“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
—“Preface” to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
On July 4, 1855, Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This first edition consisted of 12 poems and was published anonymously. It contained a preface, which Whitman left out of subsequent editions. Whitman set much of the type himself and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time. He was continually revising Leaves of Grass. There were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860-61), and the final “death-bed edition,” published in 1891, contained almost 400. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Whitman wrote most of the reviews himself. The praise was generous: “An American bard at last!” One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Praise for the work was not universal, however. Many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire. Writing in The Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of Whitman’s book: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.”
Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “The Poet” (1844), which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country’s virtues and vices. Reading the essay, Whitman consciously set out to answer Emerson’s call as he began working on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. However, Whitman downplayed Emerson’s influence, stating, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson wrote, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” He went on, “I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.” Emerson’s positive response to the first edition inspired Whitman to quickly produce a much-expanded second edition in 1856, which saw the book grow from a meager 95 pages to 384 pages with a cover price of a dollar. This edition included a phrase from Emerson’s letter, printed in gold leaf on the spine of the book, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. R.W. Emerson.” Emerson later took offense that this letter was made public without his permission and became more critical of the work. Emerson once said, “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” Whitman certainly had ambition, and Emerson should have recognized his own advice in Whiteman’s use of Emerson’s quote on the second edition’s spine.
While Whitman is not my favorite American poet, I am a great admirer of Emerson. The 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” by Emerson is one of my favorite literary works. It contains the most comprehensive statement of one of Emerson’s recurrent themes: the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency and follow your instincts and ideas. It is the source of one of Emerson’s most famous quotes: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Emerson emphasizes the importance of individualism and its effect on an individual’s satisfaction in life. He stresses that anyone is capable of achieving happiness, simply if they change their mindset. Emerson focuses on seemingly insignificant details explaining how life is “learning and forgetting and learning again.”
I think Emerson’s influence on Whitman is apparent in that Whitman often lived his life in his way. As a humanist, Whitman was a part of the transition between transcendentalism (Emerson) and realism (Mark Twain), incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was controversial in its time, particularly Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sensuality. Whitman’s own life came under scrutiny for his presumed homosexuality. Yet, Whitman became one of America’s most influential poets. Critics have called him the first “poet of democracy” in the United States, a title meant to reflect his ability to write in a singularly American character. Whitman also believed in his own greatness and considered himself a messiah-like figure in poetry. Whitman became one of America’s most influential poets.