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.


Emerson’s reactions to these overwhelming losses have tended to baffle scholars. The journals show that in each case, with the possible exception of the last, the deaths were followed by extraordinary surges of inspiration, vitality, and self-affirmation. After Ellen’s death, Emerson experienced a sense of wonder in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In his ensuing state of exuberance, he conceived and drafted the ideas that he would subsequently publish in his seminal first book Nature, which lays out his lofty Transcendentalist doctrines about a benign cosmos, the divinity of the self, and the deep correspondence between the spiritual and material worlds.

Likewise, the death of Charles unleashed latent energies in Emerson, reinforcing his conviction that the universe is benevolent and the self absolute, so much so that he speculates that the self is the measure, if not cause, of the demise of its loved ones. The following remarks in his journals, a month after Charles’s death, reveal how, far from feeling chastened by the event, Emerson saw in it further evidence of the self’s sovereignty over matters of life and death:

As soon as your friend has become to you an object of thought, has revealed to you with great prominence a new nature, & has become a measure whereof you are fully possessed to guage & test more, as his character become solid & sweet wisdom it is already a sign to you that his office to you is closing; expect thenceforward the hour in which he shall be withdrawn from your sight.

To suggest that the other’s reality is a function of “my own constitution,” and that my friend’s death is due to my having incorporated his or her character, wisdom, or usefulness, is beyond solipsistic. Some would say it is delusional. Yet we already know that Emerson is not a “sane philosopher.” In his essay “Experience,” Emerson expresses this extraordinary thesis in veiled, somewhat milder terms: “Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”

It was this ability of Emerson to transvalue the tragic—to earn dividends from his losses and reassert the self against calamity—that prompted James M. Cox to claim that “there is a sense in which Emerson literally feeds off the death of those around him.” In her excellent study, Emerson’s Fall (1982), Barbara Packer agrees with Cox that much of the animus directed at Emerson by scholars stems from the fact that “Emerson ought to have been crippled by his losses, they seem to feel, and they resent him for springing back with renewed force, Antaeus-like, at each contact with disaster.”

That Emerson was capable of grief is beyond question—his journals are full of it—yet what shocks his reader is that he considered even the profoundest grief shallow in meaning. “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is,” he writes in “Experience.” “In the death of my son [Waldo], now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.” This is neither stoicism nor denial. The death of Waldo was a “calamity”—as Emerson’s heartrending entries of February and March 1842 confirm—yet “it does not touch me.” One cannot but hold Emerson in awe for his terrifying frankness: “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 from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous.”

As loved ones fell from him, one after another between 1831 and 1842, Emerson held on to his core conviction that there is a divine, pre-fallen self within us that cannot be touched by disease, disaster, or even death. His journals tell a fascinating story of how Emerson, against all odds, resolutely refused to give in to disappointment, which is an almost inevitable destination for the exalted and the hopeful. He somehow avoided its trap. In this regard the founding father of American letters was an exception among American writers, thinkers, and visionaries, most of whom end their careers in some form of disappointment.

Although the death of Waldo did not chasten Emerson, it caused him to cultivate a virtue we do not often associate with him: patience. In his later years he began to accept the fact that the fulfillment of the promise of genius—its transmutation into reality—cannot be rushed or forced. “Patience and patience, we shall win at the last,” he writes in “Experience” in answer to the question: “Why not realize your world?” He continued to believe that “there was never a right endeavor, but it succeeded.” This is not resignation but a recalibration of his expectations regarding the relation between history and transcendence.

In a luminous commentary on the essay “Experience,” Stanley Cavell points out that experience is not the foundation of Emerson’s philosophy, at least not in the traditional philosophical understanding of the term as empirical knowledge.3 In Emerson’s case, experience yielded a philosophy of reception—of an acceptance rather than an acquisition of knowledge. “All I know is reception,” writes Emerson, “I am and I have; but I do not get, and when I fancied I had gotten anything, I found I did not.” Cavell remarks that while traditional philosophy seeks to grasp things by concept (from capere, to seize or hold), Emerson speaks of “this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch the hardest.”

