Even The Great Ones Need Validation

January 15, 2019

 

Walt Whitman is regarded as one of the most influential poets of the American Canon. Yet even he fell victim to the doubts and insecurities that beset all writers, from the literary stars, to the rest of us slogging in obscurity. 

In 1855, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, a monumental opus that would someday establish him as perhaps America's greatest poet.  But despite his optimistic expectations, sales were dismal and the paltry reviews that did roll in were universally unfavorable. As we writers and frequent submitters well know, we accept rejections with outward fatalism, and try to convince ourselves of the inevitability of the process. But inwardly, no matter how thick skinned we profess to be, we die a little inside with each form letter. And so it was with Whitman.

Enter Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essay The Poet inspired Whitman's book. He wrote this letter to Whitman: 

 

Dear Sir,

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 & 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, & 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 & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.

R.W. Emerson


At this point in time, Emerson was already a cultural icon, akin to a social media influencer on the scale of Kylie Jenner, if I may be so blasphemous. I'm not sure if Whitman's response was ever recorded, but holy crap, that must have been an ego boost that set him on the path to success. My point is, we value notes of appreciation, from friends, from strangers, and from people who have felt moved enough by our work that they take the time to write us a note and drop a little sunshine on our day. So the next time you attend a reading, or pick up a book or read a poem that speaks to you, do that author a solid and tell them what it meant to you. Who knows, it might be the push they need to achieve greatness.

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