Plain Talk From Ralph Waldo Emerson

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In the wake of the centennial year of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s death in 1882, scholars, critics, and journalists in various parts of the country started to take a fresh look at the man and his works. They have found that the prejudices against Emerson expressed by H. L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway persist to the present day. Mencken said in The American Mercury (October 1930) that “Emerson was always very careful to keep idealism within the bounds of American respectability. He incited to hope, optimism, enterprise, enthusiasm, but never to any downright violation of decorum.”

I doubt if Hemingway ever read a page of Emerson, but he certainly read The American Mercury and was probably accepting Mencken’s opinion when he loftily dismissed “Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier, and Company” in Green Hills of Africa (1935) as “all very respectable. They did not use the words that people always have used in speech, the words that survive in language. Nor would you gather that they had bodies. They had minds, yes. Nice, dry, clean minds.”

Perhaps this Emerson can be found in some of his writings, but there are passages in his marvelously frank, intimate journals that reveal quite another Emerson, one who delighted in Rabelais and the “biblical plainness” of Montaigne. In one of his journals (first published posthumously in 1911, when Hemingway was twelve years old), he recorded his disgust with the “old Grannies” who “squeal and gibber” at any infraction of their squeamish decorum: “You must on no account say ‘stink’ or ‘damn.’ ” And on another occasion he wrote: “What a pity we cannot curse & swear in good society. Can not the stinging dialect of the sailors be domesticated? It is the best rhetoric and for a hundred occasions those forbidden words are the good ones.” Possibly these were only occasional outbursts against the timidity of Emerson’s contemporaries. But his feeling for common speech was genuine and as strong as Hemingway’s; and I suggest that he, rather than Mark Twain (as Hemingway thought), discovered the American language.

In another journal entry (late June 1840), he wrote: “The language of the street is always strong. What can describe the folly & emptiness of scolding like the word jawing ? I feel too the force of the double negative, though clean contrary to our grammar rules. And I confess to some pleasure from the stinging rhetoric of a rattling oath in the mouth of truckmen & teamsters. How laconic & brisk it is by the side of a page of the North American Review. Cut these words & they would bleed; they are vascular & alive; they walk & run. Moreover they who speak them have this elegancy, that they do not trip in their speech. It is a shower of bullets, whilst Cambridge men & Yale men correct themselves & begin again at every half sentence. I know nobody among my contemporaries except Carlyle who writes with any sinew & vivacity comparable to Plutarch & Montaigne. Yet always this profane swearing & bar-room wit has salt & fire in it. I cannot now read Webster’s speeches. Fuller & Brown & Milton are quick, but the list is soon ended. Goethe seems to be well alive, no pedant. Luther too. Guts is a stronger word than intestines.”

What did Emerson’s more orthodox wife think of such sentiments? Lidian may have been more sympathetic than we might expect, for he also recorded in his journal, using his pet name for her: “Queenie (who has a gift to curse & swear) will every now & then in spite of all manners & Christianity rip out on Saints, reformers & Divine Providence with the most edifying zeal.”

But what did Emerson, the reputed Concord recluse and former Unitarian minister, know about barroom rhetoric? He could easily hear the rough language of truckmen and teamsters by opening his front door or stepping out into his yard, for his house in Concord was right beside the Cambridge Turnpike, a main highway to Boston. Every day except Sunday, stagecoaches and farm wagons rattled past in clouds of dust, carrying people and produce to the city or manufactured goods on the return.

As for “bar-room wit,” he might have heard it any day while passing a Concord saloon on his way to the post office. And while pastor of the Second Church in Boston, he could scarcely have avoided meeting boisterous sailors on the street, for the docks were only a few blocks away. The North End had once been fashionable, but in Emerson’s day it was degenerating rapidly, with an abundance of brothels and saloons frequented by the sailors. The “nymphs of Ann Street” became so notorious that Ann would be changed to North Street. Emerson was observant of people in this neighborhood, as evidenced by a journal entry in 1841: “I frequently find the best part of my ride in the Concord coach from my house to Winthrop Place to be in Prince street, Charter street, Ann street & the like places at the North End of Boston. The dishabille of both men & women, their unrestrained attitudes & manners make pictures greatly more interesting than the clean shaved & silk robed procession in Washington & Tremont streets.”