Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Mary Kupiec Cayton (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Making of an American Prophet: Emerson, His Audiences, and the Rise of the Culture Industry in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Lawrence Buell, Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 77-100.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Cayton offers an assessment of Emerson's cultural impact in the context of contemporary media.]

… The case of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most celebrated of American intellectuals, can shed light on the ways in which meanings are made in intellectual discourse and what those meanings have to do with those people not filling the role of intellectual within the culture. Historians have never known precisely how to categorize Emerson. Perry Miller saw him as the heir and transformer of Edwardsian Puritanism. F. O. Matthiessen saw in him the founder of American literary romanticism and termed his the “age of Emerson.” Others (notably Stanley Elkins) have seen him as a prime mover in a generation of reformers, with Transcendentalism being a dangerously uncompromising Emersonian movement for social reform. He was also, according to various scholars, a democratic philosopher, an incipient Darwinist, and a pragmatic mystic.1 Reception theory suggests that Emerson's cultural impact may have depended less on what he intended than on what key communities of interpreters made of him.

If reaction in the popular and religious press and in the journals of the literary community is any gauge, Emerson attained a limited, local notoriety in his native new England during the 1830s. He was born in Boston in 1803, the son of a prominent Unitarian minister who died young. Prior to 1825, Emerson seems to have viewed himself (to judge by his journals and letters) primarily as a fledgling poet who hoped to make his mark on the world of belles-lettres. In need of both money and a socially sanctioned way of indulging his proclivities for philosophizing, he entered upon the study of the ministry, eventually assuming the pastorate of the Second (Unitarian) Church, Boston. He resigned in 1832: his ministerial colleagues and his congregation interpreted the role of the Lord's Supper celebration in the spiritual life of the church in a way he had come to view as intolerable. After a period of travel, he returned to his ancestral home of Concord, lecturing occasionally, substituting for local ministers, and preaching from time to time in vacant pulpits. Freed from immediate financial pressure by his wife's legacy, he also spent time during the period 1834-36 reading, thinking, and writing his challenge to the epistemology of the time, Nature.

Prior to 1836, Emerson seems to have been viewed by his contemporaries much as one might expect: a somewhat unorthodox clergyman whose eccentricities and devotion to literature were within the bounds of acceptability for the Unitarian ministry. Joel Myerson and Robert Burkholder, in their comprehensive Emerson bibliography, have listed fifteen published works, mainly in the religious press, that speak of or implicitly refer to Emerson during the period 1829-35. Nearly all refer to ecclesiastical, literary, or civic activities that would have been well within the province of a Unitarian minister of the day. With the publication of Nature, attention to Emerson increased but remained within the elite circles of institutional Unitarianism and its literary adjuncts, the Harvard-dominated literary journals of the Boston area.2 Part of a culture in which literature still functioned principally as a mode of spiritual discourse, the reviewers of Nature analyzed something they named philosophical and aesthetic discourse, but, clearly, they meant to read through these in order to see its religious and moral implications.3


(This entire section contains 12260 words.)

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emerged as a recognizable national figure in the decade and a half following the publication ofNature because his message shifted from being heard in religious and literary terms to being heard as discourse pertaining to something else. That something else seemed to move beyond the conventions of religious or literary discussion and provide a framework that included both. It would not be entirely accurate to call Emerson's message “secular” in contrast to “religious,” since both he and his audiences perceived something spiritual in his utterances. Nor am I willing to use the term “popularization,” since the process was not necessarily one of simplification and homogenization of a complex, determinate message for a non-expert audience. Rather, something happened from 1836 to 1850 that made Emerson accessible and appealing to a new audience who, because of its own circumstances, was able to hear him in a new and different way.

In lyceums and Mechanics' Institutes, knowledge that had formerly been defined only as religious, literary, or scientific began to be defined also as practical or pragmatic. The lyceum movement in its early days depended mostly on local speakers who had regional reputations. As Donald Scott has noted, early lyceum speakers were usually people with training and connections in other areas of public performance—law or the ministry, for instance—and their drawing power may have been proportional to the audience's familiarity with their other public roles.4 Some speakers may also have been known through locally printed and distributed sermons, speeches, essays, or textbooks. Speakers not immediately familiar to the audience were probably arranged for by local ministers, lawyers, and other intellectuals, who tended to be part of networks that, in some cases, crossed regions. Emerson's course on “The Times,” in New York, 1842, for instance, was arranged by his brother William, a New York lawyer. The new “popular” audience for the lyceums grew out of preexisting networks of intellectuals who began to be heard in new contexts.5

The existence of a new popular press, growing in conjunction with a burgeoning commercial economy, eventually provided a vehicle that made these early word-of-mouth connections superfluous and masked the origins of the speakers in the religious or legal communities. At first, in the major publishing centers of Boston and New York, coverage of lecturers in newspapers was minimal, lest summaries of lectures steal the speaker's “product” and render it unusable with other audiences. The only evidence in the Boston Daily Advertiser of Emerson's lecture course on “Human Life” in Boston in the winter of 1838 took the form of paid advertisements: two in October announcing a course of “ten or more Lectures” and soliciting subscriptions; and individual announcements printed the day of each lecture, advertising its topic, time, location, and price.6 This neglect of Emerson was neither unique nor the consequence of his late notoriety over the “Divinity School Address.” Wendell Phillips's lecture in 1839 at the Boston Lyceum on “The History of Inventions” was announced with much the same lack of fanfare.7

