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Emerson: Author of Books - Transcendentalist

from 'The American Spirit in Literature'


To our generation, of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson presents himself as an author of books, and primarily as an essayist, rather than as a winning, entrancing speaker. His essays have a greater variety of tone than is commonly recognized. Many of them, like "Manners," "Farming," "Books," "Eloquence," "Old Age," exhibit a shrewd prudential wisdom, a sort of Yankee instinct for "the milk in the pan," that reminds one of Ben Franklin. Like most of the greater New England writers, he could be, on occasion, an admirable local historian. See his essays on "Life and Letters in New England," "New England Reformers," "Politics," and the successive entries in his "Journal" relating to Daniel Webster.

He had the happiest gift of portraiture, as is witnessed by his sketches of Montaigne, of Napoleon, of Socrates (in the essay on Plato), of his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, of Thoreau, and of various types of Englishmen in his "English Traits." But the great essays, no doubt, are those like "Self-Reliance," "Compensation," "The Over-Soul," "Fate," "Power," "Culture," "Worship," and "Illusions." These will puzzle no one who has read carefully that first book on "Nature." They all preach the gospel of intuition, instinctive trust in the Universe, faith in the ecstatic moment of vision into the things that are unseen by the physical eye. Self-reliance, as Emerson's son has pointed out, means really God-reliance; the Over-Soul-always a stumbling-block to Philistines-means that high spiritual life into which all men may enter and in which they share the life of Deity. Emerson is stern enough in expounding the laws of compensation that run through the universe, but to him the chief law is the law of the ever-ascending, victorious soul.

This radiant optimism permeates his poems. By temperament a singer as well as a seer and sayer, Emerson was nevertheless deficient in the singing voice. He composed no one great poem, his verse presents no ideas that are not found in his prose. In metre and rhyme he is harsh and willful. Yet he has marvelous single phrases and cadences. He ejaculates transports and ecstasies, and though he cannot organize and construct in verse, he is capable here and there of the true miracle of transforming fact and thought into true beauty. Aldrich used to say that he would rather have written Emerson's "Bacchus" than any American poem.

That the pure, high, and tonic mind of Emerson was universal in its survey of human forces, no one would claim. Certain limitations in interest and sympathy are obvious. "That horrid burden and impediment of the soul which the churches call sin," to use John Morley's words, occupied his attention but little. Like a mountain climber in a perilous pass, he preferred to look up rather than down. He does not stress particularly those old human words, service and sacrifice. "Anti-scientific, antisocial, anti-Christian" are the terms applied to him by one of his most penetrating critics. Yet I should prefer to say "un-scientific," "unsocial," and "non-Christian," in the sense in which Plato and Isaiah are non-Christian. Perhaps it would be still nearer the truth to say, as Mrs. Lincoln said of her husband, "He was not a technical Christian." He tends to underestimate institutions of every kind; history, except as a storehouse of anecdote, and culture as a steady mental discipline. This is the price he pays for his transcendental insistence upon the supreme value of the Now, the moment of insight. But after all these limitations are properly set down, the personality of Ralph Waldo Emerson remains a priceless possession to his countrymen. The austere serenity of his life, and the perfection with which he represents the highest type of his province and his era, will ultimately become blended with the thought of his true Americanism. A democrat and liberator, like Lincoln, he seems also destined like Lincoln to become increasingly a world's figure, a friend and guide to aspiring spirits everywhere. Differences of race and creed are negligible in the presence of such superb confidence in God and the soul.

Citizens of Concord in May, 1862, hearing that Henry Thoreau, the eccentric bachelor, had just died of consumption in his mother's house on Main Street, in his forty-fifth year, would have smiled cannily at the notion that after fifty years their townsman's literary works would be published in a sumptuous twenty-volume edition, and that critics in his own country and in Europe would rank him with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet that is precisely what has happened. Our literature has no more curious story than the evolution of this local crank into his rightful place of mastership. In his lifetime he printed only two books, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers"-which was even more completely neglected by the public than Emerson's "Nature"-and "Walden," now one of the classics, but only beginning to be talked about when its shy, proud author penned his last line and died with the words "moose" and "Indian" on his lips.

Thoreau, like all thinkers who reach below the surface of human life, means many different things to men of various temperaments. Collectors of human novelties, like Stevenson, rejoice in his uniqueness of flavor; critics, like Lowell, place him, not without impatient rigor. To some readers he is primarily a naturalist, an observer, of the White of Selborne school; to others an elemental man, a lover of the wild, a hermit of the woods. He has been called the poet-naturalist, to indicate that his powers of observation were accompanied, like Wordsworth's, by a gift of emotional interpretation of the meaning of phenomena. Lovers of literature celebrate his sheer force and penetration of phrase. But to the student of American thought Thoreau's prime value lies in the courage and consistency with which he endeavored to realize the gospel of Transcendentalism in his own inner life.

Lovers of racial traits like to remember that Thoreau's grandfather was an immigrant Frenchman from the island of Jersey, and that his grandmother was Scotch and Quaker. His father made lead pencils and ground plumbago in his own house in Concord. The mother was from New Hampshire. It was a high-minded family. All the four children taught school and were good talkers. Henry, born in 1817, was duly baptized by good Dr. Ripley of the Old Manse, studied Greek and Latin, and was graduated at Harvard in 1837, the year of Emerson's Phi Beta Kappa address. Even in college the young man was a trifle difficult. "Cold and unimpressible," wrote a classmate. "The touch of his hand was moist and indifferent. He did not care for people." "An unfavorable opinion has been entertained of his disposition to exert himself," wrote President Quincy confidentially to Emerson in 1837, although the kindly President, a year later, in recommending Thoreau as a school-teacher, certified that "his rank was high as a scholar in all the branches and his morals and general conduct unexceptionable and exemplary."

Ten years passed. The young man gave up school-keeping, thinking it a loss of time. He learned pencil-making, surveying, and farm work, and found that by manual labor for six weeks in the year he could meet all the expenses of living. He haunted the woods and pastures, explored rivers and ponds, built the famous hut on Emerson's wood-lot with the famous axe borrowed from Alcott, was put in jail for refusal to pay his polltax, and, to sum up much in little, "signed off" from social obligations. "I, Henry D. Thoreau, have signed off, and do not hold myself responsible to your multifarious uncivil chaos named Civil Government." When his college class held its tenth reunion in 1847, and each man was asked to send to the secretary a record of achievement, Thoreau wrote: "My steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth." There is the motto of Transcendentalism, stamped upon a single coin.

For "to be ready for whatever may turn up" is Thoreau's racier, homelier version of Emerson's "endless seeker"; and Thoreau, more easily than Emerson, could venture to stake everything upon the quest. The elder man had announced the programme, but by 1847 he was himself almost what Thoreau would call a "committed man," with family and household responsibilities, with a living to earn, and bound, like every professional writer and speaker, to have some measure of regard for his public. But Thoreau was ready to travel lightly and alone. If he should fail in the great adventure for spiritual perfection, it was his own affair. He had no intimates, no confidant save the multitudinous pages of his "Journal," from which-and here again he followed Emerson's example-his future books were to be compiled. Many of his most loyal admirers will admit that such a quest is bound, by the very conditions of the problem, to be futile. Hawthorne allegorized it in "Ethan Brand," and his quaint illustration of the folly of romantic expansion of the self apart from the common interests of human kind is the picture of a dog chasing its own tail. "It is time now that I begin to live," notes Thoreau in the "Journal," and he continued to say it in a hundred different ways until the end of all his journalizing, but he never quite captured the fugitive felicity. The haunting pathos of his own allegory has moved every reader of "Walden:" "I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail." Precisely what he meant it is now impossible to say, but surely he betrays a doubt in the ultimate efficacy of his own system of life. He bends doggedly to the trail, for Henry Thoreau is no quitter, but the trail leads nowhere, and in the latest volumes of the "Journals" he seems to realize that he has been pursuing a phantom. He dived fearlessly and deep into himself, but somehow he failed to grasp that pearl of great price which all the transcendental prophets assured him was to be had at the cost of diving.

This is not to say that this austere and strenuous athlete came up quite empty-handed. Far from it. The byproducts of his toil were enough to have enriched many lesser men, and they have given Thoreau a secure fame. From his boyhood he longed to make himself a writer, and an admirable writer he became. "For along time," he says in "Walden," "I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their reward." Like so many solitaries, he experienced the joy of intense, long-continued effort in composition, and he was artist enough to know that his pages, carefully assembled from his note books, had pungency, form, atmosphere. No man of his day, not even Lowell the "last of the bookmen," abandoned himself more unreservedly to the delight of reading. Thoreau was an accomplished scholar in the Greek and Roman classics, as his translations attest. He had some acquaintance with several modern languages, and at one time possessed the best collection of books on Oriental literature to be found in America. He was drenched in the English poetry of the seventeenth century. His critical essays in the "Dial," his letters and the bookish allusions throughout his writings, are evidence of rich harvesting in the records of the past. He left some three thousand manuscript pages of notes on the American Indians, whose history and character had fascinated him from boyhood. Even his antiquarian hobbies gave him durable satisfaction.

Then, too, he had deep delight in his life-long studies in natural history, in his meticulous measurements of river currents, in his notes upon the annual flowering of plants and the migration of birds. The more thoroughly trained naturalists of our own day detect him now and again in error as to his birds and plants, just as specialists in Maine woodcraft discover that he made amusing, and for him unaccountable, blunders when he climbed Katahdin. But if he was not impeccable as a naturalist or woodsman, who has ever had more fun out of his enthusiasm than Thoreau, and who has ever stimulated as many men and women in the happy use of their eyes? He would have had slight patience with much of the sentimental nature study of our generation, and certainly an intellectual contempt for much that we read and write about the call of the wild; but no reader of his books can escape his infection for the freedom of the woods, for the stark and elemental in nature. Thoreau's passion for this aspect of life may have been selfish, wolflike, but it is still communicative.

