II. the Kaleidoscopic Emerson. (Bicentennial Essays: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882))

By Birnbaum, Milton | Modern Age, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

II. the Kaleidoscopic Emerson. (Bicentennial Essays: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882))


Birnbaum, Milton, Modern Age


JUST WHEN INTEREST in Emerson seems to wane, he rises like the proverbial phoenix. In the 1990's, at least two books (not to mention the ceaseless flow of articles and doctoral dissertations) concerning Emerson were published: Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s Emerson: the Mind on Fire (1995) and Carlos Baker's Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait (1852). Richardson's subtitle is uniquely appropriate. It indicates that sparks from Emerson's "mind on fire," like those from any fire fueled by the shifting winds of critics and different generations, continue to fly in all directions.

Ever since Emerson left the ministry in 1832, he became the subject

of conflicting views concerning the worth of his work and even the worth of his personal self. Much of the criticism was negative. When Emerson delivered his "Divinity School Address" at Harvard University in 1838, the response was such that he was not invited back to lecture there for the next thirty years. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose friendship Emerson tried to cultivate, wrote in his 1842 journal that Emerson was "that everlasting rejecter of all that is, and seeker for he knows not what." By contrast, Herman Melville, in whose works Emerson expressed little interest, found Emerson's seeming optimism jarring to his own brooding pessimism. After he heard Emerson lecture in 1849, Melville wrote in a letter to a friend (E.A. Duyckinck) that this "Plato who talks through his nose"was "a humbug," though "no common humbug." Melville claimed some years later that Emerson's vision of the world "proceeded from a defect in the region of the heart." He also satirized Emerson's Transcendental philosophy in the character of Plotinus Plinlimmon in his novel Pierre (1852).

Even among those who praised him there was an occasional though perhaps unintentional denigration. In his lecture on Emerson (later published in his Discourses in America in 1885), Matthew Arnold called Emerson "the friend and aider of thosewho would live in the spirit." What, however, many readers seem to recall most from Arnold's well-intentioned remarks on Emerson are the following words: "We have not in Emerson a great poet, a great writer, a great philosopher-maker."

Occasionally, there was a dig at what some perceived as Emerson's "Yankee shrewdness" overpowering his thirst for spiritual awareness. So ardent an Emersonian as James Russell Lowell could not resist a satiric thrust at his idol in his

Fable for Critics (1848):
...his [Emerson's] is, we may say,
A Greek head on right Yankee shoulders,
   whose range
Has Olympus for one pole, for t'other the
  [Stock] Exchange.

Despite the shortcomings that the critics mentioned above found in Emerson, he had many admirers both in the United States and in Europe. In the United States, he was praised by James Greenleaf Whittier, Theodore Parker, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and (despite their occasional disagreements) by Henry David Thoreau. In 1880, Whittier declared: "No living poet of the English-speaking tongue has written verses bearing more distinctly than his the mark of immortality." And, although Walt Whitman's excessive eccentricities and explicit sexuality in later editions of Leaves of Grass irritated Emerson, it was Whitman who declared in 1854, "I was simmering, simmering, and Emerson brought me to a boil." Evidently, Emerson's essay "The Poet" helped fashion Whitman's radical verse and thoughts in his first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855).

In England, Emerson was praised by Thomas Carlyle, Arthur R. Clough, and many others. It should also be recalled that, despite Matthew Arnold's previously quoted statement, he declared in the same lecture:

As Wordsworth's poetry is, in my judgment, the most important work in verse in our language, during the present century, so Emerson's Essays are, I think, the most important work done in prose. His work is more important than Carlyle's. …

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