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American AudacityLiterary Essays North and South
By Christopher Benfey
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2008 Christopher Benfey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEmerson at Age Two Hundred
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Two-thirds of the way into Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1900), the rebellious heroine Edna Pontellier finds herself alone in her mansion on Esplanade, her restrictive husband gone on a business trip and all the temptations of New Orleans beckoning at her door. Dressed only in her comfortable peignoir, she devours "a luscious tenderloin," downs plenty of red wine, and adds a marron glacé for dessert. Then she wanders into her library to curl up with a book. Will she choose Zola's Nana or some equally wayward fantasy by Maupassant or Gautier? Mais non! Edna-bold transgressor that she is-read "Emerson until she grew sleepy." But why Emerson? Is Edna-on the verge of a ruinous affair that will eventually drive her to suicide-experiencing a moment of remorse, to be shored up by the edifying Sage of Concord? Or is the apostle of impulse ("I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim") just the man to confirm her liberation from the suffocating constraints of marriage and motherhood?
Two hundred years after his birth in 1803, it remains unclear whether Emerson was the Prometheus of American literature or its Polonius. His status as fatherly advisor is at least secure. When Whitman was "simmering," Emerson brought him "to a boil." Thoreau's first entry in his great journal records a primal push from Emerson: "'What are you doing now?' he asked. 'Do you keep a journal?'-so I make my first entry today." Melville, Dickinson, Henry and William James-one sees the patriarch's provocation in all their works, the benevolent gift of "courage of treatment" (what Emerson most admired in Whitman's extravagant performances). But lost in such celebrations of Emerson's "legacy" is what to make of Emerson himself-his essays, his poems, his letters and journals-unencumbered by his brood. Does anyone, should anyone, read Emerson now, and if so, why and how?
If Emerson seemed scandalous to many of his contemporaries- for walking away from the pulpit after refusing to administer communion; for preaching a secular religion of self-reliance against all calls for social conformity; for dismissing formal education as an impediment to true learning ("Books are for the scholar's idle times")-the scandals that now dog his name have a late twentieth-century flavor. Today Emerson stands accused of going slow on abolition, responding in lukewarm fashion to the death of his young son ("I grieve that grief can teach me nothing"), writing tame poetry and muddled philosophy, and preaching a creed of self-reliance indistinguishable from American capitalism. If Emerson is the founding white male of American national literature, our younger scholars seem to think, then chipping away at his reputation strikes a blow at the foundation of American national identity.
In their different and complementary ways, two recent books on Emerson-timed to coincide with his bicentennial-seek to restore the firebrand, and liberate the liberator. Kenneth Sacks's subtle and fine-meshed Understanding Emerson examines the circumstances in which Emerson's first major public statement, his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard-popularly known as "The American Scholar"-took shape. Sacks, a historian at Brown University, shows how complicated the occasion was, and how easy it would have been, with a patriotic and flattering performance, for Emerson to fulfill the expectations of his audience and alma mater. Instead, Emerson heeded the hopes of young friends like Thoreau, and deliberately insulted almost everyone in the audience, criticizing the drill-based education on offer at Harvard and making a plea for the "self-trust" that he would later reformulate as self-reliance. "Breaking with the materialism in which he was raised," Sacks writes, "Emerson proposed an extreme vision of the intellectual who transcends all convention, including the institutions of one's own country, to speak the truth that emerges from within." Sacks gives a thrilling sense of what a thin-ice performance it was, and why Emerson was not asked back to Harvard for thirty years. The idea of the scholar as necessarily lonely and embattled became a watchword for Emerson. "To be great," he came to believe, "is to be misunderstood."
