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Plain Talk From Ralph Waldo Emerson

June 2024
4min read

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.

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.”

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.

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