Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Looking Backwards: Emerson in 1903

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Looking Backwards: Emerson in 1903

Article excerpt

America in 1903 was a place of power and powerful conflicts. The Captains of Industry had made America an economic powerhouse. A quick military victory in the Spanish-American War at the close of the nineteenth century had given the nation an empire almost overnight. Immigrants from all over the world were streaming into the country seeking their full measure of the "American Dream." Many would be disappointed. Poverty was pervasive in large cities. Racism and lynching were an international embarrassment. Men, women, and children worked long hours under oppressive conditions for substandard wages. Political corruption was rampant. But optimism prevailed and the "Progressive Era" was about to emerge. In this dynamic context, the one hundredth anniversary of Ralph Waldo Emerson's birth was widely celebrated throughout the nation. Reformers found in him the answer to the nation's ills. Conservatives found in him ample confirmation of the status quo. Virtually all agreed, however, that the "Sage of Concord" would provide invaluable guidance to the young nation in what would ultimately become known as "The American Century."


An article in the London Times (25 May 1903), posted by their American correspondent on the day before the Emerson centennial, makes the following observation:

   The celebration of the Emerson centenary, which has been proceeding
   in the magazines and newspapers and elsewhere all the month,
   continues to-day in Press and pulpit. To-morrow is the hundredth
   anniversary of Emerson's birth and there will be observances of one
   kind or another among every section of the United States. It is a
   national tribute to an American whom Americans now recognize as a
   leader of American thought.

The Times correspondent was not exaggerating. Emerson had been enormously popular in the last years of his life, and throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century he came to be considered "a national treasure." (1) By 1903 his apotheosis was virtually complete. Houghton, Mifflin was issuing a new 12 volume "Centenary Edition" of his writings as citizens throughout the country ratified the canonization of Emerson as a genuine American saint whose testament would provide the way, the truth, and the light that would help guide the nation's destiny in the 20th century. However, as the following discussion will show, the image of Emerson that dominated the many celebrations of his centenary in 1903 bears little resemblance to the revolutionary figure that is recognized and celebrated today.

At the turn of the century, America was a place of power and powerful conflict. As the nation continued to reunify and prosper after the catastrophic conflict of the Civil War, the population swelled to over 90 million. Immigrants from all over the world, especially southern and eastern Europe, found their way to the shores of this Promised Land, hoping to find in their own lives the fulfillment of the promises captured in Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus," the words of which were engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty as well as in the hearts of the immigrants she greeted. (2)

American industry was the envy of the world. Due to the exigencies of the Civil War, large corporations emerged and the age of Big Business and laissez-faire economics was at hand. Under the able leadership of the aptly named "Captains of Industry," men like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and perhaps the greatest of them all, Andrew Carnegie, the vast engane of the American economy produced material goods and riches on a scale the world had never witnessed before. By 1900 the national wealth of the United States exceeded that of Great Britain. (3) In 1899 Carnegie would consolidate his vast steel empire into the Carnegie Steel Company, and in 1901 he would sell that empire to J.P. Morgan for the unheard of sum of $300 million. (4) With this aggregation of power in the hands of the few throughout the post-war period, political corruption inevitably followed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.