Emerson as embattled thinker is also central to Lawrence Buell's wide-ranging portrait, Emerson, which opens with a chapter on Emerson as "public intellectual"-"the first figure in U.S. history to achieve international standing and influence as a speaker and writer of comprehensive scope." Buell, a professor of American literature at Harvard, has written influential books on New England literary culture and on the fledgling field of ecological criticism. If he speaks as an insider here his paradoxical aim is to free Emerson from the Emersonians. Buell advances two major claims against the canonization-and consequent confinement- of Emerson within American literature. First, he argues (as does Sacks) that Emerson was far less the literary nationalist than he is usually portrayed. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously called "The American Scholar" "our intellectual Declaration of Independence," but the address conspicuously avoids national boosterism. Buell points out that even on such a patriotic occasion as the dedication of the monument for the Concord battlefield, in April 1836, Emerson dutifully raised the flag in the first stanza of his "Concord Hymn" ("By the rude bridge that arched the flood, / Their flag to April's breeze unfurled"), but by the second was already eliding friend and foe and sweeping the divisive bridge from sight:
The foe long since in silence slept; Alike the conqueror silent sleeps; And time the ruined bridge has swept Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
Buell's second major claim follows from Emerson's "international standing." He shows convincingly that Emerson's preferred reading was foreign writers, "the farther off the better." Not only was Emerson steeped in the scriptures of European romanticism-Goethe, de Stael, Coleridge, Carlyle-but he went farther afield to read and translate Indian sacred books and Persian poetry. "At the height of the Civil War," Buell notes, "we find him mentally moving back and forth from national crisis to Confucius, Vedanta, and the poetry of Sufi mysticism." Buell has gone deeply into Emerson's engagement with Asian literature and thought, and shows how Emerson's early excavations served as inspiration for such pioneering scholars as Max Müller (who dedicated his Introduction to the Science of Religion to Emerson) and Edwin Arnold. The first American translations of Buddhist scripture appeared in the Dial under Emerson's editorship. Poems like Emerson's wonderful "Brahma" ("If the red slayer think he slays, / Or if the slain think he is slain, / They know not well the subtle ways / I keep, and pass, and turn again"), a rough translation of a Vedic text, helped spread interest in Eastern philosophy among Boston "Brahmins" like William Sturgis Bigelow and Henry Adams, and fellow travelers like Lafcadio Hearn.
Not only Westerners in search of the eternal wisdom of the East turned to Emerson, but many conspicuous Easterners as well. Some of Buell's most interesting pages detail how such "experts" as D. T. Suzuki, "the most influential interpreter of Zen Buddhism in the west during the first half of the twentieth century," found inspiration in Emerson's writings. Late in his long life, Suzuki, whose first publication was his "Essay on Emerson" of 1896, recalled "the deep impressions made upon me while reading Emerson in my college days" in Japan, and how familiarity with Emerson meant "making acquaintance with myself." Buell notes that "some tenets of Suzuki's version of Zen seem strongly Emersonian" (for example, the idea that "the Buddha is your own mind"), but he stops short of making the obvious inference: that Emerson helped to invent our modern notion of Zen.
Emerson's fingerprints are visible on another early version of Zen not discussed by Buell, namely Kakuzo Okakura's cult classic of Zen aesthetics, The Book of Tea (1906). Okakura was a Japanese disciple of the Harvard-educated philosopher Ernest Fenollosa, one of the first wave of Western intellectuals invited to Japan and a passionate Emersonian. One reason that Okakura's book on the antimaterialist bases of Japanese aesthetics caught on with such taste-making Bostonians as Isabella Stewart Gardner, and with Japan-friendly artists like Frank Lloyd Wright and Wallace Stevens, was that his ideas sounded so familiar-and in fact, so Emersonian. Okakura's eccentric tea masters embrace a bold new "conduct of life," countering the ways in which "slavish conformity to traditions and formulas fetters the expression of individuality."
If Buell's greatest achievement is to de-Americanize Emerson, restoring him to his cosmopolitan place in world literature, it is discouraging to find nearly fifty pages late in the book devoted to Emerson's line on "social thought and reform." Here, Buell gives too much scope to the concerns of what he calls "the American Studies movement," in which "the defining issue" is "the proper relation between scholarly and political work." What this entails for the inquisition of Emerson is "whether, when, and to what extent he actively furthered reform efforts, the underlying agenda being either defense of his efforts or criticism of his laggardliness"-in particular, with regard to slavery. The question is not whether Emerson was opposed or in favor of slavery-he was always firmly opposed-but whether his ardor matched that of Garrison or Wendell Phillips. The accusation of laggardliness comes in because only after 1844 or so did Emerson become-adopting the phrasing of the prosecution-an "activist."
