Emerson’s Encouragement: A Letter to the Young Walt Whitman
In 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a literary star and an in-demand lecturer. He accepted dozens of invitations to speak across the country and was so popular that even though his rhetoric often was above the level of comprehension of many of the attendees of his speeches, people came anyway. Once, at a packed hall, a reporter asked a laundress if she was able to follow what Emerson was saying. “Not a word,” she replied, “but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone was as good as he is.” Despite his popularity, it is said that Emerson was not a particularly warm man. He was always called “Mr. Emerson,” even by close friends. When a friend counseled the writer that he could be more influential if he could adopt a warmer tone, Emerson curtly replied that “he never intended to be a substitute for the kitchen stove.”
Knowing these things about Emerson, his hectic schedule and his less-than-cuddly personality, makes his letter to the then unknown young poet Walt Whitman all the more extraordinary. In his scrawling hand, the entire three-page letter reads as follows:
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 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. R.W. EMERSON
The honor of the address was not lost on young Whitman. In the 1856 appendix of Leaves of Grass, Whitman composed an open letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the spine of the book, Whitman had Emerson’s encouraging words embossed: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
Here, in part, is Whitman’s letter to his mentor. You can read the entire (very long) letter here:
HERE are thirty-two Poems, which I send you, dear Friend and Master, not having found how I could satisfy myself
with sending any usual acknowledgment of your letter. The first edition, on which you mailed me that till now unanswered letter, was twelve poems — I printed a thousand copies, and they readily sold; these thirty-two Poems I stereotype, to print several thousand copies of. I much enjoy making poems. Other work I have set for myself to do, to meet people and The States face to face, to confront them with an American rude tongue; but the work of my life is making poems. I keep on till I make a hundred, and then several hundred — perhaps a thousand. The way is clear to me. A few years, and the average annual call for my Poems is ten or twenty thousand copies — more, quite likely. Why should I hurry or compromise? In poems or in speeches I say the word or two that has got to be said, adhere to the body, step with the countless common footsteps, and remind every man and woman of something.
Leaves of Grass, of course, has become one of the most lauded works of American literature but its journey to greatness was a long and complicated one. It went through between six and nine different editions, the final, in 1891, was released just one year before Whitman’s death. While Emerson did not live to see Whitman’s genius fully celebrated (Emerson died in 1882), he certainly was correct in his assessment of the young writer’s talent and promise.