Reception pertains to far more than knowledge in Emerson’s philosophy, where it figures as an active, not passive, acceptance of what is given to one gratuitously. Reception is above all a form of gratitude. “I am thankful for small mercies,” Emerson writes in “Experience,” as if to his fellow Americans:

I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything from the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods…. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.

This is not a lesson that his nation learned from Emerson (nor from Thoreau for that matter), for America remains a place where heaping measures of the good are not enough, and where the shadow of disappointment always threatens to darken the day.

Emerson, especially after the death of Waldo, found in the sequence of days the place where life, in its intrinsic generosity, offers itself to our reception. Everything is given in and by the day. That is why life for Emerson was a “journey,” a day’s travel. The day, in turn, gives itself in “hours,” which is the most important word in Emerson’s lexicon. Just as life is a sequence of days—a journey or journal—a day is a sequence of hours. If there is a philosophy in Emerson’s lifework—be it his journals or his essays or both—it is a philosophy of the hour. Our perceptions, thoughts, moods, and convictions unfold with the days, which in turn unfold in hours, so “let us husband them.”

Emerson’s journals are best understood as his husbanding of the hours. In them he received the hours’ offerings and cultivated their potential for fullness: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” Emerson’s essays, in turn, are best understood as the fruit of that daily husbandry. Both the journals and the essays partake of the sequential nature of days and hours. That is one reason why Emerson called his collections of essays “First Series” and “Second Series.” It is also why he answers the question that opens “Experience”—“Where do we find ourselves?”—with “In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.”

Because the series has no endpoint we must find ourselves in each of its successive moments, must find ourselves in the day, as it were. Each day is an end in itself, just as each of Emerson’s essays is an endpoint in the series. By the same token, each of Emerson’s paragraphs is an endpoint of any given essay. Scholars have remarked that Emerson’s basic unit is the paragraph, yet just as a day is made up of hours, a paragraph is made up of sentences. When Emerson is at his best, his whole philosophy finds summation in the quintessential sentence. For example: “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”

His days and hours gave Emerson the vast array of perceptions, experiences, triumphs, and losses that fill his journals, yet most importantly they gave him his thoughts, which dominate most of their entries. The world of thought is not the world of lived experience. It is experience, however, that allowed Emerson to become fully aware of that discrepancy. As he puts toward the end of “Experience”:

I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. I observe that difference, and shall observe it. One day I shall know the value and law of this discrepance. But I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought.

The twentieth century certainly did not heed Emerson on this score, since much of its history consists precisely of “manipular attempts to realize the world of thought.” To know that the two worlds are different is enough on which to base a philosophy. And to “observe” that difference is certainly enough on which to base an ethic—not an ethic of renunciation but of the husbanding of hours.

Emerson’s statement that one day he will “know the value and law of this discrepance” reaffirms the incorruptible trust he had from early on that the universe is friendly to our innermost selves, that there is something prelapsarian in the human soul, and that, despite whatever befalls you in your experience, there is no reason to doubt or forsake the “self-trust” he so passionately advocates throughout his essays and journals. Knowledge follows upon such trust, it does not provide foundations for it. If we are patient enough—or so Emerson came to believe—that which we always knew to be true, but for which experience does not necessarily provide empirical evidence, will gradually find its realization in the world we converse with in the city and on the farm.

One difference between Emerson’s journals and his essays is that the former contain a much fuller record of both worlds, in their uneasy interaction, while the essays for the most part reflect only the world of Emerson’s thought. Those of us who are more taken by Emerson’s thinking than by his life prefer his essays to his journals for precisely that reason. What is missing in the essays, by contrast, is a record of the heroic efforts it cost Emerson to maintain that unconditional trust he had in himself, and to avoid its opposite, which is despair. The essay “Experience” merely declares: “Far be from me the despair which prejudges the law [of discrepance] by a paltry empiricism.” The journals provide a full-bodied record of Emerson’s struggles to keep despair away from his house, his days, and his hours. It is only by reading the almost two thousand pages that precede it in this edition that one can appreciate the full weight of triumph in the entry Emerson made in his journals in 1864, at sixty-one years of age: “Within, I do not find wrinkles & used heart, but unspent youth.”

This Issue

October 28, 2010