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Emerson: The Good Hours

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Library of Congress
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson sought “to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he,” hence it is unlikely that he frets in his grave over the fact that academic philosophers still do not know what to make of him. Philosophy obsesses over knowledge, yet Emerson’s dominant passion was not to know but to grow. “Expression is all we want,” he wrote in his journals. “Not knowledge, but vent: we know enough; but have not leaves & lungs enough for a healthy perspiration & growth.”1

What must grow, ever anew, day in and day out, is one’s inner genius, which his essay “Self-Reliance” defines thus: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.” In this respect the bloggers of our age have more Emersonian genius in them than our analytic philosophers, for good or ill.

In the quote from his journals, Emerson mentions expression and growth in the same breath. Self-expression through writing was an almost organic need of his, as if his genius received its daily bread from his pen. For over fifty years he spent a good part of his time writing in his journals, fostering the growth of that forever embryonic inner self whose health depended on it: “Writing is always my metre of health—writing, which a sane philosopher would probably say was the surest symptom of a diseased mind.” In this respect too, Emerson, like some other thinkers who were first and foremost writers (Nietzsche, for example), does not belong among the ranks of sane philosophers, for whom writing is the annotation, rather than flower, of thought. It is primarily for his prose that we read Emerson.

While I do not share the widely held view that his journals represent the crowning achievement of his writing career, there is no doubt that Emerson the journal keeper is a more full-bodied, historically situated, moody, and self-questioning author than the essayist. His journals were the incubator of his sermons, lectures, essays, poems, and translations, almost all of which received their first transcriptions there. Beyond this, they are, as he wrote to his friend Thomas Carlyle,

full of disjointed dreams, audacities, unsystematic irresponsible lampoons of systems, and all manner of rambling reveries, the poor drupes and berries I find in my basket after aimless rambles in woods and pastures.

The operative word is “full.” In addition to such miscellanea, the journals contain detailed accounts of Emerson’s readings, travels, personal relationships, economic transactions, existential crises, professional life, and incessant mood swings. So great was his need for daily expression that on those occasions when he had nothing to say (and they were many) he lamented his listlessness loquaciously.

A handful of specialists may feel obliged to trudge through the sixteen massive volumes of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson published by Harvard University Press between 1960 and 1982, yet for the rest of us Emerson’s journals—three million words in all—are readable only in selected form.2 The two-volume Library of America edition under review contains roughly a third of the complete journals and none of the notebooks, and represents the most comprehensive selection published to date. Lawrence Rosenwald, the editor, is true to his word when he states that the goals of the selection were twofold: “to present Emerson’s best and most vital writing, and to retain what was most significant biographically and historically in the journals.”

Rosenwald wisely chose to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. By retaining much that is tedious (the two volumes together number nearly two thousand pages), he has preserved the excessive, if not obsessive, quality of Emerson’s journals. One gets a palpable sense of the incessant diurnal cycle governing the writing process over the span of decades, like the rhythms of the tide. This daily tide leaves things on the beach we never expected to find there. Its deposits show us the surrounding sand, sea, sky, sun, and moon in new perspectives as well, which is another way of saying that the journals throw into relief the diverse worlds—personal, social, intellectual, and national—that Emerson inhabited and with which he conversed.

The ideal way to approach the journals would be to read a few pages every day, over a long period of time, following the natural rhythms of the entries themselves. This, however, would be an altogether un-Emersonian way to read Emerson, who warned against getting wrapped up in another author’s writings. In “The American Scholar,” he writes: “Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” To a young college student he once declared: “What another sees and tells you is not yours, but his,” adding, “often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals when the gaze obscures.”

Nevertheless, those who would gaze rather than glance at this excellent edition of the journals will find a great deal in them of documentary interest. The entries about the emergence of Transcendentalism and the founding of The Dial are absorbing, as are those relating to the storm of controversy that erupted over Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” in 1838 (a storm that, surprisingly, took him by surprise). The first volume, covering the years 1820–1842, contains intriguing first-hand portraits of some of the major intellectual figures of the day. In 1833, when Emerson was three years shy of publishing Nature, he writes of meeting the aging Romantic luminaries Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth; but they are “none of a world-filling fame” and “all deficient all these four—in different degrees but all deficient—in insight into religious truth.”

Is this the Unitarian Emerson reacting against the spiritual shortcomings of the strange mix of Anglicanism, nature worship, and German pietism that shapes the religious thought of the English Romantics? Or is he already finding compensation for the shortcomings of “experience”? What to make of this dismissal: “You speak to them as to children or persons of inferior capacity whom it is necessary to humor; adapting our tone & remarks to their known prejudices & not to our knowledge of the truth”?

If the luminaries prove dim, some lesser lights blaze bright. Achille Murat, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom the young man met in South Carolina in 1827, impressed him hugely. To the zealous Emerson, the atheistic Murat reconciles irreconcilable “masters”: “greatness in the world & greatness of soul.” Here we see a youthful Emerson enamored of the magnetic power he sought to explain a quarter of a century later in Representative Men, where he dubbed Napoleon “The Man of the World.”

Emerson published Representative Men in 1850, the same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which called for the return of runaway slaves to their Southern masters. Emerson’s vexation over the law comprises some of his longest entries in volume two, monopolizing his pen as no other topic could. He became a committed abolitionist only after he felt himself personally entangled in slavery. His diary entries reveal just how personally he took the Fugitive Slave Act:

Bad times. We wake up with a painful auguring, and after exploring a little to know the cause find it is the odious news in each day’s paper, the infamy that has fallen on Massachusetts, that clouds the daylight, & takes away the comfort out of every hour. We shall never feel well again until that detestable law is nullified in Massachusetts & until the Government is assured that once for all it cannot & shall not be executed here. All I have, and all I can do shall be given & done in opposition to the execution of the law.

The law provoked Emerson to denounce, both privately and publicly, Senator Daniel Webster, who had signed on to it in an attempt to placate the South and save the Union through political compromise. About Webster, whom he had once admired and emulated, Emerson said: “Mr. Webster perhaps is only following the laws of his blood and constitution,” adding, in one of his many memorable sentences: “All the drops of his blood have eyes that look downward.”

Consistency, however, is not an Emersonian virtue, so it is not surprising that two years later, upon learning of Webster’s death, Emerson would write in his journals: “The sea, the rocks, the woods, gave no sign that America & the world had lost the completest man. Nature had not in our days, or, not since Napoleon, cut out such a masterpiece.”

In his essays Emerson offers some shockingly blunt criticisms of philanthropy—a hallowed American virtue, both then and now—yet the animadversions in the journals are all the more raw to the degree that they have no clear audience and no discernible rhetorical motivation. Independence Day, 1839:

I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the shilling, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me & to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought & sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your nonsense of popular charity, the suckling of fools, the building of meetinghouses, the alms to sots,—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb & give the dollar it is a wicked dollar which by & by I shall have the manhood to withhold. I have no duties so peremptory as my intellectual duties.

In “Self-Reliance” these comments are reiterated nearly verbatim, but there they are given social and philosophical motives. In the journals, they are unfiltered, reactive perceptions that seem to come from nowhere, welling up with unmediated force. What many prize in the journals is precisely this multifaceted, emotionally turbulent, and unpredictable Emerson, who in “Self-Reliance” writes that he is ready to “shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me,” but who in the journals writes: “I hate father & mother & wife & brother.”

The journals are at their most intense in their accounts of how Emerson dealt with a series of crushing losses. In 1831 his young and beautiful wife Ellen Tucker—the only woman whom he loved with a real passion—died of tuberculosis, after only two years of marriage. “O willingly, my wife, would I lie down in your tomb,” he wrote at the time. A year later he wrote: “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin,” a statement that squeamish scholars prefer to take symbolically rather than literally.

In 1834 Emerson lost his younger brother Edward—a brilliant young man whose death, like Ellen Tucker’s, was preceded by a prolonged illness. Yet it was the more sudden, unexpected death of his older brother Charles two years later, on May 9, 1836, that dealt Emerson an especially heavy blow. In Charles, Emerson had “a brother and a friend in one.” The two were intellectually and spiritually close, bound together by what Emerson called “an occult hereditary sympathy.” His entries between May 16 and May 22 of that year are of a grief so intense that their pages, over a century later, reach the reader heavy and wet with tears. The same applies to the entries surrounding the death of Emerson’s beloved five-year-old son Waldo in 1842.

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    The question of whether Emerson was a philosopher is one that refuses to die. Nietzsche found in him a great kindred spirit, yet wrote in a letter, “In Emerson we have lost a philosopher.” Many professional philosophers believe that to consider him one means to confuse bombast with argumentation, oration with demonstration, hence to misconstrue and denigrate the very discipline of philosophy. In the view of others, this only confirms the narrow, straightjacket concept of philosophy that reigns in most Anglo-American universities. For Stanley Cavell—one of America’s great living thinkers—Emerson represents a profound philosophical challenge to philosophy’s traditional understanding of its calling. Harold Bloom, while hailing Emerson as “the mind of our [American] climate” and “the principal source of the American difference in poetry and criticism and in pragmatic postphilosophy,” nevertheless insists that Emerson is not a philosopher, let alone a transcendental philosopher (“This obvious truth always needs restating,” in Bloom’s words. See “Mr. America,” The New York Review, November 22, 1984).

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    With the Library of America’s publication of Emerson’s Journals, a controversy that died a natural death long ago, but was never properly buried, finally comes to rest. It began in January 1968 with an article in The New York Review by Lewis Mumford, the title of which—”Emerson Behind Barbed Wires”—signaled Mumford’s serious misgivings about Harvard University Press’s edition of The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (henceforth JMN), of which six of sixteen volumes had appeared. While Mumford welcomed publication of the complete Journals (the previous ten-volume edition, edited by Emerson’s son Edward Waldo Emerson, and his grandson Waldo Emerson Forbes, sixty years earlier, contained only a partial, somewhat bowdlerized selection), he objected to the Harvard editors’ decision to publish Emerson’s Journals alongside his Notebooks, arguing that such an immensity of material was essentially unreadable. Their thousands of combined pages did little more than relentlessly “regurgitate the undigested contents of Emerson’s mind.”

    Mumford’s indignation at the editorial project did not stop there: “As is the way of many hi-fi enthusiasts,” he wrote, “the editors show more concern to reproduce the original scratches and squeaks than the music;…they have made the scratches an integral part of the sentences from which Emerson had already eliminated them, reinstating the slips, the false starts, the rejected ideas, as of equal importance to the final expression.” This unreadability was exacerbated, for Mumford, by the “ruthless typographical mutilation” of twenty different diacritical marks used to indicate cancellations, variants, insertions, and erasures in the manuscripts—hence the “barbed wire” surrounding Emerson in the JMN.

    The target of Mumford’s controversial attack was not so much the JMN editors as the “Academic Establishment of which they are a part.” In 1968, the term “Academic Establishment” had a distinctly objectionable resonance. It is clear from his review that Mumford believed the humanities were losing their soul, straying further and further away from what should have been their higher calling, namely to counter the shallow materialism of the age and respiritualize modern society. Instead they were becoming increasingly “mock-scientific.” A work such as the JMN represented, for Mumford, a “repulsive caricature of the sober scholarly virtues it sought to exemplify.”

    Predictably enough, Mumford’s review was met with howls of protest by the Establishment he had accused. Many letters defending the JMN came pouring into The New York Review. There was one letter, however, that took Mumford’s side. In it, Edmund Wilson declared that the editing of classical American authors had become an “academic racket,” and he called instead for an American publication series along the lines of the French Pléiade—one that would publish, and keep in print, the complete works of important American writers and selections of the less important; that would be well edited but not “pretentiously” edited; that would be printed on good-quality thin paper; and that would be reasonably priced. Wilson inflamed matters by accusing the Modern Language Association of usurping the seed money that he had been promised by the NEH to create precisely such a series. Thus began the MLA Scholarly Editions debates of the late 1960s and early 1970s, triggered in large part by Mumford’s 1967 review of the JMN, and summed up by Wilson’s two-part “The Fruits of the MLA” between September 26 and October 10, 1968. There, after promoting his idea for an American publication that would eventually take form as the Library of America series, Wilson harangued the editors of William Dean Howells’s first novel, Their Wedding Journey, along the same lines laid forth by Mumford, and lambasted “a new federal program called ‘work-study’” for leading to such “a boondoggle” as the team of eighteen “Mark Twain workers” (his withholding of the title “scholars” is telling) who “are reading Tom Sawyer, word by word, backward, in order to ascertain, without being diverted from this drudgery by attention to the story or the style, how many times ‘Aunt Polly’ is printed as ‘aunt Polly,’ and how many times ‘ssst!’ is printed as ‘sssst!’”

    Wilson’s vision of an American Pléiade-like series became a reality some ten years later with the founding of the Library of America in 1979, thanks to his prolonged and passionate advocacy and to substantial grant money from the NEH and the Ford Foundation. The Library of America’s first volume (Melville, Typee, Omoo, Mardi) was published in 1982, ten years after Wilson’s death. Now, forty-two years after Mumford’s review, and after publishing Emerson’s Essays and Lectures in 1983 and his Collected Poems and Translations in 1994, the Library of America offers us its edition of Emerson’s Selected Journals (numbers 201 and 202 of the LOA series).

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