- 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
Perhaps one of the reasons for the pallid impression that Emerson left on a later generation is that he himself in his last fifteen years gradually faded out of the picture, ceasing after 1870 even to have the impulse to post in his Journals such stray thoughts as perhaps flickered through his mind. Yet no one could have met the disturbances of senescence with more smiling tranquillity, with more equable resignation. A little later, no longer able even to edit his unpublished papers, he left that task to his trusted friend, James Elliot Cabot, and his daughter, Ellen. Like a winter apple, still ruddy though mealy-ripe, he clung to the tree, safe from the worms and the wasps. When his thoughts no longer made sense, he had the sense to be silent. But the halo remained gay and bright; and today, against the addled counsels, the insensate threats, the artful, self-induced psychoses of our age, that halo has become gayer and brighter than ever, for it radiates from a poised and finely balanced personality. The sense of Emerson’s luminous presence—that is what the reader will find on every page.
To understand the peculiar gifts of Emerson and the quality of his mind, one must realize that he was, primarily, neither a philosopher nor a didactic writer, still less a scholar or a scientist, but a poet: one who used the materials of other arts and disciplines to provide colors for his own palette. He did not regard himself as a great poet, but whatever he was, he told a friend, was of poet all through; yet he qualified this modestly, in another place, by saying that he was only half a poet. Yes; half a poet, if one thinks only of his verses: but what a halfl Emerson nevertheless was a major poet, if one realizes that all his thought underwent a poetic transformation: an intensification, a distillation, a penetration that again and again would be crystallized in a perfect paragraph or poem. Emerson the poet remains present everywhere in his work, for all his thought is by its nature metaphoric and evocative, meant to excite a corresponding resonance directly in the reader’s mind.
As a writer, Emerson stands on the level of the great essayists he admired—Michel de Montaigne and Francis Bacon: he has the same wide range of interests, the same sharp perceptions, the same gift for reducing a whole chapter of experience to a single sentence; and in addition, he has a crystalline freshness all his own, as of cool water bubbling upward from an underground spring. Though, like Montaigne, he ceaselessly read and often quoted old authors, he presents even old thoughts as if he were perceiving them anew and asking what, after all, they mean here and now.
If any one essay might be singled out to reveal Emerson’s peculiar virtue and character as an American, it would probably be that on Self-Reliance; for there he spoke with the unmistakable voice of New World man, opening up and exploring a virgin continent of the mind, testing himself against nature, and finding out how much past knowledge and equipment he might need in order to survive and prosper.
I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward. Instead of the gong for dinner, let us hear a whistle from the Spartan fife. Let us never bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times. —“Self-Reliance”
In “Self-Reliance” Emerson established, better than anyone else had yet done, the central trait of the American character, at the moment when it became conscious of its special nature and its potential destiny. This sense was expressed in art by the aesthetic doctrines of the sculptor Horatio Greenough; in the novel by Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville; in moral philosophy by Thoreau; in poetry by Whitman, as later in philosophy by William James and John Dewey; and it was not by accident that the most original of American architects, who bore indubitably the New World stamp, Frank Lloyd Wright, was more deeply devoted to Emerson than to any other writer. Emerson saw that if his country was to have free cultural intercourse with other countries, it must first have a character of its own. He realized that even the swagger and crudity of the Kentuckian or the Hoosier were better than a subservient colonialism that sought only to ape traditional Old World forms that had outlived their uses, or to keep up with the passing fashions of Paris and London.
This was the note Emerson struck repeatedly in Nature , in “Self-Reliance,” and again in “The American Scholar.” But neither Emerson nor those who were truly influenced by him could be trapped for long by an ingrowing provincial isolationism. If they had left Europe behind them, it was to take not only America but the whole world as their spiritual province. Before Whitman had composed his “Salut au Monde” and his “Passage to India,” Emerson had made that same salute and traced the same passage himself, the latter with the aid of a small library of Oriental classics that some English friends had brought over to Concord. So deeply did Emerson immerse himself in the religion and philosophy of that elder Old World that some Hindus have taken his poem “Brahma,” one of a half dozen perfect poems he wrote, as a true expression of the essential Hindu spirit.