with Professor Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Archive, discussing the ban and Mark Twain’s defense of Whitman:

For a basic overview of Whitman’s life and work, go the the Library of Congress Exhibit, Revising Himself, Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Read this poem by another great American poet, Gwendolyn Brooks. Why do you think this poem was considered dangerous and banned?


We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

From The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks, Harpers. 1960.

Listen to Brooks reading this poem (1983, Guggenheim Museum).

The poem above was banned in West Virginia and Nebraska schools. Written by Gwendolyn Brooks, one of America’s finest poets and the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, the poem was banned for the line “Jazz June” which was taken to be a metaphor for sex, and in some cases sex with a woman named “June.” In her 1983 reading at the Guggenheim Museum, Brooks points out that the poem has been, “banned here and there because of the word ‘ Jazz’… ” and, while she was not making a reference to sex, she jokes, “ I have no objection if it helps anybody.” In fact, she says she was trying to capture what she imagined was the attitude of these seven young men, the pool players, who she thinks are “contemptuous of the establishment…” and, “ I represented the establishment by the month of June.” Some have argued that the misinterpretation that led to the ban reflected a “white centric” misunderstanding of the context, others that it was simply racism, others argued that even if the poem did contain a sexual allusion, it should not be banned.

What do you think?

Perhaps you have read this book of poetry, one of several by Shel Silverstein:

This is one of several poems that led to the collection being banned:

How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore

(Light in the Attic, Harper Collins, 1981)

Shel Silverstein’s  book of poetry A Light in the Attic (1981) was challenged and then banned at Cunningham Elementary School in Wisconsin because it “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” Another school in Mukwanago Wisconsin banned it in 1986 because some of its poems “glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.”   The poem “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” was challenged by Fruitland Park Elementary School in Florida because Abigail dies at the end. Other objections to the poems have included charges that they promote “supernatural themes” such as “demons, devils, and ghosts.”

Silverstein’s 1974 work Where the Sidewalk Ends also drew challenges. It was bannedfrom West Allis Milwaukee school libraries in 1986 because it “promotes drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for authority, and rebellion against parents.” This work was also banned by the Central Columbia School District, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, specifically referencing the poem “Dreadful” and the concern that lines like “someone ate the baby” would encourage students to engage in cannibalism. Where the Sidewalk Ends was also challenged in the Xenia, Ohio, school district in 1983 and the public school system in Minot, North Dakota in 1986.

Shel Silverstein’s works have sold over 20 million copies.

While there are a number of American poets whose work have been banned, mention must be made of one of the most famous cases, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

“Howl” was written by Ginsberg in 1955 and published in the 1956 collection of poetry Howl and Other Poems. It is considered one of several works defining the “Beat Generation,” including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959). “Howl” was first published by another “beat” poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti through his City Lights Books. Ferlinghetti and the bookstore manager were later arrested and charged with selling “obscene literature.” After an extensive and public trial, on October 3, 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the poem was not obscene.”Howl” continues to be widely read and studied today.

In 2010, a film about the obscenity trial, starring James Franco as Ginsberg, was released. Check out the trailer: