Can you please contrast Hawthorne's complex attitude toward Emerson with his attitude toward Emerson's followers, as related in "The Old Manse"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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it was impossible to dwell in his vicinity without inhaling more or less the mountain atmosphere of his lofty thought, which, in the brains of some people, wrought a singular giddiness,—new truth being as heady as new wine. Never was a poor little country village infested with such a variety of queer, strangely dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world's destiny, (Hawthorne, "The Old Manse")

This is an interesting question because it presupposes that Hawthorne did have a "complex attitude" toward Emerson, a presupposition that will have to be borne out by the text of "The Old Manse" before an answer can be given. Thus the first step in finding an answer here and developing a contrast between Hawthorne's two attitudes (toward Emerson, toward Emerson's followers) is to see if the text bears out the idea that his attitude was indeed "complex."

There is really very little of the text that is devoted to Emerson, not more than two or three paragraphs in total. Nonetheless, this text tells us that Hawthorne thinks of Emerson as:

  • "a great original thinker"
  • a man with great charismatic mental "magnetism" over a certain kind of mind
  • a man whose ideas "drew" these other kinds of minds on great "pilgrimages" to speak "face to face" with him
  • a man from whom the keys to unraveling their "bewilderment" might be sought
  • a man whom "gray-headed theorists" sought to drag into their own philosophical "thraldom" (imprisonment)
  • a man to whom young thinkers came to confirm the value and worth of their, they hoped, original thoughts
  • an original thinker whom "Uncertain, troubled, earnest wanderers through the midnight of the moral world" sought out for guidance
  • a philosopher who was "a beacon-fire of truth"
  • a "master" who might have power to solve the "riddle of the universe"
  • a "poet, of deep beauty and austere tenderness"
  • a man from whom he, personally "sought nothing" as a philosopher

Is this illustrative of a "complex attitude" toward Emerson? I would argue that it is not "complex" though it is a deep and poetically picturesque attitude. This might perhaps be called "complex" by some though, when analyzed, Hawthorne's attitude has only two parts to it: he is an influential and charismatic original thinker and a poet. For the sake of your assignment, we'll agree to call this a "complex attitude" though it is wise to learn to challenge other people's characterizations of people, texts and ideas (even my ideas!) 

What was Hawthorne's attitude toward Emerson's followers? We have a good sampling of Harthorne's attitude about them in the bullet points and quotes above, but we'll look a bit more specifically at his attitude toward these. A summary of his attitude toward Emerson's followers is illustrated in his final comment on them (by my analysis, this is where the complexity of attitude lies, in his attitude toward the followers):

[Emerson's light] attracted bats and owls and the whole host of night birds, which flapped their dusky wings against the gazer's eyes, and sometimes were mistaken for fowls of angelic feather. Such delusions always hover nigh whenever a beacon-fire of truth is kindled.

He sees the followers Emerson attracts as, at best, youthful new thinkers who were attempting to spread their wings, so to speak, and try flying to the heights of original philosophical thought. He sees these followers, at worst, as men of "stranger moral shape" than can be found elsewhere; as "hobgoblins of flesh and blood" who had begun in youth as hopeful visionaries but who had tied themselves in philosophical "labyrinths" that "imprisoned them in an iron framework" of erroneous thought; as those who wanted to suck up Emerson's "free spirit" so as to embed him in their own "thraldom." He compares them to "bats and owls" of the night that are sometimes mistaken for good voices of pure philosophy, an impersonation he symbolizes with the image of them as "delusions" of "fowls of angelic feather" who flock like bats to the light of spiritual truth: "Such delusions always hover nigh whenever a beacon-fire of truth is kindled." [This description of their delusional subterfuge is certainly an attitude of complexity.]

So the contrast between these attitudes (whichever one you want to attribute "complex" to) is that Emerson is seen as being the bearer of the light of truth while his followers are seen as being the blood-chilling hobgoblins of false belief who disguise themselves as angels of truth.

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