Emerson by Lawrence Buell
June 1, 2003        

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 200th birthday was last [week/month]. Since it was mainly to Emerson that Boston owed it cultural predominance in mid-19th-century America, it behooves 21st-century Bostonians to pause, at least for the length of a book review, to commemorate his bicentennial. The press of his university alma mater has published a new study of her illustrious son, written by one of her distinguished English faculty, which is here reviewed by still another (though not particularly illustrious or distinguished) son.

Emerson was born in Boston, on Summer Street, now in the heart of downtown but then next to barns, a pond, and a pasture. His father, the Reverend William Emerson, died young, so little Waldo and his four brothers were raised by their mother and aunts, one of whom, the gifted and eccentric Mary Moody Emerson – worth a biography in her own right – was Waldo’s most important influence and his mentor until well into adulthood.

After graduating Harvard College, Waldo taught school for several years, sending money home. Then he decided, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, to enter the ministry. The earnest, personable Harvard Divinity School graduate was a popular guest preacher, so he was invited in 1829 to become pastor of Boston’s august Second Church, once led by Cotton and Increase Mather. Around the same time he fell in love with and married the lively, beautiful, and high-minded Ellen Tucker.

Soon this full and happy life fell apart. His beloved young wife died of tuberculosis – the first and most painful of his many bereavements. (The two brothers he was closest to died young, as did his adored little son and his two best friends, Henry Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.) The next year he ceased to believe in the sacrament of Holy Communion, which led to his resignation from the Second Church.

He had acquired the preaching habit, so he offered a course of lectures at the Boston Lyceum, the 19th-century equivalent of today’s Center for Adult Education, Ford Hall Forum, and Cambridge Forum rolled into one. They were phenomenally successful. The poet James Russell Lowell wrote of crowds walking into Boston from the countryside to “listen to that thrilling voice of his, so charged with subtle meanings and subtle music, as shipwrecked men on a raft [listen] to the hail of a ship that comes with unhoped-for food and rescue.” Lecturing was Emerson’s lifework. (Most of his published writing began as lectures.) Gradually he became unofficial chief preacher to New England, then to America.

What was his doctrine? Clichés are usually a good first approximation to the truth, and the grand old clichés about Emerson – individualism, optimism, self-reliance – do accurately convey the top layer of his thought. The language in which he sent these noble sentiments marching forth is still alive and affecting; for a long time (one hopes) young readers will be exhilarated coming upon sentences like these: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members”; “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string”; “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist … Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

These exhortations from his best-known essay, “Self-Reliance,” may bring to mind another largely accurate cliché about Emerson: his distinctive Americanness. Only in America, after all, has such rugged individualism been affordable – then or, to some extent – now; everywhere else was and is too poor or too crowded. The romance of America has always been the promise of reward for effort, equality under law, luxury and privilege for none, and a chance of modest prosperity for all; in one lovely word, fairness. Nowhere has that ideal been more majestically adumbrated than in Emerson’s “Compensation”: “In labor as in life there can be no cheating. The thief steals from himself. The swindler swindles himself. For the real price of labor is knowledge and virtue, whereof wealth and credit are signs. … The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power; but they who do not the thing have not the power. … The beautiful laws and substances of this world persecute and whip the traitor. He finds that things are arranged for truth and benefit, but there is no den in the wide world to hide a rogue.” Yet at the very moment Emerson was uttering these encouraging words in the innocent New World, Balzac and Thackeray in the wicked Old World were composing those discouraging masterpieces, “Lost Illusions” and “Vanity Fair,” which showed that labor and life were nothing but a cheat, that wealth and credit had nothing to do with knowledge and virtue, and that traitors and rogues were everywhere protected and exalted. No wonder the rest of the world sighed for Emerson’s America, and still does.

If this were all there was to Emerson – the prophet of American individualism and democratic virtue – he would still be well worth commemorating. But there are many other Emersons: the mordant critic of popular vulgarity and ecclesiastical dogma; the abolitionist, who excoriated compromising politicians like Daniel Webster and mocked Southern pretensions to chivalry; the naturalist, who eagerly read books of biology and geology all his life; and the prose artist, whose sentences sometimes groan under outdated rhetorical devices but just as often achieve exuberant flight. The aim of Lawrence Buell’s “Emerson” is to give these other Emersons their due.

Unfortunately there is little of the preacher or the prose artist about Professor Buell. His study is not at all earnest or exuberant; rather, far too knowing, judicious, and disfigured by academic literary-critical jargon: “deliberately imperfect fusion of diffuse meditation and thematic control”; “ceaseless performative self-revision”; “[Emerson’s] interplay between analytical abstraction and repressed emotional intensity, dramatizing the sense of nonbeing as the norm of ordinary experience … has a border-crossing appeal not describable by cultural-particularist explanations”; etc.

These scholarly natterings are best left to graduate students. To get to know Emerson, begin not with his sublime but often difficult essays, but instead with the invaluable anthology “Emerson in His Journals,” edited by Joel Porte. Out of the pulpit, Emerson was warmer, funnier, and no less eloquent than in it.