Walt Whitman and Transcendentalism
by Ann M. Woodlief
Was Walt Whitman a Transcendentalist? Had he been been older, born into the educated class, gone to Harvard, and lived in Boston or Concord, there would be little doubt, although it’s interesting to consider what kind of impact he might have had on the transcendental circle. But he was a late bloomer, coming to poetry at the age of 37, after a career as a journalist, spurred on by his reading of Emerson. He was certain that he was the poet that Emerson called for in “The Poet,” a characterization that he makes clear in his preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Although his poetry has many characteristics of transcendental thought and practice, being the bold, new poetic American voice that the transcendentalists had hoped for, his most “transcendental” poems are probably “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” because of its dramatization of the evolution of the poet, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” because of how he uses nature as symbol, and “Song of Myself,” because of its vision of the self and its relationship to the universe.
Here is the story of his “taking fire” from Emerson, as he told it to John Townsend Trowbridge: 
He told me of his boyhood in Brooklyn; going to work in a printing office at the age of fourteen; teaching school at seventeen and eighteen; writing stories and sketches for periodicals under his full name, Walter Whitman (his first Leaves of Grass was copyrighted by Walter Whitman, after which he discarded “Walter” for Walt); editing newspapers and making political speeches, on the Democratic side; leading an impulsive, irregular sort of life, and absorbing, as probably no other man ever did the common aspects of the cities he was so proud of, Brooklyn and New York. His friendships were mostly with the common people, — pilots, drivers, mechanics; and his favorite diversions, crossing the ferries, riding on the top of omnibuses, and attending operas. He liked to get off alone by the seashore, read Homer and Ossian with the salt air on his cheeks, and shout their winged words to the winds and waves. The book he knew best was the Bible, the prophetical parts of which stirred in him a vague desire to be the bard or prophet of his own time and country.
Then, at the right moment, he read Emerson.
I was extremely interested to know how far the influence of our greatest writer had been felt in the making of a book which, without being at all imitative, was pitched in the very highest key of self-reliance. In his letter to Emerson, printed in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, speaking of “Individuality, that new moral American continent,” Whitman had averred: “Those shores you found; I say, you led the States there, — have led me there.” And it seemed hardly possible that the first determined attempt to cast into literature a complete man, with all his pride and passions, should have been made by one whose feet were not already firmly planted on “those shores.” Then there was the significant fact of his having mailed a copy of his first edition to Emerson.
Emerson’s response to this gift was the following letter, which to his surprise, Whitman excerpted in the next edition of Leaves of Grass:
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 a 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.
21 July 1855
Back to Trowbridge’s account:
Whitman talked frankly on the subject, that day on Prospect Hill, and told how he became acquainted with Emerson’s writings. He was at work as a carpenter (his father’s trade before him) in Brooklyn, building with his own hands and on his own account small and very plain houses for laboring men; as soon as one was finished and sold, beginning another, — houses of two or three rooms. This was in 1854; he was then thirty-five years old. He lived at home with his mother; going of to his work in the morning and returning at night, carrying his dinner pail like any common laborer. Along with his pail he usually carried a book, between which and his solitary meal he would divide his nooning. Once the book chanced to be a volume of Emerson; and from that time he took with him no other writer. His half-formed purpose, his vague aspirations, all that had lain smouldering so long within him, waiting to be fired, rushed into flame at the touch of those electric words, — the words that burn in the prose-poem Nature, and in the essays on Spiritual Laws, The Over-Soul, Self-Reliance. The sturdy carpenter in his working-day garb, seated on his pile of boards; a poet in that rude disguise, as yet but dimly conscious of his powers; in one hand the sandwich put up for him by his good mother, his other hand holding open the volume that revealed to him his greatness and his destiny, — this is the picture which his simple narrative called up, that Sunday so long ago, and which has never faded from my memory.
He freely admitted that he could never have written his poems if he had not first “come to himself,” and that Emerson helped him to “find himself.” I asked if he thought he would have come to himself without that help. He said, “Yes, but it would have taken longer.” And he used this characteristic expression: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”
[. . .] The Emersonian influence is often clearly traceable in Whitman’s early poems; seldom in the later. It is in the first line of the very first poem in which he struck the keynote of his defiant chant: “I celebrate myself.” Yet the form Whitman chose for his message was as independent of Emerson’s as of all other literary forms whatsoever. Outwardly, his unrhymed and unmeasured lines resemble those of Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy; but in no other way are they akin to those colorless platitudes. To the music of the opera, for which he had a passion, more than to anything else, was due his emancipation from what he called the “ballad style” of poetry, by which he meant poetry hampered by rhyme and metre. “But for the opera,” he declared, that day on Prospect Hill, “I could never have written Leaves of Grass.”
