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 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

This is from the sublime essay, “Fate,” which leads off The Conduct of Life, and culminates in the outrageous question: “Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements?” Elsewhere in “Fate,” Emerson observes: “The way of Providence is a little rude,” while in “Power” he restates the law of Compensation as: “nothing is got for nothing.” Emerson too is no sentimentalist, and it is something of a puzzle how he ever got to be regarded as anything other than a rather frightening theoretician of life or of letters. But then, his personality also remains a puzzle. He was to his contemporaries the true prophet of an American kind of charisma, and founded the actual American religion, which is Protestant without being Christian. Was the man one with the essayist, or was only the wisdom uncanny in our pervasive and inescapable sage?


A biography of Emerson is necessarily somewhat redundant, because Emerson, like Montaigne, is almost always his own subject, though hardly in Montaigne’s mode. Emerson would not have said: “I am myself the matter of my book,” yet Emerson on “History” is more Emerson than history. Though he is almost never overtly autobiographical, his best lesson nevertheless is that all true subjectivity is a high but difficult achievement, while supposed objectivity is merely the failure of having become an amalgam of other selves and their opinions. Though he is in the oral tradition, his true genre was no more the lecture than it had been the sermon when he was at the Second Church in Boston, and certainly not the essay, though that is his only formal achievement, besides a double handful of strong poems.

His journals are his authentic work, and seem to me poorly represented by all available selections. Perhaps the journals simply ought not to be condensed, because Emerson’s reader needs to be immersed in their flow and ebb, their own recording of the experience of the influx of insight followed by the perpetual falling back into skepticism. They move continually between a possible ecstasy and a probable shrewdness, while seeming always aware that neither demonic intensity nor worldly irony by itself can constitute wisdom.

Emerson’s first twenty-seven years demonstrate a continuous striving to overcome his American Protestant heritage, without, however, wholly repudiating it. In the autumn of 1830, when he was twenty-seven and still practicing as a minister, we find the first journal entry on Self-Reliance, in which he refuses to be “a secondary man” imitating any other being. A year later (October 27, 1831) we hear the birth of Emerson’s reader’s Sublime, the notion that what moves us in the eloquence, written or oral, of another must be what is oldest in oneself. That is to say, we were not made by God, but like God himself we are part of the original Abyss:

Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,—did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth. Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.9

On October 28, 1832, Emerson’s resignation as Unitarian minister was accepted (very reluctantly) by the Second Church, Boston. The supposed issue was the proper way of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but the underlying issue, at least for Emerson himself, was celebrating the self as God. Stephen Whicher in his superb Emerson: An Organic Anthology (still the best one-volume selection of Emerson) gathered together the relevant notebook texts of October 1832. We find Emerson, sustained by daemonic influx, asserting: “It is light. You don’t get a candle to see the sun rise,” where clearly Jesus is the candle and Emerson is the sunrise (prophetic, like so much else in early Emerson, of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra). The most outrageous instance of an inrush of God in Emerson is the notorious and still much derided “transparent eye-ball” passage in Nature (1836), which is based upon a journal entry of March 19, 1835. But I give the final text, from Nature:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear…. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.10

Nature, in this passage as in the title of the little book, Nature, is rather perversely the wrong word, since Emerson does not mean “nature” in any accepted sense whatsoever. He means Man, and not a natural man or fallen Adam, but original Man or fallen Adam, which is to say America, in the transcendental sense, just as Blake’s Albion is the unfallen form of Man. Emerson’s primal Man, to whom Emerson is joined in this epiphany, is all eye, seeing earliest, precisely as though no European, and no ancient Greek or Hebrew, had seen before him. There is a personal pathos as well, which Emerson’s contemporary readers could not have known. Emerson feared blindness more than death, although his family was tubercular, and frequently died young. But there had been an episode of hysterical blindness during his college years, and its memory, however repressed, hovers throughout his work. Freud’s difficult “frontier concept” of the bodily ego, which is formed partly by introjective fantasies, suggests that thinking can be associated with any of the senses or areas of the body. Emerson’s fantastic introjection of the transparent eyeball as the bodily ego seems to make thinking and seeing the same activity, one that culminates in self-deification.

