Eternity and the Tired Child: The Voices in Emerson's "Immortality"

Article excerpt


Emerson's late essay, "Immortality," has had a troubled textual history, but as it has come down to us in the Centenary Edition, it employs a rhetorical strategy that is typically Emersonian. In a masterful use of dialectic the text counterpoints affirmative and negative responses to the idea of immortality, and then resolves the conflict poetically by a radical redefinition of the term "immortality." Emerson's resolution is like the structure of an ode: His redefinition is the epode of his prose 'ode,' in which he proposes that immortality is available in the immanence of the here and now.


Emerson's "Immortality," from Letters and Social Aims (1875), that late collection prepared for publication with the help of James Elliot Cabot (W8: v-xiii), deserves critical attention on its own considerable literary merits, whatever textual problems it might pose. "There is nothing here that [Emerson] did not write," Cabot reassures the reader, adding that his own task was "selection and arrangement" (xiii). The text as it appears in the Centenary Edition thus has a troubled history and provenance, but the essay is demonstrably and unmistakably Emersonian. Whatever editorial assistance he received may in fact represent merely a more radical version of Emerson's own very idiosyncratic compositional method: As organization, its rhetoric is not substantially different from that of "Experience" or "History" or "Fate." I shall examine Emerson's rhetorical voices in the text of "Immortality." Since Emerson's voices would create the same strands or layers of meaning if they were otherwise arranged, their placement within the structure is secondary to what they say. The rhetorical problem inherent in the topic is stylistic, not structural (the mode of expression, not the arrangement of what is expressed), and I shall suggest as a heuristic device the dialectical voices of an ode as Emerson's solution of that problem. Let us take "Immortality" as we find it.

Glen M. Johnson, in "Emerson's Essay 'Immortality': The Problem of Authorship," argues from evidence in the working manuscript in the Berg Collection that the essay may well be merely an "editorial agglomeration" (314) and that its views, subtly censored by Cabot and Ellen Emerson, appear more "conventional" (328) than Emerson's own. In the analysis I offer here, I find the structure and organization of the essay not very different from Emerson's other, "canonical" writings, which suggests that the editorial method might have been simply an imitation of his own. In fact, "editorial agglomeration" seems a very accurate description of Emerson's usual method of adapting and incorporating material from lectures, journals, and notebooks into his published essays. Secondly, far from expressing a "conventional" idea of immortality, Emerson, in the core passage I pay particular attention to later in this paper, redefines the concept in a breathtakingly original way. Since Johnson agrees with the truth of Cabot's statement, "There is nothing here that [Emerson] did not write," surely Johnson's title is misleading.

The essay asks an unanswerable question. Emerson is quite aware of this rhetorical trap. He is equally aware that his own method of developing an essay is beautifully designed to skirt the dangers inherent in unambiguous assertion. He clearly states the rhetorical problem, but this clarification comes near the end of the essay ([paragraph] 23 of a 28-paragraph text). Such eccentric organization is consistent with Emerson's structural methods throughout his career. We should recall that Montaigne is not introduced into the text of "Montaigne" until its fifteenth paragraph, that numerical division occurs near the end of "Self-Reliance," and that the way in which the "Lords of Life" appear in "Experience" is guaranteed to disorient even the most attentive reader. (1)

It is in his characteristic nontraditional mode of rhetorical development, then, that Emerson clarifies the problem inherent in his topic, but clarify it he does:

   There is a drawback to the value of all statements of the doctrine,
   and I think that one abstains from writing or printing on the
   immortality of the soul, because, when he comes to the end of his
   statement, the hungry eyes that run through it will close
   disappointed; the listeners say, That is not here which we
   desire,--and I shall be as much wronged by their hasty conclusions
   as they feel themselves wronged by my omissions. …