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Emerson: ‘A Few Inches from Calamity’

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Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Surely mankind’s greatest invention is the sentence. Words may be matter, but the sentence is form. Ezra Pound, though perhaps not the trustiest legislator, is right when he identifies language—and language is words made into sense by sentences—as uniquely to be valued if only for the fact that our laws are graven in it. More than this, however, human consciousness itself is expressed in intervals between capital letters and full stops. Even the physicist, who alone can fairly lay claim to a special, separate language, must descend to commonplace phrases when he orders his dinner or composes his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

As Robert D. Richardson points out in his splendid little book on Emerson as a guide for the writer, First We Read, Then We Write, for Emerson “the sentence—not the paragraph and not the essay—is the main structural and formal unit.” This is the most striking characteristic of Emerson’s remarkable prose style, and accounts for its fireworks quality as well as its peculiar difficulties. Richardson writes:

Emerson’s lifelong interest in sentences pushed him toward epigram and proverb, and steered him away from narrative, from logic, from continuity, from formal arrangement and effect. Pushed as far as he pushed them, many of Emerson’s sentences stand out by themselves, alone and exposed like scarecrows in a cornfield….

In this deceptively modest volume Richardson is intent on setting his subject before us not so much as a philosopher—Emerson’s philosophical achievement is taken as recognized—but as a model writer to be profitably emulated by all who would follow the same trade, especially the tyro. His second major theme is that of Emerson the creative reader.1 At no point does Richardson identify to whom his book is primarily addressed, but we may make a fair guess from the fact that he opens his introduction with that splendid piece of encouragement and accommodation from Emerson’s great essay “The American Scholar”:

Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.

Robert Richardson is the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006). These three books taken together—may we call them a trilogy? —form one of the great achievements in contemporary American literary studies. Aside from his learning, which is prodigious, Richardson writes a wonderfully fluent, agile prose; he has a poet’s sense of nuance and a novelist’s grasp of dramatic rhythm; he also displays a positive genius for apt quotation, the result of a total immersion in the work of his three very dissimilar yet subtly complementary thinkers. Can there be any more exciting critical writing than this?

Richardson surely would not object to being described as belonging to the old-fashioned school of critical biographers, in that he has no pseudopolitical axes to grind, and is intent neither on chopping down forests of prejudice nor on putting up cozy log cabins of theory. In his Emerson biography he reads his subject as if he were Emerson’s contemporary—the first duty of every good biographer—yet is clear-eyed on the philosopher’s often contradictory and sometimes shifty attitudes toward, for instance, race,2 the place of women in society, or the relentless and frequently murderous push westward that was one of the most hotly driven programs of the America of his day. In First We Read he is appreciative too of “Emerson’s immodest—almost indecent—ambition,” which

seems both too high and too abstract to be real, or to be believed; but there was always another side to the man, a side where both his feet are planted in everyday reality, a side of him that often sounds overwhelmed, sometimes desperate, but always determined.

It is this combination of ambition and desperation that, we feel, Richardson identifies as the true source of Emerson’s greatness. One of the main causes of excitement when we read Emerson is the spectacle of a man being repeatedly swept away by his own conception of himself and his capacities. Richardson in his introduction notes how we find Emerson as a young man writing in his journal and picking out the proverbs of Solomon and the essays of Francis Bacon and Montaigne and declaring, with the oblivious arrogance of youth: “I should like to add another volume to this valuable work.” Years later, at the close of his essay on Goethe with which the volume Representative Men ends, the older but no less vaunting Emerson is insisting: “We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world.” This will seem preposterous to orthodox Christians, though it made sense to Emerson, as Richardson observes: “But, we say incredulously, what if it was God who was speaking through Solomon? Well, perhaps he would speak through Emerson also.”

Although he does not say so specifically, Richardson in his biography sets out to clear away from our image of Emerson the veils of cobwebs and the thickets of brambles that have accumulated about it in the century and a quarter since his death, and that were, indeed, already beginning to entangle it in the writer’s last, barren years. Emerson has to some extent suffered the fate of all eminently quotable writers, in that much of what he wrote has undergone the distortion of seeming to have been written not by a human hand holding a pen but by a stonemason wielding a chisel. As Richardson points out, however, Emerson in his day was first and foremost a lecturer: “His essays all began as lectures. His writing was first speaking.” This point cannot be made strongly enough or too often.

Richardson isolates a telling and wonderful example of Emerson’s groundedness and commitment to the practical. We all know, though we might not readily know the source, Emerson’s piece of seeming cracker-barrel advice to “hitch your wagon to a star,” which might be the title of a song from a Broadway cowboy musical, but which in fact has its source in the philosopher’s interest in mills powered by the tides:

In Boston a dam was built between two points of land jutting out into Massachusetts Bay, and a tide mill was then situated in the middle of the dam to take advantage of the seven- to nine-foot tides in the area…. Emerson admired the skill behind the arrangement “which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.”