Before long, the situation changed, at least in some newspapers. An article in the Boston Daily Advertiser, reprinted from the New York Evening Post, commented that other newspapers had responded to the public's desire for press coverage of lectures. The Post spoke of “the practice which certain newspapers have recently adopted, of reporting the lecture made before the different societies of the city” and felt compelled to explain why it had not covered lectures.8 The Post's misgivings notwithstanding, a number of New York newspapers and literary periodicals began to afford Emerson significant coverage in the mid-1840s. New York controlled the publishing market, and what New Yorkers wrote about, other parts of the country usually read about. “The eastern papers had said much of Mr. Emerson, and we get an eastern mail every day,” wrote a Cincinnati correspondent on Emerson's first visit there in 1850.9 Perhaps the most important paper to cover lectures was Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, said to be “the most influential newspaper in the country.”10 Greeley's coverage of the “isms” of the day, sensational in their own way, sold newspapers and rocketed the Tribune to a position of importance in the world of the New York press.11

In Boston, the Daily Advertiser wholeheartedly endorsed the New York Evening Post's position and refused to publish accounts of lectures. Perhaps in recognition of Emerson's rising popularity as a lecturer, it nevertheless accorded Essays, First Series, themselves print versions of the lectures, a lengthy front-page review.12 This article treated Emerson as part of a literary community and evaluated Essays in literary terms. The review was far from flattering; the writer found Emerson's Essays tough, distorted, inharmonious, opaque, ponderous, and labored. Yet he expended time and attention on the book, he explained, because, “from its intellectual tendencies, it may be viewed as the representative of a class of works (chiefly of foreign importations) which have met with some success in ‘Young England.’”13

The British connection the Advertiser refers to provides a second clue to the sources of Emerson's early notice as a public figure in the United States. Although Emerson had enjoyed substantial popularity among a certain group of educated, patrician, Unitarian-bred young men in New England, a transatlantic connection contributed significantly to the furthering of Emerson's reputation as a literary figure. The Boston reviewer who took Emerson to task for Essays, for example, began his article by noting that the preface to Emerson's book had been written by Thomas Carlyle. Emerson “is brought before the reading public by one of the ‘observed’ of the day,” the reviewer remarked, “and may thus gain a degree of notice, which, we will venture to affirm, he would not else have attracted.”14 Emerson had done Carlyle the service of overseeing the American publication of Carlyle's works and ensuring that he received royalties for them; Carlyle in turn arranged for the publication of a British edition of 750 copies of the Essays and wrote a preface. The anonymous reviewer of the Advertiser was responding not to the American edition of Emerson's work but to the British edition, published almost half a year after its American counterpart under the patronage of an established British literary figure. The British edition of Emerson's work proved popular enough to be pirated. Beginning with the British publication of Essays, First Series, British periodicals began to review Emerson, frequently pairing his name with that of Carlyle. (“A Yankee pocket edition of Carlyle,” some called him.)15 Although the reviews in Great Britain were far from uniform, Emerson was generally noted, whatever his faults, to be a characteristically American product.16

Emerson's lecture tour of Britain in 1847-48 increased his standing as a public figure there, and British periodicals took note of him, for better or worse. The several American periodicals that reprinted British literary gleanings—the Eclectic or Littell's Living Age, for example—picked up the British literary assessments.17 Emerson made no money from any of his books until after his celebrated tour of England; English Traits, published in 1850, was the first to make a profit. An anecdotal example of the role of British publicity in expanding Emerson's reputation beyond his region appears in the autobiography of Moncure Daniel Conway, the young Virginian who became Emerson's hagiographer and his publicist in Cincinnati. Studying law in Warrenton, Virginia, in December of 1847, Conway stumbled on an article about Emerson with extracts from his essays in Blackwood's, the Scottish literary review.18 Conway traveled to a bookstore in Fredericksburg, where a copy of Emerson's “Arithmetic” was in stock but Emerson's Essays unheard of. Ordering a copy and remarking on his new literary find to his cousin John, Conway learned that the increased attention to Emerson had prompted John to write an article about him for the Richmond Examiner.19

Between a growing notice in the New York press, whose literary editors were often originally from New England, and a reputation in British literary periodicals, which persisted in influencing American literary opinion, Emerson's name was becoming familiar by the late 1840s to a class of readers who kept up with literary affairs. Characterization of him in the British popular press during his 1847-48 lecture tour, however, provided him with an image more readily transferable to popular American audiences. Townsend Scudder's work contains substantial evidence that the British press, in presenting Emerson to audiences of the Mechanics' Institutions, substantially de-emphasized the literary and religious aspects of his discourse in order to portray him as an already highly acclaimed American of prophetic stature. He was a man who spoke directly to the heart, not subject to the ordinary canons of logic. Both literary and religious criticism of Emerson continued to be produced, and, in fact, critics frequently evaluated his writing in either negative or decidedly mixed fashion. Even these appraisals, however, began to betray the influence of the popular press: this man was not to be evaluated strictly according to the rules defining literary or theological discussion. Rather, he was to be seen as a radical of some sort, whose message was to be judged according to some new, and as yet unarticulated, rules governing “feeling” and “spirit,” and whose exemplary American-ness was defined as somehow crucial to audience reception of his message.20

Although dissenters and young Oxford intellectuals formed part of Emerson's audience, by far the majority of those who heard him in Mechanics' Institutions were not mechanics at all, but “clerks, shopkeepers, apprentices, &c … professional men, merchants, warehousemen, schoolboys.”21 The new commercial classes coalesced around Emerson despite the fact that they remained relatively oblivious to his notions of theology, metaphysics, society, and government. What such an audience made of Emerson is a perplexing question. Its primary concern lay neither with literature nor theology. Yet, to understand the making of Emerson as a “popular” intellectual, it is crucial to know the mind of his audience. Between 1840 and 1855, Emerson began to be seen not primarily as a religious or literary figure but as something else, and the coalescence of a bourgeois mercantile audience via the press had much to do with this redefinition of role.