Once, toward the close of his too brief life, Thoreau "signed on" again to an American ideal, and no man could have signed more nobly. It was the cause of Freedom, as represented by John Brown of Harper's Ferry. The French and Scotch blood in the furtive hermit suddenly grew hot. Instead of renouncing in disgust the "uncivil chaos called Civil Government," Thoreau challenged it to a fight. Indeed he had already thrown down the gauntlet in "Slavery in Massachusetts," which Garrison had published in the "Liberator" in 1854. And now the death upon the scaffold of the old fanatic of Ossawatomie changed Thoreau into a complete citizen, arguing the case and glorifying to his neighbors the dead hero. "It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived.... I hear a good many pretend that they are going to die.... Nonsense! I'll defy them to do it. They haven't got life enough in them. They'll deliquesce like fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began." Such passages as this reveal a very different Thoreau from the Thoreau who is supposed to have spent his days in the company of swamp-blackbirds and woodchucks. He had, in fact, one of the highest qualifications for human society, an absolute honesty of mind. "We select granite," he says, "for the underpinning of our houses and barns; we build fences of stone; but we do not ourselves rest on an underpinning of granite truth, the lowest primitive rock. Our sills are rotten.... In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the postoffice. You may depend upon it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long time."

This hard, basic individualism was for Thoreau the foundation of all enduring social relations, and the dullest observer of twentieth century America can see that Thoreau's doctrine is needed as much as ever. His sharp-edged personality provokes curiosity and pricks the reader into dissent or emulation as the case may be, but its chief ethical value to our generation lies in the fact that here was a Transcendentalist who stressed, not the life of the senses, though he was well aware of their seductiveness, but the stubborn energy of the will.

The scope of the present book prevents more than a glimpse at the other members of the New England Transcendental group. They are a very mixed company, noble, whimsical, queer, impossible. "The good Alcott," wrote Carlyle, "with his long, lean face and figure, with his gray worn temples and mild radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can laugh at without loving." These words paint a whole company, as well as a single man. The good Alcott still awaits an adequate biographer. Connecticut Yankee, peddler in the South, school-teacher in Boston and elsewhere, he descended upon Concord, flitted to the queer community of Fruitlands, was starved back to Concord, inspired and bored the patient Emerson, talked endlessly, wrote ineffective books, and had at last his apotheosis in the Concord School of Philosophy, but was chiefly known for the twenty years before his death in 1888 as the father of the Louisa Alcott who wrote "Little Women." "A tedious archangel," was Emerson's verdict, and it is likely to stand.

Margaret Fuller, though sketched by Hawthorne, analyzed by Emerson, and painted at full length by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, is now a fading figure-a remarkable woman, no doubt, one of the first of American feminists, suggesting George Eliot in her physical unattractiveness, her clear brain, her touch of sensuousness. She was an early-ripe, over-crammed scholar in the classics and in modern European languages. She did loyal, unpaid work as the editor of the "Dial," which from 1840 to 1844 was the organ of Transcendentalism. She joined the community at Brook Farm, whose story has been so well told by Lindsay Swift. For a while she served as literary editor of the "New York Tribune" under Horace Greeley. Then she went abroad, touched Rousseau's manuscripts at Paris with trembling, adoring fingers, made a secret marriage in Italy with the young Marquis Ossoli, and perished by shipwreck, with her husband and child, off Fire Island in 1850.

Theodore Parker, like Alcott and "Margaret," an admirable Greek scholar, an idealist and reformer, still lives in Chadwick's biography, in Colonel Higginson's delightful essay, and in the memories of a few liberal Bostonians who remember his tremendous sermons on the platform of the old Music Hall. He was a Lexington farmer's son, with the temperament of a blacksmith, with enormous, restless energy, a good hater, a passionate lover of all excellent things save meekness. He died at fifty, worn out, in Italy.

But while these three figures were, after Emerson and Thoreau, the most representative of the group, the student of the Transcendental period will be equally interested in watching its influence upon many other types of young men: upon future journalists and publicists like George William Curtis, Charles A. Dana, and George Ripley; upon religionists like Orestes Brownson, Father Hecker, and James Freeman Clarke; and upon poets like Jones Very, Christopher. P. Cranch, and Ellery Channing. There was a sunny side of the whole movement, as T. W. Higginson and F. B. Sanborn, two of the latest survivors of the ferment, loved to emphasize in their talk and in their books; and it was shadowed also by tragedy and the pathos of unfulfilled desires. But as one looks back at it, in the perspective of three-quarters of a century, it seems chiefly something touchingly fine. For all these men and women tried to hitch their wagon to a star.

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