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Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now?
His speech was called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Its theme was the universe itself; its hero, Man Thinking. Now, one hundred and seventy-five years later, a noted scholar sees Emerson’s great vision as both more beleaguered and more urgent than ever.
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
ON AUGUST 31, 1837, THE DAY AFTER COMMENCEMENT—they don’t seem to have gone in for vacations in those earnest times—the academic year at Harvard was ushered in with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to Phi Beta Kappa on a stock topic, “The American Scholar.” The meeting was held in the First Parish Church, on the exact spot where Anne Hutchinson had been examined for heresy two centuries before.
The choice of an ex-minister to address a group of future ministers was a little strange. And Emerson, thirtieth in his 1821 class of fifty-nine, had not even made Phi Beta Kappa on his own. Just as he had been chosen class poet in 1821 after six others had declined the honor, so on this occasion he was a substitute, apparently for the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright (a future Episcopal bishop of New York), who had declined two months before.
Lucky Emerson, lucky us. The thirty-four-year-old Waldo Emerson, as he liked to call himself, was in a mood rebellious enough to make history. He had resigned the ministry of the Second Church of Boston, saying that the profession was “antiquated.” “In an altered age we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.” His young wife, Ellen Tucker, had died at twenty after seventeen months of marriage. Emerson still suffered from the lung disease that was to kill two of his brothers. The year 1837 saw a severe economic depression; the ex-minister, who depended on lectures that covered popular science as well as his moral imperatives for the day, wrote in his journal, “The land stinks with suicide.”
Three of Harvard’s most renowned overseers—John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing—were absent. Emerson, the apostate from Concord—soon to be identified with his Transcendentalist disciples—was mistrusted. His first book, Nature, was laughed at in Cambridge as “anonymous, unintelligible and unsold.” Herman Melville’s future father-in-law, Justice Lemuel Shaw, was in the audience, but not Henry David Thoreau, of the class of 1837. Thoreau’s life was to be changed by Emerson, but Thoreau had simply disappeared after graduating the day before.
In his journal for July 29, Emerson had written a typically private prayer—“If the Allwise would give me light, I should write for the Cambridge men a theory of the Scholar’s office.” From the opening invocation—the new academic year, youth in a new country, all hopeful beginnings—it was clear to him, if not to the solemn professors, lawyers, and merchants scattered throughout the essentially clerical audience, that by “scholar” he meant not students but intellectuals—free, innovative, creative types addressing themselves to the needs of their society:
“Thus far, our holiday has been simply a friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any more. As such it is precious as the sign of an indestructible instinct. Perhaps the time is already come when it ought to be, and will be, something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise, that must be sung, that will sing themselves.”
This has been called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence” and is the most famous feature of Emerson’s oration, but it was a conventional theme on such occasions. A young, new country, a new republic, was looking for a culture equal to its political aspirations. What the audience did not know, what the speaker could not foresee, was that in literature he and the absent Thoreau, to say nothing of the as yet inconceivable Whitman and Melville, would supply this independent genius. In a particularly beautiful passage of “The American Scholar,” Emerson “read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days.…Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized…. The literature of the poor…the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign,—is it not?—of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia.… I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.”
Phi Beta Kappa orators were not expected to write this well. Even in our day, when so many professors are supposed to be “reviving Emerson,” they pay him the dubious compliment of turning him into one of their own—another literary critic. They do not dwell on the radiant gift of conviction, the daring and the wit with which Emerson unsettled so many minds, the unclassifiable literary gift that dazzled Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold, and gifted Americans from Justice Holmes to Edward Hopper. “I was simmering, simmering,” said Whitman. “Emerson brought me to a boil.” Emerson’s extraordinary effect on Whitman and Thoreau, even on his admiring antagonist Herman Melville, put at the center of the Western world a literature suffused with spiritual independence in all things. The self, said Whitman, was now “miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts.”