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Emerson and Whitman




To the Editor of The Tribune.

SIR: Some attention is due to the Rev. John W. Chadwick, who lately enters your columns and tries to make me out a compound of Mendez Pinto and Ananias. I will not, at present, dwell upon the exquisite manners of his composition, because I am mainly impressed by its heavy verdaney. He finds in The Critic of December 3, 1881, a jotted reminiscence, penned with careless bonhomie, of a talk Emerson had with Walt Whitman about the passages whose “courage of treatment” he had commended five years before; and even supposing it bears the construction he puts upon it, which does not, would anyone but this gentle shepherd imagine that the powerful and absolute public statements of the Emerson letter of 1855, could be retracted or qualified by what Emerson said in a private conversation on Boston Common, not reported for twenty-one years after? Yet this is the Rev. Mr. Chadwick’s position, at its best; and he is so vain in the possession of his toy gun loaded with a single green pea, and so well fortified does he think himself in his cobweb Gibraltar, that he blandly imagines the force of my former letter quite destroyed by his counter-blask, and ventures the length of supposing me guilty of wilful falsehood! I beg to introduce a little dynamite into these placid dreams. But first, as a matter of general interest in this connection, allow me a few words in regard to the relations between the two principal figures under discussion.


Emerson had much more a personal friendship for Walt Whitman than has been generally supposed. This was first evidenced by his making a determined visit to Brooklyn, soon after the appearance of “Leaves of Grass,” twenty-five years ago, walking out to the little cottage in the suburbs several miles from the ferry, where the poet then lived. From that time regularly for years afterward, whenever Emerson came to New-York, he appointed a meeting, and the two generally dined together and spent some hours. When the author of “Leaves of Grass” was in Boston in 1860, Emerson was his frequent and cordial visitor. The war, and the poet’s removal to Washington, the scene of his long and devoted service in the hospitals, and where he remained for a number of years, of course made a protracted interim in personal communication, but I doubt if it could be said that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s affections (and few knew how deeply he could love) ever went out more warmly to anyone, and remained from first to last more fixed, under the circumstances, than toward Walt Whitman. To my apprehension there is nothing more affecting or emphatic in his whole career—a sort of final coruscation in its evening twilight—than the last sweet and gracious attentions he paid the noble poet, whose deep-thoughted words had stirred the enthusiasm of his prime. I refer to the time in September, 1881, when Walt Whitman was staying at Frank Sanborn’s in Concord, and Emerson drove over to deliberately pay those “respects” for which he had obligated himself twenty-five years before. Nor can the unusual compliment of the hospitable but formal dinner party made the next day for Walt Whitman by Mr. and Mrs. Emerson be regarded as without marked significance. I will not dwell upon the occasion, but if the scene of that beautiful autumn Sabbath afternoon, there in his own mansion, surrounded by all his family—wife, son, daughters, son-in-law, nearest relatives and two or three very near friends—a company of those closest to his spirit, and Walt Whitman chosen to be there among them—if that does not mean how Emerson, by this simple, almost solemn rite, wished, before he departed, to reiterate and finally seal his verdict of 1855 upon the poet and the man he loved, then there is no significance in human life or its emotions and actions.


This general statement of the relations between the two men explains the talk upon Boston Common in 1860, Walt Whitman’s brief and nonchalant reference to which gives the Rev. Mr. Chadwick opportunity for some strokes of exegesis not surpassed by Sir Isaac Newton’s happy treatise on the Book of Revelations. The year after Emerson’s comprehensive and absolute eulogium, the attack upon the book began. It was led off by Mr. Fitz-James O’Brien, an athletic young Irish saint, whose eminent sanctity of life and conversation did not prevent him from wearing his halo with the most rakish slant possible. Other holy hermits of the press and oyster cellars joined him, and from that time forward the magazines and newspapers, to which these men had free access, teemed with every form of misrepresentation and abuse, and the fortunes of the book were involved in cloud. Under these circumstances Emerson, who wished the prosperity of his friend, and spoke out of his personal affection, tried to convince him that he would better omit the passages upon which the storm had been raised. This was in perfect accordance with a leading trait in Emerson’s mind. Does Mr. Chadwick remember that noble funeral eulogy upon Theodore Parker, in the course of which Emerson, though in perfect and avowed agreement with Parker’s beliefs, censured him for the directness of his attacks upon the old cruel theologies? It was not canny, he said, to thus squarely assault venerable superstitions. A similar notion probably actuated him in his vehement arguments with Walt Whitman about the passages in his book which had been made obnoxious. The fact that they had occasioned uproar, combined with the fact that the uproar was likely to wreck his friend’s fortunes, was to him sufficient reason for the book proceeding without them. In retraction of his letter of 1855, he uttered not one word, nor—let Mr. Chadwick mark it well—did he utter one word on moral grounds concerning anything in the volume. How could he? Mr. Chadwick himself says: “I do not believe that Mr. Whitman has written a line which is not pure and high in its intention.” How could Emerson urge on moral grounds anything against a poetry containing not “a line which is not pure and high in its intention”? Mr. Emerson’s arguments simply consisted of a splendid and sincere unfolding of the technical literary and conventional points applicable with a view to induce Walt Whitman to conform to them, and leave out some lines in his volume. Of the higher reasons for leaving those lines in, he said not a syllable; and years ago, Walt Whitman, talking with several of us here in reference to this interview, said that apart from Emerson’s solicitude for him, it was the saddest conversation he ever had in his life, inasmuch as Emerson, in all his copious and splendid talk concerning the mooted passages, had, after all, nothing better to urge than that their withdrawal would make the book sell better.


