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“Half Song-thrush, Half Alligator,”

July 2024
17min read

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.”

One Saturday evening early in March, 1842, a twenty-two-year-old journalist named Walter Whitman came to the reading room of the New-York Society Library on Broadway, a few blocks north of City Hall, to hear a public lecture on “The Poet.” He had just been appointed chief editor of the Aurora , a daily paper that aspired to be the court circular of the beau monde, and he dressed the part of a man about town—he wore a flower in the lapel of his frock coat and carried a polished walking stick. The lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was already, at thirty-eight, the most influential and eloquent general thinker of his era. An address he had delivered five years earlier to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, “The American Scholar,” had been “our intellectual Declaration of Independence,” according to his friend Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. In ringing tones Emerson had exhorted Americans to stop listening to the courtly muses of Europe and begin to walk on their own feet, work with their own hands, speak their own minds. “The American Scholar” had so far been his most conspicuous contribution to a great ongoing debate over the role of literature and the arts in a democracy.

“In the four quarters of the globe,” mocked the English wit, Sydney Smith, “who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?” “The inhabitants of the United States,” said a more sympathetic foreign observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, have “at present, properly speaking, no literature.” Bleak views such as these were shared even by patriots like John Quincy Adams, who believed art was by its nature aristocratic and exclusive; the United States would have to make do with more earthbound expressions of its vitality. But for Emerson it was only a matter of time before the infant democracy would produce its own masters possessing “nerve and dagger.” As he said in the lecture Whitman heard that evening in 1842, “We have had yet no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so admires in Homer.”

Emerson also again took up the question of “whether Poetry is possible in the present time.” His answer: “Why not?” In other countries and other ages the poet—“the fortunate, the adapted, the timely man”—had celebrated the transcendent glory of naked facts, the wonders of the human heart, and the infinitude of the individual. “The genius of poetry is here,” Emerson told his audience. “He worships in this land also, not by immigration but he is Yankee born. He is in the forest walks, in paths carpeted with leaves of the chestnut, oak, and pine; he sits on the mosses of the mountain, he listens by the echoes of the wood; he paddles his caeioe in the rivers and ponds. He visits without fear the factory, the railroad, and the wharf. When he lifts his great voice, men gather to him and forget all that is past, and then his words are to the hearers, pictures of all history; and immediately the tools of their bench, and the riches of their useful arts, and the laws they live under, seem to them the weapons of romance. As he proceeds, I see their eyes sparkle, and they are filled with cheer and new faith.”

In the Aurora Whitman described Emerson’s lecture as “one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have heard anywhere, at any time. ” “Ralph Waldo Emerson, of New England,” “tall and slender,” “at the lecturer’s desk lecturing,” appears in the poem “Pictures,” one of Whitman’s rehearsals for Leaves of Grass . “He has what none else has; he does what none else does,” he said of Emerson in an early manuscript note. “He pierces the crusts that envelope the secrets of life.” “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil,” he said in 1860, citing some of the circumstances that five years earlier had led to the publication of Leaves of Grass .

In 1855, thirteen years after the lecture at the New-York Society Library, Emerson was given reason to believe that the prophecy he made in “The Poet” had been fulfilled. He found waiting for him at the post office in Concord a slim volume bound in green cloth stamped with tendriled letters. Opening it he saw an unidentified portrait of a bearded man, coatless, his shirt open at the neck, who could have been a sailor or laborer. Facing the portrait was a title page without an author’s name—it showed only “Leaves of Grass” and the legend “Brooklyn, New York: 1855.” Ten pages of eccentrically punctuated prose preceded eighty-three pages of poetry, at first glance simply clusters of prose sentences printed like Bible verses. On page 29 Emerson came upon a clue to the identity of the bearded loafer of the frontispiece and the anonymous author:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, Disorderly, fleshy and sensual … eating, drinking and breeding, No sentimentalist… no Stander above men and women or apart from them … no more modest than immodest.

This wild man went on to make an Emersonian pledge—

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.

—and issue an Emersonian challenge:

Do you take it I would astonish? Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart twittering through the woods? Do I astonish more than they?

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

Dear Sir,

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.

“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.”

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”—

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature , Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you

—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

… young man that wakes, deep at night, his hot hand seeking to repress what would master him—the strange half-welcome pangs, visions, sweats, The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers—the young man all colored, red, ashamed, angry.

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.”

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.


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.

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