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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Beyond the Greeting Cards

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, May/June 2013 | Volume 34, Number 3

As a teenager in 1960, Clyde Edgerton was trying to find a name for the doubts he was feeling about his conventional, small-town life in Bethesda, North Carolina.

Then, a high school assignment offered up a tutor for life. Edgerton’s epiphany came while reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”:

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight  and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history  of theirs? . . . The sun shines today also. . . . Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

In Emerson, Edgerton found someone who let him know that questioning orthodox belief was not only acceptable, but vital. “My mind was set afire as if soaked in gasoline,” Edgerton would recall many years later in an essay. “Emerson had served me up a bowl of intellectual rebellion at just the right time in my young life” The encounter steered Edgerton toward college, which he had planned to skip, and onward to a successful career as the novelist behind such celebrated works as Raney and Walking Across Egypt.

“Here was a writer who wrote about ideas—ideas that heated my blood,” Edgerton writes of Emerson. “He was moral, but not dictatorial and narrow. He was kind. He loved the world, and it seemed as if he had written some sentences for no one but me.”

Edgerton’s testimonial seems all the more vivid because of its rarity. Few people these days talk deeply about Emerson, the quintessential nineteenth-century New Englander, as an agent of passion or personal revolution. Emerson, a founding father of American letters, who famously declared that “every hero becomes a bore at last,” would perhaps not be too surprised to learn that even some of his modern-day admirers occasionally find him boring, too.

Some of Emerson’s most discriminating champions over the years have tended, despite their support, to damn him with faint praise. Typical of this view was the late Clifton Fadiman, who included Emerson’s essays in The Lifetime Reading Plan, a popular 1960 book meant to highlight works that the great literary critic thought every American should read.

While recommending him as a seminal writer, Fadiman notes Emerson’s “gassiness and repetitiousness” and cautions readers, when dipping into the Sage of Concord, to “beware of overlarge doses. At times he offers fine words in lieu of fine thoughts, and he never understood how to organize or compress large masses of material.”

Emerson’s sweeping pronouncements, which sometimes read like a patchwork of fortune cookie aphorisms, give his prose a mystical sensibility that can sometimes feel unmoored from daily concerns. Henry David Thoreau, an Emerson protégé who excelled at grounding his philosophical musings within detailed observations of Concord, seems much more approachable by comparison.“Thoreau, reaping the reward of greater daring and a firmer grasp on rude fact, casts the longer shadow,” Fadiman flatly declares.

But if Emerson is better known as a maker of proverbs than as a master of sustained prose narratives, his one-liners have proven memorable enough to secure his reputation as a cultural icon. Even those who have never cracked the spine of an Emerson anthology are familiar with many of his sayings. The seventeenth edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, with its one hundred fifty Emerson entries, affirms that he was a heavy-hitter of witticisms. To read them is to be reminded of his rhetorical greatest hits:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

“To be great is to be misunderstood.”

“The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.”

“Wit makes its own welcome, and levels all distinctions.”

“Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy.”

“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

Emerson’s “things-are-in-the-saddle” comment, extracted from one of his poems, invites an obvious comparison with a similar Thoreau observation on the limits of materialism: “We do not ride upon the railroad; it rides upon us.” Notice the subtle difference between their grasp of the same subject: humanity’s habit of owning possessions—and, in turn, being owned by them. Emerson goes to the brisk generalization,“things,” while Thoreau gravitates toward the more concrete image of the railroad. Emerson’s public writing tends to resemble a newspaper editorial, with its ambition aimed at the broad conclusion, while Thoreau’s resonates with the urgency of tangible detail.The distinction here is far from absolute. There are some very nice turns in Emerson’s poems and essays in which he drops his guard as a public commentator to reveal an engaging private face. Here, for example, is a much-quoted interlude from “Nature” in which Emerson offers a personal anecdote:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.

In passages like this one, Emerson most closely approximates the ideal represented by Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century Frenchman who essentially created the personal essay and, in doing  so, became one of Emerson’s heroes.  “A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of (Montaigne’s) ‘Essays’ remained to me from my father’s library, when a boy,” Emerson tells readers. “It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes. I remember the delight and  wonder in which I lived with it.”

What Emerson appreciates about Montaigne is his literary idol’s genius for appearing whole on the page.“The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences,” Emerson writes of Montaigne. “I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.” Emerson admires these qualities, one gathers, because they seem so elusive in his own essays. In his essay on Montaigne, Emerson clears his throat for eight pages before finally sitting beside the reader to share his intimate reflections on a book that changed his life.The long windup to the topic at hand includes a rather dry discourse on epistemology, a preamble that seems neither vascular nor alive.

