1863 Letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson about Walt Whitman

By Potter, Lee Ann | Social Education, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview
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1863 Letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson about Walt Whitman

Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education

Biographers have called Walt Whitman "America's most influential and innovative poet" and some have even called him "the greatest of all American poets." But in the winter of 1862-63, even as he was gaining a reputation as a talented poet, Whitman was forty-three years old, volunteering as a nurse in Union hospitals, and looking for a steady job in the nation's capital.

Whitman's desire to work for the government in Washington, D.C., had much to do with the Civil War. In December 1862, a few days after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman checked the casualty roster in his New York newspaper and saw a name that resembled that of his younger brother. His brother was George Washington Whitman, and the roster read "G.W. Whitmore." So, the elder Whitman immediately went to Virginia in search of his brother.

In Fredericksburg, Whitman did find his brother, who was alive, having sustained only a superficial facial wound. But rather than returning home immediately, Whitman sent a telegram telling their family that George was safe and that he, Walt, had decided to stay for a few days, as his help was needed.

The battle had resulted in nearly 18,000 casualties on both sides. The bodies of the dead needed to be buried and the wounded needed attention. Whitman assisted with both tasks. He spent time attending wounded soldiers, often writing down their messages to their families. He also wrote a letter to his own mother, telling her that he might look for work in Washington, D.C.

The federal bureaucracy during these years was growing. In the 1830s, there were 20,000 federal employees; by the end of the Civil War, there were 53,000; and by the mid 1880s, there were 131,000. Whitman knew that while government jobs were available, the so-called "spoils system" still dictated who was hired (and would for another twenty years until the passage of the Pendleton Act). Under this system, many officials obtained their positions, not because of special skills, but because of whom they knew. So, Whitman wrote to his friend, the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and asked him to write letters of recommendation on his behalf to the secretary" of state and the secretary of treasury, who were both acquaintances of Emerson.

Emerson's handwritten letter to Salmon P. Chase, secretary of the treasury, dated January 10, 1863, is featured in this article. In it, Emerson described Whitman as a man "of strong original genius" who was "self-relying" and "large-hearted." He described Whitman's writings as "more deeply American, democratic, and in the interest of political liberty than those of any other poet," He stated that if the government had work that Whitman could do, "it may find that it has called to its side more valuable aid than it bargained for."

The government did indeed have work that Whitman could do, and for the next eleven years, "Whitman was a public servant in three different cabinet departments--but never in the Treasury Department. Initially, he worked part-time as a copyist in the army's paymaster office. Then, in early 1865, he went to work as a clerk in the Indian Bureau of the Interior Department. However, his time with the Interior Department was short-lived. In the spring of that year, the new secretary of the interior, James Harlan, sought to abolish all non-essential positions, and to dismiss any employee whose moral character was considered questionable. Learning that Whitman was the author of the controversial volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass, Harlan dismissed him in late June.

Through personal connections in other agencies, Whitman immediately secured a position as a clerk in the busy and evolving attorney general's office. The Judiciary Act of 1789 had established the office of the attorney general, but it was not until 1870 that Congress passed the Act to Establish the Department of Justice and made the attorney general the head of the department.

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1863 Letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson about Walt Whitman


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