Ralph and Walt

In his autobiographical Specimen Days, Walt Whitman notes that he visited Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Alcotts, and others in Concord on this day in 1881. Whitman toured the Old Manse and added a stone to the cairn that marked the site of Thoreau’s Walden cabin, but his visit with Emerson was the highlight — “a long and blessed evening…in a way I couldn’t have wish’d better or different.” Whitman was sixty-two, with a decade left; then seventy-eight and suffering from advanced senility, Emerson had just seven months to live; as described in Specimen Days, this last of a handful of visits shared by the two men is autumnal in every sense. Whitman first sets the scene, a sunset view from the front porch of his host, F. B. Sanborn, his house “within a stone’s throw of the Concord River”:

…across stream, on a meadow and side-hill, haymakers are gathering and wagoning-in probably their second or third crop. The spread of emerald-green and brown, the knolls, the score or two of little haycocks dotting the meadow, the loaded-up wagons, the patient horses, the slow-strong action of the men and pitchforks — all in the just-waning afternoon, with patches of yellow sun-sheen, mottled by long shadows — a cricket shrilly chirping, herald of the dusk….

The parlor was full and lively, and although Emerson said nothing, even when the topic was his old friend Thoreau (dead almost twenty years), he listened “with the well-known expression of sweetness, and the old clear-peering aspect quite the same.” In a Specimen Days entry a month later, the Concord visit still on his mind, Whitman recollects an animated talk with Emerson some twenty years earlier, just after the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. On that occasion, Whitman was the mute and Emerson — “then in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm’d at every point” — very much the talker. He vigorously attacked the approach Whitman had taken in some of his poems, his argument “unanswerable, no judge’s charge ever more complete or convincing”:

“What have you to say then to such things?” said E., pausing in conclusion. “Only that while I can’t answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it,” was my candid response. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.