To understand the literary leadership of New England during the thirty years immediately preceding the Civil War it is necessary to recall the characteristics of a somewhat isolated and peculiar people. The mental and moral traits of the New England colonists, already glanced at in an earlier chapter, had suffered little essential modification in two hundred years. The original racial stock was still dominant. As compared with the middle and southern colonies, there was relatively little immigration, and this was easily assimilated. The physical remoteness of New England from other sections of the country, and the stubborn loyalty with which its inhabitants maintained their own standards of life, alike contributed to their sense of separateness. It is true, of course, that their mode of thinking and feeling had undergone certain changes. They were among the earliest theorists of political independence from Great Britain, and had done their share, and more, in the Revolution.
The rigors of their early creed had somewhat relaxed, as we have seen, by the end of the seventeenth century, and throughout the eighteenth there was a gradual progress toward religious liberalism. The population steadily increased, and New England's unremitting struggle with a not too friendly soil, her hardihood upon the seas, and her keenness in trade, became proverbial throughout the country. Her seaport towns were wealthy. The general standards of living remained frugal, but extreme poverty was rare. Her people still made, as in the earliest days of the colonies, silent and unquestioned sacrifices for education, and her chief seats of learning, Harvard and Yale, remained the foremost educational centers of America. But there was still scant leisure for the quest of beauty, and slender material reward for any practitioner of the fine arts. Oratory alone, among the arts of expression, commanded popular interest and applause. Daniel Webster's audiences at Plymouth in 1820 and at Bunker Hill in 1825 were not inferior to similar audiences of today in intelligence and in responsiveness. Perhaps they were superior. Appreciation of the spoken word was natural to men trained by generations of thoughtful listening to "painful" preaching and by participation in the discussions of town-meeting. Yet appreciation of secular literature was rare, and interest in the other arts was almost non-existent.
Then, beginning in the eighteen-twenties, and developing rapidly after 1830, came a change, a change so startling as to warrant the term of "the Renascence of New England." No single cause is sufficient to account for this "new birth." It is a good illustration of that law of "tension and release," which the late Professor Shaler liked to demonstrate in all organic life. A long period of strain was followed by an age of expansion, freedom, release of energy. As far as the mental life of New England was concerned, something of the new stimulus was due directly to the influence of Europe. Just as the wandering scholars from Italy had brought the New Learning, which was a revival of the old learning, into England in the sixteenth century, so now young New England college men like Edward Everett and George Ticknor brought home from the Continent the riches of German and French scholarship. Emerson's description of the impression made by Everett's lectures in 1820, after his return from Germany, gives a vivid picture of the new thirst for foreign culture. "The North American Review" and other periodicals, while persistently urging the need of a distinctively national literature, insisted also upon the value of a deeper knowledge of the literature of the Continent. This was the burden of Channing's once famous article on "A National Literature" in 1823: it was a plea for an independent American school of writers, but these writers should know the best that Europe had to teach.
The purely literary movement was connected, as the great name of Channing suggests, with a new sense of freedom in philosophy and religion. Calvinism had mainly done its work in New England. It had bred an extraordinary type of men and women, it had, helped to lay some of the permanent foundations of our democracy, and it was still destined to have a long life in the new West and in the South. But in that stern section of the country where its influence had been most marked there was now an increasingly sharp reaction against its determinism and its pessimism. Early in the nineteenth century the most ancient and influential churches in Boston and the leading professors at Harvard had accepted the new form of religious liberalism known as Unitarianism. The movement spread throughout Eastern Massachusetts and made its way to other States. Orthodox and liberal Congregational churches split apart, and when Channing preached the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819, the word Unitarian, accepted by the liberals with some misgiving, became the recognized motto of the new creed. It is only with its literary influence that we are here concerned, yet that literary influence became so potent that there is scarcely a New England writer of the first rank, from Bryant onward, who remained untouched by it.
The most interesting and peculiar phase of the new liberalism has little directly to do with the specific tenets of theological Unitarianism, and in fact marked a revolt against the more prosaic and conventional pattern of English and American Unitarian thought. But this movement, known as Transcendentalism, would have been impossible without a preliminary and liberalizing stirring of the soil. It was a fascinating moment of release for some of the most brilliant and radical minds of New England. Its foremost representative in our literature was Ralph Waldo Emerson, as its chief exponents in England were Coleridge and Carlyle. We must understand its meaning if we would perceive the quality of much of the most noble and beautiful writing produced in New England during the Golden Age.
