Emerson and Whitman: Sage Meets Free Spirit

A carte de vsite of Ralph Waldo Emerson

A carte de visite of Ralph Waldo Emerson

When preparing an exhibit for our recent Digital Antiquarian conference we included items related to the famous interaction of two writers at different points in their public careers: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman.  (This was prompted by the participation of the Whitman Project in our digital projects showcase.) Whitman used Emerson’s private correspondence to promote his own work, and, it would seem, reveal Emerson as the successful and generous mentor. Whitman does not fare as well in this interaction: he comes off as the eager, young upstart willing to engage in indecorous means to advance his career.

Emerson cultivated his role as mentor and generous benefactor.  His many disciples included Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, and some lesser lights. As the reigning lion of American thought and literature, he didn’t necessarily need to nurture young minds, but he relished the role. Long before they met, Whitman respected and admired Emerson. It is even possible that his attendance at Emerson’s 1842 New York lectures on “Poetry,” in which he described “man” as a symbol, explicitly similar to grass, may have suggested Whitman’s title for his book of poetry.

Whitman portrait from frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass

Whitman portrait from frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass

Emerson was a force for a strong and innovative American literature. He was destined to be a champion of Whitman, and disdainful of poets like Poe, calling him a “jingle man.” He was impatient with the genteel and derivative literature of the current Boston literary scene. But he was also a product of it, and often self-censored subjects that were uncomfortably explicit or vulgar.

Whitman was the representative new American: brash, self-reliant, confident, proud of himself, inventive, and a product of a hard-scrabble up-bringing. He never achieved the public acclaim of Emerson and struggled for recognition, but forged on undeterred.  His unprecedented free-verse volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was printed in 1855 to an unreceptive and even hostile public. Oddly, it was printed without authorial attribution, even though it listed Walter Whitman as holding the copyright. As a professional printer, he set the type himself and used a distributor. Sales were disappointing.

leaves of grass title pageNot content to leave reviews of his book to critics, Whitman wrote several anonymous reviews himself, hoping to drum up interest. “An American bard at last!” he hailed himself in one review. His subterfuge easily exposed, he was only mildly embarrassed.

When Leaves of Grass came out, Whitman anonymously sent it to Emerson who eagerly read it. Emerson was impressed, although squeamish about its sensuality. Eager and excited  to provide support to a powerful new voice in poetry, on July 21 he wrote an encouraging letter to Whitman, calling Leaves of Grass a “wonderful gift” of the “most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” He enthused, ”I have great joy in it,” and wrote, ”I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”  The letter continued in this vein and concluded with a promise that Emerson would soon visit Whitman in New York. The letter was effusive and must have thrilled and validated Whitman.  (Here is the full holograph manuscript and transcript.)

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NY Tribune, Oct 10, 1855: publication of Emerson’s private letter

Whitman was undoubtedly elated, even reputedly carrying it around for months. He did not reply, but passed on the letter to the friendly editor of the New York Tribune, where it was printed on October 10, 1855. He neglected to ask or notify Emerson that his private letter would be printed. Either he was afraid that if he asked permission it would be refused, or he just felt that this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Seizing opportunity, as any entrepreneur would, he had the idea to use Emerson’s endorsement to promote the next edition of his book, and circulated a broadside of the letter (see below).

He re-issued Leaves of Grass and printed some copies with the letter as an appendix, but then decided to save the precious endorsement for his new expanded edition. He thus included the Concord Sage’s letter of praise in the text block of the second edition printed in 1856, along with added poems and essays.

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“Greeting you at the beginning of a great career – R.W. Emerson,” quoted on side of second edition

And then, to make sure no potential buyer would miss the endorsement, he printed “I greet you at the beginning of a great career – R.W. Emerson” on the spine binding to ensure visibility (see left).

Emerson had visited innovative Whitman, as promised in his letter, in December 1855, and even though Whitman was planning to print the letter in his next edition, he made no mention of it. Some of Emerson’s friends reported that he was extremely angry upon discovering the letter’s inclusion. And by normal standards, he had a right to be. Others, who admired Whitman’s poetry, indicated no such anger (Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, for example). Mutual acquaintance Moncure Conway reported that Emerson was amusedly awkward at the situation, expressing only a wish that he had written more purposefully for publication, and hadn’t been so impulsive.  It is tempting to think that people who reported the Emerson outrage were themselves more upset at Whitman’s explicit sexuality in his poetry than with the questionable reprinting of the letter. Emerson’s strongest wording about the situation was in a letter to Longfellow, noting that Whitman has “done a strange thing in printing…my letter [in the newspaper]”. A Boston newspaper, on the other hand, called it “the grossest violation of literary comity and courtesy that ever passed under our notice.”

Whitman’s friends were nonplussed. If Emerson “had expected common etiquette from you… they were sadly mistaken in your character,” one of his most ardent supporters and friends wrote fondly to Whitman.

Broadside advertising the second edition of Leaves of Grass

Broadside advertising the second edition of Leaves of Grass

Their initial friendship and mutual admiration cooled gradually, with Whitman frustrated over what he viewed as antiquated timidity in his former idol, and Emerson disappointed with Whitman’s artistic roughness in someone he once regarded as his transcendental disciple.  Whitman’s scandalous reputation was awkward, as when on a visit to Concord, mothers and wives of Emerson’s friends and family all refused to allow him in their houses.

It is probable that Leaves of Grass would have been ignored without Emerson’s support, and possible that Whitman might have been discouraged without it. It is also likely that Whitman’s ongoing self-promotion helped stimulate interest in his work and ensured a wider audience.

Further Reading:

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California, 1999.

The Walt Whitman Project

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