Walt Whitman? Horace Traubel? Morris L. Ernst? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Walt Whitman’s landmark poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” was shocking to some of his contemporaries, and he was told by publishers, critics, and attorneys that his work required expurgation. Whitman consented to this censorship initially, but he became increasingly unhappy and angry with this interference over time. The following statement has been attributed to Whitman:
Damn all expurgated books, the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.
I have not been able to determine where or when Whitman wrote or said these words. Would you please help me?
Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Walt Whitman made a statement very similar to the one above. Whitman died in 1892, and the earliest citation located by QI was published in 1906 by Horace Traubel who was a friend of the famous poet and his literary executor. Traubel published a volume about his experiences visiting Whitman a few years before the poet’s death titled “With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 — July 14, 1888)”. The book format was a series of dated journal entries, and the entry of Wednesday, May 9, 1888 recounted Whitman’s vivid remark about censorship. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Damn the expurgated books! I say damn ’em! The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book. Rossetti expurgated—avowed it in his preface: a sort of nod to Mrs. Grundy…
The phrasing reported by Traubel differed somewhat from the most common modern quotation, but QI hypothesizes that the modern statement was derived from this journal entry. The name “Rossetti” in the remark referred to William Rossetti who published an early expurgated edition of “Leaves of Grass”. The name “Mrs. Grundy” referred to an archetypal figure embodying prudish, priggish, and narrow-minded attitudes.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Horace Traubel’s journal entry dated May 14, 1888 included additional passionate commentary from Whitman about censorship. The name “Stedman” referred to Edmund C. Stedman who was an influential poet, critic and editor. The name “Emerson” referred to the major literary figure Ralph Waldo Emerson: 2
W. said: “One of Stedman’s ideas seems to be that we need an expurgated Leaves. Well—perhaps we do: but who is the man to expurgate it?” “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!” I said.
W. laughed: “Yes, let him expurgate. Well—I have heard nothing but expurgate, expurgate, expurgate, from the day I started. Everybody wants to expurgate something—this, that, the other thing. If I accepted all the suggestions, there wouldn’t be one leaf of the Leaves left—and if I accepted one, why shouldn’t I accept all? Expurgate, expurgate, expurgate! I’ve heard that till I’m deaf with it.
Who didn’t say expurgate? Rossetti said expurgate and I yielded. Rossetti was honest. I was honest—we both made a mistake. It is damnable and vulgar—the mere suggestion is an outrage. Expurgation is apology—yes, surrender—yes, an admission that something or other was wrong. Emerson said expurgate—I said no, no. I have lived to regret my Rossetti yes—I have not lived to regret my Emerson, no.
In 1928 a book about censorship titled “To the Pure . . . A Study of Obscenity and the Censor” was released, and it included a section about Whitman that presented a modified version of the quotation. This was the earliest evidence of the altered quotation found by QI: 3
In the year 1855 a poet by the name of Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass and shocked American Puritanism and English Victorianism. There was a great deal of talk about the viciousness of the poems but it was not till 1881, twenty-six years after the first edition, that the obscenity of the book became so obvious that the Boston district attorney threatened criminal prosecution unless it was expurgated.
Although Whitman had once said: “Damn all expurgated books, the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book,” he consented to revise some lines in “I Sing the Body Electric,” “A Woman Waits for Me,” and “Spontaneous Me.” But the district attorney, representing the spirit of his time, had a more inclusive list of twenty-two obviously obscene items . . .
In 1949 Evan Esar placed a version of Whitman’s statement in his compendium titled “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, but Esar used the same altered version given in the 1928 citation above: 4
WHITMAN, Walt, 1819-1892, American poet.
Damn all expurgated books; the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.
In 1973 a column from Associated Press writer Hal Boyle was printed in multiple newspapers, and an instance of Whitman’s remark was presented. The phrasing matched the 1928 and 1949 citations: 5
It was Walt Whitman who observed, “Damn all expurgated books: the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.”
The 1977 collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” listed the following: 6
The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.
—Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
In conclusion, QI believes there is solid evidence that Walt Whitman made a condemnatory remark about expurgation to Horace Traubel in 1888. QI suggests using the instance recorded in the 1906 citation.
Image Notes: Walt Whitman from engraving by Samuel Hollyer; frontispiece to “Leaves of Grass” via Wikimedia Commons; cropped and resized. Red censored stamp from Nemo on Pixabay. “Leaves of Grass” book cover of Thayer and Eldridge edition from NYPL Digital Gallery via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to K whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1906, With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 — July 14, 1888), by Horace Traubel, Journal Date: May 9, 1888, Quote Page 124, Published by Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906, With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 — July 14, 1888), by Horace Traubel, Journal Date: May 14, 1888, Quote Page 150, Published by Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1928, To the Pure . . . A Study of Obscenity and the Censor by Morris L Ernst and William Seagle, Quote Page 40 and 41, Viking Press, New York. (Reprint published in 1969 by Kraus Reprint Company, New York) (Verified on paper in 1969 reprint) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Walt Whitman, Quote Page 215, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1973 September 4, State Times (State Times Advocate), Reporter’s Notebook: When a Tongue Is A Nose by Hal Boyle, (Associated Press), Quote Page 10A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Censorship Censors, Quote Page 99, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