Emerson’s power as a kind of interior orator stems from this self-deification. “Nothing is got for nothing,” and perhaps the largest pragmatic consequence of being “part or particle of God” is that your need for other people necessarily is somewhat diminished. The transparent eyeball passage itself goes on to manifest an estrangement from the immediacy of other selves:

The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance.11

This passage must have hurt Emerson himself, hardly a person for whom “to be brothers” ever was “a trifle and a disturbance.” The early death of his brother Charles, just four months before Nature was published in 1836, was one of his three terrible losses, the others being the death of Ellen Tucker, his first wife, in 1831, after little more than a year of marriage, and the death of his first born child, Waldo, in January 1842, when the boy was only five years old. Emerson psychically was preternaturally strong, but it is difficult to interpret the famous passage in his great essay, “Experience,” where he writes of Waldo’s death:

An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So it is with this calamity: it does not touch me: some-thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar.12

Perhaps Emerson should have written an essay entitled “The Economic Problem of Grief” but perhaps most of his essays carry that as a hidden subtitle. The enigma of grief in Emerson, after all, may be the secret cause of his strength, of his refusal to mourn for the past. Self-reliance, the American religion he founded, converts solitude into a firm stance against history, including personal history. There is no history, only biography—this Emerson insists upon, but not in the sense that biography is a mere history of a life—and this may be why a particular biography of Emerson appears to be impossible. John McAleer’s new biography sets out shrewdly to evade the Emersonian entrapment, which is that Emerson recognizes only biography, and acknowledges Emerson’s own idea of biography as a record of the inner life or what one has done with one’s solitude.

Such worthy practitioners of the mode as Ralph Rusk and Gay Wilson Allen worked mightily to shape the facts into a life, but were evaded by Emerson.13 Where someone lives so formidably from within, he cannot be caught by chroniclers of events, public and private. McAleer instead molds his facts as a series of encounters between Emerson and all his friends and associates. Unfortunately, Emerson’s encounters with others—whether his brothers, wives, children, or Transcendental and other literary colleagues—are little more revelatory of his inner life than are his encounters with events, whether it be the death of Waldo or the Civil War. All McAleer’s patience, skill, and learning cannot overcome the sage’s genius for solitude. A biography of Emerson becomes as baffling as a biography of Nietzsche, though the two lives have nothing in common, except of course for ideas. Nietzsche acknowledged Emerson, with affection and enthusiasm, but he probably did not realize how fully Emerson had anticipated him, particularly in unsettling the status of the self while proclaiming simultaneously a great Overself to come.


The critic of Emerson is little better off than the biographer, since Emerson, again like Nietzsche and remarkably also akin to Freud, anticipates his critics and does their work for them. Emerson resembles his own hero, Montaigne, in that you cannot combat him without being contaminated by him. T.S. Eliot, ruefully contemplating Pascal’s hopeless contest with Montaigne, observed that fighting Montaigne was like throwing a hand grenade into a fog. Emerson, because he appropriated the position of America’s spokesman, is more a climate even than an atmosphere, however misty. Attempting to write the order of the variable winds in the Emersonian climate is a hopeless task, and the best critics of Emerson, from John Jay Chapman and O. W. Firkins through Stephen Whicher to Barbara Packer and Richard Poirier, wisely decline to list his ideas of order. You track him best, as a writer and as a person, by learning the principle proclaimed everywhere in him: that which you can get from another is never instruction, but always provocation.

