“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
—and issue an Emersonian challenge:
Reading Leaves of Grass Emerson felt he had seen salvation and could depart in peace. “Unto us a man is born,” he told Moncure Conway, a young clergyman who was to be his first legate to Whitman (and, somewhat later, one of Whitman’s most vigorous publicists abroad). Another insurgent masterpiece, Henry Thoreau’s Walden , published the summer before, had drawn only qualified praise from Emerson, even though the author was his dearest friend and protégé. But now he was “in raptures,” a visitor noted, and could hardly restrain himself from declaring the greatness of Leaves of Grass to anyone he spoke or wrote to, even such distant correspondents as Thomas Carlyle. On July 21 Emerson sent a letter to the new poet himself.
Concord, Massachusetts 21 July 1855
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean.
I give you joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment , which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.
I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a Post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay you my respects.
Mr. Walter Whitman.
In the annals of literary partisanship and the laying on of hands, Emerson’s words remain unmatched for their generosity and force, their shrewdness and simple justice. And for Whitman, whose book was greeted for the most part with derision, abuse, or total indifference, this letter was nothing short of life-conferring, an accolade so extraordinary that at first, like Emerson reading Leaves of Grass , he had to rub his eyes a little “to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.” He regarded it as the charter or brevet of “an emperor.”
“I supposed the letter was meant to be blazoned,” and blazon it he did, even though in later years he offered several exculpatory accounts of how a private letter came to be publicly circulated and printed without the writer’s permission or approval. He said that he had happened to run into Charles A. Dana of the New York Tribune , who had heard about the letter along the transcendental grapevine and, representing himself with some justice as “a friend of Mr. Emerson,” persuaded Whitman to release it to him. This may well have been so, but once the letter was printed in the Tribune on October 10, Whitman fell on it like a hawk. He circulated the clipping to Longfellow and other celebrities and eventually distributed the letter to editors and critics in the form of a broadside he printed up.
The following year he reprinted the letter in a second, enlarged edition of Leaves of Grass , which also included a vaunting address to Emerson—“dear friend and Master.” On the spine in gold letters was the AIi Baba formula, ” ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career.’ R. W. Emerson.” In his roughshod way, but with a genius for promotion that marked his entire subsequent career, Whitman virtually invented the technique of the blurb.