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The Father of Us All

Waldo Emerson: A Biography

by Gay Wilson Allen
Viking, 751 pp., $25.00

No other American writer has had Emerson’s pervasive (and for many people hateful) influence on America and its writers. Yet there is no satisfactory book on Emerson’s mind itself and his relation to the romantic, bourgeois, “progressive” sense of individual power that became the stock gospel of the nineteenth century. Nietzsche recognized in him a fellow heretic on the mountaintops of the Übermensch; Carlyle, for all his hatred of American democracy, excepted Emerson from his usual tirades; Arnold, George Eliot, and of course Whitman, Thoreau, William James, Justice Holmes, all associated themselves with what Emerson exuded (even on the lecture platform) as an exceptionality that he meant to impart to everyone.

But there is no book that truly does justice to Emerson’s sense of power and how it was lost before its faintest characteristics were absorbed into the conventional “self-reliance” of American capitalism and its synthetic optimism. The reason hes with Emerson himself. He had a genius for faith but scorned belief. He was too “God-intoxicated” and arrogant in his religious independence to be fathomed by the orthodox before the Civil War and the “scientific” sceptics after it. Our savagely disbelieving and of course now fundamentalist contemporaries have not made more intelligible Emerson’s wholly orphic confidence that he had a direct revelation. Especially since he called divinity the “First Cause” or “Over-Soul,” the Great Mind that came down to earth, so to speak, in Nature and that could be read from Nature’s laws.

A stronger reason for the failure of criticism and philosophy to account for Emerson’s mind and his influence is that “the infinitude of the private man” (Emerson called it his only doctrine) was too infinite by far for the audience to whom Emerson spoke. Karl Marx, who began with the same romantic, “Promethean” sense of the power gained by emancipation from conventional religion, projected his sense of power onto a working class that was supposed to carry out the lessons of German philosophy. Nietzsche, for whom the famous “will to power” meant the mandate of genius, not the triumph of Bismarck’s Germany, suffered a similar “misunderstanding” from admirers.

Emerson himself contributed to the necessary secularizing of his thought. As a perfectionist in everything relating to his country, he assumed that emancipation from mere church and creed would give a special energy to the century of “progress.” A “race of titans” might yet develop. Instead, he discovered (to Melville’s jeering delight) that “the calamity is the masses.” Poor “masses,” who never knew that Emerson, who knew his exceptionality all too well and fully espoused the romantic cult of genius, had democracy less at the center of his thought than “ye must be perfect even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Emerson’s belief in the individual as pure power, “man thinking,” an “active soul,” was so secure in “the moral law” that he called it a law of nature proved by “science.” He was a great believer in science, and like other romantics anticipated evolutionism because Nature was so teleological and blissfully confided its purposes to Concord’s woods and fields.

Emerson gave up the Unitarian ministry at twenty-nine, became New England’s dangerous man with Nature, The American Scholar, “The Divinity School Address,” and “Self-Reliance,” was shunned by Harvard, scraped a living from the lecture circuit, and though he slowly became less upsetting and more “noble,” he was recognized in England as one of the major voices for what Whitehead would call “the century of hope.” That hope was his material, his opportunity, his famous eloquence. Much, much seemed possible when Emerson’s extraordinary voice resounded through this unfinished, still Bible-haunted Protestant society. The gods were on our side, once we stopped being credulous about them.

But even before he reluctantly joined himself to the agitation against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and thoroughly enjoyed the Civil War, trumpeting hatred of the South in a fashion that would have disgusted Thoreau and Hawthorne (both died during the war and perhaps, partly, of it), Emerson’s religious individualism got absorbed into the overwhelming push of American life. William James, who was to come around to Emerson the seer as a psychological necessity, was in the 1870s as scornful of the man’s “refined idiocy” as Mark Twain and Henry James were indifferent to it. The influence of New England—Emerson was its last as well as its most gifted representative—had dwindled into the charlatans and sterilities James satirized in The Bostonians. The American whose first affinity was with Neoplatonism, and who fundamentally thought in terms of Plotinus’ “The Alone to the Alone,” was turned into the writer of selective quotations (and many made-up ones) of an American Samuel Smiles preaching “self-help.” The great moralist whose faith in natural justice was expressed in the “law” of “compensation” was vaporized into a salesman’s need to keep smiling.

Theology survives faith, and the interventions of the Moral Majority reflect perfectly, like the Nazis’ Kirche, Küche, Kinder, the need to fill a religious vacuum. The “God-intoxicated” man is hard to recover just now. While Emerson gets regularly swatted, just recently by President Giamatti of Yale,* we must admit that in a culture where the “self” was once holy and is still an article of belief, not to say commerce, to every poetaster, something of Emerson’s secret wildness and raging independence (minus the boring interest in “God”) has been part of the tradition of a “new” literature. Whitman—who owed him so much but knew how to sidestep Emerson’s later objections to Leaves of Grass—said that Emerson was “the actual beginner of the American procession.”

And so he was. The father of us all. The teacher of the American tribe. The literature on Emerson is not about the derailed prophet of individualism that could not be lived on Emerson’s terms, the nineteenth-century maître penseur who dreamed of a new world that would reflect his genius. It is fiercely local. Emerson scholarship is intense and minuscule, as in the volumes and volumes, essential but barbarously repelling the general reader by their excessive editorial apparatus, of the Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks that have been coming from Harvard for more than twenty years.