The importation of eastern lecturers such as Emerson in the 1850s marked a new phase of the lyceum and lecturing movement in the midwestern United States. The formation of audiences for these lecturers suggests a good deal about the ways in which the emerging American commercial classes “made” Emerson and gave a cultural imprimatur to particular aspects of his message. Over time, various parts of Emerson's message became obscured through the sheer inability of his listeners to comprehend them as relevant to their own situations. Other parts became exaggerated, probably beyond anything Emerson ever intended, as a result of the coalescing audience's ability to fit them into discourse patterns and experiences that it brought to its experience of the speaker. Emerson's audience had come to a sense of group identity long before his arrival, and hearing him seems to have played a part in heightening its self-consciousness as a group. Before examining in detail how this audience heard his message, it is important to look closely at who his listeners were and the common experience they brought to their interpreting.

Nearly every town had its own lyceum by the mid-1830s. Cincinnati's lyceum was founded in 1830, Cleveland's in 1832; the Columbus Reading Room and Institute was organized in 1835, and the one in Indianapolis sometime before that year.22 These lyceums were part of the national movement begun by Josiah Holbrook in 1829 to promote dissemination of useful information, discussion, and debate. Lyceums began to languish within a decade, however, and were forced to change their form of organization. It was to the second form of this lyceum movement that Emerson was eventually invited to speak, and in the character of these newer organizations lie the clues to the nature of Emerson's audience in the Midwest.

Throughout the young cities of the region, Literary Societies, Young Men's Societies, and Young Men's Mercantile Libraries rapidly displaced lyceums, These new organizations were explicitly established by and for the young mercantile classes of the cities. The urban centers of the newer region contained a disproportionate number of young, unmarried men, most of whom lived in boarding houses. In Chicago in 1850, for example, 94 percent of the male population was under the age of fifty, two-thirds were under thirty, and half ranged from fifteen to twenty-nine years of age.23 Mostly migrants from rural areas, these young clerks, salesmen, bookkeepers, and banktellers were potentially cut off from the influences of family, friends, and church that might have held them in the path of virtue at home. Many writers saw these young men in danger of slipping into vicious habits such as gambling, drinking, theater-going, brothel-visiting, and Sabbath-breaking. A steady stream of advice manuals and tracts poured forth to advise them on the formation and maintenance of character and the path to social acceptability in their new environment.24 In the cities of the Midwest, the Young Men's Societies provided an alternative gathering-place to taverns and theaters for the young members of the mercantile class. These groups also afforded young men the opportunity to acquire the practical knowledge and debating and speaking skills necessary for social and professional advancement.25

The Young Men's Associations, like the lyceums themselves, were anchored in the tenets of the self-culture movement. Self-culture as an ideal originated in urban centers, from the desire of artisans and mechanics to acquire an education in practical and theoretical knowledge of scientific and technical matters. The notion of self-culture quickly took on wider implications: the apostles of the self-culture movement began to advocate the cultivation of an internalized system of morality especially fitted to the newly commercialized portions of the country, particularly, urban areas. Introspective self-examination of conduct would provide highly mobile young men of the urban centers, isolated from traditional institutional bolsters of morality, the means for maintaining character in a disorienting environment.26 Within the philosophy, however, a tension existed: the young man had to be self-reliant and independent of external influences but only so that he could remain true to a collective standard of morality in time of trial. “Self-culture” was, in short, an articulation of the process whereby moral character might be maintained. The “culture” that succeeded it—and that Emerson's lecturing did its part to promote—focused on the definition of collective standards of morality and acceptable behavior.27

The self-culture movement in the Midwest was intimately linked to city boosters and businesspeople, those who had the greatest interest in maintaining moral order among the young male migrants to the city. In the Midwest, the gradual commercial development of eastern cities was compressed into a few years, as cities rapidly appeared out of the prairie. As a result of this rapid economic development, the midwestern merchants played a larger part in civic affairs than their counterparts in the East. Because the merchant—not the minister, the lawyer, the politician or the college professor—was the representative civic figure, the culture movement in the Midwest was, almost from its inception, dominated by the merchant classes.28 Over and over in their official biographies, successful merchants had their good fortune attributed to self-education and self-culture.29 It is not surprising that they dominated the foundation of a new lecture movement in the Midwest designed to inculcate certain moral values in their protégés. When Emerson came to Pittsburgh in 1851, merchants closed their shops early so that young clerks could go to hear him.30 The sorts of messages he and other eastern lecturers brought to the platform fit the aims of a mercantile version of the self-culture ideal. In it, recommended activities and ways of thinking led not only to improvement of character but directly to business success.31

While sponsoring self-culture activities such as debating, public speaking, and literary study, the Young Men's Organizations also served to consolidate the young business class of a city by introducing them to one another and giving them a common set of cultural activities that, by their very definition, built “character.” The reading rooms that flourished with these organizations were regarded as “a pleasant resort and an agreeable place to introduce one's friends and also respectable strangers who visit the city.”32 These organizations provided the setting for Emerson's lectures in the Midwest during the 1850s. Although they shaped the character of popular response to him, he in his turn acted as a catalyst for the cultural consolidation already underway in the region. Emerson's reception in one important midwestern city—Cincinnati—illustrates how these business-oriented audiences helped create an Emerson in line with commercial values.33