But what is provocation, in the life of the spirit? Emerson insisted that he called you forth only to your self, and not to any cause whatsoever. The will to power, in Emerson as afterward in Nietzsche, is reactive rather than active, receptive rather than rapacious, which is to say that it is a will to interpretation. Emerson teaches us how to interpret, according to the principle that there is no method except yourself. This is counter to any of the European modes fashionable either in his day or in our own, modes currently touching their nadir in a younger rabblement celebrating itself as having repudiated the very idea of an individual reader or an individual critic. Group criticism, like group sex, is not a new idea, but seems to revive whenever a sense of resentment dominates the aspiring clerisy. With resentment comes guilt, as though social oppressions are caused by how we read, and so we get those academic covens akin to what Emerson himself, in his 1838 journal, called “philanthropic meetings and holy hurrahs,” for which read now “Marxist literary groups” and “Lacanian theory circles”:

As far as I notice what passes in philanthropic meetings and holy hurrahs there is very little depth of interest. The speakers warm each other’s skin and lubricate each other’s tongue, and the words flow and the superlatives thicken and the lips quiver and the eyes moisten, and an observer new to such scenes would say, Here was true fire; the assembly were all ready to be martyred, and the effect of such a spirit on the community would be irresistible; but they separate and go to the shop, to a dance, to bed, and an hour afterward they care so little for the matter that on slightest temptation each one would disclaim the meeting.14

My polemical aside, Emersonian in its spirit, is inspired by a sense of how Emerson would respond to the current flight from individuality in literary critical circles.

Emerson, according to President Giamatti of Yale, “was as sweet as barbed wire,” a judgment recently achieved independently by John Updike.15 Yes, and doubtless Emerson gave our politics its particular view of power as freed from all moral limitations, as Giamatti laments, but a country deserves its sages, and we deserve Emerson. He has the peculiar dialectical gift of being precursor for both the perpetual New Left of student nonstudents and the perpetual New Right of preacher nonpreachers. The American religion of self-reliance is a superb literary religion, but its political, economic, and social consequences, whether manifested left or right, have now helped to place us in a country where literary satire of politics is impossible, since the real thing is far more outrageous than even a satirist of genius could invent. Nathanael West presumably was parodying Calvin Coolidge in A Cool Million’s Shagpoke Whipple, but is this Shagpoke Whipple or President Reagan speaking?

America is the land of opportunity. She takes care of the honest and industrious and never fails them as long as they are both. This is not a matter of opinion, it is one of faith. On the day that Americans stop believing it, on that day will America be lost.

Emerson unfortunately believed in Necessity, including “the offence of superiority in persons,” and he was capable of writing passages that can help to justify Reagan’s large share of the Yuppie vote, as here in “Self-Reliance”:

Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.16

True, Emerson meant by his “class of persons” such as his friend Henry Thoreau, his dissenting disciple, the mad poet Jones Very, and his precursor, the Reverend William Ellery Channing, which is not exactly Shagpoke Whipple, Ronald Reagan, and the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Self-Reliance translated out of the inner life and into the marketplace is difficult to distinguish from our current religion of selfishness, as set forth so sublimely in the recent grand Epiphany at Dallas. Shrewd Yankee that he was, Emerson would have shrugged off his various and dubious paternities. His spiritual elitism could only be misunderstood, but he did not much care about being misread and misused. Though he has been so oddly called “the philosopher of democracy” by so many who wished to claim him for the left, the political Emerson remains best expressed in one famous and remarkable sentence by John Jay Chapman: “If a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson.”17


I return with some relief to Emerson as literary prophet, where the new McAleer biography enriches our store of anecdote, and where Emerson’s effect upon all of us, pace Yvor Winters, seems to me again dialectical but in the end inevitable. Emerson’s influence, from his day until ours, has helped to account for what I would call the American difference in literature, not only in our poetry and criticism, but even in our novels and stories, ironic since Emerson was at best uneasy about novels. This difference from European antecedents emphasizes always the repressions and recalcitrances within the self that prevent us from emerging into the courage of a full expression of our own uniqueness, cultural and personal.