What then is the significance of the word Transcendental? Disregarding for the moment the technical development of this term as used by German and English philosophers, it meant for Emerson and his friends simply this: whatever transcends or goes beyond the experience of the senses. It stressed intuition rather than sensation, direct perception of ultimate truth rather than the processes of logic. It believed in man's ability to apprehend the absolute ideas of Truth, Rectitude, Goodness. It resembled the Inner Light of the Quaker, though the Quaker traced this to a supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit, while the Transcendentalist believed that a vision of the eternal realities was a natural endowment of the human mind. It had only to be trusted. Stated in this form, it is evident that we have here a very ancient doctrine, well known in the literature of India and of Greece. It has been held by countless persons who have never heard of the word Transcendentalism. We need go no further back than Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic, whom we find declaring: "I am so certain of the soul's being immortal that I seem to feel it within me, as it were by intuition." Pope's friend Swift, a dean of the Church of England and assuredly no Transcendentalist, defined vision as seeing the things that are invisible.
Now turn to some of the New England men. Dr. C. A. Bartol, a disciple of Emerson, maintained that "the mistake is to make the everlasting things subjects of argument instead of sight." Theodore Parker declared to his congregation:
"From the primitive facts of consciousness given by the power of instinctive intuition, I endeavored to deduce the true notion of God, of justice and futurity.... I found most help in the works of Immanuel Kant, one of the profoundest thinkers of the world, though one of the worst writers, even in Germany; if he did not always furnish conclusions I could rest in, he yet gave me the true method, and put me on the right road. I found certain great primal Intuitions of Human Nature, which depend on no logical process of demonstration, but are rather facts of consciousness given by the instinctive action of human nature itself. I will mention only the three most important which pertain to Religion. 1. The Instinctive Intuition of the Divine, the consciousness that there is a God. 2. The Instinctive Intuition of the Just and Right, a consciousness that there is a Moral Law, independent of our will, which we ought to keep. 3. The Instinctive Intuition of the Immortal, a consciousness that the Essential Element of man, the principle of Individuality, never dies."
This passage dates from 1859, and readers of Bergson may like to compare it with the contemporary Frenchman's saying: "The analytical faculties can give us no realities."
Let us next hear Emerson himself, first in an early letter to his brother Edward: "Do you draw the distinction of Milton, Coleridge, and the Germans between Reason and Understanding? I think it a philosophy itself, and, like all truth, very practical. Reason is the highest faculty of the soul, what we mean often by the soul itself: it never reasons, never proves, it simply perceives, it is vision. The understanding toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues; near-sighted, but strong-sighted, dwelling in the present, the expedient, the customary." And in 1833, after he had left the Unitarian pulpit, Emerson made in his diary this curious attempt to reconcile the scriptural language of his ancestral profession to the new vocabulary of Transcendentalism: "Jesus Christ was a minister of the pure Reason. The beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are all utterances of the mind contemning the phenomenal world... . The understanding can make nothing of it. 'Tis all nonsense. The Reason affirms its absolute verity.... St. Paul marks the distinction by the terms natural man and spiritual man. When Novalis says, 'It is the instinct of the Understanding to contradict the Reason,' he only translates into a scientific formula the doctrine of St. Paul, 'The Carnal Mind is enmity against God.'"
One more quotation must suffice. It is from a poem by a forgotten Transcendentalist, F. G. Tuckerman.
"No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead; But, leaving straining thought and stammering word, Across the barren azure pass to God; Shooting the void in silence, like a bird- A bird that shuts his wings for better speed!"
It is obvious that this "contemning the phenomenal world," this "revulsion against the intellect as the sole source of truth," is highly dangerous to second-class minds. If one habitually prints the words Insight, Instinct, Intuition, Consciousness with capitals, and relegates equally useful words like senses, experience, fact, logic to lower-case type, one may do it because he is a Carlyle or an Emerson, but the chances are that he is neither. Transcendentalism, like all idealistic movements, had its "lunatic fringe," its camp-followers of excitable, unstable visionaries. The very name, like the name Methodist, was probably bestowed upon it in mockery, and this whole perturbation of staid New England had its humorous side. Witness the career of Bronson Alcott. It is also true that the glorious affirmations of these seers can be neither proved nor disproved. They made no examination and they sought no validation of consciousness. An explorer in search of the North Pole must bring back proofs of his journey, but when a Transcendentalist affirms that he has reached the far heights of human experience and even caught sight of the gods sitting on their thrones, you and I are obliged to take his word for it. Sometimes we hear such a man gladly, but it depends upon the man, not upon the trustworthiness of the method. Finally it should be observed that the Transcendental movement was an exceedingly complex one, being both literary, philosophic, and religious; related also to the subtle thought of the Orient, to mediaeval mysticism, and to the English Platonists; touched throughout by the French Revolutionary theories, by the Romantic spirit, by the new zeal for science and pseudo-science, and by the unrest of a fermenting age.