The primary impetus for Emerson's first trip to Cincinnati in 1850 was literary. Emerson's reputation at this time still rested principally on his print production. In October of 1849, twelve young men—lawyers, clerks, and teachers, none of whom were over twenty-five years of age—formed the Cincinnati Literary Club. These men lived close together and gathered on Friday nights in the rooms of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a clerk at a Cincinnati bookstore, to eat, drink, and debate slavery, the tariff, and free will. The group combined the aims of self-culture and conviviality that typically characterized Young Men's Associations. It met weekly “to promote the wider culture of our intellectual, moral, and social powers,” with one night a month set aside for formal debate and another for the “Informal”: songs, light verse, and drinking.34 As was the case with Young Men's Organizations elsewhere, the young men of the Literary Club could not afford to guarantee Emerson's expenses, so they turned to the “solid men of Cincinnati,” lawyers, ministers, and merchants, to underwrite his expenses. The merchants responded by pledging one hundred and fifty dollars toward the course of lectures.35

Emerson came to deliver his course of lectures in May of 1850, to a city decidedly unclear as to what to believe about him. He already had a large enough reputation for the Daily Cincinnati Gazette to note on 15 May that “the movement for a course of lectures from Ralph Waldo Emerson, to which we alluded sometime since, has proved successful, and … Mr. Emerson will arrive in Cincinnati in a few days, and commence a course of five lectures here early next week.” The Gazette thought he would have “‘a few’ people to hear him, at least.”36 “In this don't-care-much-for-genius sort of latitude,” a Cincinnati correspondent of the Salem Register wrote after Emerson's first lecture, “the town was on tip-toe of ‘look out’ to see what kind of reception would be extended to him, what class of people would attend, and, finally, what would be thought of him. No one could come to any conclusion upon either point from what the daily papers said in advance; for it was observed that they had not been paid in advance, and consequently the ‘Locals’ were as silent as an oyster, excepting so far as they felt called upon to draw attention to his advertisement, &c.—and that, by the way, with the same adjectives that informed us that a notable fat boy was exhibiting at the Museum, &c.”37 For the majority of Cincinnatians outside the small literary and professional circles that issued the invitation, the popular attitude was one of wait-and-see. Emerson was but one more presumably famous name, of whom many might have heard but from whom few knew what to expect.

Press reception of Emerson on his first appearance in Cincinnati is significant both because it illustrates the process of public image-making and because it set the tone for Emerson's visits to the region throughout the decade that followed. In the race with other growing cities of the region for resources, midwestern newspapers, which were even more intimately connected with the mercantile community than those of the East, became “civic cheerleaders.”38 Extensive journalistic treatment of the individual lecturers, including Emerson, contributed toward the shaping of a corporate response to the speaker, as had been the case in Britain during Emerson's 1847-48 tour there.

By far the most common response to Emerson was to wonder why all the fuss about his transcendentalism. “Judging Mr. Emerson's matter and manner, by this single lecture,” the Gazette reporter wrote, “we should write so differently of both, from what we have seen written by others, that the same man could not be recognized as the subject of the several descriptions … [H]e is so far, in his intellectual and oratorical lineaments, from resembling the newspaper portraits above which we have at various times seen his name written, that we half incline to think the wrong man has come along, and attempted to play off a hoax upon us backwoods people.” “Gothamite scribes have certainly mistaken Mr. Emerson for somebody else, and given descriptions of him which will not be recognized in this region,” the Gazette concluded, referring to descriptions of Emerson that emphasized his religious deviation and his impractical and unintelligible philosophy.39 Another reviewer, “perfectly satisfied by the Lecture of Wednesday evening,” insisted that “a great deal more nonsense has been written about him by Gilfillan and others, than they have written about other people.” George Gilfillan reviewed Emerson in 1848 for Tait's Magazine, a British periodical, and the Gazette reviewer's familiarity with the British review is perhaps as significant as his disagreement with Gilfillan, who attacked Emerson for triteness, mistiness, and worship of man disguised as nature.40

Although Cincinnatians persisted in looking for evidence of Emerson's vaunted unorthodoxy and fuzzy philosophical doctrines, they could not find it. “In that portion of the discourse which might be placed under the didactic head,” wrote the correspondent for the Cincinnati Daily Commercial, after Emerson's second lecture, “no theory was introduced which would appear to present the lecturer in the character of a ‘new light.’” He was “as unpretending as … a good old grandfather over his Bible,” the Gazette reported, and “his most remarkable trait is that of plain common sense.” The Columbian and Great West reported that “the transcendentalism didn't come, longingly as we looked for it from the beginning, and stoutly as many, who professed to have heard the course before, declared that it would be along by-and-by.” When Emerson's planned course of lectures met with success, he was persuaded to give a second course of three, “The Natural History of Intellect,” “The Identity of Thought with Nature,” and “Instinct and Inspiration.” In these, it was judged, “our people will get something more of what is peculiar in Mr. Emerson's mind, and philosophical views, than was obtained from the first course.” Still, newspapers found no sign of a threatening religion or philosophy.41

