Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson" (1856)
Author:
Raleigh, Richard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Though Whitman placed it in the appendix of the second edition of Leaves of Grass (1856), alongside the famous letter Emerson wrote him a year earlier, the "Letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson" could just as well serve as the preface to the second edition, for it is a statement of Whitman's objectives as a poet.

Addressing Emerson as "dear Friend and Master" (Whitman 1326), Whitman presents the thirty-two poems of the 1856 Leaves to him as his response to Emerson's gracious, and until then unanswered, letter. Allowing that he much enjoys "making poems," Whitman rejoices in the fact that the United States is founding a literature "swiftly, on limitless foundations" (1327). Saying that "that huge English flow" has done much good in the United States, he calls for new great masters to comprehend new arts, and urges Americans to "strangle the singers who will not sing you loud and strong" (1328).

Whitman marvels at the "nourishments" (1329) to literature available in the United States, the progress of popular reading and writing in the past fifty years, the thousands of authors and editors, the twenty-one giant steam presses (of twenty-four in the world), and the some twelve thousand shops for dispensing books and newspapers.

Echoing Emerson in "The American Scholar," Whitman calls for a native literature, saying that the "genius of all foreign literature is clipped and cut small" and is, when viewed from the American perspective, "haggard, dwarfed, ludicrous" (1330).

In long, cascading sentences, Whitman celebrates the American poets "walking freely out from the old traditions" (1333) and sees poetry even in the scientific advances, "those splendid resistless black poems, the steam-ships of the sea-board states, and those other resistless splendid poems, the locomotives" (1334). Calling for an end to censorship, Whitman says that the courageous soul may be proved by faith in sex. Suggesting that a degree of agitation and turbulence is good for America, he admits: "As for me, I love screaming, wrestling, boiling-hot days" (1336).

Concluding the letter, Whitman calls Emerson "the original true Captain who put to sea" and assures him of his loyalty and that of "all the young men" (1336).

Henry Bryan Binns finds the "Letter" disagreeable to read, filled with careless, egotistical, naive, and exaggerated remarks. Sculley Bradley and Harold Blodgett question Whitman's claim at the beginning of the letter that a thousand copies of the first edition of Leaves (1855) "readily sold" (1326), and that "several thousand copies" (1327) of the second edition (1856) were printed; they suggest instead that very few copies of the first edition were sold, and that the rarity of the second edition would seem to indicate that it is unlikely that several thousand copies were run off.

Gay Wilson Allen feels that Whitman sometimes let his dreams outrun his judgment in the letter, and that he sometimes displayed erratic judgment. As to the reference in the beginning and end of the letter to Emerson as "Master," Bradley and Blodgett maintain that in the nineteenth century that word, as applied to a teacher, writer, or artist, did not suggest servility.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Binns, Henry Bryan. A Life of Walt Whitman. 1905. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

Loving, Jerome. Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1982.

Price, Kenneth M. "Whitman on Emerson: New Light on the 1856 Open Letter." American Literature 56 (1984): 83–87.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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