These are the dog days for Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Is there not,” asks John Updike of the man who inaugurated American literature, “something fatally faded in the works he has left us?” Is there not, demands Joseph Epstein in his introduction to the “Norton Book of Personal Essays,” something “bloated, vatic, never less than pompous” about the “Sage of Concord”?
The history of Emerson’s reception in America and England is a history of increasingly uncanny underestimation. In the preface to the first British edition of the 1841 “Essays,” we find Emerson lauded for having retained “amid the all-pervading jingle of dollars in such a locomotive country as America . . . the invaluable talent of sitting still” long enough to blacken so many pages. “This,” Thomas Carlyle impresses upon his English audience, “is the thing really worth noting.”
Prostrated by faint praise at the beginning of his career, Emerson, who was born in 1803, was whipped to the status of National Philosopher in the last half of the 19th century only to be canonized out of corporeal existence: submerged by “inscriptions, invocations, obeisances--in that form of greeting from posterity which,” as a critic knew as early as 1915, “combines salutation with dismissal.” Having blown him up, we burst him and hung nostalgically onto the skin. Emerson became an object of museum interest--America’s own private dinosaur.
The reasons for this transmutation are many, but none arguably entails the discovery of any overlooked lack in Emerson’s work, which is as dense as ever with aphoristic thought, eloquent skepticism, brave and biting observation of human limits and what a recent critic has called “demanding optimism.” What has changed is the intellectual environment.
Emerson’s genre has lost prestige. Essays, writes William Gass (himself a practitioner), are written by those who “have failed in the larger roles, the finer forms, and could not populate a page with people, with passionate poetry.” That prose can be as “passionate” as verse, ideas as inventive as plots, philosophies as valuable to the mind as stories and strong writers consequently drawn to them by choice rather than desperation is a fact that seems to have slipped into oblivion in our day.
But if Emerson suffers from the ill repute of his genre, he ironically suffers even more from the popularity of his ideas. So thoroughly has American society imbibed some of his simpler instructions that its most vulgar mouths foam with them. The self-help industry croons at us to “have confidence” and to “love ourselves”; so many parties have told us to “just say no” we no longer recall whether it applies to sex, cigarettes, gang membership, marriage, abortion, drugs or the draft. Who needs “Self-Reliance” in the age of assertiveness tapes, essays when we have T-shirts and billboards blaring some of the (supposedly) same messages at us? Emerson’s “demanding optimism” has been assimilated, caricatured and trivialized by the forces of self-help and advertising.
People who have no clear knowledge of his work (and some who do) confuse his points with their current public distortions. Hence the occasional labeling of his essays as “happiness pills"--a term that ill suits the stormy interplays of dark and light, bitter realism and often bitterer courage that animate them. (“Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. . . . Know that thy life is . . . a tent for the night, and do thou, sick or well, finish your stint.” If these are “happiness pills,” they taste oddly of ashes.)
Emerson does, to be sure, do something unusual by today’s standards in his essays: He struggles overtly with the question “How shall we live?” It is a problem that--at least in its explicit formulation--has been banished from contemporary intellectual discourse and left largely to the commercial and religious sectors of society. But Emerson is the man who denies that anyone “can afford for the sake of his nerves and his nap to relinquish any action.” He is not content to move exclusively among the furniture of his mind.
Not only does he address the problem of practical life; he attempts--over his acute perception of the world’s pain--to offer solutions at once tough and somehow transcendent. This does not make his writing or philosophy fluff; it grants it, rather, a mineral solidity, a groundedness that much academic discourse today lacks. At the same time, it sets him up before the light mockers as a naif, a literary Candide. In a critical community in which solutions are regarded with suspicion, in which “theories of undecidability have changed the interpretive practices” of literary scholars, in which “instead of looking for unities, they look for disunities, contradictions,” as the literary critic Steven Mailloux observes, it is no wonder that a man like Emerson, who thought to live, rather than lived to think, is easily patronized.
The time is ripe to present Emerson in a fresh light. This is Joel Myerson’s design in editing “Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The book--which includes 350 of 4,500 extant letters--announces itself as a labor of rehabilitation. It aims not, however, to scrape the rust off Emerson’s thoughts but rather to scrape the “stereotype of the cerebral philosopher” off a man we are intended to discover was “equally engaged with the quotidian as he was with the most pressing social and political issues . . . an Emerson in touch with the global wars . . . of the early twentieth century.” It aims to rehabilitate Emerson not by revealing that he was a thinker whose sentiments can grip, move and empower us today but by showing that he was a good citizen, a serviceable member of his community with all the right politics. “Will it be in your power to aid in this [or that] benefit?” Emerson dutifully asks several times in this selection. The editor has lined up every shred of epistolary prose in which his subject associates himself--however halfheartedly and reactively--with a good deed of public import: “You are at liberty . . . to use my name as one of the inviters to the convention,” he shows Emerson conceding to a women’s right’s activist, "[so] that I may not stand in the way of any right.” Myerson has replaced the “Sage of Concord"--whose emergence from the “filiopietistic” selections of previous editors he lampoons--with the Boy Scout of Concord.
