Was Walt Whitman a Transcendentalist?

We take a closer look at the complex leader of early American literary culture.

Jan 26, 2024By Brian Daly, BA Philosophy, BA English
was walt whitman a transcendentalist

 

Walt Whitman was a 19th century American poet who used lyric to announce the profound beauty of the soul, the body, and the ordinary fixtures of everyday life. His adoration of nature and independent approach to understand all its mysteries makes it difficult to object to considering him a Transcendentalist at face value. However, a closer look at the historical facts of Whitman’s life and the originality of his own metaphysical worldview only confounds this association.

 

Walt Whitman and the Transcendentalist Movement

Walt Whitman, 1848. Source: The Walt Whitman Archive
Walt Whitman, 1848. Source: The Walt Whitman Archive

 

It might sound pedantic, but it is very easy to conclude that Walt Whitman was not part of the Transcendentalist movement. While the Transcendentalists were based out of the Greater Boston area, Whitman spent most of his life in New York and New Jersey, and for a time in the late 1850’s immersed himself in New York City’s Bohemian movement. However, the inspiration he took from the founder of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is undeniable. Before publishing any of his own poetry, Whitman had attended one of Emerson’s lectures about the essence of poetry and its effect on culture. The exposure fundamentally changed Walt Whitman’s perspective on poetry, and it would take years of rumination before he could respond to Emerson’s call for an authentic poetic representation for America which fully embraces the immensity of the inner self.

 

Whitman and Emerson

ralph waldo emerson 2
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Source: Library of Congress

 

On July 4th, 1855, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, a collection of twelve untitled free verse poems. The book’s preface serves as response to Emerson, reiterating his ideas on beauty and the process of writing poetry while also announcing himself as the poet to rise to the challenge of giving his nation the profound voice it deserves and earning its embrace. Whitman immediately sent a copy to Emerson, and on July 21st, Emerson wrote back to him praising Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Unbeknownst to Emerson, Whitman would print this letter to advertise Leaves of Grass, and only wrote back to Emerson a year later, sending him the second edition of the book, and a lengthy letter discussing his perspective on literature and the American identity, addressing Emerson as his friend and master.

 

Boston Common, 1860. Source: Digital Commonwealth
Boston Common, 1860. Source: Digital Commonwealth

 

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In Whitman’s autobiographical prose collection Specimen Days, he writes about the only times he traveled to Massachusetts and spoke with Emerson in person. His first visit happened in 1860, and he met Emerson in the Boston Common to discuss Whitman’s third edition of Leaves of Grass which he shared with Emerson before publication. Emerson made it a point to present Whitman with some serious yet impersonal objections to “Children of Adam,” a collection of poems with more explicit commentary on sexuality and the body. Whitman reflects on assuring Emerson that he was wholly confident in his work, and describes a new ease of being unbothered by the criticism.

 

Whitman’s only other documented visit came several years later in 1882, only one year before Emerson’s death. This time in Concord, Whitman describes dinner at Emerson’s home with friends and family, where he mostly stayed quiet, observing Emerson in his old age and listening to his short, sharp comments.

 

The Connection Between the Self and God

Moses Shown the Promised Land, Benjamin West, 1801. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Moses Shown the Promised Land, Benjamin West, 1801. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Perhaps the most nebulous point of contention over whether Whitman is a transcendentalist comes from how he writes about God. Transcendentalism centers around the individual pursuit to come closer to God by looking to nature for answers to the many complex questions surrounding our existence. For Emerson, “nature” and “God” essentially refer to the same substance, but the two terms are not entirely interchangeable. God describes a singular, supreme being, and even though spending more time in nature helps us see it as a single, elaborate being, it can never lead us to a point of knowing God fully. This nuance is more explicit in Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” which is primarily concerned with the importance of learning how to live through personal experience.

 

The Prayer, William Morris Hunt, 1860. Source: The National Gallery of Art
The Prayer, William Morris Hunt, 1860. Source: The National Gallery of Art

 

If it were possible to know God fully, then it would be simple to derive a strict set of rules by which to live. Emerson rejects this kind of restrictive thinking because it keeps people from making the most of their life, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead someone to act improperly. Morality is no different; clarity can only come through examination of oneself and the world around them, not traditions or doctrines. However, Emerson still invokes a singular God to argue that individuals can realize objective virtue and moral action on their own:

 

“This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed one. Self-existence is the attribute of the Supreme Cause, and it constitutes the measure of good by the degree in which it enters all lower forms.”

 

Song of Myself

The Samaritan Takes the Man to an Inn, Sébastien Bourdon, 17th century. Source: National Gallery of Art
The Samaritan Takes the Man to an Inn, Sébastien Bourdon, 17th century. Source: National Gallery of Art

 

Some of Whitman’s most overt commentary on God comes in his poem “Song of Myself.” While he shares the Transcendentalist sense of God permeating throughout the world, his reverence denies God as superior:

 

“I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.”

 

This personal pride is one of Whitman’s most pronounced departures from Transcendentalism. Even though his work, like Emerson’s, equips readers with the insight to mold their own, individualized passion for life, it prioritizes an intense sensibility which cannot be expressed with an essay, and does not need direct, rational defense. Any direct language in his poetry serves as general descriptions of his work rather than foundational premises from which he proceeds. Whitman affirms that his views are the same with this self-referential addendum in section 48 of the 1892 version of “Song of Myself:”

 

“I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.”

Angel of the Revelation, William Blake, ca. 1803. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Angel of the Revelation, William Blake, ca. 1803. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Understandably, Whitman’s poetry does not lend itself to an easy side-by-side comparison, and doing so raises too many questions to confidently consider him a Transcendentalist based on his ideas. His own warning to readers: “Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,” suggests he never saw his work as part of any intellectual movement, and that we shouldn’t either. At best, Whitman’s work may gesture towards a potential continuation of Transcendentalism, and we can only wonder how many ways a Transcendentalist turn inward for truth, confidence, and contentment might lead us to a relentless, theanthropic self-love.

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By Brian DalyBA Philosophy, BA EnglishBrian holds BAs in Philosophy and English from Quinnipiac University and currently lives in New York. Whether through writing, teaching, or tutoring, he is always eager to spur interest in pondering and discussing complex ideas. His other interests include writing poetry, listening to music, and gardening.