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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
A one-word entry in his daybook for December 11, 1855—“Brooklyn”—may be the only record he kept at the time of his first meeting with Whitman. He called at the little wooden house on Ryerson Street where Whitman lived with his brothers and recently widowed mother. They talked for an hour or so and went off to eat dinner in New York and after, on Whitman’s suggestion, to drink beer at Fireman’s Hall, a noisy social club on Mercer Street. When he was next in Brooklyn, probably in February, 1856, Emerson called again, and they had dinner at the Astor House. Four years later, when Whitman came to Boston to see a new edition of Leaves of Grass through the press, Emerson called on him in his rented room, welcomed him with great courtesy, and among other hospitalities he offered that day registered him for guest reading privileges at the Boston Athenaeum. Before their late midday dinner they walked for two hours, crossing and recrossing the Common under the bare elms along the Beacon Street slope.
Willingly or unwillingly Emerson had stood godfather to Leaves of Grass and had a stake in its career. As they walked along the Common, he urged Whitman to reconsider some of the new poems he was about to add to his book. He cited such provocations to public complacency as “To a Common Prostitute”—
—and a number of other potentially offending passages, some quite explicit. The times and the taste of the times simply were not ready, he argued, talking “the finest talk that was ever talked,” as Whitman recalled, and marshaling his points as if they were an army corps advancing. The mere mention of nakedness and the limbs of the body was taboo. Sexuality, expecially the sexuality of women, was an unholy secret, to be kept, not flaunted, as Whitman insisted upon doing. Just to hint at masturbation was unthinkable, and yet here was Whitman’s
A daring metonymy, that last clause, but by any standards these lines were intolerable, providing anyone was willing to admit to knowing what they were about in the first place. How would an educated reader, man or woman, already put off by Whitman’s lawless meters and elastic morals, respond to “stalwart loins,” “love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching,” “limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous,” “phallic thumb of love,” “bellies pressed and glued together with love”?
“Emerson was not a man to be scared or shocked … by the small-fry moralities, the miniature vices,” Whitman said. The objections Emerson raised were in the end neither moral nor aesthetic; they were purely prudential. In practical, commercial terms, meaning the sales and unimpeded circulation of the new book, there was a limit to how far Whitman could exercise the “free and brave thought” and “the courage of treatment” Emerson had saluted in his letter. That limit was set by the public, or at any rate by their watchdogs, and for the sake of Leaves of Grass in 1860 and in the predictable future, Emerson concluded, the objectionable passages must be excised, a small enough concession, considering the larger work that was at stake. “But would there be as good a book left?” Whitman asked. Emerson considered this briefly. “I did not say as good a book,” he answered. “I said a good book.
“If I had cut sex out,” Whitman reflected years later, “I might just as well have cut everything out"—sex was the root of roots, the life beneath the life; the entire structure of Leaves of Grass might come down about his ears. Whitman’s heterosexual poems often ranted and postured, and they had their share of camp, but in the aggregate they strove for the candor, simplicity, and joy unashamed of Adam in the Garden. “The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book,” Whitman told his friend Horace Träubel. “Expurgation is apology—yes, surrender—yes, an admission that something or other was wrong. Emerson said expurgate—I said no, no. … I have not lived to regret my Emerson no.” As they finished walking the unpaved paths below the Statehouse, Whitman felt “down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way.” He told Emerson Leaves of Grass would have to stand or fall as it was, and with this settled, they went to the American House and had “a bully dinner.”