“I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start,” Ralph Waldo Emerson told Walt Whitman on 21 July 1855. Emerson had greeted a number of poets at the beginning of their great careers, including Delia Bacon, the crazy Shakespearean who sought to dig up the bard's body to prove that “Shakespeare” was really Francis Bacon. Ellery Channing II was another “poet” Emerson had discovered. But with Whitman it was different—for the next decade at least. Whitman must have seemed the personification of Emerson's Central Man in The Poet, an essay in which the former Unitarian minister defined the qualities of the peculiarly American bard. The poet, Emerson wrote, had first to be a transcendentalist and believe that nature is the last thing of the soul, or the only empirical evidence of God. Whitman called nature, or the grass in his first Leaves of Grass (1855), “the handkerchief of the Lord,” dropped to attract our attention to the daily miracles of life. He—or she, Emerson might have added—had to be representative of all the folk, even the slaves and the “cleaner[s] of privies” as identified in the New York poet's coarse descriptions of the “divine average.” Finally, this poet would have to celebrate America as (in Whitman's translation of Emerson) “essentially the greatest poem.”Less
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