“Half Song-thrush, Half Alligator,”


“Toward no other American, toward no contemporary except Carlyle, had Emerson used such strong expressions,” said Conway. “Emerson had been for many years our literary banker; paper that he had inspected, coin that had been rung on his counter, would pass safely anywhere. ” After a talk with Emerson during the summer of 1855, Conway bought a copy of Leaves of Grass in Boston and read it on the night steamer to New York. The next morning he found Whitman revising proof of some new poems in the Rome Brothers printing shop on the corner of Fulton and Cranberry streets in Brooklyn Heights. “A man you would not have marked in a thousand,” he reported to Emerson. “Blue striped shirt, opening from a red throat; and sitting on a chair without a back, which, being the only one, he offered me, and sat down on a round of the printer’s desk himself. His manner was blunt enough also, without being disagreeably so. … He seemed very eager to hear from you.” Apparently a man of leisure, Whitman accompanied Conway to the ferry and crossed over with him. He swaggered when he walked, kept his hands in his outside pockets, and greeted as friends and equals fruit peddlers, ticket-takers, and roustabouts he met along the way—“laboring class,” Conway noted. “He says he is one of that class by choice, that he is personally dear to some thousands of such … who ‘love him but cannot make head or tail of his book.’ ” The next day Whitman and Conway dined in genteel circumstances at the Metropolitan Hotel with Conway’s sister and a friend of hers. Both young ladies had been reading Leaves of Grass and were eager to meet the poet—they found his manners good and his talk entertaining. “I went off impressed with the sense of a new city on my map,” Conway concluded in his report to Emerson, “just as if it had suddenly risen through the boiling sea.”

Emerson’s endorsement admitted Leaves of Grass to a meeting of Philadelphia abolitionists at which Lucretia Mott, the Quaker preacher, heard it discussed enthusiastically. “R. W. Emerson calls it ‘the book of the age,’ ” she told her sister. “It is something Emersonian in style—a kind of unmeasured poetry in praise of America & telling what poetry is.” The patrician critic and scholar Charles Eliot Norton told his friend James Russell Lowell that he had been alerted to the existence of Leaves of Grass by the revered Emerson, who had written a letter to the author “expressing the warmest admiration and encouragement.” Another member of Emerson’s circle, the future author of The Man Without a Country , Edward Everett Hale, published the first review Whitman could recall that had done his book anything close to justice. Henry Thoreau sought out Whitman in Brooklyn, and although the two at first circled each other like wild creatures, each uncertain whether the other would snap or run, in the end Thoreau declared that Leaves of Grass was an “alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp”—“How they must shudder when they read him! He is awfully good.” Simeon Carter, a Stoneham, Massachusetts, woodchopper, read Leaves of Grass and sent Emerson a playful warning: “Ralph, look well to your laurels or this uncouth bawler will slide them off your brows.”

Other readers, like the distinguished geologist J. P. Lesley, believed that Emerson must have been victimized by “some scamp of a newspaper editor.” Lesley had found Leaves of Grass “trashy, profane & obscene” and “the author a pretentious ass, without decency. I was not a little vexed therefore,” he wrote to Emerson, “when a few days afterward my cousin came in with a newspaper slip containing what purported to be a letter of respect and gratitude to the author over the name which of all others among American good men and thinkers I revere and love as a master and leader of the people, a mark upon the present age and a symbol of the future. I pronounced it at once ungenuine, a malicious jest.”

“That was very wrong, very wrong indeed,” Emerson said when he discovered that his letter had been printed in the Tribune . “Had I intended it for publication I should have enlarged the but very much—enlarged the but.” It was “a strange, rude thing” Whitman had done, he told Samuel Longfellow, the Cambridge poet’s brother, and if the normally mild and benevolent Emerson was angry then, he was even angrier the following summer when he saw the second edition of Leaves of Grass , including twenty-one new poems he had never read, with his endorsement stamped on the spine.

Even in his first dismay at what he considered Whitman’s violation of a private trust (a Boston paper described it as “the grossest violation of literary comity and courtesy that ever passed under our notice”), Emerson held to his announced purpose, to strike his tasks and visit New York “to see my benefactor … to pay you my respects.”