- Historic Sites
Plain Talk From Ralph Waldo Emerson
Many Americans, Hemingway among them, thought him a solemn prig. But Emerson’s biographer discovers a man who found strength and music in the language of the streets.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Boston’s North End also interested Emerson because his good friend the Reverend Edward Taylor was pastor of the Seamen’s Bethel in Ann Street. He was a colorful character, probably the original of Herman Melville’s Father Mapple in Moby Dick . He ran away to sea at seven, saw the world as a common sailor, and did not learn to read until he was past twenty. In 1812 he was captured by the British while serving on an American privateer and was converted to Christianity in prison. He became a Methodist minister and founded the Seamen’s Bethel in 1833.
Though Emerson was now no longer minister of the Second Church, the two men became close friends, despite differences in theology. Emerson heard Taylor preach on January 4, 1835, and was deeply impressed, calling him “this Poet of the Sailor & of Ann street.” Taylor’s weather-beaten face was deeply lined and his brow furrowed. He spoke in a strong voice, entirely extemporaneously, using language every Jack-tar could easily understand. To Emerson he was a “real man of strong nature … a work of the same hand that made Demosthenes & Shakspear & Burns & is guided by instincts diviner than rules. His whole discourse is a string of audacious felicities harmonized by a spirit of joyful love.”
This “poet of the sailors” used the American idiom without regard to grammar or decorum, and Emerson found the same pleasure in listening to him that he did in reading Montaigne. This French author was a hardheaded skeptic, sensuous, practical, earthy. In fact, he was nearly everything that Emerson is usually supposed not to have been. Montaigne, a born aristocrat, preferred country life, unsophisticated conversation, horseback riding, and the open air. Emerson said of him in “Representative Men”: “He has been in courts so long as to have conceived a furious disgust at appearances; he will indulge himself with a little cursing and swearing; he will talk with sailors and gipsies.… He has seen too much of gentlemen of the long robe, until he wishes for cannibals; and is made so nervous, by factitious life, that he thinks the more barbarous man is, the better he is.… Whatever you get here [in the Essays ] shall smack of the earth and of real life, sweet, or smart, or stinging.”
What Emerson wrote of Montaigne’s style can be said of his own; his admiration for the “necessary speech of men about their work” gave life and vigor to his prose. H. L. Mencken, author of the monumental work The American Language , should have known better.