But Emerson’s kinship with Montaigne also grew from a shared anxiety about the excesses of orthodoxy. While Montaigne had confronted the consequences of religious absolutism during the French Wars of Religion, Emerson faced his own struggles with organized religion when he felt compelled to give up his ministry over differences in church doctrine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, entering a household in which nine previous generations of men had been well-known ministers. His father, a prominent Unitarian preacher, died when Emerson was eight, throwing the family into financial distress. With help from the church, and income from boarders kept by his mother, the family muddled through, eventually scraping together enough money for Emerson to attend Harvard. After graduating and  trying school teaching, Emerson entered the family business of preaching and was ordained as junior pastor of Boston’s Second Church in 1829. That same year, he married young Ellen Tucker, who died sixteen months later of tuberculosis, the same disease that plagued Emerson and other members of his family. Devastated, Emerson began a period of deeper reflection on his faith, resigning from the ministry in 1832, and embarking on an extended trip to England and mainland Europe.

An inheritance from his wife allowed Emerson to pursue a career as a writer and lecturer. His work led him toward transcendentalism, a loosely defined philosophy that stressed indvidual intuition, as opposed to tradition and institutional authority, as the path to knowledge. With its skeptical view of the establishment and its emphasis on nature as a source of spiritual insight, transcendentalism seemed well suited to a frontier nation where memories of the American Revolution still resonated in a land thick with trees.

In “The American Scholar,” an address he gave at Harvard in 1837, Emerson captivated his listeners when he urged them to do their own thinking instead of using imported ideas from the Old World. Emerson’s point  was not that English and European thinking was uniformly bad; he had, after all, derived many of his own insights from the German intellectuals Johann Goethe and Immanuel Kant, and he was also an avid student of Eastern religion. But Emerson argued that all ideas should be tested by individual experience, and not merely accepted based on the power of precedent. “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which  Bacon have given,” said Emerson, “forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.”

Addressing Harvard Divinity School students a year later, Emerson questioned common assumptions of organized religion—a gesture that inspired charges of heresy among his critics, prompting officials to ban him from speaking at Harvard for three decades. Emerson’s willingness to challenge society contrasts with his modern reputation as a boring Brahmin. Emerson scholar Donald McQuade has pointed out how easy it is to forget Emerson’s radical streak. “Faith in human potential, belief in self-reliant individualism, resolute optimism, moral idealism, worshipful return to nature—these are but a few of Emerson’s principles that remain central to the national ideology he helped articulate and popularize,” McQuade writes. “Repeated and adapted so often by scores of admirers and apprentices . . . Emerson’s  terms now seem so familiar that it is hard to credit him with all of his originality. The challenge for today’s readers of Emerson is to recover the freshness of a creative thinker whose original ideas no longer sound unique.”

Emerson’s challenge to the ecclesiastical and intellectual status quo coincided with equally vigorous activism on the political scene. Because Emerson “rose to national prominence in one of the most turbulent and formative periods in the United States,” scholar David M. Robinson has observed, “political questions grew in importance for him, becoming by the 1850s and 1860s one of his chief concerns as a public intellectual.”

In 1838, the same year as his Divinity School address, Emerson wrote a letter to President Martin Van Buren, protesting the removal of the Cherokee people to Oklahoma, the forced march that resulted in the infamous Trail of Tears in which thousands died. Emerson was also an active abolitionist and champion of women’s rights. Not always eager to enter political frays, he often found this kind of engagement inevitable for a public figure of his stature. “You can no more keep out of politics,” Emerson said, “than you can keep out of the frost.”

The tensions in Emerson’s public life occasionally paralleled equally formidable struggles at home. After Ellen’s death, Emerson moved to Concord and remarried in 1835, taking Lydia Jackson as his new wife. But his relatively tranquil life with Lydia was complicated by the death of his brothers and the loss of his young son, Waldo, who died at age five in 1842. A big fire at Emerson’s Concord home in1872 seemed to foreshadow a decade of physical and mental decline for Emerson that culminated with his death on April 27, 1882.

The darker aspects of Emerson’s biography challenge the notion that he was a sunny-faced optimist untested by hardship. “Sometimes we have vulgarized his affirmative doctrine,” Fadiman noted of Emerson. “It is but a short series of missteps from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Billy Graham.” But when Emerson urges his readers to have courage, one sometimes senses that he is trying to talk himself through self-doubt. Writer Scott Russell Sanders, a contemporary nature essayist in the best Emersonian tradition, suggests that in a close reading of Emerson, “we can see that the greatest of his essays were those he wrote not to proclaim certainties but to overcome uncertainties.”

If Emerson’s life, despite its periods of public controversy and private pain, seemed placid when compared with the lives of many other writers, it is perhaps because his home thrived on order and  unassuming routine, making its drama less visible. He was, as McQuade puts it, “an intellectual radical who led a rather conventional external life.” Phillip Lopate, a modern-day essayist who counts himself a big Emerson fan, suggests that “Emerson has become  an afterthought in the American literary canon because he lacks that outsider romance of our other mid-nineteenth century giants. We tend to value renegades like Thoreau, doomed alcoholics like Poe, recluses like Dickinson, misunderstood visionaries like Melville, expansive gay bards like Whitman.”