Gay Wilson Allen’s is the best Emerson biography to date, the fullest, most humane, most useful. Its best feature is the full story of Emerson’s love for his first wife, Ellen Tucker, who died at nineteen of tuberculosis. It was the New England calamity of the time, killing off several of Ellen’s family, two of Emerson’s own brothers, and once endangering Emerson himself. Ellen Tucker was a poet, a charmer, full of fun, and so sweetly religious in the face of death that her devastated husband did not fully realize the shock of her loss until much later—then he opened her coffin.

So much has been written—not least by Emerson himself—about his “coldness” that it is a revelation to learn how wildly he and Ellen loved each other amid her many frightening “scaldings” of blood. He never got over Ellen. His second wife, Lydia Jackson, had the grace to name one daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson. It is clearer from Waldo Emerson than anywhere else that this second marriage was a stiff affair; Lydia always addressed him as “Mr. Emerson.” She seems to have been too orthodox to share his religious independence, and like the wives of Howells, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, a perennial invalid. She complained steadily.

Allen demonstrates clearly how Ellen’s death fortified Emerson’s need to resign his ministry, to leave the church, and above all to push his central doctrine of self-trust. There is no question that the early deaths of his brothers Edward and Charles, the lifelong derangement of his brother Bulkeley, and the obviously sterile second marriage encouraged Emerson’s famous public show of serenity and benevolence. Yet those who knew him best were convinced that his extraordinary gift of faith left him superior to all his trials. For all his outward mildness, he was an exceptionally strong character. He knew his value, he knew how to live with himself, and he was so regularly “inspired” when he sat down to write that, as Allen points out, he discovered his connection with some divine source at his desk. And of course quiet, villagey Concord, even with difficult characters like Alcott and Thoreau, to say nothing of the small-fry transcendentalists who owed Emerson such ideas as they had, contributed to his sense of importance.

Where Allen fails us is in not relating Emerson’s feelings of power, his conviction of the importance of power generally, to the intellectual world of his time. Nietzsche praised Emerson as one of the best prose writers of the century. Allen sees the connection with Nietzsche only in relation to the phrase “gay science,” and in the way the “science” somehow appears in poetry. Allen is good on Emerson’s skill in prosody, but overrates, as is now the fashion among admirers of Emerson, his abstractionist and occasional poetry.

The poetry of Emerson’s experience is not in his verse but in his great early essays, and perhaps especially in his marvelous Journal, where he speaks as he resonantly spoke even on his death-bed—to himself and for himself.

I, cold because I am hot—cold at the surface only as a sort of guard and compensation for the fluid tenderness of the core—have much more experience than I have written there, more than I will, more than I can write. In silence we must wrap much of our life, because it is too fine for speech, because also we cannot explain it to others, and because somewhat we cannot yet understand.

I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, “This thou must eat.” And I ate the world.

That was the essential mark of his genius, still the Alone to the Alone. Emerson wrote some wonderful poems, but oddly enough his poems are more public than his prose, and in a way suitable to contemporary fashions in criticism, too clever, nimble, showy. The oddest thing about Allen’s book is that he emphasizes the workmanship of the poems, not of the prose.

Emerson’s ability to arrest the reader, still, comes not from his pastiche of gnomic poets, but his “deep-down” ability, positively scriptural, for finding the phrase for the uprush of spirit. His extraordinary ability to tap his verbal unconscious led him into inconsecutive rhapsodies, scattered portraits, wayward reflections, fragments that are witty in their resolve to disconcert and undercut. He anthologized himself from mutterings he overheard in his sleep, from the sudden stabs he anticipated on every walk. But this was the method he learned from listening to himself so closely. Emerson’s greatest sentences lay down a pattern of steppingstones across what would otherwise be the terror of an utterly alien world. Writing, he actually compared himself to God. “The maker of a sentence, like the other artist,” he wrote as early as 1834, “launches out into the infinite, and builds a road into Chaos and Old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight.” Easier to hear him here than to follow him there.

  1. *

    In an amazing statement, “Power, Politics and a Sense of History,” delivered as the baccalaureate address to the Yale senior class in 1981, and published in The University and the Public Interest (Atheneum), Giamatti blames Emerson for Americans’ present “worship of power as force, this contempt for restraining or complex connections, and the consequent devaluation of American life.”

    Yale must be an interesting place. While his old colleague in the English Department, Harold Bloom, is pushing Emerson into his pantheon of the romantic as perfect sage, President Giamatti tells the senior class that Emerson’s essay “Power” from The Conduct of Life is virtually the inception of American brutality in high places: “it is Emerson who freed our politics and politicians from any sense of restraint by extolling self-generated, unaffiliated power as the best foot to place in the small of the back of the man in front of you, and who promoted shoving as the highest calling abolitionist, moral New England could conceive.”

    Obviously Giamatti has not entirely left the English Department, since to overlook Southern aggression, Emerson’s response to the Fugitive Slave Act (he was not an abolitionist), and corporate aggrandizement after the Civil War is as startlingly unpolitical as Harold Bloom’s inattention to the social misuse of “Self-Reliance.” Still, Giamatti is aware of Emerson’s central concern with power, which is more than most people are. Giamatti rightly notes that “strangely enough, [Emerson] lives in the popular imagination as the Lover of Nature, a sweet, sentimental, Yankee Kahlil Gibran.”

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