Ralph Waldo Emerson Writes a Job Recommendation for Walt Whitman (1863)


While we often rec­om­mend Let­ters of Note for the hits of his­to­ry’s most illu­mi­nat­ing pieces of inci­den­tal cor­re­spon­dence, do con­sid­er also mak­ing a reg­u­lar vis­its to Slate’s his­to­ry blog The Vault. There you’ll find such writ­ten arti­facts as the one pic­tured in part above, astute­ly writ­ten up by occa­sion­al Open Cul­ture con­trib­u­tor Rebec­ca Onion: “In 1863, as he con­sid­ered seek­ing a gov­ern­ment clerk­ship, Walt Whit­man asked his friend and advo­cate Ralph Wal­do Emer­son for a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion. Emer­son, for decades a respect­ed name in Amer­i­can let­ters, knew the sec­re­taries of state and trea­sury per­son­al­ly, and Whit­man hoped that a note from him would help the younger poet secure steady employ­ment in Wash­ing­ton.” This note runs, in a tran­script from the Walt Whit­man archive, as fol­lows:

Con­cord Mass­a­chu­setts
10 Jan­u­ary 2, 1863

Dear Sir,

Mr Walt Whit­man, of New York, writes me that he is seek­ing employ­ment in the pub­lic ser­vice in Wash­ing­ton, & per­haps some appli­ca­tion on his part has already been made to your­self. Will you per­mit me to say that he is known to me as a man of strong orig­i­nal genius, com­bin­ing, with marked eccen­tric­i­ties, great pow­ers & valu­able traits of char­ac­ter: a self-rely­ing large-heart­ed man, much beloved by his friends; entire­ly patri­ot­ic & benev­o­lent in his the­o­ry, tastes, & prac­tice. If his writ­ings are in cer­tain points open to crit­i­cism, they show extra­or­di­nary pow­er, & are more deeply Amer­i­can, demo­c­ra­t­ic, & in the inter­est of polit­i­cal lib­er­ty, than those of any oth­er poet.

A man of his tal­ents & dis­po­si­tions will quick­ly make him­self use­ful, and, if the gov­ern­ment has work that he can do, I think it may eas­i­ly find that it has called to its side more valu­able aid than it bar­gained for.

With entire respect,

Your obe­di­ent ser­vant,

R. W. Emer­son.

Hon Salmon P. Chase, | Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury.

Any of us, I feel cer­tain, would love hav­ing such an elo­quent­ly praise-filled let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion sent on our behalf by a friend, a teacher, a for­mer employ­er, or a pil­lar of Amer­i­can Tran­scen­den­tal­ism. But even with that, the author of Leaves of Grass did­n’t find the road to a day gig par­tic­u­lar­ly smooth — in large part, of course, because of hav­ing writ­ten Leaves of GrassWhit­man, whose “rep­u­ta­tion pre­ced­ed him in job inter­views, report­ed that Salmon Chase, the sec­re­tary of the trea­sury and addressee of this let­ter, was vehe­ment­ly against the idea of employ­ing the author of Leaves, a book that cel­e­brat­ed open sex­u­al­i­ty in a way that Chase found dis­taste­ful.” He would even get fired from anoth­er job specif­i­cal­ly “because of objec­tions to his poet­ry.” Well, they can’t say Emer­son did­n’t warn them about Whit­man’s “marked eccen­tric­i­ties” — such as his ten­den­cy to write some of the most endur­ing verse in Amer­i­can his­to­ry.

via The Vault

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Hear Walt Whit­man (Maybe) Read­ing the First Four Lines of His Poem, “Amer­i­ca” (1890)

Find works by Whit­man and Emer­son in our twin col­lec­tions: 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free and 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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