Emerson’s stability made him a natural mentor to writers such as Thoreau—who borrowed Emerson’s land to make his famous home near Walden Pond—and fellow transcendentalist Bronson Alcott. Emerson had an uneven relationship with Thoreau, who was not always happy in the role of disciple to his Concord benefactor, but Emerson was grief-stricken when Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862.

Emerson, writes biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr., would always remember Thoreau as his best friend, “even when his memory loss was so far advanced that he could not pull up the name.” Richardson notes that Emerson’s eulogy  for Thoreau was his “last sustained major piece of writing.” Later published in essay form, Emerson’s tribute to the author of Walden exhibits a directness and vulnerability seldom found in Emerson’s other public writings:

It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and  the reward was great. Under his arm he carried  an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife and twine. He wore straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers, to brave scrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk’s or a squirrel’s nest.

Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau is a reminder that most of his printed essays originated as texts that were meant to be spoken, which may explain why some of his essays do not seem fully realized,reading like scripts for plays that retain their most vital spark only in live performance. Emerson’s chief livelihood was as a speaker, a man who was a regular on the lyceum circuit, which was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the talk-show tour. He was apparently quite good at it—so much so that the poet James Russell Lowell remarked, “We do not go to hear what Emerson says so much as to hear Emerson . . .” As a speaker, according to McQuade, Emerson cut a dramatic figure:

He was tall, but years of poor health had already worn at his body, sloped his shoulders, and made him appear gaunt—certainly older than a man in his mid-thirties. Emerson had a chiseled look—a long, narrow, weathered face beneath a furrowed brow and thick brown hair, with deeply recessed blue eyes set off by a prominent nose and an angular chin. He had a broad mouth, but one that would remain unaccustomed to laughter. There was always something highly serious, almost lofty, even ethereal, about him. There was also a calm dignity evident immediately in his voice; it had the polished cadences of a first-rate preacher.

If quite a number of Emerson's essays seem longish and redundant, it could be because they retain material that worked better on the stump than on the page. Although he left church ministry early in his career, Emerson retained the rhetorical habits of the pulpit, and the hortatory flavor of his essays can, in lengthy doses, wear thin. But luckily, renewed interest in Emerson’s journals is throwing light on a softer, less formal voice than the one expressed in his essays and poems. Those journals, circulated in excerpt form in various new editions, are winning new converts to Emerson’s prose.

The Library of America published a two-volume selection of Emerson’s journals in 2010, prompting Lopate to take a fresh look at a writer who had previously left him cold. “Truthfully, I never felt that close to Emerson in the past,” Lopate  confessed. “I admired his prose style, but his essays seemed too impersonal for my taste. They sounded oracular, abstract, dizzyingly inspired, like visionary sermons: the thinking and language spectacular, the man somehow missing. It took reading his journals to appreciate the man and the work.” In the journals, Lopate concludes, Emerson seems better able to advance the familiar, discursive style of his old hero, Montaigne.

Like Lopate, Sanders thinks that Emerson’s most appealing presence rests not in his essays, but in his journals. “When I first read a handful of his essays in college, I didn’t much care for Ralph Waldo Emerson,” Sanders writes. “He seemed too high-flown, too cocksure, too earnest. I couldn’t imagine he had ever sweated or doubted. His sentences rang with a magisterial certainty that I could never muster.”

But, in Emerson’s journals, Sanders discovered a different writer. “From beginning to end,” adds Sanders, “I found in Emerson’s journals a writer struggling to describe what lurked at the edges of perception, what loomed in the depths of consciousness. Instead of the Olympian, cocksure figure who spoke through the essays, here was an explorer who left the well-trodden ways, brushed against mysteries, and tried to describe what he had experienced.”

Another good selection of Emerson’s journals is  A Year With Emerson: A Daybook, published by David R. Godine in 2003. In one entry, Emerson, perhaps anticipating the ebbs and flows that his literary reputation would undergo far into the future, asserts that he is actually more comfortable with critical brickbats than bouquets. “I hate to be defended in a newspaper,” he writes. “As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain sublime assurance of success, but as soon as honied words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies.”

Even so, Emerson probably wouldn’t protest too much at Lopate’s assessment of his legacy: “He wrote  some of the best reflective prose we have; he was a hero of intellectual labor, a loyal friend  and, taking all flaws into account, a good egg.”

About the Author

Danny Heitman, an author and  columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

Funding Information

NEH has funded numerous educational projects related to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Among them are “Reading Emerson’s Essays,” a four-week seminar for college teachers, and “Concord, Massachusetts: Fervent Feminists, Utopian Dreamers, and Social Reform in the Age of Emerson and Thoreau,” a Landmarks of American History  workshop for community college faculty. In July, there will be a summer institute for college and  university teachers on “Transcendentalism and Social Action in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller.”

The Library of America, which has published several Emerson volumes, received a $1.2 million grant  from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1979 to begin publishing titles of classic American literature and keep them in print.