Read an ExcerptEmerson in His Own Time A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates
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Chapter One [A Visit to Emerson at Concord in 1837]
Amos Bronson Alcott
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Amos Bronson Alcott and Emerson became lifelong friends after their first meetings in the 1830s. Following unsuccessful stints as a teacher in Philadelphia, Alcott, who had lived in Boston between 1828 and 1830, returned there in 1834 to operate the Temple School with the assistance of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. He was an original member of the Transcendental Club founded in 1836, and as the following passage from his journal indicates, an early defender of Emerson and his particular brand of idealism. Alcott's delight in the conversation he enjoyed with Emerson during this visit in 1837 anticipates the nature of their relationship for the next forty-five years, and especially so after 1857, when Alcott moved his family permanently to Concord. Alcott's admiration of Emerson was returned in kind; writing in his journal in 1848, Emerson stated, "Alcott is a ... fluid in which men of a certain spirit can easily expand themselves & swim at large, they who elsewhere found themselves confined. He gives them nothing but themselves.... Me he has served ... in that way; he was the reasonable creature to speak to, that I wanted" (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, 11:19).
I spent a few days with Mr. Emerson at his own house in Concord. I left home on Monday morning [15 May 1837], and returned on Friday afternoon [19 May]; having seen Mr. E. at Concord, and Mr. [Convers] Francis at Watertown. With the latter I spent a night, taking his house on my way home. During my visits to these gentlemen, various topics of interest were discussed. Little difference of opinion seemed to exist between us: the means and method of communicating with the age were the chief points of difference. Emerson, true to his genius, favors written works. He holds men and things at a distance; pleases himself with using them for his own benefit, and as means of gathering material for his works. He does not believe in the actual. His sympathies are all intellectual. He persuades me to leave the actual, devote myself to the speculative, and embody my thoughts in written works.-Francis, on the other hand, inclines more to the actual; sympathises in the wants and pursuits of men. Emerson idealizes all things. This idealized picture is the true and real one to him; all else is nought.... Beauty, beauty, this it is that charms him. But beauty has pure and delicate tastes, and hence all that mars or displeases this sense, with however much of truth or of goodness it may be associated, is of no interest to the mind. Emerson seeks the beauty of truth: it is not so much a quest of truth in itself, as the beauty thereof: not so much the desire of being holy and true, as of setting forth in fit and graceful terms, the beauty of truth and holiness. With him all men and things have a beauty; but this is the result of his point of vision, and often falls wide of the actual truth.... What is beautiful in man, nature, or art, this he apprehends, and with the poets power sets forth.
His genius is high and commanding. He will do honour to his age. As a man, however, this visit has somewhat modified my former notions of him. He seems not to be fully in earnest. He writes and speaks for effect. Fame stands before him as a dazzling award, and he holds himself somewhat too proudly, nor seeks the humble and sincere regard of his race. His life has been one of opportunity, and he has sought to realize in it, more of the accomplished scholar, than the perfect man.-A great intellect, refined by elegant study, rather than a divine life, radiant with the beauty of truth and holiness. He is an eye, more than a heart-an intellect, more than a soul.
Chapter Two [Remarks on Emerson in 1838, 1855, and 1858]
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The Unitarian minister and historian, and Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence at Harvard, Convers Francis first met Emerson in the 1830s. Francis was an original member of the Transcendental Club and a close friend of most of its members, but because he stopped short of Emerson's intellectual radicalism and Bronson Alcott's and Theodore Parker's social radicalism, he stands out as one of the more moderate voices of Transcendentalism. Of the selections that follow, Francis's letters to Frederic Henry Hedge describing Emerson's address at the Harvard Divinity School in 1838 are important as eyewitness accounts of Emerson's calm amid the firestorm his address had created at Harvard, while his journal entries on his relationship with Emerson between 1838 and 1858 suggest that, although Francis never wavered in his admiration of Emerson's character and conversation, he was increasingly critical of his friend who, he says, "never gets or has got beyond the old thought, however good that may be." Reflecting on "Self-possession," the last lecture in Emerson's lecture series on the Natural Method of Mental Philosophy in 1858, Francis found only the "old topics, subjectiveness and individuality."
