A recent essay identifies Ralph Waldo Emerson as the "architect of American intellectual culture" and goes on to cite some of his aphorisms, the best known, perhaps, being "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Many of his essays and poetry are still found in anthologies of American literature, and he is still, according to the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, the most revered figure in American Unitarianism. Shouldn't Americans be flocking to readings of his poems?
Shouldn't there be symposiums discussing his important essays? Is he always to be a prophet without honor in his own country?
The Rev. Suzanne Meyer, associate minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, claims that Emerson and the Transcendentalists are "probably more relevant now than they were in their time." While Emerson's transcendentalism should be considered a significant component of his message, it is more likely that he will always be recognized more for his contribution to American individualism, his call for American writers to free themselves from the yoke of the British. Oliver Wendell Holmes called Emerson's lecture on the American scholar "Our intellectual Declaration of Independence;" and James Russell Lowell noted that while Americans had been politically independent of England since the Revolution, they "were still socially and intellectually moored to English thought till Emerson cut the cable."
Emerson was born into a family whose heritage included nine generations of New England ministers; his father, William Emerson, had served as pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Boston. Emerson's early years were ruled, as might be expected, by religious custom and social convention. His father died when he was just eight. Encouraged by his mother and other relatives, Emerson went on to Harvard and graduated in 1821. He then enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School and carried on the family tradition by studying to be a Unitarian minister.
He soon realized that he could not carry on that tradition. While Unitarianism in nineteenth-century America had, in fact, shifted the emphasis in one's religious experience from moral depravity to individual responsibility, it was still far too confining a religion for Emerson. By the time he was "approbated" to preach in 1826, he found that Unitarianism was far too orthodox for him. He stayed in the ministry until 1832, but then resigned--the ostensible reason being that he could no longer in good conscience administer Communion, but in fact the Unitarian church had become for him far too negative and rational. The rest of his life was spent as a lecturer and writer. His appeal to audiences is legend. One common version of his appeal tells of a scrubwoman who had attended one of his lyceum lectures. She did not really understand much of what he had said, she told her friends, "but I like to go and see him stand up there an look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is." His first major publication was Nature (1836), and that was followed by many other essays, books, and lectures, including "The American Scholar," the Phi Beta Kappa lecture he delivered in 1837 at Harvard; his controversial "Divinity School Address" in 1838 to the senior class at the Harvard Divinity School; English Traits; and The Conduct of Life.
Emerson's reputation rests more firmly on his essays than on his poetry. The "Divinity School" lecture brought him some notoriety, but it made him a public figure of some importance. It was after that lecture that his friend Bronson Alcott commented: "Emerson's church consists of one member--himself." Emerson, upset by the reception, wrote in his journal: "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of private man. This the people accept readily enough, and even with loud commendation, as long as I call the Lecture Art, or Politics, or Literature, or the Household; but the moment I call it Religion, they are shocked, though it only be the application of the same truth which they receive everywhere else, to a new class of facts..."
In the "Divinity School" lecture Emerson made clear to everyone his complete dissatisfaction with Unitarianism in particular and religion in general. He emphasized the need for a completely new approach to Christianity and religion:
"Historic Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the Universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love."
All, concluded Emerson, must "love God without mediator or veil." In two other important works, "Nature" and "The American Scholar," Emerson continued to urge his fellow countrymen to be "self-reliant" and to continue to cultivate and write about their own distinctively American culture and experience. In "The American Scholar" he tells his listeners not to be bound by the past, but to recognize the present life about them. The scholar's task is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by presenting them facts amidst appearances. The American writer must feel all confidence in himself and never "defer to the popular cry." He and he only knows the world. Emerson concludes with another of his aphorisms: "He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart."
In "Nature" Emerson is even more explicit regarding the need for American writers to reject their dependence on Europe and assert their own American identity in their themes and writing. As one observer has said:
"Emerson's efforts to define the word nature remains far more than an exercise in semantics or philosophical speculation. He builds into his essay a strikingly bold proposition: to substitute nature for what was generally regarded to be the new nation's lack of a distinctive cultural heritage. In Emerson's view, nature--the land itself--should be the source for articulating and developing a unique American cultural identity. He would have nature become the gravitational field for defining American experience. ... For Emerson and for Cole [American painter, Hudson River School], nature would replace the Bible as the greatest spiritual text, capable of being read by anyone." In Emerson's own words: "Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul."
