Waldo Emerson: A Biography
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.