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Mr. America

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter

by John McAleer
Little, Brown, 748 pp., $27.50


Emerson is a critic and essayist who based his work on observation of himself and of American experience. He is not a transcendental philosopher. This obvious truth always needs restating, perhaps more now than ever, when literary criticism is over-influenced by contemporary French heirs of the German tradition of idealist or transcendental philosophy. Emerson is the mind of our climate; he is the principal source of the American difference in poetry and criticism and in pragmatic postphilosophy.

That is a less obvious truth, and it also needs restating, now and always. Emerson, by no means the greatest American writer, perhaps more an interior orator than a writer, is the inescapable theorist of virtually all subsequent American writing. From his moment to ours, American authors either are in his tradition, or else in a countertradition originating in opposition to him. This continues even in a time when he is not much read, such as the period between 1945 and 1965 or so. During the last twenty years, Emerson has returned, burying his undertakers. “The essays of Emerson,” T.S. Eliot remarked, “are already an encumbrance,” one of those judicial observations that governed the literary academy during the Age of Eliot, but now have faded into an antique charm.

Other judicial critics, including Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, sensibly blamed Emerson for everything they disliked in American literature, and even to some extent in American life. Our most distinguished living poet, Robert Penn Warren culminated the countertraditional polemic of Eliot and Tate in his lively sequence, “Homage to Emerson, on Night-Flight to New York.” Reading Emerson’s essays in the “pressurized gloom” of the airliner, Warren sees the glowing page declare: “There is / No sin. Not even error.” Only at a transcendental altitude can Warren’s heart be abstract enough to accept the Sage of Concord, “for / At 38,000 feet Emerson / Is dead right.” At ground level, Emerson “had forgiven God everything” because “Emerson thought that significance shines through everything.”

Sin, error, time, history, a God external to the self, the visiting of the crimes of the fathers upon the sons: these are landmarks in the literary cosmos of Eliot and his Southern followers, and these were precisely of no interest whatsoever to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Of Emerson I am moved to say what Borges said of Oscar Wilde: he was always right. But he himself always says it better:

That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, obey thyself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for my being.1

One might say that the Bible, Shakespeare, and Freud show us as caught in a psychic conflict, in which we need to be everything in ourselves while we go on fearing that we are nothing in ourselves. Emerson dismisses the fear, and insists upon the necessity of the single self achieving a total autonomy, of becoming its own cosmos without first having to ingest either nature or other selves. He wishes to give us to ourselves, and these days supposedly he preaches to the converted, since it is the fashion to assert that we live in a culture of narcissism, of which our smiling president is the indubitable epitome. Emerson, in this time of Reagan, should be cited upon the limitations of all American politics whatsoever:

We might as wisely reprove the east wind, or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves…. A party is perpetually corrupted by personality. Whilst we absolve the association from dishonesty, we cannot extend the same charity to their leaders. They reap the rewards of the docility and zeal of the masses which they direct…. Of the two great parties, which, at this hour, almost share the nation between them, I should say, that, one has the best cause, and the other contains the best men. The philosopher, the poet, or the religious man, will, of course, wish to cast his vote with the democrat, for free trade, for wide suffrage, for the abolition of legal cruelties in the penal code, and for facilitating in every manner the access of the young and the poor to the sources of wealth and power. But he can rarely accept the persons whom the so-called popular party propose to him as representatives of these liberalities.2

Emerson here is writing about the Democrats and the Whigs (precursors of our modern Republicans) in the early 1840s, when he still believes that Daniel Webster (foremost of “the best men”) will never come to advocate the worst cause of the slaveholders. Though his politics have been categorized as “transcendental anarchism,” Emerson was at once a believer in pure power and a prophet of the moral law, an apparent self-contradiction that provoked Yvor Winters in an earlier time, and President Giamatti of Yale more recently. Yet this wise inconsistency led Emerson to welcome Whitman in poetry for the same reasons he had hailed Daniel Webster in politics, until Webster’s Seventh of March speech supporting the compromise of 1850, with its acceptance of the Fugitive Slave Law. Webster’s speech moved Emerson to the most violent rhetoric of his life. John Jay Chapman, in a great essay on Emerson, remarked that, in his polemic against Webster, Emerson “is savage, destructive, personal, bent on death.”3 Certainly no other American politician has been so memorably denounced in public as Webster by Emerson:

Mr. Webster, perhaps, is only following the laws of his blood and constitution. I suppose his pledges were not quite natural to him. He is a man who lives by his memory; a man of the past, not a man of faith and of hope. All the drops of his blood have eyes that look downward, and his finely developed understanding only works truly and with all its force when it stands for animal good; that is, for property.4

All the drops of his blood have eyes that look downward: that bitter figuration has outlived every phrase Webster himself ventured. Many modern historians defend Webster for his part in the compromise of 1850, by which California was admitted as a free state while the North pledged to honor the Fugitive Slave Law. This defense maintains that Webster helped to preserve the Union for another decade, while strengthening the ideology of Union that culminated in Lincoln. But Emerson, who had given Webster every chance, was driven out of his study and into moral prophecy by Webster’s support of the Fugitive Slave Law:

We are glad at last to get a clear case, one on which no shadow of doubt can hang. This is not meddling with other people’s affairs: this is hindering other people from meddling with us. This is not going crusading into Virginia and Georgia after slaves, who it is alleged, are very comfortable where they are:—that amiable argument falls to the ground: but this is befriending in our own State, on our own farms, a man who has taken the risk of being shot or burned alive, or cast into the sea, or starved to death, or suffocated in a wooden box, to get away from his driver: and this man who has run the gauntlet of a thousand miles for his freedom, the statute says, you men of Massachusetts shall hunt, and catch, and send back again to the dog-hutch he fled from. And this filthy enactment was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God.5

As late as 1843, Emerson’s love of Webster as incarnate Power had prevailed: “He is no saint, but the wild olive wood, ungrafted yet by grace.” After Webster’s defense of the Fugitive Slave Law, even Emerson’s decorum was abandoned: “The word liberty in the mouth of Mr. Webster sounds like the word love in the mouth of a courtezan.”

I suspect that Emerson’s deep fury, so uncharacteristic of him, resulted partly from the violation of his own cheerfully amoral dialectics of power. The extraordinary essay “Power” in The Conduct of Life appears at first to worship mere force or drive as such, but the Emersonian cunning always locates power in the place of crossing over, in the moment of transition:

In history, the great moment is, when the savage is just ceasing to be a savage, with all his hairy Pelasgic strength directed on his opening sense of beauty:—and you have Pericles and Phidias,—not yet passed over into the Corinthian civility. Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity.6

A decade or so before, in perhaps his central essay, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson had formulated the same dialectic of power, but with even more exuberance:

Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of a gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.7

Magnificent, but surely even the Webster of 1850 retained his Pelasgic strength, surely even that Webster works and is. Emerson’s cool answer would have been that Webster had failed the crossing. I think Emerson remains the American theoretician of power—be it political, literary, spiritual, economic—because he took the risk of exalting transition from one activity or state of mind or kind of spiritual being to another, for its own sake. American restlessness, which has been pervasive ever since, puts all stable relationships or occupations at a relatively lower estimate, because they lack the element of risk. Admittedly, I am happier when the consequence of exalting transition is Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” than when the Emersonian product is the first Henry Ford, but Emerson was canny enough to have prophesied both disciples. There is a great chill at the center of his cosmos, which remains ours, both the chill and the cosmos:

But Nature is no sentimentalist,—does not cosset or pamper us. We must see that the world is rough and surly, and will not mind drowning a man or a woman; but swallows your ship like a grain of dust. The cold, inconsiderate of persons, tingles your blood, benumbs your feet, freezes a man like an apple.8

  1. 1

    The Divinity School Address,” in Emerson: Essays and Lectures (Library of America, 1983), p. 81.

  2. 2

    Politics,” in Emerson (Library of America), p. 564.

  3. 3

    The Selected Writings of John Jay Chapman, edited by Jacques Barzun (Anchor, 1959), p. 193.

  4. 4

    Quoted by Chapman in Selected Writings, p. 193.

  5. 5

    From the journal, Spring 1851. Included in Emerson: An Organic Anthology, edited by Stephen Whicher (Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 355.

  6. 6

    Power,” in Emerson (Library of America), p. 980.

  7. 7

    Self-Reliance,” in Emerson (Library of America), pp. 271–272.

  8. 8

    Fate,” in Emerson (Library of America), p. 945. Subsequent passages are on p. 967 and p. 971.

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