Olympian Mind

If he was not the founder of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson was certainly its leader, and by his leadership he inaugurated the intellectual independence of the United States from Europe. That is a fact recognised in his own day by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who cited Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (his Phi Beta Kappa address in Cambridge, Mass., in August 1837) as the “declaration of independence” of the American mind.

Emerson began that essay by expressing the hope that the “sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill,” and ended it with an exhortation to make the hope come true. If only the individual would, he wrote, “plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” This was Emerson’s faith — the faith of an individualist — and he preached it consistently in hundreds of lectures and essays throughout an active life.

The seeds of Emerson’s copious and wide-ranging thought were planted in his journals and miscellaneous notebooks, where one finds drafts and sketches for much of his output, embedded in a rich soil of surrounding observation. Lawrence Rosenwald’s twopart selection from these journals (but deliberately not the notebooks) comprises about a third of the original, with a bias towards the more mature segment of Emerson’s life between his student days and the sad mental decline of his final years. One has always to take selections on trust, because comparison with the original is a laborious task even for a scholar; but the quiet authority of the notes and other apparatus provided by Rosenwald inspires confidence, and hours spent browsing these two volumes is so absorbing that, in any case, one forgets to notice the editorial marks denoting cuts.

Some years ago in an essay of my own I quoted Walter Savage Landor as saying, “A man must slaughter his hundred oxen, despite not knowing whether they will be eaten by gods or flies.” I attributed the report of this wonderful remark to Emerson, who of course made a journal record of his visit to Landor in Florence, Italy, in 1833. On inspecting Emerson’s entry about the encounter as it appears in these volumes I find, somewhat to my dismay, that it reads, “A great man should make great sacrifices; he should kill his hundred oxen without knowing whether they would be eaten, or whether the flies would eat them.” This lacks the ring of what I remembered, but the sentiment remains true; the Greeks made a hecatomb to the gods in preparation of any great undertaking, and Landor was right to invoke, and Emerson to report, that powerful image of serious endeavour.

For without doubt, Emerson’s life was one of serious endeavour; he meant what he said in his writings, and he lived what he meant. This is shown by his abandonment of Christianity and his advocacy of the Transcendentalist ideal. Transcendentalism in the sense of the New England school of thought founded by Frederic H. Hedge and led by Emerson was an eclectic outlook — one cannot call it a doctrine as such, because of its informal nature and the considerable differences among its votaries’ views — which premised the unity of all things, the inborn goodness of human beings, and the superiority of intuition over empirical reason in the quest for life’s deepest meanings. Its negative sources lay in rejection of the gloomy theology of Calvinism and the belief held by then-contemporary Unitarians that miracles constituted evidence for the special status of Jesus. Its positive sources lay in the Romantic movement and in Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. Standard accounts of Transcendentalism attribute its Kantian strand to the influence on Emerson and others of Coleridge and Carlyle, but (perhaps fortunately for Transcendentalism) the much more reliable and accurate knowledge of Kant possessed by Transcendentalism’s founder and namer, Frederic Hedge, is the genuine source.

Despite the Romantic idea of intuition and the authority of individual sentiment, neither Emerson nor his fellow-Transcendentalists were oblivious to evidence and its logical implications. Inspired by Carlyle’s passion for all things German — Germany was then the powerhouse of scholarship — Emerson read the likes of Friederich Schleiermacher and J. G. von Herder, learning from both to see the founding documents of Christianity as all too human in inspiration, from which a ready scepticism about religion in general followed.

In its place Transcendentalism fashioned a new sense of deity as everything — it was a pantheism in effect — with nature as its chapel, the individual’s own emotion as its priest and theologian. “Why should we not have a poetry and philosophy of insight and intuition,” Emerson wrote in his essay “Nature,” “and a religion by revelation to us” — meaning a revelation to each person, now in the present through his intuitive moments, as opposed to a handed-down revelation from long ago.

Emerson broke from orthodoxy in his address to the Harvard Divinity School in July 1838. In it he criticised the Bible for error and “historical Christianity” for turning Jesus, whom he regarded as a great but merely mortal man, into “a demigod, as the Orientals or Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.” He attacked the “famine of the churches,” their formalism (“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate”), and he claimed that the practices and usages of conventional religion “do not uplift, but smite and offend us.” Not surprisingly the address caused an uproar. He was branded an atheist, and was not invited to speak at Harvard again for thirty years.

The tendency of mind reflected in these views, and the espousal of Transcendentalism that followed from them, are clearly discernable in these volumes. Because of Emerson’s central place in the group of writers and thinkers that included his friends Thoreau, Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), the meditations and reflections in the journal accordingly throw much light on all of them too. For example, it was Emerson who inspired Thoreau to keep a journal, and it was his message of nature and solitude as the roads to true religion that lay behind what Thoreau wrote in his journal. Walden Pond lay on Emerson’s property near Concord: the geographical embrace of the iconic place mirrors the location of Emerson in the movement of the time.

You need not know Emerson’s essays, or indeed anything much about his acquaintanceship or biography, to appreciate the riches collected here. In reflecting on his meetings with the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Landor, Dickens and Carlyle, Emerson said that none of them were “first-class minds,” and on the general principle that there are exceedingly few such things in all history, one can accept this as a record of his discovery that the giants of literature who, from across the Atlantic, seemed to loom so large, were human after all. What is unquestionably first class, however, is the sparkle of Emerson’s insights. Consider this: “Old and new put their stamp to everything in nature. The snowflake that is now falling is marked by both. The present moment gives the motion and the color of the flake: Antiquity, its form and properties. All things wear a luster which is the gift of the present and the tarnish of time.”

Or this: “I seek beauty in the arts & in song & in emotion for itself and suddenly I find it to be sword & shield. For dwelling there in its depths I find myself above the region of Fear, & unassailable like a god at the Olympian tables.”

It is of course because Emerson was a poet as well as a thinker that the insights have this character. But he was neither stuffy nor a prude; he could quote with wry pleasure the Duchess of Orleans’ reply on being asked what word of English, if she knew nothing else of the language, she would wish to know; would it be Yes or No? She replied, Emerson tells us, “If I knew but one, it would be No, because No sometimes means Yes, but Yes never means No.” That is a human being speaking, and a human being appreciating what is said.

The paper on which these two volumes are printed is so thin that the print on the other side shows through. That is a price worth paying for the sheer amount of text fitted in, even if it is only a third of the “Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks” in the grand Harvard Edition that Rosenwald has drawn from. Each of the two volumes carries a number of illustrations of Emerson association and interest, which is a pleasant extra.

But the chief virtue of the collection is that it offers a more portable window onto Emerson’s mind, and therefore a chance of a further revived interest in the man and his essays. One does not have to accept Transcendentalism to recognise Emerson as one of the nineteenth century’s great writers, and one of its most admirable minds: these two volumes richly testify to both facts.