This would be an uninteresting endeavor even if it were grounded in reality--as it is not. Emerson was not a good Boy Scout at all, as it happens, but a reluctant participant in every political or social initiative from which he could not steer clear. Emerson’s was an individual--not a public--intelligence. He resented every event that threatened to drive him into an assembly of “enlightened” thinkers or a campaign for social change. He poked fun at his era’s love affair with reform. “What a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!” he exclaims in a lecture. “It is of little moment that one or twenty errors of our social system be corrected, but of much that the man be in his senses.”
Excepting his writing against slavery, Emerson remained true to his statement to George Ripley, founder of the progressive Brook Farm community: “All I shall solidly do I must do alone. I do not think I should gain anything by a . . . proposed Association.” While Myerson prints this letter, he omits many more fascinating ones in which Emerson asserts his antipathy for anything that smacks of social action and activity--or indeed, of the Transcendentalism with which Myerson (and most scholars) both identify and obscure him: “These new friends here,” he writes his wife from a trip, “fasten me in their thought to ‘Transcendentalism,’ whereof you know I am wholly guiltless. I begin with endless disclaimers: ‘I am not the man you take me for.’ One of these days shall we not have laws forbidding . . . all separatists and unsocial thinkers?”
To read letters like this, we must return to Ralph Rusk and Eleanor Tilton’s “Collected Letters” (published between 1939 and 1995). What Myerson gives us instead are polite responses to women’s rights activists and other social movers. But what he seems to offer most of all are business letters--parades of dollar signs. One can only infer he is still chipping away at Emerson’s “Sage” image, trying--at the expense of our enjoyment--to show us the “quotidian” accountant that he was alongside the lofty thinker. We readily grant this, but it is still the thinker who interests us. Even if these letters are “representative” of Emerson’s epistolary oeuvre (as utility bills are of an author’s mail today), is it not the business of a selection to print the best rather than the most frequent communications?
And there are so many good ones. Some get in: The book is strong on the simmering exchanges with the essayist Margaret Fuller and her friend Caroline Sturgis. Here, as nowhere else, we witness Emerson’s capacity for lyricism, for love, his yearning to escape “my honorable prison--my quarantine of temperament wherefrom I deal courteously with all comers, but through cold water.” By turns ecstatic and timid, he rejoices at being “often and often shined on . . . steeped in light”; at the same time he “dares not engage my peace so far as to make you necessary to me.” Cinematically conditioned, we find ourselves wanting and half-expecting him to “engage his peace,” break bars and vows and elope with the brilliant Fuller. But this is Concord, not Hollywood, and “friendships hasten to short and poor conclusions” here. When Fuller perishes in a shipwreck 10 years later, Emerson has already drifted away from her considerably.
Emerson never reveals himself again as he does in these letters to Fuller and Sturgis. Certainly Myerson weights his selection away from emotion and toward business--excluding, in the process, too many letters about Emerson’s first wife, Ellen, who died at 19 and whom he idolized, as well as more complex letters to his more complex second wife, Lidian, letters about the death of his son and, finally, some painful notes about his own premature mental decline. But the fault is not all the editor’s.
It is a mistake to think that an orator always bares himself best to a friend. Emerson bared himself best to an audience. He dared more with a madding crowd than with a maddened woman who loved him. Fuller knew it and read his essay on friendship when she wanted to know how he felt about her. He knew it: “As a drunkard who cannot walk can run,” he confesses to his journal, “so I can speak my oration to an assembly when I cannot without pain answer a question in the parlor.”
Emerson’s journals and essays are his spirits “straight up.” His correspondence is a mixed drink. It contains a lot of soda water, a lot of ice cubes and, with the best of intentions, it’s hard to get drunk on it.
Perhaps it is with Emerson as with Plato. He lived in his art, we’re told in Emerson’s last important book, “Representative Men.” It is not for us to solve the riddle of his records and relationships: “If he had lover, wife, or children . . . he ground them all into paint.”