If Ralph Waldo Emerson is the founding father of American literature, Walt Whitman is its first great statesman. After self-publishing the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman sent a copy of the collection to Emerson, who responded with a letter that the poet appended to all subsequent editions of his book. In it Emerson exuberantly praises Whitman:
It meets the demand I am always making […] I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
During this great career Whitman continued to see himself as and fashion himself after the concept of the Poet that Emerson had called for in an essay of that title. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass fulfills the ideas of transcendence that Emerson calls for in his essay “Nature” and makes these principles come alive through poetry.
Ralph Waldo Emerson published his first colossal essay “Nature” in 1836, when sixty years had passed since the inception of the American project and still there was no truly-American voice. Out of this anxiety in Concord, Emerson’s essay calls for an American poet who can see Nature through American eyes rather than simply “building the sepulchers” of Europe.
Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?
It is with this perspective that Whitman sets out to write his poetry collection. In that first 1855 edition of twelve poems, Leaves of Grass echoes “Nature” in the very first pages. Here is how Whitman addresses the reader.
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, not feed on the spectres in books,/ You shall not look through my eyes even.
With this verse, Whitman presents a new perspective in literature and literary criticism: notice how aggressive and direct Whitman is compared to Emerson, with his rhetorical questions full of wishful thinking. Leaves of Grass is part manifesto, part songbook, part prophecy, the concrete evidence that America has broken its poetic ties with Europe.
This literary declaration of independence is part of the means by which Emerson wants the new American voice to be forged. A democratic language includes what is intrinsically American and reaches far and wide to include all voices. Whitman fills the bill with his long lines and sweeping catalogues, or lists.
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
In Leaves of Grass, Whitman sings of Paumanok instead of Long Island, and Mannahatta is called by its correct native name. Whitman takes it upon himself to be the blacksmith of the American language. In an 1856 letter to Emerson that was also the preface to the second edition of Leaves, Whitman asks America, indignant,
Where are any mental expressions from you, beyond what you have copied or stolen?
Whitman’s book was intended, then, as a gift to the nation so that it might never again be called a charlatan or a thief. And it is through Whitman, channeling Emerson and in company with fellow Transcendental writers (Thoreau, d**kinson), that American literature became truly independent and sovereign.
When in the woods, Emerson reverts back to his inner child, his inner poet, and gains a new perspective:
I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.
Unenc*mbered by the restraints of high culture and society or by the traditions of English culture, he has a fresh vision of what Nature truly means. It is almost impossible to neglect the parallel this sojourn makes with the founding of the United States, after colonists left centuries of tradition behind to venture into the wilderness and start to see politics and culture differently. And just as the early Americans had the epiphany of democracy and religious freedom, Emerson, too, realized his place in the universe:
I am part or parcel of God
Walt Whitman’s flexible first person, almost monomaniacal, methodically embodies everyone and everything he comes in contact with, either physically or imaginatively.
I am the hounded slave […] my gore dribs
I am the mash’d fireman with breast-bone broken
I am the most venerable mother,/ […] how all people draw nigh to me!
Whitman sings of Texas, where he has never been to, and just as soon stretches empathy towards all, past, present, and future, who have been on the Brooklyn Ferry or bathed in Manhattan waters. Walt Whitman is each and every person, and with that in mind he says:
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch'd from;
Emerson’s realization in the wilderness is here again echoed. Leaves of Grass is as interested in the squalid misfits of society as it is in the urban heroes, and this is what it means to be American in the literary sense. The ability to transcend class and gender, to deify without discrimination, is something European literature never had, and it is exactly what Emerson meant by a prospective rather than retrospective canon.
Emerson himself, as an essayist, has an appreciation for Nature and all that it stands for, namely commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. Although any person should be able to readily recognize nature’s utility and a keen eye can understand its beauty, only a poet can fathom the infinite disciplinary relationship between nature and language. Emerson warns against the desire to impose a material and empirical stronghold on the natural universe, as “Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit.”
Whitman, who had been a schoolteacher and a journalist, among many other occupations, had long been “tired and sick” of looking at the stars through the spectacles of science. In “Song of Myself,” he proudly admits:
I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
In “Nature,” Emerson gives a brief example of how physical truths can speak to more universal ones; while a natural philosopher’s knowledge of an ant as an animal can be dull and irrelevant, “the moment a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man, […] then all its habits […] become sublime.” In order to stay true to these natural symbols of spiritual facts, language has to be renewed, and these symbols need to be sought out along with their meanings.
Walt Whitman is the poet who can see this need, “I wish I could translate the hints” being his yearning. Through and through, he does connect these rays of relation between natural facts and spiritual facts. In a remarkable passage, a child asks the poet “What is the grass?” to which he responds with a series of guesses, “the flag of my disposition,” “the handkerchief of the Lord,” “the produced babe of the vegetation,” “a uniform hieroglyph,” and “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Now every day, the image of the grass is a reminder of all these meanings, but more importantly, the grass becomes a way in which to talk about spirituality or immortality. It is because of poetry like this that the English language is no longer decrepit and corrupt, but beautiful and virtuous.
Whether it was Emerson who anticipated a poet like Whitman or it was Whitman who sought to fulfill a desperate call is a question that cannot be answered. Regardless, Walt Whitman made Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” come alive. He gave American literature a voice that continues to sound remarkably distinctive and modern, and rather than lending his own eyes, he taught Americans how to see Nature afresh, and for themselves, every day.