In an 1842 lecture, American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson called for an authentic American culture to celebrate the common, everyday things in American life. According to author Jim Cullen, the young poet Walt Whitman heard Emerson’s lecture and heeded his call. During the next decade Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, a book of poems that extolled the people and places of the United States.
Emerson, Whitman, and Leaves of Grass
On March 5, 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the premier intellectual of his time, delivered a lecture in New York City as part of a national tour. His talk that day, entitled “The Poet,” would later act as the basis for one of his most celebrated essays. The topic was familiar. For the past half-century, many American artists and critics like Emerson had sought to establish a truly national culture, not one perceived to be a pale imitation of Europe. The United States had achieved its political independence with the American Revolution, but to many observers, its cultural independence had yet to be achieved.
Emerson’s message in “The Poet” was that the search for an authentic American art should be less about formal technique than the ability of the artist to find beauty in the unlikeliest of places. “Readers of poetry see the factory-village and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these; for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading,” Emerson explained. He was searching for a poet to celebrate (or “consecrate”) the factory and the railroad—things common to workaday American society. Unfortunately, no one had stepped forward to perform such consecrations by creatively exploring topics of everyday life. “I look in vain for the poet I describe,” he lamented.
It is not surprising that Whitman found Emerson’s pronouncements compelling. Whitman knew the rhythms of the factory-village and railway far better than Emerson himself. A Long Island farm boy who had come to New York City as a young man, Whitman spent years walking the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, talking with—and more importantly, listening to—its clerks, firemen, prostitutes, and gang members, incorporating their voices into his work. When, in 1855, he finally published Leaves of Grass, his first collection of poems, he did so with a strong sense of having answered Emerson’s call for an American poet. In fact, he sent Emerson a copy of the book in the hope that the so-called “Sage of Concord” would comment on his work.
Emerson responded with high praise. “Dear Sir,” he began in a reply written on July 21, 1855, “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 an American has yet contributed.” Later he added, “I greet you at the start of a great career,” adding that he hoped to visit Whitman in New York.
Whitman was understandably thrilled. But when he published Emerson’s private letter along with his own response in the next edition of Leaves of Grass, he deeply annoyed his mentor, who viewed it as a distasteful commercial act. By the time Emerson and Whitman eventually did meet, Emerson’s enthusiasm for Whitman’s work had permanently cooled. Emerson sent the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass to his friend, British intellectual Thomas Carlyle, but told him that “if you think, as you may, that it is only an auctioneer’s inventory of a warehouse, you can light your pipe with it.” Emerson also omitted Whitman’s work from an 1875 literary anthology he edited.
Whitman, who once claimed that he had long been “simmering” until Emerson had brought him “to a boil,” later in life tended to downplay their connection. Yet whatever their personal differences, the first meeting of these two great 19th-century minds established their fundamental affinity. Both were among the most important American poets of the 19th century, and through their work both defined American poetry as something unique: naturalistic, optimistic, in sync with the poetry of everyday life.