November 6th, 2010 / 11:55 am

Historical Shop Talk

A letter from H.D. Thoreau to Unitarian minister H.G.O. Blake, mostly about the subject of Walt Whitman:

Dec. 7, 1856

That Walt Whitman, of whom I wrote to you, is the most interesting fact to me at the present. I have just read his 2nd edition (which he gave me) and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time. Perhaps I remember best the poem of Walt Whitman an American & the Sun Down Poem. There are 2 or 3 pieces in the book which are disagreeable to say the least, simply sensual. He does not celebrate love at all. It is as if the beasts spoke. I think that men have not been ashamed of themselves without reason. No doubt, there have always been dens where such deeds were unblushingly recited, and it is no merit to compete with their inhabitants. But even on this side, he has spoken more truth than any American or modern I know. I have found his poem exhilaratingly encouraging. As for its sensuality,–& it may turn out to be less sensual than it appeared–I do not so much wish that those parts were not written, as that men & women were so pure that they could read them without harm, that is, without understanding them. One woman told me that no woman could read it as if a man could read what a woman could not. Of course Walt Whitman can communicate to us no experience, and if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of?

On the whole it sounds to me very brave & American after whatever deductions. I do not believe that all the sermons so called that have been preached in this land put together are equal to it for preaching–

We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You cant confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York. How they must shudder when they read him! He is awefully good.

To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness & broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders–as it were sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain–stirs me well up, and then–throws in a thousand of brick. Though rude & sometimes ineffectual, it is a great primitive poem,–an alarum or trumpet-note ringing through the American camp. Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that if I asked him if he had read them, he answered ‘No, tell me about them.’

I did not get far in conversation with him,–two more being present,–and among the few things which I chanced to say, I remember that one was, in answer to him as representing America, that I did not think much of America or of politics, and so on, which may have been somewhat of a damper to him.

Since I have seen him, I find that I am not disturbed by any brag or egoism in his book. He may turn out the least braggart of all, having a better right to be confident.

He is a great fellow.

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