Convers Francis to Frederic Henry Hedge, 10 August 1838
My good friend,
... Have you heard that Waldo Emerson delivered the sermon this summer to the class at the Divinity School, on their leaving the seminary? I went to hear it, & found it crowded with stirring, honest, lofty thoughts. I don't know that anything of his has excited me more. He dwelt much on the downfallen state of the church, i.e., the want of a living, real interest in the present Christianity (where I think he rather exaggerated, but not much), on the tendency to make only a historical Christ, separated from actual humanity,-& on the want of reference to the great laws of man's moral nature in preaching. These were his principal points, & were put forth with great power, & sometimes (under the first head especially) with unique humor. The discourse was full of divine life,-and was a true word from a true soul. I did not agree with him in some of his positions, & think perhaps he did not make the peculiar significance of Jesus so prominent as he ought,-though I am inclined to believe not that he thinks less of Jesus than others do, but more of man, every man as a divine being.-The discourse gave dire offence to the rulers at Cambridge. The dean & Mr. Norton have pronounced sentences of fearful condemnation, & their whole clique in Boston & Cambridge are in commotion. The harshest words are not spared, & "infidel" & "atheist" are the best terms poor E. gets. I have sometimes thought that to Mr. E. & his numerous detractors might be applied what Plato says of the winged soul, that has risen to the sight of the absolute, essential, & true, & therefore is said by the many to be stark mad ...
Convers Francis to Frederic Henry Hedge, 12 November 1838
My good friend,
... You know of course what a hubbub there has been here about Emerson's Discourse,-an excitement which, whether right or wrong, has been, it seems to me, wholly disproportionate to the occasion. But the truth was, the fluid of malignity had been collecting a good while,-& needed but a slight point of attraction to draw it down on E's head. His popularity, especially among the brightest young people, had become very annoying to the dii majores of the pulpits & the Divinity School;-& no sooner was the overt act of printing something, that would not lie peaceably in the topic-holes of their minds, committed, then as if by general consent among them there was an outbreak of wrath, the hotter for having been smothered. The Discourse itself did not seem to me adapted to excite any such turmoil, except from certain expressions rather than thoughts, which seem almost as if chosen for offense. On the whole I liked it very well; but there are quite debateable things in it,-& as usual with him, a want of an adequate appreciation on the Christian element in the world's culture.-E., you know, is not a man, who can very well justify his own processes of thought to another person, i.e. is not at all a man of logic: he is a seer, who looks into the infinite, & reports what he sees;-if you like the report & agree with him, all the better;-if not, 'tis a pity,-& there's an end of it,-there's no more to be said. This is a high class of minds,-a class, with which I have much, but by no means an entire, sympathy.-E. is about to commence another course of lectures in Boston,-to make the experiment whether he can get an audience, or is henceforth to be shut out of the lecture-rooms:-if so,-he says, he still has his pen & study,-& can give the world the written, if not the spoken, word.- ... 10 January 1838. Went to Boston-left the party to attend Mr. Emerson's lecture, which was on the heart as signifying intellectual integrity,-i.e. that we must do things from the heart, we must be, and not seem. It was full of his rich moral eloquence, striking down deep into the truth which underlies all outside things. But after the lecture, I had some debate with him for saying that Walter Scott sometimes was not real, but acted the fine gentleman. The spiritual men, I find, are not disposed to do justice to Scott, because he lived so in the phenomenal, the outward; they will not allow him to be a true man, because he was not what they require. But why was not his development as true, hearty and real, as if he had been a spiritualist? It had as much reality, though it was different. I hold Scott to have been as true a man as Coleridge.
6 February 1838. Went to Boston to attend Mr. Emerson's lecture. It was the last in the course, and was a most delightful survey or recapitulation of some of the principles of Human Culture. I suppose every one present was sad to think it was the last: it was like a beautiful strain of music which one would fain have continued indefinitely. I could not but think of Milton's exquisite description, for I felt as his Adam felt:
"The angel ended, and in Adam's ear [quoted from this line down to] "With glory attributed to the high Creator." (Par[adise]. Lost. Bk. VIII. 1-13.)
Mr. Emerson in this course of lectures has spoken of high things, and spoken of them as one filled with the pure inspiration of truth.
14 February 1838. Went to Cambridge to hear Mr. E., who is to repeat his lectures there. Heard the lecture on the "doctrine of the hands," man's double-speeders, as he called them,-the culture arising from labor. We had heard it before in Boston; but it was as fresh and beautiful as ever.
22 February 1838. To Cambridge to hear Mr. Emerson's lecture. It was on the culture of the intellect,-what the intellect is, how it grows and what we can do for it. The lecture, on the whole, I think superior to any I have heard from Mr. E., more methodical, and coherent,-at the same time full of lofty and far reaching views. The two practical directions to the student, have a room to yourself, and keep a journal?