In a recent letter to me, Walt Whitman says:

“What made, and ever makes, the argument of Emerson in that walk on the Common dear and holy to me, was its personal affectionateness, as of an elder brother to a younger. It was a vehement, even passionate, well-wishing, which I felt then, and feel to this hour, the gratitude and reverence of my life could never repay. Although perfect from an intellectual and conventional point of view, it did not advance anything I had not already considered. And my arriere and citadel positions—such as I have indicated in my June North American Review memorandum—were not only not attacked, they were not even alluded to.”

Mr. Chadwick may try to say that if Walt Whitman had any case to state, that hour with Emerson in 1860 was the time. On the contrary, the question of the poet’s eternal duty to his day and generation being laid in abeyance, and the question of deference to convention being alone brought forward, I think that Walt Whitman’s silence was the sublimer answer. It is in times like these that speech is silver, but silence is gold. It is obvious that Emerson’s arguments did not touch Walt Whitman’s principle of treatment in sexual matters, which was a moral one, or rather one which involved the vertebra of all morals. He urged instead, though with trenchant power and grace, conventional and technical literary considerations. These considerations Walt Whitman had long dwelt upon in his own mind, and he was anxious to hear the utmost that could be said upon them. And now when he had heard what the best critic of the age could say, and his inmost soul and brain remained untouched, his final resolution was taken. What he sought to do in “Children of Adam” for human purity, seemed, he once told some of us here, all the more necessary after that conversation with Emerson. From that time, however interest might point, his duty was plain.


This is the whole story. And now what warrant has the Rev. Mr. Chadwick for his hardy assertion that Emerson in that conversation qualified his judgement of 1855? Simply Walt Whitman’s description in The Critic of December 3, 1881, of Emerson’s talk as a statement “of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, ‘Children of Adam.’” “All that could be said”! And what was that? “All that could be said” might be, and was in effect, very little! “All that could be said,” was said not on grounds of delicacy, or decency, or morality, but simply on grounds of expediency, as the Rev. Mr. Chadwick might have conceived, if he had as much imagination as a pint pot! Yet on the strength of this careless and ambiguous phrase—“all that could be said”—he has the effrontery to declare, citing Walt Whitman as his witness, that “Emerson’s disapproval of these things which have got Mr. Whitman into trouble, was severe and unmistakable.” If this is true, Emerson was nothing less than criminal not to have said so in his letter of 1855, and for such a failure in duty he could not excuse himself to the generations. He had no moral right to send torsh​ a letter in wholesale, sweeping, absolute commendation of a book, concerning part of which his “disapproval” “was severe and unmistakable,” and nobody knows this better than the Rev. Mr. Chadwick. But before he leads us to believe that Emerson was the knave he would make him, we will trouble him for a little proof of his assertion that Emerson’s “disapproval of those things which have got Mr. Whitman into trouble, was severe and unmistakable.” He has no proof to offer, except the “all that could be said,” which is nothing but the stenographic memorandum of a course of action Emerson urged, not as a moral duty, but as a shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This vague phrase is his sole warrant for alleging that Emerson traversed his magnificent, comprehensive and unqualified verdict of 1855 upon Walt Whitman’s volume.

It is also his only warrant for the coarse insult he offers me. The Rev. Mr. Chadwick knows perfectly well that Emerson’s public verdict could not be retracted or qualified by a private conversation, brought to the light twenty-one years afterward, and if it could, he had no evidence, as I have shown, that it had been. Even the Rev. Mr. Chadband had the grace to say. “Let us stop and inquire,” and when the Rev. Mr. Chadwick came upon his mare’s nest in The Critic, he might have profited by the example, and instituted question before he charged falsehood. On the contrary, without waiting to understand what he has read, he talks about my letter to you being “disingenuous to an astonishing degree,” and says he “cannot escape the feeling that” I “have consciously and wilfully perverted and suppressed the truth”! This is the sort of language he uses toward a man whose title to respect and courtesy might be considered at least equal to his own. The time will never come, I am sure, when a clergyman must cease to be a gentleman, but my faith in this particular is not sustained and soothed by the example of the Rev. Mr. Chadwick. For less than he has done to me, the good cannibals have eaten many a missionary.

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