- 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
The first trip to Europe was an attempt to overcome two crises in Emerson’s life. The personal crisis was occasioned by the death (in 1831) of his first wife, Ellen Tucker: a lovely, quietly impish, impassioned spirit, who had awakened an ardor and a love that he found himself unable adequately to express. (“I do not wish to hear of your prospects,” she had said when Emerson had begun to preface a declaration of love with a summary of modest material expectations.) Her going left an empty niche in his life that his second wife, Lydia Jackson, a maturer woman, could never fill. It was surely with Ellen in mind that he wrote, in 1840: “I finish this morning transcribing my old essay on Love, but I see well its inadequateness. I, cold because I am hot—cold at the surface only, as a sort of guard and compensation for the fluid tenderness of the core—have much more experience than I have written there, more than I will, more than I can write.”
Ellen’s death was Emerson’s first direct encounter with grief and desolation; and it was followed in a few years by the premature deaths of two younger brothers, one of whom, Charles Chauncy, he always regarded as having talent superior to his own. Even before this, some sobering premonition had made him write, on being engaged to Ellen, that he was “now as happy as it is safe in life to be.”
The other crisis was a religious one, occasioned by his abandoning the calling he had struggled during the eighteen twenties to fit himself for: that of a duly qualified clergyman in the Unitarian Church. He had approached the duties of a minister with some repulsion for the homely routines of visitation, comfort for the dying, and moral suasion, with all their intrusive intimacies. But still more, he had come to realize that the God he had found in his consciousness had little need for either the dogmas or the rituals of an established church: even the Christ that moved him was not a God come to earth, but a singular being who had demonstrated while on earth the secret by which any man might become godlike. Emerson broke with his congregation at the Second Church of Boston over a single issue: his unwillingness to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But that break widened during the next decade into a total rejection of the church’s whole institutional life and its claims to a unique revelation.
This parting of the ways removed the economic prop of Emerson’s life and made it necessary for him to find an alternative mode of getting a living: that of a lecturer at the new lyceums that were springing up all over the country. For Emerson the lecture hall had become the living church of his day, spreading a manytongued gospel that was destined to replace the “cant and snuffle of a dead Christianity.” Emerson’s lectures, in reality soliloquies spoken aloud, were little different in texture from the notes in his Journals, where many parts of them were first recorded as scattered items.
In shaking himself loose from the Unitarian Church, Emerson had found his true vocation: that of being Emerson. This new mode of preaching turned out to be another blessing in disguise, for without the direct, face-to-face contact with mixed audiences of everyday people, in every part of the country except the South, Emerson would have lacked his sense of the more expansive and masculine America one associates with Audubon and Lincoln. New Englander that he was, he respected the uncouth vigor of the pioneers. And when Emerson met President Lincoln face to face, Lincoln reminded him of what he had said about Kentuckians in an Illinois lecture: “A Kentuckian seems to say by his air and manners, ‘Here am I; if you don’t like me, the worse for you.’”
Emerson’s difficulties did not come to an end with his marriage to Lidian—as he re-named his second wife—in 1835, and his settling down in a commodious house, surrounded by a few acres of usable land at the edge of Concord: for if he had a good garden, productive pear trees, willing servants, a tender and devoted wife, he all too soon had the shattering experience of losing his five-year-old son Waldo to scarlet fever, that son whose angelic qualities had won free access to Emerson’s otherwise inviolate study. Well had he written earlier to his spiritual monitor, Aunt Mary Moody Emerson: “He has seen but half the Universe who has never been shown the house of pain.” Even in the serene years before little Waldo’s death Emerson had faced, no less than Herman Melville did, the evils that dog the human condition: “Now, for near five years,” he wrote in 1840, “I have been indulged by the gracious Heaven in my long holiday in this goodly house of mine, entertaining and entertained by so many worthy and gifted friends, and all this time poor Nancy Barron, the mad-woman, has been screaming herself hoarse at the Poor-house across the brook and I still hear her whenever I open my window.”