VQR Features Unpublished Essay by Mark Twain Defending Walt Whitman from Obscenity Charge

April 5, 2007 -- Last year the Virginia Quarterly Review captured national attention by publishing a lost poem by Robert Frost. Now, in its new issue on newsstands, the quarterly journal publishes a long-neglected manuscript by Mark Twain. Were that not news enough, the unpublished humor piece is a defense of Walt Whitman against charges of obscenity.

"The publication of significant previously unpublished work by one of America's best-known authors is always a major literary event," write Ed Folsom and Jerome Loving in an introduction to the Twain essay, "but when it is an unpublished piece by Mark Twain about another of America's legendary writers, Walt Whitman, it is cause for a double celebration."

Folsom is considered the leading authority on Walt Whitman, and Jerome Loving is an acclaimed biographer of Whitman and has a biography of Twain forthcoming.

Twain and Whitman are arguably the central figures of American literature—but, though they knew each other's work, each rarely spoke publicly about the other. "This seems odd to us since we now think of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain’s many novels as sharing in the very creation of an idiomatic, realistic, gritty new national literature, and so we imagine them as literary compatriots," Folsom and Loving write.

But, in fact, this publication marks the first significant insight into Twain's opinion of "Leaves of Grass"—and constitutes a defense of Whitman against censorship.

In 1882, "Leaves of Grass" was singled out by Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens as obscene after it was issued by the Boston publisher, James R. Osgood & Co. Twain was intrigued by the controversy, in part because Osgood had published Twain’s "The Prince and the Pauper" in 1881 and would issue his "Life on the Mississippi" in 1883.

With trademark wit, Twain’s unpublished essay "The Walt Whitman’s Controversy" is composed in the form of a letter to the editor of the Boston Evening Post—pointing out that all kinds of ribald writing were proudly displayed in respected homes, as long as the material was "classic," but if a living author said the same things, using the same words, he would be considered offensive and be prosecuted.

The Spring issue will be on newsstands nationwide by April 9 at select independent, Barnes & Noble, and Borders bookstores. VQR, winner of two National Magazine Awards in 2006, recently received two nominations for the 2007 National Magazine Awards. In the last three years it has received 10 nominations, an unprecedented number for a magazine its size. VQR, a magazine of current affairs, literature, history, and criticism, has been published continuously since 1925 at the University of Virginia.

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