- Historic Sites
That, says an eminent American critic, is the heart of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s message to us in our own troubled time
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
Lewis Mumford, one of the true savants of the twentieth century, is best known as a critic of modern culture against the background of Western social history. Among his many notable books are The City in History (1961), which won a National Book Award, The Conduct of Life (1951), and The Myth of the Machine (1967). For a new edition of the essays and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson to be published soon by Doubleday, Mr.
Lewis Mumford, one of the true savants of the twentieth century, is best known as a critic of modern culture against the background of Western social history. Among his many notable books are The City in History (1961), which won a National Book Award, The Conduct of Life (1951), and The Myth of the Machine (1967). For a new edition of the essays and journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson to be published soon by Doubleday, Mr. Mumford has written a surprising introduction emphasizing the relevance of Emerson’s life and thought to our own times. We are very pleased to present an adaptation of that introduction to A MERICAN H ERITAGE readers. —The Editors
The first twenty-five years of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s life—from 1803 to 1828—were a struggle for bodily survival. He was threatened with the lethal disease of his day, tuberculosis, which two of his three younger brothers finally succumbed to; and he was poor. His father, minister of Boston’s First Unitarian Church, died when he was eight, and the Emerson family lived in genteel penury, so poor that Emerson was forced to share a greatcoat with a brother during the grim Boston winters. Soon after marrying, his father had reported: “We are poor and cold and have little meal, and little wood, and little meat; but thank God, courage enough.”
Armed with this family fortitude, Emerson, like his younger brothers, managed to get a Harvard education; and in the end the discipline of poverty underwrote his independence. By merely external pressures he could not be bullied or bribed. The fact that the outer world gave him so little during his growing period fostered his habit of living from within. But there his widowed mother had set him a good example: even in their neediest days, she withdrew for an hour after breakfast from the cares of the household, to meditate behind a closed door.
“A man must thank his defects,” Emerson wrote in “Fate,” “and stand in some terror of his talents.” His original defects were a poor constitution, low vitality, shyness and awkwardness in company, a lack of outward warmth and responsiveness. It took him half a lifetime to compensate for these defects, if not entirely to overcome them, in acts of hospitality and friendly service and secret generosity. These acts touched not only those he loved, like Thomas Carlyle, Henry Thoreau, or Bronson Alcott, but passing strangers. Happily, Emerson’s courtly manners softened his remoteness; and to the very end, as Walt Whitman noted on a final visit to him, he bore a cheerful and intelligent face, such a face as Emerson regarded as the ultimate proof and justification of culture.
If some of Emerson’s essays, like those on Love and on Friendship, seem a little too toplofty, a little too rarefied, this is perhaps because during his early years he could survive only by keeping his actual environment—that bed of nails—at a distance, and countering it with ideal possibilities that existed only in his mind. His immunity to pain and grief, or at least his reluctance to give vent to them, was not a mark of stolid optimism; it was rather a psychological nerve block that enabled him to get on with his true work: his daily reading of nature and culture and the human soul, for the sake of catching some new illumination; for, as he noted in 1861, “A rush of thoughts is the only conceivable prosperity that can come to me.” Fortunately, after his first marriage, in 1829, Emerson’s economic circumstances improved, though he never escaped the pressure of supporting a large household.
The dividing line in Emerson’s intellectual development was his first trip to Europe, in 1833; for he returned from this adventure, despite its physical ordeals, in robust health, with the old threat of tuberculosis overcome, and a kind of inner toughness that enabled him later, as a lecturer, to withstand the most gruelling journeys into the West, in crowded canalboats, in sordid inhospitable taverns, over jolting icy roads; crossing the Mississippi on foot in the depth of winter, sometimes reaching his destination more dead than alive. To have endured these vulgar indignities, to have survived these misadventures, without a groan of self-pity, marks Emerson’s iron discipline. Such a character could (as he put it) afford to write “Whim” over his door.