8 March 1838. To Cambridge to hear Mr. Emerson's lecture;-it was on the heart, or the affections, the social nature,-full to overflowing of beauty and truth; he closed with a description of a family of young, intelligent boys, struggling for education, and acquiring culture, amidst the rough training of poverty and hardship; nothing could exceed it for power of truth, and for felicitous sketching.
15 March 1838. To Cambridge to hear Mr. Emerson's lecture; it was the second part on the Affections, a noble and beautiful thing....
22 March 1838. Went to Cambridge and heard Mr. Emerson's lecture on the heroic: it was grand in accordance with the subject....
28 March 1838. Went to hear Mr. Emerson's lecture on the culture of the moral sentiment, the holy in man. This is the lecture, which, when delivered in Boston, alarmed some people not a little, as certain parts of it were supposed to deny the personality of the Deity and to border close upon atheism. Strange what interpretations are sometimes put upon the words of a man, who is unique and original in thought and expression! So far from this lecture containing anything like atheism, it seemed to me a noble strain of fervent, lofty, philosophical piety. It was, like its topic, holy. The only idea of personality in the Deity, which he impugned, was, I think, the vulgar idea, which considers God as occupying space:-the personality which consists in a will and consciousness (and what other personality can there be?) he seemed to me to express or take for granted, though, it is true, some of his incidental expressions might look differently. I thought that in one passage of the lecture he seemed to take away the distinct, individual existence of man, as a conscious being, after death, and resolve him into the All, the Divine Soul: but my impression is probably erroneous. I wish exceedingly to see Mr. E. in private and hear him expound these matters more with all the sweet charm of his delightful conversation. After return from Cambridge, read and wrote, but not much; my head and heart were too full of Mr. E.'s lecture for that.
29 March 1838. Went to C[ambridge].... to hear Mr. Emerson. It was the last lecture of the course, and that was the only sad thing about it: it gave a view of the obstacles to culture, the excitements to it, a noble conclusion to a noble course of wisdom and philosophical eloquence.
10 September 1838. Took tea at ____, a family belonging to the straitest sect of Boston conservatism. I found they had been taught by ____ to abhor and abominate R. W. Emerson as a sort of mad dog: and when I defended that pure and angelic spirit and told them he was full of piety and truthfulness (as he is, no man more so), they laughed at me with amazement,-for no such sounds had penetrated their clique before.
22 September 1838. Returned to Mr. Emerson's, and spent the night. There was abundance of good talk, which I hardly know how to report. What a pure, noble, loving, far-reaching spirit is Mr. E.! When we were alone, he talked of his Discourse at the Divinity School, and of the obloquy it had brought upon him: he is perfectly quiet amidst the storm; to my objections and remarks he gave the most candid replies, though we could not agree upon some points: the more I see of this beautiful spirit, the more I revere and love him; such a calm, steady, simple soul, always looking for truth and living in wisdom, and in love for man, and goodness, I have never met. Mr. E. is not a philosopher, so called, not a logic-man, not one whose vocation it is to state processes of argument; he is a seer who reports in sweet and significant words what he sees; he looks into the infinite of truth, and records what there passes before his vision: if you see it as he does, you will recognise him for a gifted teacher; if not, there is little or nothing to be said about it and you will go elsewhere for truth: but do not brand him with the names of visionary, or fanatic, or pretender: he is no such thing,-he is a true, godful man, though in his love of the ideal he disregards too much the actual.
23 September 1838. In the morning at Mr. E.'s, we talked chiefly on matters of natural science, where Mr. [John Lewis] Russell was continually giving us information and excellent remarks. I laughed heartily at a quotation made by Mr. E. in his arch, quiet way; Mr. R. had told us of a naturalist, who spent much time and pains in investigating the habits and nature of the louse on the cod-fish; "O star eyed science" said Mr. E. "hast thou wandered there?"
9 January 1839. [Wife] and I rode to Boston, to hear Mr. Emerson's lecture. It was on Genius. Never before have I been so much delighted and excited even by this most delightful and exciting of all lecturers. It was a strain of inspiration, at once lofty and sweet, throughout. It was a burst of that power, of which it treated. I was reminded of the oft quoted line about Longinus,-" And is himself the great sublime he draws." Mr. E. gives one such a succession of the best things in condensed sentences, that we can scarcely remember any of them. He has not, like common writers, any of those dry, sandy spots, indifferent passages,-where we can rest for a few moments, and think of and remember the good things. Hence it is so difficult to give an account to others of what he says....
