- 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
Do not think the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary. —“Self-Reliance”
So, when Emerson had swept away all the battered furniture and dusty heirlooms of the past, it was not for the purpose of conducting a miserable existence in an empty, cold, desolate chamber decorated only by a national flag, but in order to make better use of the space, and to provide it with more adequate furnishings. Some of the old belongings would come back again, not because they were old and respectable, but because they were still imperishably new. His “Away with the Dead!” meant “Hail to the Living!” He knew better than most that by regrouping old words one brings forth new thoughts. Past, present, and future, near and far, fused in his consciousness. “A true man belongs to no other time and place, but is the center of things.” By the same token, once self-reliance was established, one might give and take aid freely, profiting the more by society because one was no longer dependent upon it.
Partly as a result of his temperamental remoteness and insulation, Emerson was more at home with Plato or Shakespeare than with his own contemporaries. As a young man he was an overcaptious critic even of those writers he admired, like Wordsworth, William Savage Landor, or Goethe. Most current novels seemed to him trivial and superficial: Jane Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, even Hawthorne, did not engage him. But he realized that Thoreau wrote an even meatier prose than his own, and almost alone he dared at once to acclaim Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as the original work that it was. Yet it is not as a critic of literature that one turns to Emerson: he was primarily a critic of life, and he had a capacity to face bitter realities that his contemporaries flinched from.
“Great men, great nations,” Emerson wrote, “have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it.” And again in the same essay on Fate he observed: We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman, but swallows your ship like a grain of dust. … The diseases, the elements, fortune, gravity, lightning, respect no persons. The way of Providence is a little rude. … The forms of the shark, the labrus , the jaw of the sea-wolf paved with crushing teeth, the weapons of the grampus and other warriors hidden in the sea, are hints of ferocity in the interiors of nature. Let us not deny it up and down. Providence has a wild, rough, incalculable road to its end, and it is of no use to try to whitewash its huge, mixed instrumentalities, or to dress up that terrific benefactor in the clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student in divinity.
Did Herman Melville ever indict the nature of things in harsher terms?
Yet there was a difference between Emerson and the Melville of Moby Dick and Pierre , not only in their respective visions of evil, but in their attitude as to how it should be treated. “What can we do in dark hours?” Emerson asked. And he answered: “We can abstain. In the bright hours we can impart.” This is perhaps Emerson’s final justification for his reserves, his inhibitions, his silences: he did not deny the existence of evil and pain, still less hide them from himself, but he answered them as his father had done when facing starvation: “We have, thank God, courage enough.” If there is any central lesson to be learned from Emerson’s thought, it is the lesson of heroism: have courage! And he might have drily added, looking around him at the screaming madwoman, the corrupt politicians, the whip-happy slavemongers, “You will need it.”
Just because Emerson rejected none of the offices of the mind, he was, within the compass of his own experience, full of fresh perceptions, and he anticipated vividly, sometimes by a generation, sometimes by a whole century, the more studious efforts and discoveries of other men. As early as 1832 Emerson wrote: “Dreams and Beasts are two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our own nature. All mystics use them. They are like comparative anatomy. They test objects; or we may say, that must be a good theory of the universe, that theory will bring a commanding claim to confidence, which explains these phenomena.” The theory of Beasts is Darwin and evolution; the theory of Dreams is Freud and the unconscious. In Emerson, neither of these interests was haphazard or the result of a lucky stab. From the currents of evolutionary doctrine that flowed through the nineteenth century, after Buffon and Lamarck, Emerson realized in poetic phrase, well before Darwin, that “striving to be man, the worm mounts through all the spires of form.” Man’s life in nature includes every aspect of nature, however formidable, not only those that flatter or comfort man; yet nature, coming into consciousness in man, discloses purposes and ideal ends that transcend all previous evolutionary experience.