Walt Whitman's First Fan Mail

July 21, 1855. Literary lion Ralph Waldo Emerson writes a letter to an unknown Brooklyn journalist named Walt Whitman. He’s just read Whitman’s first published poems, which have both startled him and caused him to rejoice. Emerson congratulates the poet on having produced “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed.” So why, just five years later, will Emerson be urging him to delete the “scandalous” passages from a new edition of the poems? And how did Walt Whitman’s exuberant sensuality help recast America’s relationship to the body?

Special thanks to our guests, Karen Karbiener, professor of literature at NYU and president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, and Jerome Loving, author of Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse and Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Karbiener published a new edition of Whitman’s Live Oak, With Moss poems along with illustrator Brian Selznick. You can find out more about the Walt Whitman Initiative’s programming, including efforts to preserve the Whitman home at 99 Ryerson Street, on their website: WaltWhitmanInitiative.org.

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