The Recommendation Letter Ralph Waldo Emerson Wrote For A Job-Hunting Walt Whitman

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 9 2014 8:15 AM

The Recommendation Letter Ralph Waldo Emerson Wrote For A Job-Hunting Walt Whitman

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In 1863, as he considered seeking a government clerkship, Walt Whitman asked his friend and advocate Ralph Waldo Emerson for a letter of recommendation. Emerson, for decades a respected name in American letters, knew the secretaries of state and treasury personally, and Whitman hoped that a note from him would help the younger poet secure steady employment in Washington.  

At this time, eight years after the first publication of the controversial Leaves of Grass, Whitman was well-known enough that his reputation preceded him in job interviews. Whitman reported that Salmon Chase, the secretary of the treasury who’s the addressee of this letter, was vehemently against the idea of employing the author of Leaves, a book that celebrated open sexuality in a way that Chase found distasteful. Whitman wrote: “Chase did not know how he could possibly bring its author into the government service, especially if he put him in contact with gentlemen employed in the beaureaus [sic].”  

Advertisement

Others working for the government clearly shared Chase's assessment. While the writer did land a series of clerkships, and put in 11 years of government service—first in the Army Paymaster’s Office, later in the Office of Indian Affairs, and finally in the Attorney General’s Office—he was fired from the second position because of objections to his poetry.

EmersonLetter1

National Archives.

EmersonLetter2

National Archives.

Transcript (from the Walt Whitman Archive):

Concord Massachusetts 
10 January 2, 1863

Dear Sir,

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.

Hon Salmon P. Chase, | Secretary of the Treasury.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.