Now widely considered one of the greatest books of poetry ever written, Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855 and financed entirely by its author, Walt Whitman. Whitman – then an aspiring, unknown poet – immediately sent one of the 795 copies to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a highly respected man who, a decade previous, had publicly cried out for a great American poet by way of his essay, The Poet, and who, instantly recognising Whitman’s talent, responded to Leaves of Grass with the following letter; a gushing, five-page appreciation of Whitman’s work that was rightfully deemed so valuable to the poet that he later used it to promote future editions.
Transcript follows. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.
I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real and available for a Post-Office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.