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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
Such willfulness, as it seemed, together with Whitman’s earlier transgressions against literary good manners and the protests of Lesley and other moralizing readers, inevitably cooled Emerson’s enthusiasm for Leaves of Grass and its author. His remarkable first letter of recognition yielded to brief comments with an edge of mockery and disparagement, a clear note of “but": “an auctioneer’s inventory of a warehouse,” for example, “a singular blend of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald .” Emerson’s “benefactor” became “half song-thrush, half alligator,” “the strange Whitman,” “our wild Whitman,” “a wayward, fanciful man.”
At the beginning of the Civil War, when Whitman was looking for a government job in Washington, he asked Emerson to write him some letters of recommendation; Emerson leavened his endorsement with a note of warning to potential patrons in the corridors of power. “Permit me to say that he is known to me as a man of strong original genius,” he wrote to Secretary of State William Seward, but he pointed to Whitman’s “marked eccentricities” and to the fact that in many respects his writings were “open to criticism.” “I should probably have had no difficulty in securing the appointment,” said the poet’s friend John Townsend Trowbridge, who served as intermediary between Emerson and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, “if I had withheld Emerson’s letter, and called my friend simply Mr. Whitman, or Mr. Walter Whitman, without mentioning Leaves of Grass .” Chase decided he would have nothing to do with a “decidedly disreputable person” who had written a “very bad book.” It was not until the last winter of the war that Whitman finally landed an obscure clerkship in the Department of the Interior.
In later years Emerson was a familiar topic of discussion in Whitman’s circle of disciples, and Whitman himself—when he was nearly seventy—came up with a very different story of their relationship. “It is of no importance whether I had read Emerson before starting L. of G. or not. The fact happens to be positively that I had not . … I never cared so very much for E.’s writings.” Such declarations went against all the evidence, even against Whitman’s graceless admission that “years ago I began like most youngsters to have a touch (though it came late, and was only on the surface) of Emerson-on-the-brain—that I read his writings reverently, and address’d him in print as ‘Master,’ and for a month or so thought of him as such. I have noticed that most young people of eager minds pass through this stage of exercise.” Emerson had preached self-reliance—for him every day was All Souls’ Day—and perhaps Whitman absorbed the lesson too well. “The best part of Emersonianism,” Whitman said, “is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower?”
Whether the Concord sage had “recanted,” and, if so, whether capriciously or under the influence of Whitman’s “ deadly haters in and around Boston,” was debated among the poet’s faithful followers with the sectarian passion reserved for the doctrine of transubstantiation. But the fact remained that if Emerson had not formally recanted, he had executed a slow retrograde maneuver ever since 1855. He had ceased to expect much from Whitman, he told the Englishman James Bryce in 1870. “Walt, by his account,” Bryce noted in his diary, “must be not only a conceited but a rather affected creature, valuing himself on his roughness and shewing a contempt for the ordinary usages of good breeding. He has an immense estimate of his own performances, and does not desire criticism. He has had some sort of education, and read a good deal of poetry, so he is not quite so much a child of nature as might be expected.”
From time to time Emerson’s gibes were meant for Whitman to hear. “Tell Walt I am not satisfied, not satisfied,” he said in 1871. “I expect—him—to make—the songs of the—nation—but he seems contented to—make the inventories.” The next year Whitman and his friend John Burroughs, the naturalist, went to hear Emerson lecture on “Imagination and Poetry” and were disappointed. “He maintains the same attitude—draws on the same themes—as twenty-five years ago,” Whitman complained about his former “Master,” once the arch-rebel of American thought. “It all seems to me quite attenuated,” like tea made from brewed-out leaves. After the lecture Burroughs noted a certain coolness toward Whitman on Emerson’s part, and a few days later, seeing Emerson off at the depot in Washington, he found out what the trouble was. “He thought Walt’s friends ought to quarrel a little more with him and insist on his being a little more tame and orderly—more mindful of the requirements, of beauty, of art, of culture, etc.—all of which was very pitiful to me, and I wanted to tell him so. But the train started just then and I got off.” Burroughs decided Whitman could get along nicely without such timid concessions, and Whitman agreed. “I know what I am about better than Emerson does,” he said, but he tempered this with some of his old admiration and gratitude—"I love to hear what the gods have to say.” Emerson’s enervated lecture, so different from the call to poetry Whitman had heard at the New-York Society Library in 1842, was perhaps a sign of the mental vacancy that had begun to afflict him. When Whitman came to Concord in September, 1881, Emerson had to be told who the visitor was.