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Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 25 February 1887

Dear W.S.K.

It is of no importance whether I had read Emerson before starting L. of G. or not.1 The fact happens to be positively that I had not. The basis and body and genesis of the L[eaves] differing I suppose from Em[erson]2 and many grandest poets and artists[—]was and is that I found and find everything in the common concrete, the broadcast materials, the flesh, the common passions, the tangible and visible, etc., and in the average, and that I radiate, work from, these outward—or rather hardly wish to leave here but to remain and celebrate it all. Whatever the amount of this may be or not be, it is certainly not Emersonian, not Shakspere, not Tennyson—indeed, the antipodes of E. and the others in essential respects. But I have not suggested or exprest myself well in my book unless I have in a sort included them and their sides and expressions too—as this orb the world means and includes all climes, all sorts, L. of G.'s word is the body, including all, including the intellect and soul; E.'s word is mind (or intellect or soul).

If I were to unbosom to you in the matter I should say that I never cared so very much for E.'s writings, prose or poems, but from his first personal visit and two hours with me (in Brooklyn in 1866 or '65?)3 I had a strange attachment and love for him and his contact, talk, company, magnetism. I welcomed him deepest and always—yet it began and continued on his part, quite entirely; HE always sought ME. We probably had a dozen (possibly twenty) of these meetings, talks, walks, etc.—some five or six times (sometimes New York, sometimes Boston) had good long dinners together. I was very happy—I don't think I was at my best with him—he always did most of the talking—I am sure he was happy too. That visit to me at Sanborn's, by E. and family, and the splendid formal-informal family dinner to me, next day, Sunday, Sept. 18, '81, by E., Mrs. E. and all, I consider not only a victor-event in my life,4 but it is an after-explanation of so much and offered as an apology, peace-offering, justification, of much that the world knows not of. My dear friend, I think I know R.W.E. better than anybody else knows him—and loved him in proportion, but quietly. Much was revealed to me.

Walt Whitman.

William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. In Reminiscences of Walt Whitman Kennedy records at length conversations with John Townsend Trowbridge in which the latter avers that "Emerson inspired the first poems of Whitman," and that Whitman had confided to him in 1860: "My ideas . . . were simmering and simmering, and Emerson brought them to a boil" (79–83). [back]
  • 2. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. For more on Emerson, see Jerome Loving, "Emerson, Ralph Waldo [1809–1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 3. Whitman meant to write "1855 or '56." [back]
  • 4. See the letters from Whitman to Louisa Orr Whitman of September 18, 1881 and to John Burroughs of September 19, 1881. [back]
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