Emerson's goal in "Nature" is to inspire his listeners, to urge them not to get immersed in the petty details of ego or to cling to the past, to remind them of their true heritage. In the Introduction to the essay, for instance, he speaks the often-quoted lines: "Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade our of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines today also.... There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship." In the section entitled "Idealism" he urges his listeners or readers to reject any system of thought that will degrade nature. Emerson's chief concern is that human beings should understand that Idealism is not the ultimate end; Spirit is. While Idealism enables man to recognize nature as a phenomenon, it does not satisfy the demands of the Spirit. Idealism, as he states, "leaves God out of me." Emerson simply wants to do away with any intermediary and have all recognize that the Spirit is within. Humans need no intermediaries.
Emerson then goes on in the final section of this essay to urge his listeners to break away from feeling that they have to be bound by the past or by the writings and ideas of other countries. Since the foundation of man is found not in matter but in spirit, since a man is a "god in ruins," man must redeem his soul by satisfying the demands of the spirit. In another statement often quoted, Emerson tells his audience: "Americans are the new Adams."
One of the pervasive themes in Emerson's writings is the miraculous of the common, In one of the final paragraphs of <i>Nature</i> he emphasizes that theme. "The invisible mark of wisdom," he states, is to see the miraculous in the common. He then asks a series of rhetorical questions: What is a day? What is a year? What is summer? What is woman? What is a child? What is sleep? "To the wise," he remarks, "a fact is true poetry." It is obvious that Emerson is again urging the American scholars and writers to pay attention to their own matters, their own country. He concludes his essay by affirming the limitless possibilities of the Americans: "All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; ... Build, therefore, your own world."
He reiterates this theme in The American Scholar. In the final section of that essay he dismisses what he calls "this abstraction of the Scholar" and begins to speak of his own time and place and country. He sees auspicious signs for the coming days, "as they glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through church and state." He cites as one of these signs "the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state. He becomes specific:
"Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts.... It is a great stride. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic. What is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common , I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.... Show me the shop, the plough, and the ledger."
Emerson then presents the stirring conclusion which has been quoted time and again; it is worth hearing once more: "We have listened too long to the courtly uses of Europe.... We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.... A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."
Emerson's central role in what is called the American literary renaissance is what we should acknowledge. His influence has been ubiquitous on his own and following generations. Larzer Ziff, the editor of Selected Essays of Emerson, claims:
"His influence has been great: both directly, in that major writers have had their ideas and their expression shaped by what they learned from him, and indirectly, in that he stands as the representative in thought of American identity and so provides the cornerstone for the words and deeds of many who may not know his work but who when they believe themselves to be influenced by America are actually responding to what Emerson and America meant. Among the former are Thoreau, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Borges. Among the latter are the radical dissenters of the abolition movement and of the movement against the Vietnam War, and writers who insisted on a voice of the American wild more powerful than the murmurs of civilization, writers such as D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and Ernest Hemingway."
Although his poetry has not held up as well as his prose, it seems fitting to close with an excerpt from "Each and All," regarded as one of his most characteristic poems and reflecting his concept of the unity of all:
Then, I said, "I covet truth; Beauty is unripe childhood's cheat; I leave it behind with the games of youth: -- As I spoke, beneath my feet The ground-pine curled its pretty wreath, Running over the club-moss burrs; I inhaled the violet's breath; Around me stood the oaks and firs; Pine-cones and acorns lay on the ground; Over me soared the eternal sky, Full of light and of deity; Again I saw, again I heard, The rolling river, the morning bird; -- Beauty through my senses stole; I yielded myself to the perfect whole.
Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (English) and taught at the City University of New York for many years, specializing in 19th-century British and American literature. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and has participated in many national and international conferences. He edits Dickens Studies Annual, lectures and does freelance work.…