WHITMAN AND RALPH WALDO EMERSON
section of the site includes two letters, one by Emerson and one
by Whitman that became a part of the second edition of Leaves
of Grass. This exchange began as a private note of encouragement
from Emerson, a well-known poet and lecturer, to an obscure journalist
at the beginning of his poetic career.
The following letter to Whitman from Ralph Waldo Emerson, 21 July
1855 is among the most famous letters ever written to an aspiring
writer. Here Emerson suggests the complex foreground that preceded
the publication of Leaves of Grass. Without asking Emerson's
permission, Whitman gave this private letter to Charles Dana for
publication in the New York Tribune on October, 1855.
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 and 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 and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too
much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits
fat and mean.
I give you joy of your free and 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, and 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 and encouraging.
I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised
in newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available
for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt
much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay
you my respects.
Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855
letter as well as an open letter
to Emerson written by Whitman was then printed in an
appendix to the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass. In addition,
Whitman printed "I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
R.W. Emerson" on the spine of the book.
Selection of Critical Statements
number of Whitman scholars and biographers have commented on the
details of the letters and of the complex relationship between Whitman
Loving, Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, pp. 89-90.
[the printing of the letter in the Tribune and the use of Emerson's
letter in the 1856 edition], Whitman has been repeatedly scolded
by critics ever since. Generally, the act has been viewed as a slick
promotion scheme, done by a man with little sense of propriety.
It is difficult even today to excuse Whitman for his actions, but
a closer look at the circumstances may mitigate the offense. Whitman
wanted the world to know what Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of his
poetry; but he also used the letter in self-defense, as a counterbalance
to what he considered a partially negative review (the very first
review of his book) in the Tribune of 23 July 1855."
M. Price, Whitman and Tradition, pp. 38-39:
praise greeting him at the beginning of a great career was at the
same time exhilarating and discomfiting, since it came from a benefactor
he had denied. Thus, Whitman's grandiose claims of total independence
made in 1855 received tortured reconsideration only a year later.
The poet shifted his position in a very complicated way. Intending
to deflect harsh criticism by relying on a pure and honored authority,
he hoped, in ostensibly affirming the Emerson connection, to reinforce
and publicize a strong endoresement of Leaves. No longer overtly
claiming to be the fountainhead of tradition, he gives this role
(in some places in the letter) to Emerson . . . ."
Greenspan, Walt Whitman and the American Reader, pp. 141-42:
the weeks and months immediately following [the publication of the
1855 Leaves of Grass], Whitman moved decisively to create
a reading audience for it. One of the most obvious ways to do so
was to mail out copies to writers and editors whim he respected.
The first response he received in return, with fine poetic justice,
was the one he cared most about: Emerson's. Writing in the first
blaze of his enthusiasm, Emerson saluted his 'benefactor' with unreserved
praise. . . . It is not hard to imagine what this letter meant to
Whitman; it brought him high praise from, in his hero-worshipping
eyes, the highest source."
Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America, p. 341-42:
like a dazzling rainbow over all positive responses to Leaves
of Grass, of course, was Emerson's July 21 letter to Whitman.
Among responses to the first edition, the letter was by far the
most glowing and, in terms of Whitman's poetic aims, the most appropriate.
. . . In its simple elegance, this is the Gettysburg Address of
American ltierary commentary. If Lincoln's Gettsburg Address remade
America, as Garry Wills says, Emerson's letter came close to making
Whitman. It was constantly reprinted, quoted, and cited by Whitman's
defenders, of ten with Whitman's encouragement. Just as the Gettsburg
Address soared above details of battles or political squabbles and
made an eloquent generalization about the goals of the nation, so
Emerson's letter made a holistic, transcendental statement about