It was an unexpected find. In all the ten years that I have been studying the works of Walt Whitman and writing books and articles about him, I never dreamt that he had addressed a letter to us, the Russian people and particularly to me, popularizer and translator of Leaves of Grass.
Reading and re-reading his monumental book "Specimen Days and Collect" where his early literary attempts, fragments from diaries and sundry observations on birds, poets and stars are indiscriminately gathered together, I more than once ran into the text headed "Two Letters." There is not a word in the title concerning Russia. One letter is addressed to an unnamed inhabitant of London, the other to an equally anonymous resident of Dresden [Dr. John Fitzgerald Lee]. These letters seemed to me far less interesting than the rest of the material contained in the collection and for a long time I ignored them.
Then one day, as I was leafing through the book, I paused at the second letter. To my considerable surprise, I realized that the letter had nothing to do with Dresden or the Saxons but dealt with us Russians and other peoples living in Russia.
How odd that this letter has remained unknown in our country for so long and no writer has even mentioned it to the Russian reader, let alone introduced it.
Having translated it into Russian, I took the liberty of ignoring Saxony and titled it simply "Letter to a Russian" which in fact, it is.
The letter is dated December, 1881. But it could have been written last month, last week or today, so timely it is. I might even say without fear of contradiction, that today it is even more pertinent and topical than it was when Whitman mailed it to Saxony.
Of course, the dream of the "good, grey poet" is still far from realized. Literature has not yet fulfilled the significant role in the bringing together of nations and creation of mutual understanding which Whitman envisaged and promised with such pure-hearted certainty. But we cannot fail to see how the rapidly expanding exchange of cultural values between our countries helps develop closer relations between our peoples.
Never before have Americans displayed such interest in both the old and contemporary literatures of Russia. Think how many books have been published in the trans-Atlantic Republic dealing with Radishchev, Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov; and how many times Lermontov has been translated, and Gogel, Leskov, Gorky, Mayakovsky, right up to the "Anti-worlds' of Andrei Voznesensky.
And where is the Russian reader who has not read in the original or in translation the works of Robert Frost, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Cheever, Updyke, not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman himself? There is no nationality in the Soviet Union which does not read translations of American writers in their own languages.
It is a pleasant thought that this represents one of the more important expressions of that “spiritual commingling” of nations Walt Whitman, the great American poet dreamed about 86 years ago [ now 88 ].
Letter to a Russian
Mr. Chukovsky then prints the letter, dated December 20, 1881. His text varies slightly from the verbatim text in Edwin H. Miller's "Correspondence," Vol. III, p. 259, given here:
Your letter asking definite endorsement to a translation of my "Leaves of Grass" into Russian is just received, and I hasten to answer it. Most warmly and willingly, I consent to the translation, and waft a prayerful God speed to the enterprise.
You Russians and we Americans — our countries so distant, so unlike at first glance - such a difference in social and political conditions, and our respective methods of moral and practical development the last hundred years; and yet in certain features, and vastest ones, so
resembling each other.
The variety of stock-elements and tongues to be resolutely fused in a common Identity and Union at all hazards - the idea, perennial through
the ages, that they both have their historic and divine mission - the fervent element of manly friendship throughout the whole people, surpassed by no other races - the grand expanse of territorial limits and boundaries - the unformed and nebulous state of many things, not yet
permanently settled, but agreed on all hands to be the preparations of an infinitely greater future - the fact that
both peoples have their independent and leading positions to hold, keep, and, if necessary, fight for. against the rest of the world — deathless aspirations at the inmost centre of each great community, so vehement, so mysterious, so abysmic - are certainly features
you Russians and we Americans possess in common.
And as my dearest dream is for an intemationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties or diplomacy - As the purpose beneath the rest of my book is such hearty comradeship for individuals to begin with, and for all the Nations of the earth as a result - how happy indeed I shall be to get the hearing and emotional contact of the great Russian peoples!
To whom, now and here, (addressing you for Russia, and empowering you, should you see fit, to put the present letter in your book, as a preface to it,) I waft the affectionate salutation from these shores, in America's name.
Unfortunately, Dr. Lee was not Russian, as Whitman seemed to think, but an Irishman, educated at Trinity College in Dublin, who had studied Russian. How well he knew the Russian language is not known, but it is doubtful that he knew it well enough to translate Leaves of Grass into Russian, and he apparently came to realize this himself. Even Kornei Chukovsky, not only born and educated in Russia but a talented author besides, finds it difficult (see his letter in this issue). Yet, after all, the importance of this letter from Whitman is the eagerness with which he seized the opportunity — or what he took to be an opportunity — to "get the hearing and emotional contact of the great Russian peoples!" And how fortunate that his greatest Russian translator should finally read this letter and respond to it so warmly. It is one of the most heartening episodes in Whitman's international reception.