Buell is disappointed that Emerson concluded his second series of essays not (as he once planned) with his essay on "Abolition" but rather with his caustic attack on the cant and self-righteousness of "New England Reformers." He accuses Emerson of "lamely backpedaling from poet-activist John Greenleaf Whittier's invitation to a liberty meeting on behalf of an abolitionist martyr jailed in Baltimore." There is something wrong with this facile contrast between the irreproachable "poet-activist" Whittier and the backpedaling Emerson, and it becomes clearer when we examine more closely Emerson's "lame" refusal. "I have not the sort of skill that is useful in meetings for debate," Emerson wrote Whittier, but "I delight to know that such meetings are holden." This isn't lame; it is Emerson's consistent response to occasions that called for him to speak as others spoke and think as others thought. Buell is quite right that "Emerson is too concerned to immunize his readers against groupthink to say much about social action."
It is probably true that early in his speaking career, when most of his money came from middle-class lyceum audiences, Emerson deliberately avoided the controversial subject of slavery and, as Kenneth Sacks suggests, "kept silent before a public he did not wish to alienate." But when he did publicly join in reform movements, he almost always regretted it, and not because it threatened his income. After writing a nationally published letter to President Van Buren protesting the federal removal of the Cherokee Nation across the Mississippi, Emerson lamented "a letter hated of me." As Sacks notes, Emerson felt he had "compromised his self-reliance" and vowed to withdraw from activism: "I will let the republic alone until the republic comes to me. I fully sympathise, be sure, with the sentiment I write, but I accept it rather from my friends than dictate it. It is not my impulse to say it & therefore my genius deserts me, no muse befriends, no music of thought or of word accompanies. Bah!"
If your measure of literary value is the rightness-judged by contemporary standards-of the opinions expressed therein, such things as genius and music will mean little to you. What finally goaded Emerson into abolitionist activism was violence against liberal northern printers. Freedom of expression had two meanings for him: its legal definition but also that freedom-granting genius he recognized in his own best work. Emerson's prose remains a marvel and a provocation, with each sentence detachable, quotable, yet set among other sentences so tightly that no light shines through. The sentences are like perfectly matched bricks, with none of the usual mortar-of "howevers" and "indeeds" and "nonethelesses"-slopped on to make them fit. Consider the "Piranesi-like" opening (as Buell nicely calls it) of Emerson's great essay "Experience":
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree.
Buell's chapter "Emersonian Poetics" gets at some of the startling characteristics of Emerson's elastic prose: its refusal of systematic argument (Emerson once claimed that he did "not know what arguments mean, in reference to any expression of a thought"); its incomplete or fragmentary form; its "epigrammaticism" or "proverbialism." I think that Buell is right to relate Emerson's taste for gnomic aphorisms to his interest in the pithy concision of Persian poetry. "The characteristic structure of the aphorism," Buell writes, "itself implies at least two kinds of boundary crossing: a thrusting past banality to further reaches of insight, and an ongoing energy flow that reforms insight continuously in a transmissible form that invites perpetual continuation of the game."
What Robert Lowell called Emerson's "prose-haiku" has had more of an impact on American poets than Emerson's poetry. It was Emerson's prose that showed Whitman a way to loosen up the American poetic line. Robert Frost called Emerson's "Uriel" "the best Western poem yet"; but it was the Emersonian prose sentence, so close in its shifting rhythms to the ordinary speaking voice, that confirmed Frost's idea of intonational "sentence sounds" as the threads on which the words of poems should be strung. The very "ordinariness" of Emerson's phrasing and his explicit concern with our impoverished estate-"I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low"-have inspired the best writing, by Stanley Cavell, on Emerson as philosopher.
Buell devotes a scant five pages to Emerson's poetry, and while granting an appealing "awkwardness" to some of Emerson's knottier poems, he is mainly dismissive. Emerson "was no Emily Dickinson" and "never mastered the poetic line as he did the prose sentence." Perhaps, but I'd want to put in a word for such firmly constructed stanzas as this from "The World-Soul":
Cities of proud hotels, Houses of rich and great, Vice nestles in your chambers, Beneath your roofs of slate. It cannot conquer folly, Time-and-space-conquering steam; And the light-outspeeding telegraph Bears nothing on its beam.
Excerpted from American Audacity by Christopher Benfey Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Benfey. Excerpted by permission.
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