Walt Whitman Needed Recommendation Letters, Too
In his case, though, they came from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Rebecca Onion at Slate’s history blog, The Vault, God bless her, tells the story of the young poet’s rough and tumble search for a day job, eight years after Leaves of Grass was published. Because apparently even if you are Walt Whitman, you are still a poet in need of a day job. TALE AS OLD AS TIME. Whitman was applying for a government clerkship and meeting a lot of resistance thanks to Leaves of Grass’ rather enthusiastic discussion of good old American hay-rolling. He was basically, to make the most beautifully inappropriate comparison I can muster, the Monica Lewinsky of his day.
Anyway, thanks to the National Archive, we have Emerson’s letter of recommendation, which he had sent to the Secretary of the Treasury (to little avail). Amazing:
10 January 2, 1863
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.
Oh, Ralph. You mean so well. Your writing is beautiful as always. But I have to say that if I got this letter I would not be reassured. I mean to be clear if I was around and in charge of hiring people in 1863 (LOL), Walt Whitman would be one of my first hires no matter the job, just to be near him. But if I was an old scaredy dude working for the government? Let’s see. No mention of relevant experience, or why he would specifically be a good candidate for the job besides “large heart.” Mentions his “eccentricities” (divaaaaa), and his poetry (good for him, trouble for me)?
Image that my college friend had rasterized and blown up on his dorm room wall (he’s a priest now) via Wikimedia Commons