Therefore the advice to hitch your wagon to a star—with, as Richardson observes, the emphasis on your —is no flight of soft-focus fancy but a thoroughly practical recommendation. “This unlikely combination of the high-flying and the down-to-earth,” Richardson writes, “is pure Emerson.”

It is possible to trace the emergence of this “pure Emerson” back to the most significant passage of his life, when at the age of twenty-seven he lost his adored young wife Ellen, who died from tuberculosis after less than two years of marriage, at the age of twenty. It was not the first tragedy Emerson had endured—he was seven when his father died of stomach cancer. Dreadful as that earliest loss must have been, it had one happy result in that Emerson was brought up by his sensible and intelligent mother with the active, on occasion perhaps too active, assistance of his redoubtable Aunt Mary Moody Emerson. This vigorous and intellectually restless spinster lived for periods in the Emerson family home and wielded a deep influence on the young Waldo—the two carried on a sprightly and frequently profound correspondence until Aunt Mary’s death in 1863. It is surely not fanciful to see in Emerson’s unique combination of practicality and speculative adventurousness the marks of his upbringing under the not at all constricting wings of these two capable and independent-minded women.

The death of his young wife set off, or perhaps merely quickened, an intellectual and spiritual crisis in the young Emerson. It was a strange time, “the most eventful of my life,” as he wrote in a letter to Aunt Mary: “My angel is gone to heaven this morning and I am alone in the world and strangely happy.” Yet he was lost too in “grief sharpened into anguish by ‘the complete wreck of earthly good.’” He was already a Unitarian minister at Boston’s Second Church, but from the start of his ministry he had been suffering Doubts, the bane of nineteenth-century churchmen, whose religious ditherings seem faintly comical to us latter-day skeptics though they brought with them genuine heartsickness and trauma. Now something broke in him, and broke out in him. Richardson writes in Emerson: The Mind on Fire:

Ellen’s death undermined both Emerson’s personal world and the public institutional world he had embraced while married. He reacted to being separated from Ellen by separating himself from the church, from Boston, from the prevailing thought of the time (Scottish Common Sense), from…the Massachusetts senate chaplaincy, and from the cramping form of the sermon. The loss that darkened his life also freed him. Ellen’s death cut Emerson loose. Excluded from conventional happiness, he abandoned conventional life. He redoubled his efforts, albeit with a touch of panic, to live his own life and think his own thoughts.

This period was marked by an intensification of his interests both in Eastern philosophy and religion and in science, particularly cosmology. In the writings of the astronomer John Herschel, as Richardson points out, he discerned the presence of a fellow spirit. Many of Herschel’s sentences sound an echo of Emerson’s later writings, for example Herschel’s observation that “man is constituted as a speculative being; he contemplates the world, and the objects around him, not with a passive, indifferent eye, but as a system disposed with order and design,” and his noting that to the natural philosopher, which is what scientists were called in those days, “there is no natural object unimportant or trifling.” Richardson also quotes, giving it due Emersonian significance, Herschel’s conception of the scientist:

Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and unenquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders.

The result for Emerson of these new intellectual ventures was radical and disruptive: “I regard it as the irresistible effect of the Copernican astronomy to have made the theological scheme of redemption absolutely incredible.” He had passed beyond doubt to a new and negative conviction. He could no longer abide by the conventions of the Second Church, and he told the church elders so, with an entirely characteristic absence of apology or prevarication. He wrote a letter to inform them that he could no longer observe the traditional administration of Communion, saying that this mode of commemorating Christ was not suitable to him, and that this was sufficient reason for him to abandon it. Candor or disdain? Honesty or hubris? It is always hard to tell with Emerson.

Richardson is adamant in his insistence that Emerson’s break with the church was not a break with religious faith—“If anything, Emerson believed too much, not too little”—but “a specific rejection of the idea that the center of Christianity is the fall of humankind in Adam and Eve and the redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Christ.” He had freed himself, and from now on he would think his own thoughts, and formulate his own beliefs. This new position was won through great cost, not only the suffering and anguish he had experienced at the death of Ellen, but the realization of what it means truly to be free. In his journal he wrote:

It is awful to look into the mind of man and see how free we are…. Outside, among your fellows, among strangers, you must preserve appearances,—a hundred things you cannot do: but inside,—the terrible freedom.

In September 1832 he resigned from the ministry, and a month later his resignation was accepted. Richardson, with his aforementioned genius for settling on the apt quotation, cites in his biography a poem Emerson began at the time:

I will not live out of me
I will not see with others’ eyes
My good is good, my evil ill
I would be free.

Adrift and rudderless, he toyed with one idea after another about what he should do with himself. He might start a magazine, he might make himself into “the modern Plutarch,” he might go south to the sun. Instead, in December that same year, and on a whim,3 he gave up his house, auctioned his furniture, arranged for new living quarters for his mother, and on Christmas Day took ship for Europe. In a way, he never looked back.

Everything a man knows and does enters into and modifies his expression of himself,” the young Emerson had written in his journal. The new self that Emerson discovered, or forged, in his European travels is a Goethean figure, one that strives endlessly to achieve himself, to become, as Nietzsche has it, that which he is. In this context Richardson quotes approvingly Goethe’s rhetorical question: “What is genius but the faculty of seizing and turning to account everything that strikes us?” Emerson had always been, but from now on would be even more so, a man who, in Thomas Hardy’s phrase, noticed such things. Life, and not the recording of it, is the essential thing, the required striving of the man who would be whole. Those who accuse Emerson of anti-intellectualism, of a sort of Yankee impatience with the things of the mind, fail to see a subtle distinction in his view of what the intellect does. “Reading is creative for Emerson,” Richardson astutely notes; “it is also active.” He reproduces from the essay “History”—surely one of Emerson’s finest pieces—the insistence that “the student is to read actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary,” and remarks:

All Emerson’s comments about reading aim to strengthen the authority of readers (and writers) of books, and to weaken or lighten the authority of books themselves. In an unpublished late essay called “Subjectiveness,” he put it with compressed simplicity. While you are reading, he said, “you are the book’s book.”

For Emerson there is no such thing as escapist reading—although surely all reading is at one level an escape from the tyranny of the self, even if into a truer, more authentic version of that self—and in a wrathful cry that many will join in with today he excoriated much of the so-called literature of his time: “American writing can be written at odd minutes,—Unitarian writing [!], Congress speeches, railroad novels.”

Emerson’s own reading was immensely wide yet curiously slapdash. He read anything and everything, without system—but then, he was as great an anti-systematizer as Nietzsche—and derived much derisive merriment from his friend Thoreau’s insistence on reading the classics in the original, when perfectly adequate translations were to hand. He flicked cavalierly through the most urgently demanding tomes, picking up magpie-fashion the more glittering ideas and observations.

Speaking to a younger admirer, Charles Woodbury, he cautioned that “reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes.” He also advised him to “stop if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph,” and that he should “learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them…. The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.” One imagines the dewy-minded ephebe nodding, swallowing hard, and turning away with a thoughtful look in his eye.

And then, when the reading is done, there is the writing. Recalling Thoreau’s characteristically Thoreauvian observation that “in the long run men hit only what they aim at,” Richardson singles out, as the best bit of practical advice Emerson ever gave to anyone wishing to write, the typically violent and risk-laden urging: “The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.” Emerson, with that sense of desperation and near panic that Richardson identifies as one of the chief traits of his work, always saw writing as an act that is as much physical as mental, a venture into the real world and not a mere spinning of castles in the vacant air of the mind. He considered the writer to be among “the great class, they who affect our imagination, the men who could not make their hands meet around their objects, the rapt, the lost, the fools of ideas.” In this aspect he was himself the great exemplar. Richardson observes that “in every admonition [about writing] we hear his willingness to confront his own failures; indeed, he never seems more than a few inches from utter calamity.”

This is why Emerson’s work thrills us, worries us, even frightens us a little. It is a banal analogy, one that Emerson himself would never have stooped to, but we do read him with the breathless avidity and even schadenfreude with which we watch a tightrope walker inching along the thrumming rope up there in the dusty, spotlit darkness. For him, all is doing, all is risk. “Life,” he famously writes in “Experience,” “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 the gulf, in the darting to an aim.” The writer, of course, does it all twice, first lives—and reads!—then writes. Emerson knows well but does not reckon the cost:

A writer must live and die by his writing. Good for that and good for nothing else. A War; an earthquake, the revival of letters, the new dispensation by Jesus, or by Angels, Heaven, Hell, power, science, the Neant [Nothingness],—exist only to him as colors for his brush.

In this brief, elegant, and quietly passionate volume Robert Richardson has produced an invaluable handbook for the writer and aspirant writer, a copy of which should be presented to every student in every writing class around the world,4 for it is a serious course he is embarked on, in which he must learn to write not in the hope of expressing his puny self but to be, among other things, a guardian of language. The poet, Emerson himself tells us, “is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.” It is a noble calling, and calls for noble sacrifice, even in these ignoble days.

  1. 1

    Emerson cast himself, and those of us as willing as he, in the role, writing in “The American Scholar”: “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” See Essays and Lectures, edited by Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983), p. 59.

  2. 2

    Emerson indeed is no garden-variety racist or ranting xenophobe, yet he is a racist in the American grain in that his notion of human personality is, in part, dependent on and derived from his view of the races.” See Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 28. “But while Emerson will concede the importance we actually give to race, he is much less sure what importance we really should give it…. [He] is not finally persuaded by racial determinism: ‘The fixity or inconvertibleness of races as we see them, is a weak argument for the eternity of these frail boundaries.’” See Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (University of California Press, 1995), p. 519.

  3. 3

    One of his most subversive yet deceptively simple declarations comes in the essay “Self-Reliance”: “I would write on the lintels of the door-post: Whim,” which could be a line from Robert Frost, or even Wallace Stevens.

  4. 4

    Emerson in his journal:

    Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have seen mountains, if they speak of them. The young writers seem to have seen pictures of mountains. The wish to write poetry they have, but not the poetic fury; and what they write is studies, sketches, fantasies, and not yet the inestimable poem.

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