The literary eminence and tastemaker Ralph Waldo Emerson declared Walt Whitman to be the first truly American poet. His sustained public endorsement of Leaves of Grass opened doors for the acceptance of Whitman’s revolutionary techniques and tendencies. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” begins Emerson’s letter to Whitman, often called the most famous letter in American literary history. “I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.”
The challenges of Whitman’s verse – namely its uncensored length, its comprehensive cataloguing and a new kind of acutely physical candor – were not lost on Emerson. In a letter to a friend, he conceded that Leaves of Grass was not without “some crudeness and strange weary catalogues of things like a warehouse inventory.” But by Whitman’s account, Emerson’s advocacy – and especially the personal letter – brought Whitman “from a simmer to a boil.” Now, of course, Whitman is regarded not only as one of the first uniquely American voices in poetry (along with Emily Dickinson), but also as the first modern poet and as the inspiration of ecstatic and experimental poets the world over – most notably his direct American heirs, the Beats.
On Saturday, March 19 at 7:30 p.m., the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company (MMSC) presents an evening of Whitman at Woodland Pond in New Paltz. Whitman will be interpreted by longtime MMSC performer William Connors. Admission costs $15. Woodland Pond is located at 100 Woodland Pond Circle in New Paltz. For more information on the event, visit www.mohonkmountainstage.com.