Our present concern is with the impact of this cosmopolitan current upon the mind and character of a few New England writers. Channing and Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller and Alcott, Thoreau and Emerson, are all representative of the best thought and the noblest ethical impulses of their generation. Let us choose first the greatest name: a sunward-gazing spirit, and, it may be, one of the very Sun-Gods.
The pilgrim to Concord who stops for a moment in the village library to study French's statue of Emerson will notice the asymmetrical face. On one side it is the face of a keen Yankee farmer, but seen from the other side it is the countenance of a seer, a world's man. This contrast between the parochial Emerson and the greater Emerson interprets many a puzzle in his career. Half a mile beyond the village green to the north, close to the "rude bridge" of the famous Concord fight in 1775, is the Old Manse, once tenanted and described by Hawthorne. It was built by Emerson's grandfather, a patriot chaplain in the Revolution, who died of camp-fever at Ticonderoga. His widow married Dr. Ezra Ripley, and here Ralph Waldo Emerson and his brothers passed many a summer in their childhood. Half a mile east of the village, on the Cambridge turnpike, is Emerson's own house, still sheltered by the pines which Thoreau helped him to plant in 1838. Within the house everything is unchanged: here are the worn books, pen and inkstand, the favorite pictures upon the wall. Over the ridge to the north lies the Sleepy Hollow cemetery where the poet rests, with the gravestones of Hawthorne and the Alcotts, Thoreau and William James close by.
But although Concord is the Emerson shrine, he was born in Boston, in 1803. His father, named William like the grandfather, was also, like the Emerson ancestors for many generations, a clergyman-eloquent, liberal, fond of books and music, highly honored by his alma mater Harvard and by the town of Boston, where he ministered to the First Church. His premature death in 1811 left his widow with five sons-one of them feebleminded-and a daughter to struggle hard with poverty. With her husband's sister, the Calvinistic "Aunt Mary Moody" Emerson, she held, however, that these orphaned boys had been "born to be educated." And educated the "eager blushing boys" were, at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard College, on a regimen of "toil and want and truth and mutual faith." There are many worse systems of pedagogy than this. Ralph was thought less persistent than his steady older brother William, and far less brilliant than his gifted, short-lived younger brothers, Edward and Charles. He had an undistinguished career at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1821, ranking thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. Lovers of irony like to remember that he was the seventh choice of his classmates for the position of class poet. After some desultory teaching to help his brothers, he passed irregularly through the Divinity School, his studies often interrupted by serious ill-health. "If they had examined me," he said afterward of the kindly professors in the Divinity School, "they never would have passed me." But approve him they did, in 1826, and he entered decorously upon the profession of his ancestors, as associate minister of the Second Church in Boston. His "Journals," which are a priceless record of his inner life, at this and later periods, reveal the rigid self-scrutiny, the tender idealism, with which he began his ministerial career.
But as a scheme of life for Ralph Waldo Emerson this vocation would not satisfy. The sexton of the Second Church thought that the young man was not at his best at funerals. Father Taylor, the eccentric Methodist, whom Emerson assisted at a sailor's Bethel near Long Wharf, considered him "one of the sweetest souls God ever made," but as ignorant of the principles of the New Testament as Balaam's ass was of Hebrew grammar. By and by came an open difference with his congregation over the question of administering the Communion. "I am not interested in it," Emerson admitted, and he wrote in his "Journal" the noble words: "It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart." His resignation was accepted in 1832. His young wife had died of consumption in the same year. He now sailed for Italy, France, and England, a memorable journey which gave him an acquaintance with Landor, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, but which was even more significant in sending him, as he says, back to himself, to the resources of his own nature. "When shows break up," wrote Whitman afterward, "what but oneself is sure?" In 1834 and 1835 we find Emerson occupying a room in the Old Manse at Concord, strolling in the quiet fields, lecturing or preaching if he were invited to do so, but chiefly absorbed in a little book which he was beginning to write-a new utterance of a new man.