A comparison of the print essays “Aristocracy,” “Eloquence,” “Books,” and “Instinct and Inspiration” with reportage of the lectures that formed their basis offers some idea of what Emerson's audiences thought they heard if it was not transcendentalism. It is noteworthy that in none of his lectures of the first course did Emerson speak directly about religious or philosophical opinion as he had in lectures of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Rather, he adapted his philosophy to the needs of the popular audience by choosing topics that communicated through concrete and homely metaphors his attitude toward these subjects without ever approaching them directly. His audience believed itself to be getting “common sense, humor, and truth; the second time, humor, truth, and common sense; the third time, truth, common sense, and humor.”42 The texts of the essays show that the audiences of the lectures were still receiving, albeit indirectly, the characteristic Emersonian depiction of the universe as a series of laws that transcended social convention, tradition, or proscriptive statute. In other words, Emerson's underlying philosophy and his religious stance in these lectures had not changed substantially from the more controversial Nature and “Divinity School Address,” but Emerson was no longer explicitly using the languages of philosophy or religion to make his points.

By applying those laws to subjects that were ostensibly nonpolitical and nonreligious, Emerson seemed to his listeners to be merely passing along practical advice on practical subjects—the epitome of self-culture. In Cincinnati, the talks that received the most enthusiastic responses included “Eloquence” and “England.” “Eloquence” contained what conventionally came to be called “gems” or “pearls of wisdom”: aphoristic sayings that encapsulated the practical laws of human life in a novel way. “England” was praised as “one of the most graphic and interesting pieces of descriptive narration that we have listened to.”43 It was treated as a catalogue of observations rather than as a coherent piece of thought. If the audience was pleased by Emerson's “common sense,” it was because his compelling images drawn from everyday life could be understood in a practical, materialist way as well as in the metaphorical, idealist sense in which Emerson probably intended them. Emerson “don't say at all—he hints or intimates or walks around about what he would say but don't say,” the young Rutherford B. Hayes, a member of the Cincinnati Literary Club, astutely observed in a letter to a friend.44

Ironically, one of the least successful of Emerson's lectures in Cincinnati was concerned with literary culture itself, the area in which Emerson had presumably made his mark. “Books” was pronounced “above the range and without the best of the great majority of the auditory.” His lectures on “The Natural History of the Intellect,” of a more overtly philosophical character, were “of too abstruse a nature, and altogether too comprehensive in their method, to be characterized in a newspaper paragraph or two, at all events from a single hearing.” “Instinct and Inspiration,” which the printed text shows to be one of the most overtly philosophical and least anecdotal of his lectures, flowed right past the audience. It was what the British and American reviewers would have called “misty”; the Cincinnati audience, at least, the commercial elements of it whose opinions tended to be reflected in newspapers, were by that time prepared for a frontier philosopher rather than a dangerous transcendentalist. Listeners found the lecture difficult and waited for something more to their liking. As Emerson's lectures grew more philosophical and the novelty of having him in town wore off, attendance at his lectures fell.45

Throughout the 1850s, midwestern newspapers that reported on Emerson's discourses exhibited some difficulty in summarizing his lectures as coherent wholes. Although audiences were described as “strongly impressed” or “profoundly attentive,” reporters often found it “impossible to give a synopsis of the lecture,” no matter how favorably impressed.46 The organizing principles escaped them. Of “The Conduct of Life” in Cincinnati in 1857, for example, the Daily Enquirer's front-page story stated: “The lecture was listened to with profound attention, though, from its epigrammatic and somewhat abrupt and disconnected style, it was a matter of extreme difficulty to follow the thread of the discourse.”47 Rutherford Hayes's description of his impression of an Emerson lecture echoes the responses of most newspaper reviewers. “Logic and method, he has none,” Hayes wrote, “but his bead-string of suggestions, fancies, ideas, anecdotes, and illustrations, delivered in a subdued, earnest manner, is as effective in chaining the attention of his audience as the most systematic discourse could be.”48 Emerson's philosophy of composition, natural law, and organic growth are clearly articulated elsewhere, and his treatment of individual subjects in the western lectures are without a doubt illustrative of his philosophical framework as he had sketched it in earlier writings. Because he focused on concrete topics for the popular audience, however, the system behind the anecdotes remained implicit and suggestive rather than explicit and logically developed. Audiences frequently reached the conclusion that, in his talks, there was no point at all.

When reporters did summarize Emerson's lectures for their readers, the result was frequently a disjointed series of remotely connected sentences. The following selection, taken from the Cincinnati Gazette's summary in 1852 of Emerson's “Wealth,” conveys some of the difficulty listeners had in finding an overarching framework in which to put Emerson's anecdotes and aphorisms:

One of the most natural enquiries about a person, but partially known, was “what has been his success in life?” The first question asked with regard to a stranger is, “How does he get his living?” All men are consumers, and all ought to be producers. Man is an expensive animal and ought to be rich. Wealth has its source in the application of mind to nature. The most intimate ties subsist between thought and nature. The art of getting rich consists, not in industry, but in being at the right spot for such getting, and in the right application of forces. Steam was as abundant 100 years ago as now, but it was not put to so good a use as now. (Applause.) The grass and wheat rots in Michigan, until the active men screw steam power to that hay and flour and whirl it into New York and London. Coals have been rightly called black diamonds. Coal is a portable climate and transports itself. (Applause.) But coal and water were useless in England, till Watt and Stephenson and Brunel came, and then how quickly transformed to wealth!49

This summary also affords an interesting comparison of what the audiences heard and what the speaker actually said. The essay “Wealth” from The Conduct of Life parallels the lecture in every respect, yet it is fascinating to notice how the newspaper interpretation compares with this printed text:

As soon as a stranger is introduced into any company, one of the first questions which all wish to have answered, is, How does that man get his living? And with reason. He is no whole man until he knows how to earn a blameless livelihood. Society is barbarous until every industrious man can get his living without dishonest customs.

Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world unless he not only pays his debt but also adds something to the common wealth. Nor can he do justice to his genius without making some larger demand on the world than a bare subsistence. He is by constitution expensive, and needs to be rich.

Wealth has its source in applications of the mind to nature, from the rudest strokes of spade and axe up to the last secrets of art. Intimate ties subsist between thought and all production; because a better order is equivalent to vast amounts of brute labor. The forces and the resistances are nature's, but the mind acts in bringing things from where they abound to where they are wanted; in wise combining; in directing the practice of the useful arts, and in the creation of finer values by fine art, by eloquence, by song, or the reproduction of memory. Wealth is in applications of mind to nature; and the art of getting rich consists not in industry, much less in saving, but in a better order, in timeliness, in being at the right spot. One man has stronger arms or longer legs; another sees by the course of streams and growth of markets where land will be wanted, makes a clearing to the river, goes to sleep and wakes up rich. Steam is no stronger now than it was a hundred years ago; but it is put to better use. A clever fellow was acquainted with the expansive force of steam; he also saw the wealth of wheat and grass rotting in Michigan. Then he cunningly screws on the steam-pipe to the wheat-crop. Puff now, O Steam! The steam puffs and expands as before, but this time is dragging all Michigan at its back to hungry New York and hungry England.50

Some immediately apparent differences between the two texts include a treatment of material facts (steam, wheat, grass, coal) as a more prominent part of the message in the lecture summary and as the substance of the message rather than as illustrative of higher theory. The audience appears to have been expecting instruction in empirical truth, and that is what they found in Emerson's address. The applause would indicate that the audience responded more readily to the illustrations than to the point of those illustrations: that wealth, both material and moral, consists in the discovery of a “better order” to the one currently in use. Moreover, the newspaper's concern with success is as a how-to proposition rather than as a moral issue having a bearing on one individual's relationship to the social order. For Emerson, the issue is how “every industrious man can get his living without dishonest customs.” For the reviewer, it is merely the issue of getting a living. Finally, the newspaper account flattens the double sense of Emerson's utterances. “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer,” says Emerson, echoing themes introduced in “The American Scholar,” the “Divinity School Address,” Nature, and “Self-Reliance.” In the newspaper summary, the question becomes purely a material one. Emerson's “He is by constitution expensive, and needs to be rich,” becomes “Man is an expensive animal and ought to be rich” (emphasis added). For Emerson, “rich” stands as material metaphor for a spiritual and moral state; in the context in which the reviewer places it, it seems to have predominantly material and economic references.

Emerson meant to inculcate moral reformation through his lecture topics, and he proposed to draw in his audience through a choice of topics that seemed familiar and practical. Some of the titles in his western course, “The Conduct of Life,” indicate the nature of the audience to whom he was accommodating himself stylistically—“Power,” “Wealth,” and “Culture.” Each title can be read as praise of the commercial culture as practiced in the United States or, as Emerson intended, a subtle indictment of its shortcomings. Emerson's attempt to restructure his mercantile audience's vision of the institutions they were creating to define their lives might easily be mistaken for endorsement of the existing order. For example, when Emerson says in his lecture on “Power” that “life is a search after power,” the audience who heard common sense but no organizing idea may have interpreted the comment as sanction for an aggressive economic expansionism they could readily recognize as a part of their current practice. The organizing idea of the lecture is, however, Emerson's advocacy of a power that derives from a moral understanding of the laws of nature and a “sympathy with the course of things.”51 His larger message has little to do with economics. His analogies, which include much practical advice to young men, are nevertheless taken from the realm of affairs with which his audience was familiar—business.

Emerson may have been systematically misconstrued by his audience. Several instances of newspaper reportage of lectures reveal the same tendencies as are apparent in the Cincinnati Gazette's report on “Wealth”: a summary of the individual propositions from the lecture without a sense of underlying structure, an inclination to take Emerson's statements at face value as common sense, and a failure to acknowledge Emerson's reasoning by analogy from the material to the moral sphere.52 Other newspapers flatly refused to summarize Emerson's discourses and explained their failure to do so in terms that are very suggestive of misunderstanding. The Alton Weekly Telegraph (Illinois) is a case in point: “Concerning the matter of Mr. Emerson's lectures, we shall not attempt to speak, as a synopsis of anything so closely condensed would be almost impossible. Each sentence seemed separate and distinct, perfect in itself. On his views, however, of culture, that of polishing our manners so as to suppress all natural and spontaneous emotions—making men mere cultivated automatons—was rather in advance of his audience. They may be capable of being educated to such a point;—but we question its desirability.”53 The irony is, so did Emerson. The discussion either obscures or distorts Emerson's point; from the summary, it is not entirely clear which.

