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.