[. . .] I thought no man more than Whitman merited recognition and assistance from the government, and I once asked him if he would accept a position in one of the departments. He answered frankly that he would. But he believed it improbable that he could get an appointment, although (as he mentioned casually) he had letters of recommendation from Emerson.
There were two of these, and they were especially interesting to me, as I knew something of the disturbed relations existing between the two men, on account of Whitman’s indiscreet use of Emerson’s famous letter to him, acknowledging the gift copy of the first Leaves of Grass. Whitman not only published that letter without the writer’s authority, but printed an extract from it, in conspicuous gold, on the back of his second edition, — “I greet you at the beginning of a great career;” thus making Emerson in some sense an indorser not only of the first poems, but of others he had never seen, and which he would have preferred never to see in print. This was an instance of bad taste, but not of intentional bad faith, on the part of Whitman. Talking of it once, he said, in his grand way: “I supposed the letter was meant to be blazoned; I regarded it as the chart of an emperor.” But Emerson had no thought of acting the imperial part toward so adventurous a voyager. I remember hearing him allude to the incident shortly after that second edition appeared. Speaking of the attention the new poet was attracting, he mentioned an Englishman who had come to this country bringing a letter to Whitman from Monckton Milnes (afterward Lord Houghton). “But,” said Emerson, “hearing that Whitman had not used me well in the matter of letters, he did not deliver it.” He had afterwards made a strenuous effort to induce Whitman to omit certain objectionable passages from his edition of 1860, and failed. And I knew that the later writings of Whitman interested him less and less. “No more evidence of getting into form,” he once remarked, — a singular comment, it may be though, from one whose own chief defect as a writer seemed to be an imperfect mastery of form.
With these things in mind, I read eagerly the two letters from Emerson recommending Whitman for a government appointment. One was addressed to Senator Sumner; the other, I was surprised and pleased to find, to Secretary Chase. I had but a slight acquaintance with Sumner, and the letter to him I handed back. The one written to Chase I wished to retain, in order to deliver it to the Secretary with my own hands, and with such furthering words as I could summon in so good a cause. Whitman expressed small hope in the venture, and stipulated that in case of the failure he anticipated I should bring back the letter.
In December 1856, Thoreau wrote to his friend Harrison Blake about his visit with Whitman in New York:
That Walt Whitman, of whom I wrote to you, is the most interesting fact to me at present. I have just read his second edition (which he gave me), and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time. Perhaps I remember best the poem of Walt Whitman, an American, and the Sun-Down Poem. There are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable, to say the least; simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke. I think that men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason. No doubt there have always been dens where such deeds were unblushingly recited, and it is no merit to compete with their inhabitants. But even on this side he has spoken more truth than any American or modern that I know. I have found his poem exhilarating, encouraging. As for its sensuality — and it may turn out to be less sensual than it appears — I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men and women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them. One woman told me that no woman could read it — as if a man could read what a woman could not. Of course Walt Whitman can communicate to us no experience, and if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?
On the whole, it sounds to me very brave and American, after whatever deductions. I do not believe that all the sermons, so called, that I have preached in this land put together are equal to it for preaching.
We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York. How they must shudder when they read him! He is awfully good.
To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness and broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders — as it were, sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain — stirs me well up, and then — throws in a thousand of brick. Though rude, and sometimes ineffectual, it is a great primitive poem — an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp. Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that when I asked him if he had read them, he answered, “No: tell me about them.”
I did not get far in conversation with him — two more being present — and among the few things which I chanced to say, I remember that one was, in answer to him as representing America, that I did not think much of America or of politics, and so on, which may have been somewhat of a damper to him.
Since I have seen him, I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident.
He is a great fellow.
As Thoreau makes clear, Whitman’s openness about sex posed problems for the transcendentalists, although to his credit, Emerson never withdrew his recommendation, and as Trowbridge shows, even tried to help Whitman get a government job.
Perhaps Whitman deserves the final word on what the true transcendental poet’s role should be — a role that Emerson plays for him and that he would play for countless readers and future poets:
I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher
[. . .] I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your ears till you understand them.
— “Song of Myself,” Section 47
Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
Song of Myself
Biographical sketch copyright © Ann M. Woodlief, 2014.
Used with permission from American Transcendentalism Web.
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