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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
But if the theory of Beasts, that is, man’s linkages with all organic nature, was important, this was tied up in Emerson’s mind with that other mystery still to be penetrated, the mystery of Dreams; and in taking dreams seriously, not least his own, Emerson was well in advance of the thinkers of his own day who had, since the time of Descartes, regarded the inner life as the special province of religion. In this matter, Emerson was a better naturalist than most of his scientific contemporaries: he accepted dreams as a natural phenomenon which had some significance for man’s own development. The fact that Emerson regarded sex, too, as one of the mysteries that needed further investigation—though he confined this recognition to his Journals—only shows how central, and in a sense how faithful to natural revelation, his essential thought was.
Emerson’s attaching importance to beasts, dreams, and sex was an example of his devotion to the truths available to him through self-revelations rather than books, and this was connected with an even more central faith in the reality of God’s presence and influence, disclosed in every manifestation of life. He would have nothing of the doctrine that supposed that revelation was something that happened long ago, was “given and gone, as if God were dead.” God was tremendously alive for Emerson, as were the soul and the oversoul, the first immediate and individual, the second general and universal. This god was not the god of the churches; and it is only now, perhaps, that we can begin to see what Emerson was really talking about when he used the orthodox term “God” to express his new perception.
A collector recently bought at public auction, in London, for one hundred and fifty-seven guineas, an autograph of Shakspeare; but for nothing a schoolboy can read Hamlet and can detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein. —“Experience”
“There is a power above and behind us,” wrote Emerson, “and we are the channel of its communication.” If I am not deceived, Emerson had realized that a direct access to the unconscious was as important in opening one’s eyes to reality as the pageant of the outer world—or even more important, since the unconscious bore within it the whole experience of the race, from the time before consciousness itself had emerged.
Emerson himself linked the experience of God with the operation of the unconscious, sometimes in so many words, as when he observed: “Blessed is the child; the unconscious is ever the act of God himself. Nobody can reflect upon his unconscious period; or any particular word or act in it, with regret or contempt.” Or again, “The central fact is the super-human intelligence, pouring into us from the unknown foun tain, to be received with religious awe and defended from any mixture of our will.” When Emerson says, “Dare to love God without mediator or veil,” he is saying, “Dare to respect and embrace and live openly with your unconscious.”
Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions. One thing he teaches, that there is rottenness where he appears. He is a carrion crow, and though you see not well what he hovers for, there is death somewhere. Our property is timid, our laws are timid, our cultivated classes are timid. Fear for ages has boded and mowed and gibbered over government and property. That obscene bird is not there for nothing. He indicates great wrongs which must be revised. —“Compensation”
In this poetic discovery of the role of the unconscious Emerson was not alone: the same discovery was made by Hawthorne and Melville, and this served as a secret link between those two souls, though as yet there was no name for the unconscious except the ancient one that Emerson loyally clung to: God. But as more than one religion had testified, this God has an almost equal counterpart and antagonist, Satan, whose exalted energies Milton and Blake had contemplated even before Melville had baptized Moby Dick in the name of the Devil. Through the exploration of dreams, fantasies, and psychal disorders that has gone on for the last half century and more, we now realize that both versions of the unconscious are true: this polarity plays an essential role in human creativity. Emerson’s unconscious is mainly the luminous one, out of which love and brotherhood and justice and truth are born; while Melville’s is the dark one, from which come forth murderous hate, satanic pride, insensate destruction—or demonic revelation. Neither version is to be trusted as an expression of cosmic and human potentialities without the other: but only when the luminous god gains the upper hand can life prosper.
Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. —“Self-Reliance”
At first, Emerson did not realize this ambivalent quality of the unconscious: when he was young, his private revelations were apparently so angelic and so well disciplined that he trusted them absolutely. Even in middle life he had said jauntily, in reply to an older friend who asked how he could be sure that his confident new revelation might not come from below rather than from above, “If I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” This was all very well as a youthful act of defiant integrity: but it is no answer if it happens that the Devil’s disciple is not a staid, wellbred, firmly moralized young man, needing to discard his moral braces, but a Hitler or a Stalin, heeding every sadistic impulse and magnifying all the possibilities for human iniquity.
