“Tedious and helpless prose” is how, in 1881, a writer for The Atlanticdescribed “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman’s first volume of poetry. It was a view shared by other contemporary critics. One called the book “intensely vulgar, nay, absolutely beastly,” before bluntly refusing to tell readers where it might be bought. Whitman did not idly nurse his wounds. Instead, he anonymously wrote numerous flattering appraisals of his work, to even the balance.

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