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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
From Whitman’s point of view Emerson already had been guilty of less forgivable sins of omission. In 1874 he finished putting together a poetry anthology, Parnassus , that was supposed to compete with Francis Turner Palgrave’s enormously popular Golden Treasury . Among the living Americans represented in Emerson’s five hundred, doublecolumned pages of selections were Longfellow, Lowell, Whittier, and Bryant. This was as it should have been. He showed favor also to the stockbroker Edmund Clarence Stedman and to a Wisconsin poet, long since forgotten, named Forceythe Willson, whose “genius” Emerson regarded as being “akin to Dante’s.” Predictably, there was nothing by Poe, whom Emerson had once dismissed as “the jingle man,” or Melville, who was generally forgotten, or Emily Dickinson, who published only five poems before she died in 1886. But there was not so much as a single line in Parnassus from the book Emerson had called “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed. ” Maybe there was a glimmer of consolation in the report that while editing the anthology Emerson had been under the thumb of his daughter Edith, who hated Whitman. Still, it was humiliating beyond all account to be denied houseroom on this Parnassus even by a doddering god.
Whitman could not disguise his chagrin at this exclusion in the article he published in the Boston Literary World on the occasion of Emerson’s seventy-seventh birthday. “At times it seems doubtful to me if Emerson really knows or feels what Poetry is at its highest, as in the Bible, for instance, or Homer or Shakespeare. I see he covertly or plainly likes best superb verbal polish, or something old or odd. … Of power he seems to have a gentleman’s admiration—but in his inmost heart the grandest attribute of Gods and Poets is always subordinate to the octaves, conceits, polite kinks, and verbs.”
But if Emerson had been blind to “ power ,” to “Poetry at its highest,” how then to account for his first recognition of Leaves of Grass ? In the end, perhaps the Whitman-Emerson history has less to do with boldness and gentility, retreats and recriminations, Boston and New York, than with the timeless dialectic of fathers and sons, masters and pupils. If Emerson discerned Whitman’s “free & brave thought,” “courage,” and “great power,” he should not have been surprised to discover in him also the ruthless purpose, the disdain and calmness, of saints and tyrants. Leaves of Grass was more important to Whitman than his own life. The opening passage of the book Emerson read with such rapture in July, 1855, said in its way just what he had been saying for years, that each generation must write its own Bibles. “America does not repel the past,” Whitman announced, “perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house … perceives that it waits a little while in the door … that it was fittest for its days … that its action has descended to the stalwart and wellshaped heir who approaches… and that he shall be fittest for his days.” Emersonianism had bred its giant.
Justin Kaplan, who won the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award in 1967 for his biography of Mark Twain, has adapted for AMERICAN HERITAGE this article from his forthcoming Walt Whitman, A Life . The book will be published by Simon & Schuster in November.