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“Half Song-thrush, Half Alligator,”
An exasperated Ralph Waldo Emerson said of his rudest, most rebellious—and most brilliant—protégé. Their turbulent relationship survived what one newspaper called “the grossest violation of literary comity and courtesy that ever passed under our notice.”
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
One Saturday evening early in March, 1842, a twenty-two-year-old journalist named Walter Whitman came to the reading room of the New-York Society Library on Broadway, a few blocks north of City Hall, to hear a public lecture on “The Poet.” He had just been appointed chief editor of the Aurora , a daily paper that aspired to be the court circular of the beau monde, and he dressed the part of a man about town—he wore a flower in the lapel of his frock coat and carried a polished walking stick. The lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was already, at thirty-eight, the most influential and eloquent general thinker of his era. An address he had delivered five years earlier to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, “The American Scholar,” had been “our intellectual Declaration of Independence,” according to his friend Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. In ringing tones Emerson had exhorted Americans to stop listening to the courtly muses of Europe and begin to walk on their own feet, work with their own hands, speak their own minds. “The American Scholar” had so far been his most conspicuous contribution to a great ongoing debate over the role of literature and the arts in a democracy.
“In the four quarters of the globe,” mocked the English wit, Sydney Smith, “who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?” “The inhabitants of the United States,” said a more sympathetic foreign observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, have “at present, properly speaking, no literature.” Bleak views such as these were shared even by patriots like John Quincy Adams, who believed art was by its nature aristocratic and exclusive; the United States would have to make do with more earthbound expressions of its vitality. But for Emerson it was only a matter of time before the infant democracy would produce its own masters possessing “nerve and dagger.” As he said in the lecture Whitman heard that evening in 1842, “We have had yet no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so admires in Homer.”
Emerson also again took up the question of “whether Poetry is possible in the present time.” His answer: “Why not?” In other countries and other ages the poet—“the fortunate, the adapted, the timely man”—had celebrated the transcendent glory of naked facts, the wonders of the human heart, and the infinitude of the individual. “The genius of poetry is here,” Emerson told his audience. “He worships in this land also, not by immigration but he is Yankee born. He is in the forest walks, in paths carpeted with leaves of the chestnut, oak, and pine; he sits on the mosses of the mountain, he listens by the echoes of the wood; he paddles his caeioe in the rivers and ponds. He visits without fear the factory, the railroad, and the wharf. When he lifts his great voice, men gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the hearers, pictures of all history; and immediately the tools of their bench, and the riches of their useful arts, and the laws they live under, seem to them the weapons of romance. As he proceeds, I see their eyes sparkle, and they are filled with cheer and new faith.”
In the Aurora Whitman described Emerson’s lecture as “one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at any time. ” “Ralph Waldo Emerson, of New England,” “tall and slender,” “at the lecturer’s desk lecturing,” appears in the poem “Pictures,” one of Whitman’s rehearsals for Leaves of Grass . “He has what none else has; he does what none else does,” he said of Emerson in an early manuscript note. “He pierces the crusts that envelope the secrets of life.” “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil,” he said in 1860, citing some of the circumstances that five years earlier had led to the publication of Leaves of Grass .
In 1855, thirteen years after the lecture at the New-York Society Library, Emerson was given reason to believe that the prophecy he made in “The Poet” had been fulfilled. He found waiting for him at the post office in Concord a slim volume bound in green cloth stamped with tendriled letters. Opening it he saw an unidentified portrait of a bearded man, coatless, his shirt open at the neck, who could have been a sailor or laborer. Facing the portrait was a title page without an author’s name—it showed only “Leaves of Grass” and the legend “Brooklyn, New York: 1855.” Ten pages of eccentrically punctuated prose preceded eighty-three pages of poetry, at first glance simply clusters of prose sentences printed like Bible verses. On page 29 Emerson came upon a clue to the identity of the bearded loafer of the frontispiece and the anonymous author:
This wild man went on to make an Emersonian pledge—