Audience claims that Emerson used no logic in constructing his lectures appear to have been another way of saying that his mercantile audiences could not see the logical structure of the discourses. Stephen Toulmin has analyzed the structure of an argument as consisting of claims (assertions about what is true), grounds (the underlying foundation that assures the claim to be solid and reliable), and warrants (the connection that exists between ground and claim).54 Emerson's warrant for the assertions of his “common sense” lectures was the radically idealist cosmology sketched out in Nature and further elaborated in the spoken and published lectures of the early period. Whatever language or analogies he employed to reach his audience, he saw himself as preaching a message of moral reform whose warrant was a unique spiritual understanding of nature and nature's laws. His audience heard the warrant to be a set of already familiar, pragmatic, common-sense rules for attaining individual financial and social success. The Emerson whose anecdotes and aphorisms are understood but whose larger method is not becomes the epitome of the commercial values prized by the audiences who invited him.

Often presented in the same lecture series with such pragmatic materialists as P. T. Barnum, Emerson's lectures resembled in import, if not in style, Barnum's “Art of Money-Getting,” or “Success in Life.”55 Emerson's presence and message became implicated in the expansion of the commercial culture that sponsored his visits. As the lecture system of which he was part became more solidly entwined with the making of the urban commercial order, his lecture performances came to be part of a canon of acquired learning that defined the parameters of knowledge and behavior within the new international bourgeois way of life, and he himself the representative par excellence of “culture.”

The transition in the Midwest from institutions for self-culture to institutions for the spread of culture can be seen in microcosm in the transformation of the lecture into a form of popular entertainment. The process mirrored a larger one, in which “culture” was becoming a form of consumption necessary for the maintenance of one's class standing. Although originating in the ideals of personal empowerment implicit in the self-culture movement, the new culture industry was signaled by appreciation of emerging icons of culture who apparently supported mercantile values. Emerson's reputation as American prophet became firmly established in tandem with the rise of a national culture industry that created and perpetuated obedience to social hierarchy.56 Speakers like Emerson began to be publicized in newspapers and competed with the theater, concerts, panoramas, and wax museums for public audiences. Lecturers were introduced to the public in the same way as other performers.

One criterion that audiences increasingly used to evaluate the worth of performers was the national or international reputation of the performer or amusement in question. P. T. Barnum's extraordinary engineering of a public reception for Jenny Lind in the United States in 1850 illustrates the influence that journalistic coverage of a public figure could have on a career. Barnum distributed widely a biography of Lind emphasizing her international fame, her piety, character, and philanthropy. Crowds who had not heard of her a few months before mobbed her upon arrival in New York. “All of this extraordinary enthusiasm … had developed before Jenny Lind had sung a note in America,” wrote Neil Harris. “In a sense the musical performances, tumultuously received as they were, formed only an anticlimax.”57

Lind's remarkable success as a result of Barnum's promotion was one version of a national trend toward celebrity-making, which capitalized on gossipy anecdotes designed to reveal the inmost characters of performers. As Emerson entered a company of “distinguished performers and well known names” in Cincinnati, for example, he began to receive a familiar kind of attention in the local press heretofore rare. One “Anecdote of Mr. Emerson” the Gazette published during Emerson's visit to the city depicted Emerson as at once disingenuous, familiar, and eccentric—in short, as a “personality.” His journal was called “a kind of intellectual and scientific rag-bag” in the popular press, his wife an amazed observer of a genius she little understood. The significance of stories such as these lies not so much in any real information they imparted to audiences as in the way their personification of Emerson and performers like him met the needs of audiences for personalities (not belief systems) with whom to identify and on whom to model themselves.58

Newspapers began to comment frequently on the physical appearance of the speaker as if it were equal in importance to anything he might say. Emerson surprised audiences with his gaunt and homely appearance, his narrow forehead, and his long, hooked nose. In his habitual “plain suit of ill-fitting black,” he was “not unlike a New England schoolmaster.” He was by turns bashful, ungraceful, embarrassed, and half-apologetic, but each designation only added to his mystique as an uncalculating soul of pure wisdom and character. “He rarely looks his hearers full in the face,” the Gazette observed, “but at emphatic expression has a habit of turning his eyes backward as if to look in at himself.” Here was no trickster or partisan but a single-hearted purveyor of truth.59

Response to great individuals became the index of culture in a city, and evidences of “cultured” responses to them became in turn proof of the speaker's own worthiness. The newspapers announced one of a new course of Emerson lectures in 1857 with the assurance that it had been “delivered with great effect before a very cultivated Boston audience.” In Chicago, in February of 1854, the Tribune prepared the city for Emerson's arrival by reprinting a laudatory excerpt about him from the Edinburgh Review, for Chicago, a foreign literary journal of impeccable reputation. Such notices served a dual function: while drumming up interest in a particular speaker, they also reaffirmed for booster-conscious cities their connection with a larger world of “culture” outside the region. Awareness and appreciation of people who had captivated the better sort of audiences elsewhere testified to the tone and quality of the city itself.60

The emphasis on a speaker's wide reputation enabled the promoters to clear a profit and established the city's claim to fame as a member of the cultural avant-garde but led to the demise of speakers of purely local reputation. As a city's participation in a national system of culture grew, local notables declined in status and authority on the lecture circuit. When the Reverend Francis Vinton of New York came to Cincinnati to lecture on “The Gentlewoman,” the Enquirer regretted the small crowd in attendance. “The reverend lecturer has not the particular kind of notoriety which, we regret to say, is most attractive here.” Cincinnati's own Rev. C. M. Butler lectured on “Sir Philip Sidney” in his home city, and the Enquirer took the opportunity to fulminate on the pervasiveness of the celebrity lecture system and its “imported trash.”61 So prevalent did well-known, highly paid speakers become on the western lecture circuit that some newspapers began self-consciously to try to stem the tide and restore the old regional system. In 1855, the Sandusky Register and the Genius of the West both published lists of western lecturers in the hope that the region would begin to employ its own.62 They were not successful. Westerners continued for the most part to look to those of established reputation, that is, to easterners, to occupy their lecture platforms.

