The Cambridge History of American Literature

By William Peterfield Trent; John Erskine et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
Emerson

IT becomes more and more apparent that Emerson, judged by an international or even by a broad national standard, is the outstanding figure of American letters. Others may have surpassed him in artistic sensitiveness, or, to a criticism averse to the stricter canons of form and taste, may seem to be more original or more broadly national than he, but as a steady force in the transmutation of life into ideas and as an authority in the direction of life itself he has obtained a recognition such as no other of his countrymen can claim. And he owes this pre-eminence not only to his personal endowment of genius, but to the fact also that, as the most perfect exponent of a transient experiment in civilization, he stands for something that the world is not likely to let die.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, 25 May, 1803, gathered into himself the very quintessence of what has been called the Brahminism of New England, as transmitted through the Bulkeleys, the Blisses, the Moodys, and the direct paternal line. Peter Bulkeley, preferring the wilderness of Satan to Laudian conformity, founded Concord in 1636; William Emerson, his descendant in the fifth generation, was builder of the Old Manse in the same town and a sturdy preacher to the minute-men at the beginning of the Revolution; and of many other ministerial ancestors stories abound which show how deeply implanted in this stock was the pride of rebellion against traditional forms and institutions, united with a determination to force all mankind to worship God in the spirit. With William, son of him of Concord and father of our poet, the fires of zeal began to wane. Though the faithful pastor of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston, it is recorded of him that he

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