Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now?

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Today Americans read Emerson only in school and know him largely as an American icon. As the old lady said after seeing Hamlet, “It seems to be full of quotations.” Emerson’s original stance as a rebel at large, an intellectual liberator from formal religion, is hardly a topic for the times. The next year, 1838, he gave the Divinity School Address at Harvard, which shocked his elders because of its assertion of the individual’s right to automony in religious belief. Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for almost thirty years. Yet sixty years after “The American Scholar,” Professor William James, Emerson’s truest follower, felt himself so dominated by the scientific materialism at Harvard that he affirmed his troubling, presumably neurotic, private religious inclinations in a lecture called “The Will to Believe.” He admitted that it might better have been called “The Right to Believe.” And James was defending his own psychological problem, without reference to deity.

Emerson in an age just beginning to veer from orthodoxy thought he had no problem. God was all within. Scorning the church, he found his real affinities with stormy prophets like Carlyle. Emerson saw that his strength as a writer lay in communing with his inner certainties, in building on the stray observations and particles of thought he caught day by day in his journal. By “scholar” he really meant the writer as thinker about everything and anything—the seer, oracle, clairvoyant, and public critic that was Emerson himself. Although an accomplished poet in an almost deliberately minor mode, Emerson needed lyric prose for his full say, for at heart he was a rhapsodist, the last American to see God face-to-face and to believe that God is all. He rejoiced in his literary idiosyncrasy, looked down on the novelists who were fascinating the nineteenth century. He was a throwback, claiming the “soul” was the one instrument of knowledge. At the most unexpected moment, as in “The American Scholar,” he became illuminated, an ecstatic:

“What is nature to [the scholar]? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning to itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find,—so entire, so boundless.”

Emerson’s starting point, a perfect self-reliance in religion, is important now only because of his genius as a writer-speaker. He had transcended the ideal boundaries and now brought a startling force and hopefulness to his call for an ideal “scholar.”

“… this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

“Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things.… In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”

Apparently no one hearing Emerson on August 31, 1837, protested that this was a bit exalted. Americans were accustomed to high talk about the great and appointed destiny opening up everywhere before them. And Emerson’s old ministerial gift for sursum corda, lifting the heart, made his eloquence easy to swallow—on this occasion. After Emerson had spoken for an hour and fifteen minutes and was honored at dinner in University Hall, Charles Warren of Plymouth offered the toast: “Mr. President, I suppose you all know where the orator came from; and I suppose all know what he said. I give you—The Spirit of Concord—it makes us all of one mind .”

That was untrue in 1837 and is virtually meaningless now. Emerson was invoking and already celebrating the writer as thinker, thinking about anything he cares to think about, the writer as speculative intelligence and public critic and as a writer making his point by the passion of his rhythms:

“I look upon the discontent of the literary class as a mere announcement of the fact that they find themselves not in the state of mind of their fathers, and regret the coming state as untried; as a boy dreads the water before he has learned that he can swim. If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

For Emerson literature is still the greatest intellectual power. I shake my head in wonder and envy when he claims that a writer’s words are fairly ranged against the indifference, torpor, pedantry, bad faith of man “in the degenerate state.” If there is any thinker today so inclusive and penetrating, with such an obvious effect as to make us “all of one mind,” it is surely the physicist, the last cosmologist left, and not the writers, who, whatever their talents and the considerable pleasure they give us, always look upon our lives as a “degenerate state.” As the gifted John Cheever put it in fiction, “[Why, in this] half-finished civilization, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?”