This book, the now famous "Nature" of 1836, contains the essence of Emerson's message to his generation. It is a prose essay, but written in the ecstatic mood of a poet. The theme of its meditation is the soul as related to Nature and to God. The soul is primal; Nature, in all its bountiful and beautiful commodities, exists for the training of the soul; it is the soul's shadow. And every soul has immediate access to Deity. Thus the utility and beauty and discipline of Nature lift the soul Godward. The typical sentence of the book is this: "The sun shines today also"; that is to say: the world is still alive and fair; let us lift up our hearts! Only a few Americans of 1836 bought this singular volume, but Emerson went serenely forward. He had found his path.
In 1837 he delivered the well-known Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard on "The American Scholar." Emerson was now thirty-four; he had married a second time, had bought a house of his own in Concord, and purposed to make a living by lecturing and writing. His address in Cambridge, though it contained no reference to himself, was after all a justification of the way of life he had chosen: a declaration of intellectual independence for himself and his countrymen, an exhortation of self-trust to the individual thinking man. "If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts and there abide, the huge world will come round to him." Such advice to cut loose from the moorings of the past was not unknown in Phi Beta Kappa orations, though it had never been so brilliantly phrased; but when Emerson applied precisely the same doctrine, in 1838, to the graduating class at the Harvard Divinity School, he roused a storm of disapproval. "A tempest in our washbowl," he wrote coolly to Carlyle, but it was more than that. The great sentence of the Divinity School address, "God is, not was; he speaketh, not spake," was the emphasis of a superb rhetorician upon the immediacy of the soul's access to God. It has been the burden of a thousand prophets in all religions. The young priests of the Divinity School, their eyes wearied with Hebrew and Greek, seem to have enjoyed Emerson's injunction to turn away from past records and historical authorities and to drink from the living fountain of the divine within themselves; but to the professors, "the stern old war-gods," this relative belittlement of historical Christianity seemed blasphemy. A generation passed before Emerson was again welcomed by his alma mater.
The reader who has mastered those three utterances by the Concord Transcendentalist in 1836, 1837, and 1838 has the key to Emerson. He was a seer, not a system-maker. The constitution of his mind forbade formal, consecutive, logical thought. He was not a philosopher in the accepted sense, though he was always philosophizing, nor a metaphysician in spite of his curious searchings in the realm of metaphysics. He sauntered in books as he sauntered by Walden Pond, in quest of what interested him; he "fished in Montaigne," he said, as he fished in Plato and Goethe. He basketed the day's luck, good or bad as it might be, into the pages of his private "Journal," which he called his savings-bank, because from this source he drew most of the material for his books. The "Journal" has recently been printed, in ten volumes. No American writing rewards the reader more richly. It must be remembered that Emerson's "Essays," the first volume of which appeared in 1841, and the last volumes after his death in 1882, represent practically three stages of composition: first the detached thoughts of the "Journal;" second, the rearrangement of this material for use upon the lecture platform; and finally, the essays in their present form. The oral method thus predominates: a series of oracular thoughts has been shaped for oratorical utterance, not oratorical in the bombastic, popular American sense, but cunningly designed, by a master of rhetoric, to capture the ear and then the mind of the auditor.
Emerson's work as a lecturer coincided with the rise of that Lyceum system which brought most of the American authors, for more than a generation, into intimate contact with the public, and which proved an important factor in the aesthetic and moral cultivation of our people. No lecturer could have had a more auspicious influence than Emerson, with his quiet dignity, his serene spiritual presence, his tonic and often electrifying force. But if he gave his audiences precious gifts, he also learned much from them. For thirty years his lecturing trips to the West brought him, more widely than any New England man of letters, into contact with the new, virile America of the great Mississippi valley. Unlike many of his friends, he was not repelled by the "Jacksonism of the West"; he rated it a wholesome, vivifying force in our national thought and life. The "Journal" reveals the essential soundness of his Americanism. Though surrounded all his life by reformers, he was himself scarcely a reformer, save upon the single issue of anti-slavery. Perhaps he was at bottom too much of a radical to be swept off his feet by any reform.
Other pages from American literature: