Mr. America

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter

by John McAleer
Little, Brown, 748 pp., $27.50
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson; drawing by David Levine


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…

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