Sizing Up Walt Whitman & Friends

It’s about this time that I’m usually wrapping up my teaching of American Romanticism. We’ve made it through Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we’re just about done with my favorite, Henry David Thoreau. Over the years, I’ve made deletions and additions to the scope and sequence, hoping to keep the material fresh for me and my students. I’m always sizing up the material and my time. And sometimes things are placed aside for a while, like Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which I haven’t assigned to my students to read this year.

I’m always discovering something new about these writers, too, as I dig further into their biographies. For instance, I recently learned that Henry David Thoreau and I were about the same height, 5 feet and 7 inches, which struck me as strange because I always imagined him as a tall, brooding man—Lincolnesque so to speak. But not so, which makes sense. His little house on Walden Pond measured only 10 x 15 feet, and I’d probably feel comfortable there, writing and posting my blog.

Walt Whitman, one of the biggest personalities of the time period, measured four inches taller than Thoreau. 5’ 11”. Not enormous, but a little larger, and perhaps that extra height made him a little bolder, choosing to break the rules by writing in free verse about taboo subjects that labeled him indecent by many of his contemporaries. Over the course of the past year, I’ve been reading Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan, and I learned that Whitman was fired from a government clerk position while living in Washington, D.C., because his superior discovered a manuscript version of Leaves of Grass while rooting through his desk. Not to be daunted, Whitman always stood tall against critics and naysayers, despite repeated requests to tone down the language in the book.

And like his writing, his actions were bold, too. As I teach my students, and as many people familiar with his biography may already know, Whitman hoped to stake out some territory in the literary world by publishing a private correspondence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which lauded great praise upon Whitman’s poetry, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass. To put this into context, I often tell my students to think of Emerson as the Oprah Winfrey of the time, and with that kind of reputation and renown, you can’t just appropriate his words for your profit without permission. Indeed, much has been made about this episode in Whitman’s biography.

The proportions of Emerson’s anger are not to be underestimated. Kaplan writes, “Friends who visited Emerson when the blazoned second edition [of Leaves of Grass] arrived in the mail claimed that until that moment they had never seen him truly angry.” It wasn’t until I read that sentence and the account in Kaplan’s book that I really appreciated the kind of rage Emerson must have felt after discovering his words had been snatched away from him. Surely, Whitman must have known that his actions were unethical, realizing that something like this could stain his reputation, but Whitman never shied away from taking chances with his poetry. If he needed positive reviews for his book, he often wrote them, published them anonymously, or asked someone else to sign their name.

Nevertheless, Emerson’s interest in Whitman waned over time. Kaplan writes about Emerson visiting him in New York on more than one occasion, despite his anger about publishing the private letter, but years later, Emerson seems to have regarded Whitman more as a curiosity rather than the great American poet, which Whitman aspired to become. In fact, I read that Emerson edited a definitive collection of poetry near the end of his life, but Whitman doesn’t have a single poem included there. He felt spurned, even recanting some of his earlier love for the man he so revered, but perhaps, Emerson was still feeling some of that anger about the unauthorized use of his words. Whatever the case, years after Leaves of Grass came on the scene, Whitman was still working to validate his poetry, even among the greatest intellectuals of America.

From what I can find, Ralph Waldo Emerson measured 6 feet tall—only an inch taller than Whitman, but he was a giant compared with Whitman at the end of his life. Well-respected and comfortably snug as “The Sage of Concord,” he suffered a long decline until his eventual death and burial among the other famous writers in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whitman, too, suffered in his later years, having survived two strokes and living in near poverty. It’s certainly not the ending I imagined. In my mind, I’d like to think of the two sharing pleasant conversation while the sun sets over a distant horizon, maybe at Walden Pond, both of them secure in their success, having risen to such a height that neither would be forgotten in American literature.

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