27 January 1855. Thursday evening, heard R. W. Emerson's lecture in the course on Slavery: it was characteristic of him, of course,-for all he writes is so admirable in parts, wise and true in all,-yet not well adapted on the whole for popular impression, though there was some hearty applause:-what a deep power sometimes wells out from his face!
28 July 1855. Went ... to R. W. Emerson's and had an altogether charming time of it. His brother, Wm. Emerson from N. York, was there. R. W. E. talked a good deal of Thomas Carlyle with whom he corresponds, and of Miss [Delia] Bacon of New Haven. He read a letter from the former, most characteristic and amusing, in which C. complains, in his own quaint way, of his disappointment about Frederick the Great, of whom he is making a book, and who turns out, he says, to be no hero to him.
10 April 1858. Wednesday went with my wife to hear R. W. Emerson's lecture in Boston. Many years ago that strain of the poet-philosopher fell upon my ear often, and it always brought a charm with it. Now, after a long interval, heard again, it seemed just the same thing. The subject was "Self-possession," and I think there was no idea which I had not found in his lectures from 15 to 20 years ago, and the very words were about the same. The old topics, subjectiveness and individuality,-we create all that we see,-we are lords of all that is. I had hoped to find by this time something else; but, I doubt, Mr. E. never gets or has got beyond the old thought, however good that may be. The fault of his manner of discussing a subject seems to be that he never makes any progress in the subject itself: he empties before you a box or bag of jewels as he goes on, which you may take and make the most you can of; but you find no progress in the subject, no opening out, expanding, motion outwards,-but instead thereof standing still and giving the utterance that comes at the moment. He might as well begin anywhere else and end anywhere else, as where he does begin and end. The mind of the hearer has not the satisfaction of moving steadily on till the consummation is effected,-sweeping forward till the march of thought is brought to its natural close.
2 October 1858. Cattle-fairs and Agricultural shows are now the order of the day all over our Commonwealth. There was one at Concord, at which Mr. Emerson delivered the address, marked with his usual felicity of thought and expression:-it is quite noticeable what a practical man he is,-just what people generally think he is not. I wish I had the privilege of seeing him more than I am ever likely to do in a world where every man has his own peculiar work, which drives him to the wall.
Chapter Three [A Visit from Emerson in 1838]
Ellis Gray Loring
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Boston lawyer and abolitionist Ellis Gray Loring had known Emerson from their days together at the Boston Latin School and, later, at Harvard College. A cofounder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, Loring had argued an important case before the state supreme court establishing the legal precedent that every slave brought on Massachusetts soil by the owner was legally free, and he also defended Abner Kneeland in a precedent-setting case involving freedom of speech. When Emerson was preparing his address on emancipation in the British West Indies, it was Loring who assisted him with the research and writing. His interview with Emerson in 1838 displays the concerns that both Emerson and his auditors would have for half a century to follow. Emerson clearly states his preference for the ideal world, one in which the mind creates the external landscape, as well as for the unity of all things. For his part, Loring questions Emerson's religious beliefs and his connection to traditional Christianity.
[29 March 1838]
R. W. Emerson spent an hour at my office. I asked him whether he did not conceive the Deity as personal in the sense of his being a will. He said he called him impersonal, because "person" did not express enough for God.-I said I could say that God was perfect benevolence, justice, truth; but that in speaking thus I used a figure of speech. I meant that he was a personal being in whom these perfections resided. For instance, Benevolence is a personal attribute; is not itself a subject. It means well wishing and this implies a well wisher. The universe is full of the marks of design;-but design supposes a will.
After considerable conversation, I discovered that our point of divergence was this. He does not believe, or rather he positively disbelieves in any thing out of himself. He carries idealism to the Extreme. Consequently if there is a God, he is God. God and he are one-and ... the external universe is only a form of him; a manifestation which only exists from and for him.
In illustrating his view of man's being or becoming God, he said the time was when your cradle, your spoon, your nurse, were you. These things have ceased to be you. One after another all things which are individual or peculiar will fall off from you,-you will be universal, absolute-you will be pure love, perfect justice and truth. Then you will be infinite and God. Even now, people say I in very different senses. There is the I that is selfish, false, impure, atheistic;-but the I that says "I shall never die" is the God within us. It is the love, justice, truth.
He remarked that Jesus claimed to be God, and had this view.
He said his own tendency was to unify. It was quite conceivable to him that all minds might so beat with one pulsation, as to be one, and lose all separate consciousness.
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