- 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
In the middle years, between 1835 and 1865, Emerson did the bulk of his work: the little book on Nature; the two trenchant series of essays—in every way his central work; the book on English Traits; the sometimes crabbed but authentic poems, rough-skinned, tart, like his own winter pears; and those maturer reflections on the Conduct of Life, which at least one contemporary thought more “pungent and piercing” than anything he had written before. During those same middle years, despite Emerson’s original need for solitude, despite his resolute effort to free his days for communion with nature and his own mind, he took on all the demands of daily life. On settling in Concord, he accepted the ancient office of hogreeve—in charge of stray pigs; and as a husband and father, as a householder, a lyceum lecturer, and an editor of the Dial , he bore cheerfully, or if pressed, stoically, the duties of domestic and civic life. What he often characterized as his “indolence” was his need between whiles to recoup his energies for thought.
A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope. —“Self-Reliance”
Whatever Emerson’s reluctance to leave his study, his involvement in the political and social issues of his time, from the forties on, grew deeper: in the crises that culminated in the Civil War, his moral commitment was not only firm but passionate. Witness his protest to President Martin Van Buren over the scandalous chicane practiced by the federal government against the Cherokee Indians, his denunciation of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, his contempt for his one-time hero, Daniel Webster, the chief sponsor of that law; and not least his scalding attacks upon the infamous Mexican War, the Vietnam of his day, in his “Ode” inscribed to William Henry Channing.
In his mature years the aloof, self-contained, selfsufficient Emerson gave to society some of the allegiance he had once given too exclusively to solitude. For this was not only the period of his great friendships, with Carlyle, Arthur Hugh Clough, Bronson Alcott, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, but also of the relaxing sociabilities of the Saturday Club, with its monthly luncheon meeting at the Parker House in Boston. There a more congenial Emerson appeared, one who horrified the elder Henry James by drinking wine and by covering his diffidence in company by smoking a cigar—as if a disembodied angel could enjoy a cigar!
It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. —“The Poet”
By 1865 Emerson’s main written work, with the exception of a few poems, was done; and when the war was over, his lecturing tapered off too, though he would still at intervals struggle painfully through old lectures, handicapped by lapses of memory, but sustained by sympathetic and indulgent audiences. Ironically, one of the last lectures he gave was on Memory—a lecture in which he redressed his original overemphasis upon the fresh and the newborn while dismissing the past: “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Now he realized, belatedly, that the American, in the raw confidence of youth, had forgotten too much: that memory was “the thread on which the beads of man are strung, making the personal identity which is necessary to moral action. Without it all life and thought are an unrelated succession.” He had lived long enough to realize, at last, that the “having lived” availed too.
Since Emerson still has much to give us—not because his method or his mood reflects that of our own times, but because it is so defiantly the opposite—there is no need to gloze over his deficiencies. His coldness and remoteness were almost constitutional qualities: they are hardly more a subject for reproach than his sloping shoulders, his narrow frame, his long nose. He himself “thought it a good remark” that “I always seemed to be on stilts. … Most of the persons whom I see in my own house, I see across a gulf, I cannot go to them nor they come to me.”
With this coldness went, it would seem, not a failure of love—far from it—but a lack of strong sexual ardor. As late as the age of thirty-one, he could dismiss Boccaccio because he represented only the pleasure of appetite, “which only at rare intervals, a few times in a lifetime, are intense.” Even by the standards of Puritan New England, that was a startling statement. The celebrations of sex in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass served, doubtless unconsciously, to fill in this omission in Emerson, whom Whitman revered as his master. But for all this quantitative lack of energy, Emerson had boxed the compass of life in a sense that none of his great American contemporaries had done: even sexually he was more mature than the fastidious but adolescent Thoreau, or the amative but unmarried Whitman. The sweet Emersonian smile, as on an archaic Greek face, was the witness of a complete, fully manifested life: he was “all there.” And his work, though seemingly in fragments, was equally complete.