In later life Emerson corrected his youthful bias: he fervently blessed the yoke of men’s opinions which he had once forsworn. In his poem “Grace,” Emerson even thanked his “preventing God” for the defenses he had set around him: “example, custom, fear, occasion slow”—scorned bondmen who had served as parapet, keeping him from “the roaring gulf below.” This again is one of those occasions when those who gauge Emerson’s mind by this or that isolated expression fail to correct the momentary aberration by the full report of his life.
All this, and more, one will find in Emerson. But there is no use looking in his work for a closely ordered philosophic system; and to make Emerson into a mere Transcendentalism as many have done, is to show little insight into either the scope or the depth of his thought, for he transcended Transcendentalism as decisively as he protested against Protestantism and dematerialized Materialism. The nearest Emerson ever came to presenting his philosophy as a unity was in his first work on Nature, where he laid out the four chief categories of his thought—commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. But if that were his sole credential as a seminal thinker, it would hardly meet his own criteria; for he kept on contemplating a more adequate expression of his metaphysics in a natural history of the mind, a work whose belated publication as an essay did not fulfill the hopes he had long nourished.
The fact is that Emerson’s abortive efforts to produce a coherent philosophy were untrue to his own system-shattering openness. His mission was to examine crumbling foundations, to condemn unsound structures, to clear the site of lumber, to quarry new materials—not to instruct the would-be builders, nor to design a new structure. Repeatedly Emerson told Carlyle that he had no talent for construction. But what Emerson regarded as a defect was perhaps his essential virtue: his unwillingness to deny a truth because it was inconsistent in appearance or in logic with other equally reputable truths. What he retained, through this constitutional ineptitude, was a readiness to examine and even anticipate incredible new discoveries that system-mongers could not open the door to without acknowledging the insufficiency of their systems. George Edward Woodberry, an unsympathetic critic, said that in studying Emerson “one is reminded of the early sages of Greece.” Precisely: for in both cases this originality and imperfection marked the embryonic expression of a new culture.
Such a description places Emerson’s mind in its proper social setting: it does justice to his intellectual nakedness, his bright innocence, his sparkling richness of potentialities. Unburdened by past encrustations, untrammelled by future constraints, he was free to move in any direction. Emerson’s, in short, was the most liberated mind that the West had produced in several centuries: as liberated as Shakespeare’s. If Emerson “has no philosophy” it is because, like Shakespeare, his philosophy is as large as life, and cannot be reduced to an articulated skeleton without forfeiting its life.
“The day will come,” Emerson prophesied, “when no badge or uniform or star will be worn.” That day has not yet dawned; indeed, in our status-conscious, caste-bound America it seems further away now than ever. No such ungraded, fully individuated society as yet exists anywhere. So perhaps the high value of Emerson’s thought for the present generation lies not only in the way it anticipated or marched ahead of the special discoveries of our time, as in the place it gave to the unconscious and the prerational processes of the mind, but even more in the way it radically differs from our current assumptions and challenges our practices: our conformity, our timidity, our docility—or those fashionable negative images of these same traits, our mindless anarchies, our drug-excited audacities, our aimless violence.
I knew a humorist who in a good deal of rattle had a grain or two of sense. He shocked the company by maintaining that the attributes of God were two,…power and risibility, and that it was the duty of every pious man to keep up the comedy. —“Illusions”
Certainly Emerson’s America is not our present America: it is rather an older yet more youthful Amer- ica, part achieved reality, part hopeful ideal, which we have lost. It is in Emerson’s mind, more fully even than in Jefferson’s, Whitman’s, Thoreau’s, or Lincoln’s mind, that we can measure all that we have disowned or buried, and may, if we go further in the same direction, lose forever. And it is by entering Emerson’s mind once more that we may recover at least a portion of our lost heritage, and gain courage —“courage enough!”—to seek a better life.