The literary provocateurs sniffed at each other like nervous beasts while they argued heatedly about the common man.
When Henry David Thoreau met Walt Whitman in 1856, America’s most brilliant and shockingly erotic poet was living with his mother. That fact didn’t faze Thoreau, perhaps because the author of Walden—a book about the joys of living alone in a shack in the woods—had already abandoned his shack and moved back in with his mom.
Maybe Dr. Freud could provide a psychological analysis of why the bad boys of 19th-century American literature lived with their mothers, but there’s also an economic explanation: Neither Thoreau’s Walden, published in 1854, nor Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, sold many copies, and both geniuses were pretty much broke.
Thoreau arrived at Whitman’s house on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn on Sunday, Nov. 9, 1856, accompanied by Bronson Alcott, an eccentric, ascetic idealist who had founded a utopian commune, which failed, and a utopian school, which also failed. Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott, the future author of Little Women. She was fond of her father’s homely bachelor friend Thoreau but not so fond of the scraggly beard Thoreau had recently grown, which she predicted (correctly) “will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.”
When Thoreau and Alcott knocked on Whitman’s door, the poet’s mother told them Walt wasn’t home. She invited them into her kitchen, where she was baking biscuits. “We got all we could from his Mother, a stately sensible matron, believing absolutely in Walter,” Alcott later wrote, “and telling us how good he was, and how wise when a boy, and how his four brothers and two sisters loved him.”
While Mrs. Whitman rambled on about how Walt loved common folks and they loved him, Thoreau reached into the oven and snatched a hot biscuit before he and Alcott managed to escape, promising to return the next morning.
Thoreau was eager to meet Whitman, who seemed like a kindred spirit. Both men were in their late 30s, both had worked various trades—Thoreau as a teacher, surveyor and pencil-maker, Whitman as a printer, carpenter and newspaper editor—but both preferred loafing. More important, both writers rejected traditional English literary forms and tried to forge a new American literature of direct, plainspoken expressions of individuality.
“In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained,” Thoreau wrote on the first page of Walden.
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” Whitman proudly announced in the first line of Leaves of Grass.
“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up,” Thoreau proclaimed.
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” Whitman crowed.
Thoreau’s book was unusual, of course, but Whitman’s was downright bizarre. Self-published, it consisted of a 10-page prose preface followed by 83 pages of unrhymed, un-metered verse speckled liberally with exclamation points—verse that sounded a bit like a street-corner drunk haranguing passersby with his views on love, sex, America and himself. (But doing it really well.)
The book was illustrated with a shockingly odd photo of the poet. Instead of sitting in a library in a Sunday suit, Whitman wore rough workman’s clothes and stood with his hat cocked at a jaunty angle, one hand in his pocket, the other perched defiantly on his hip. It was the pose of a self-conscious rebel, a poet proclaiming himself the voice of the common man—a persona later adopted by Carl Sandburg, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others.
Whitman mailed a copy of Leaves of Grass to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was not only America’s most respected writer but also Thoreau’s neighbor, mentor and former employer. (Thoreau had been the Emerson family’s live-in handyman.) Emerson sent Whitman the kind of letter authors dream of receiving—praising Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Other readers were less impressed. Life Illustrated called the poems “perfect nonsense.” The New York Tribune attacked the book’s language as “reckless and indecent,” and complained that the author’s photo revealed “an expression of pensive indolence.”
Whitman responded to the negative reviews by writing anonymous positive reviews of his own book. “An American bard at last!” he wrote in one magazine. “The most glorious of triumphs in the known history of literature,” he wrote in another. It was the kind of shameless self-promotion that the shy, aloof Thoreau would never even consider.
When Thoreau and Alcott returned to Whitman’s apartment, Walt answered the door, sporting a thick beard on his ruddy face and workingman’s clothes on his brawny body. He led his visitors up the narrow stairs to the attic room he shared with his retarded brother Eddy. It was a mess—the bed unmade, the chamber pot visible, books piled haphazardly. Pasted on an unpainted wall were three pictures—Hercules, Bacchus and a satyr.
“Which, now, of the three, particularly, is the new poet here?” Alcott asked. “This Hercules, the Bacchus or the satyr?”
Whitman replied that he saw himself as a combination of all three.
Garrulous, particularly when talking about himself, Whitman informed his visitors that he liked to bathe in the river even in winter, that he loved opera and enjoyed the company of the men who drove busses on Broadway. (Love of manly bus drivers was a recurrent theme in his art—and his life.) Mostly, he said, he loved to make poems— pronouncing the word “pomes” instead of the hoity-toity “po-ems.”
Whitman escorted his visitors to the parlor downstairs, where he continued talking about himself. Alcott tried to lure Thoreau into direct discussion with Whitman, but without much success. “Each seemed planted fast in reserve, surveying the other curiously, like two beasts,” Alcott wrote in his journal, “each wondering what the other would do, whether to snap or run.”
But one topic did provoke an argument. When Whitman announced that his poems spoke for America, Thoreau, ever the cranky contrarian, responded that he didn’t think much of America or of politics. That touched off a debate about the common man. The exact words are lost to history but the topic seems to be an inevitable area of disagreement: Whitman had written endless odes to common folk while Thoreau had chided them for their foolishness. “The mass of men,” he famously wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”
“We had a hot discussion about it— it was a bitter difference,” Whitman recalled years later. “It was rather a surprise to me to meet in Thoreau such a very aggravated case of superciliousness.”
Still, the two men parted on friendly terms and Whitman gave Thoreau a copy of the second edition of Leaves of Grass, which contained 20 new poems.
“I have just read his second edition (which he gave me) and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time,” Thoreau wrote to a friend. Prudish (and quite possibly a virgin), Thoreau found “two or three” of the new poems distressingly sensual: “It is as if the beasts spoke.” But he was impressed with the rest of the book—and its author. “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 of a braggart of all, having a better right to be confident. He is a great fellow.”
For decades, Whitman grumbled about Thoreau’s “disdain for men.” But in 1888—26 years after Thoreau died— Whitman foresaw that his fellow bad boy’s writings, with their joyous love of nature and scorn for materialism, slavery and war, would become classics. “Thoreau belongs to America, to the transcendental, to the protesters,” he told a friend. “He was a force….His dying does not seem to have hurt him a bit: every year has added to his fame. One thing about Thoreau keeps him very near to me. I refer to his lawlessness, his dissent, his going his own road.”
Decades after the two sages met, Whitman still regaled friends with the story of his mother’s encounter with Thoreau. “Once, he got to the house while I was out, went straight to the kitchen where my dear mother was baking some cakes and took the cakes hot from the oven,” he said. “He was always doing things of the plain sort—without fuss. I liked all that about him.”
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.