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Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now?

July 2024
9min read

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.

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.”

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?”

The literary world is full of itself, bemused by language as theme as well as instrument, so conscious of its separation not only from the world of power but from intelligence as power that it calls daily reality “absurd.” The writer as conscience has understandably been maddened by the frightful crimes of our century and by the ever-growing indifference to the outmoded, ever-weakening cry “J’accuse!”

Walt Whitman said that in literature “the light comes curiously from elsewhere.” For many decades now literature as taught in this country, as approvable by the most influential connoisseurs, has been a light only to itself, has had to create its own light. So it was natural for modernism to become the curriculum and to dominate all judgment even of the past. For a poetry to arise increasingly witty and chic in the style of modernism, a poetry not struggling against anything, least of all itself —a kind of travel literature full of personal echoes but without a sense of tragedy. For a fiction so minimalist that you had to admire the silences in it more than the words. For a literary criticism that persuaded docile undergraduates not much given to reading anyway that literature was just performance. No one dared quote Kafka:

“Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves. … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

What Emerson called “discontents of the literary class” were young people around Concord he admired for wanting to change things so completely that they seemed to have “knives in their brains.” The discontents of what I should rather call the literary intelligentsia—the army of commentators and annotators forever reducing literature to their latest ideas—reflect a great sourness and introversion. The world of science, of incessant discovery and speculative intelligence, is excited and happy because there are no barriers to what it is allowed to think about. In the end, despite all our troubles, it is thinking that makes the “scholar,” it is thinking that makes us happy, it is thinking that unites us with the universe. In an increasingly tyrannical world it is thinking that tells us who we are.

“These being [the scholar’s] functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He and he only knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom…. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks.”


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