What is truly surprising about this influence are its depth, extent, and persistence, despite many concealments and even more evasions. Emerson does a lot more to explain most American writers than any of our writers, even Whitman or Thoreau or Dickinson or Hawthorne or Melville, serve to explain him. He exposes the submerged premises that inform the work of writers doubtless of more aesthetic stature than he himself achieved. The important question to ask is not “how?” but “why?” Scholarship keeps showing that “how” by demonstrating the details of Emerson’s continued effect upon those who come after (though there is a great deal more to be shown). But it ought to be a function of criticism to get at that scarcely explored “why.”

Emerson was controversial in his own earlier years, and then became all but universally accepted (except, of course, in the South) during his later years. This ascendancy faded during the Age of Literary Modernism (circa 1915–1945) and virtually vanished, as I remarked earlier, in the heyday of academic New Criticism or Age of Eliot (circa 1945–1965). Despite the humanistic protests of President Giamatti, and the churchwardenly mewings of John Updike, the last two decades have witnessed an Emerson revival, and I prophesy that he, rather than Marx or Heidegger, will be the guiding spirit of our imaginative literature and our criticism for some time to come. In that prophecy, “Emerson” stands for not only the theoretical position and wisdom of the historical Ralph Waldo, but for the parallels with Nietzsche, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, and much of Freud as well, since Emerson’s elitist vision of the higher individual is so consonant with theirs.

Like Nietzsche, Pater, Wilde, and the later Freud, Emerson is more than prepared to give up on the great masses that constitute humankind. His hope, and theirs, is that a small community of the spirit can come into existence, whether organized or not, and can continue to maintain a rational understanding of the endlessly painful interplay between culture and its inherent sorrows.

Individualism, whatever damages its American ruggedness continues to inflict on our politics and social economy, is more than ever the only hope for our imaginative lives. Emerson, who knew that the only literary and critical method was the externalization of the self, is again a necessary resource in a time beginning to weary of Gallic scientism in what are still called the humanities.

Lewis Mumford, in The Golden Day (1926), still is the best guide to why Emerson was and is the central influence upon American letters: “With most of the resources of the past at his command, Emerson achieved nakedness.” Wisely seeing that Emerson was a Darwinian before Darwin, a Freudian before Freud, because he possessed “a complete vision” of the human potential, negative and positive, Mumford was able to make the classic formulation of Emerson’s strength: “The past for Emerson was neither a prescription nor a burden: it was rather an aesthetic experience.”18 As a poem already written, the past was not a force for Emerson; it had lost power, because power for him resided only at the crossing, at the actual moment of transition.

The dangers of this repression of the past’s force are evident enough, in American life as in its literature. In our political economy, we get the force of secondary repetition, Reagan as Coolidge out-Shagpoking Nathanael West’s Whipple. We receive also the rhythm of ebb and flow that makes all our greater writers into crisis poets. Each of them echoes, however involuntarily, Emerson’s formula for discontinuity in his weird, irrealistic essay, “Circles”:

Our moods do not believe in each other. Today I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, tomorrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.19

From God to weed and then back again; it is the cycle of Whitman from “Song of Myself” to “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” and of Emerson’s and Whitman’s descendants ever since. Place everything upon the nakedness of the American self, and you open every imaginative possibility from self-deification to absolute nihilism. But Emerson knew this, and saw no alternative for us, if we were to avoid the predicament of arriving too late in the cultural history of the West. Nothing is got for nothing—as he phrased it in his ironic New England law of Compensation; Emerson is not less correct now than he was a hundred and fifty years ago. On November 21, 1834, he wrote in his journal: “When we have lost our God of tradition and ceased from our God of rhetoric then may God fire the heart with his presence.” 20 Our God of tradition, then and now, is as dead as Emerson and Nietzsche declared him to be. He belongs, in life, to the political clerics and the clerical politicians and, in letters, to the secondary men and women. Our God of rhetoric belongs to the academies, where he is called by the name of the Gallic Demiurge, Language. That leaves the American imagination free as always to open itself to the third God of Emerson’s prayer, the god in the self.

This Issue

November 22, 1984