Emerson reading Whitman reading Emerson

October 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Whitman, frontispiece portrait 1855 Leaves of Grass

Emerson writes of “creative reading” in “American Scholar”; he calls the scholar or poet (his Man Thinking) to engage with books, with nature, with the world, creatively: the book becoming luminous with manifold allusion. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of someone reading Emerson creatively comes from Whitman.

In July of 1855, Whitman publishes his first edition of Leaves of Grass; he sends Emerson a copy. Emerson writes enthusiastically in response. Whitman then responds to that response quite creatively in the second edition of Leaves in 1856. For some of the imagery of this creative reading, see this slide show I created; for digital scans of the book, what Emerson would have been holding in his hand, visit the Whitman Archive.  As we begin Whitman, begin his incomparable and strange book, some questions we should consider, imagine: What does Emerson see in this book in July 1855? What do we see in our initial reading? In other words, what’s our sense (or Emerson’s sense) of the project that Whitman has undertaken? Opening this book, where do we find ourseleves?

DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.

I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.


Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855

Whitman’s creative reading of American poetry in Leaves of Grass begins, I would argue, before you get to the famous opening lines: I celebrate myself. It begins with the cover, and then with the first text within, the frontispiece image of Whitman.

For more on the history of revision and “recomposition” (Emerson’s word recall from “Quotation and Originality”) that Whitman weaves into Leaves of Grass, including the second edition (1856) that we are reading, I highly recommend Ed Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman.”



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