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LitHub on the Legacies of the Transcendentalists

How the Transcendentalists Shaped American Art, Philosophy and Spirituality

Dominic Green on the Legacies of Whitman, Thoreau, Tyndale, and More

By Dominic Green

November 10, 1856. The poet shares his attic room and bed with his brother the simpleton. Books are piled on the mantelpiece and framed pictures of naked, muscled figures are pasted to the walls—Hercules, Bacchus, a satyr. The visitors smell the unmade bed and the unemptied chamber pot. The house has a parlor, but the poet has led his visitors up two narrow flights, to display his privacy. They are in their Sunday best, and he is in his.

Walt Whitman wears a workingman’s red flannel shirt, cowhide boots, his patent “man-Bloomer”—a pair of baggy, loose trousers like those worn by his friend, the women’s rights advocate Abby Price— and a loose jacket with a Byronic collar to frame his brawny laborer’s neck. Atop this ensemble: a slouched hat, unkempt gray hair and beard, a pair of “cautious yet sagacious” gray eyes, and thick, graying eyebrows whose centers curve upward, as if inquiring as to the effect.

Whitman’s guests are the Concord hermit Henry Thoreau, the Transcendentalist educator Amos Bronson Alcott, and Sarah Tyndale, a women’s rights advocate and friend of Lucretia Mott’s. This trio have come from Plymouth Church, where they heard a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher, whose sister Harriet is the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Alcott thinks Henry Beecher is as much an actor as a preacher, and Thoreau finds him too pagan. This is their second visit to Whitman’s ramshackle fringe of Brooklyn. They came yesterday, but he was not home. Like Flaubert, and Baudelaire too when the money runs out, Whitman lives with his mother. She fed cake to the visitors and exposited proudly on her son the great man.

Alcott visited Whitman for the first time a few weeks ago. With his bent arm for a pillow, Whitman reclined languidly in his Bohemian outfit, admitting “naively” how “slow” and lazy he is. To Alcott, the father of the author of Little Women, Whitman embodies Young America—the loose grouping of reformers, artists, and political journalists who seek to create a national culture, and also a metaphysical ideal. Whitman agrees. “I too, following many and follow’d by many, inaugurate a religion.” Read the full piece at LitHub.

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