Along with describing visiting speakers in inflated terms, newspapers offered glowing descriptions of the audiences who partook of the high-toned intellectual fare. The more famous the speaker, the more elaborate the description of the audience. “The audience to-night will no doubt be the most brilliant and fashionable that has been drawn together for some time,” ran the announcement of a Cincinnati concert of Ole Bull, a Norwegian violinist of renown, and Maurice Strakosch, a pianist, in 1852. Theodore Parker's fame attracted “the select many” to his lecture on “The Progress of Mankind.” With Emerson, the praise awarded the audience grew with his national reputation. His first course of lectures in Cincinnati in 1850 attracted an “audience intellectual as well as large.” “The literati and the fashion of our Queen city” were expected in December of 1852.63 By 1857, Emerson's lectures were “largely and brilliantly attended,” and it was apparent to the reviewer that “the intellectual aristocracy of the city has seldom been so well represented as in this audience.” In Milwaukee, too, Emerson's audience was certified “very large and brilliant.” After the Civil War, when Emerson had become a household word as literary figure and popular lecturer, newspaper accounts increasingly congratulated audiences on their wisdom in appreciating such a great man, “The literary public of Cincinnati honored themselves last night, in honoring perhaps the finest scholar and most profound thinker of the country,” the Gazette reported in the first sentence of its review. “The most elegant assemblages we remember to have seen on any occasion in this city” welcomed him. When Emerson gave his final lecture in Chicago in 1871, it was the audience reaction, not the quality of the lecture, that was at issue. “It is needless to say that it [the lecture] was well received. The applause was discreetly timed, and bespoke the culture of the audience.”64

The press continually reinforced the renown of the speaker before, during, and after his arrival and thus promoted the notion that the audience was cultured and brilliant. The “justly celebrated Emerson” was praised; journalists were certain that “the fame of the lecturer will undoubtedly draw a crowded hall”; “the poet and philosopher, who is universally recognized as one of the great thinkers of the age” was coming to speak.65 This newspaper promotion could not have created talent where there was none, but it did establish a cycle whereby the repute of the speaker drew self-defined “intellectual” and “cultivated” audiences, and “cultivation” itself began to be defined as attendance on and acquaintance with certain famous cultural figures. Self-culture, the active expansion of one's faculties and the promoting of self-awareness, was becoming transformed into culture, the conspicuous consumption of the performances of people who were nationally and internationally defined as important intellectuals. Emerson became one of the first symbols of this culture, newly defined as the awareness and mastery of a certain body of knowledge. Culture was a state to be achieved, a status to be acquired, no longer a process of self-awareness and introspection.66

Emerson the public personality contributed to a national system of culture that was effectually the consumption of well-known texts and performances. Indeed, his lectures, in an oft-repeated phrase, came to be known as “intellectual treats,” tidbits of wisdom dispensed by the wise man to the public at large. Thomas Wentworth Higginson perhaps best expressed this representative image Emerson had come to hold for most midwesterners as he repeated the assessment of a booking agent for western tours: Emerson's continued popularity rested “not on the ground that the people understand him, but that ‘they think such men ought to be encouraged.’”67 “He impresses one with the idea of long years of study, of many nights of toil, of incessant diligence in the fields of art, science and literature,” another commented.68 Emerson had become the professional embodiment of Man Thinking, the archetype set forth in his own “American Scholar” address of 1837. Ironically, however, in becoming a representative man, he seemed set apart, superhuman—no longer an inspiration to individual thought but an embodiment of the best that had already been thought and was known to be true. As Emerson himself remarked of Horace Greeley, the people liked him because he did their thinking for them.69

Nearly half a century after Emerson's decade of western lecturing, Thorstein Veblen observed that, in all known civilizations, the people place an esoteric knowledge of truth and reality in the keeping of a select body of specialists; scientists, scholars, savants, clerks, priests, shamans, folk healers. “In the apprehension of the group in whose life and esteem it lives and takes effect,” Veblen wrote, “this esoteric knowledge is taken to embody a systematization of fundamental and eternal truth; although it is evident to any outsider that it will take its character and its scope from the habits of life of the group, from the institutions with which it is bound in a web of give and take.”70 Even though Emerson had not necessarily intended to do so, even though, in fact, such a system of culture as an end in itself was at odds with some of the cardinal tenets of his philosophy, he became its high priest. By 1860, it was generally agreed that Emerson was “one of the most remarkable men in America.” He embodied values that his audience took to be vital to their way of life. He was “original, self-reliant, bold in thought and utterance,” yet he seemed to threaten none of the customs or institutions that had become comfortable. He was “unpretending and simple in manners,” yet he became a standard by which to measure one's own intellectual and moral sophistication. “He says many things that the majority of people either misunderstand or intelligently disapprove,” yet his audience could tell, from his impeccable character and apparent approval of the mores of society—of wealth, power, aristocracy—that he did not really mean these things.71 He became the image of the seer and prophet whose double-edged moral message could be taken materially if it made more sense to do so. The embodiment of the democratic scholar, he helped to consolidate for an economically defined community a notion of culture that reinforced boundaries between the cultivated and the uncultivated. He represented the paradox of a dominant culture that claimed to be dedicated to self-improvement but that increasingly took self-improvement to mean adherence to an ever-more-clearly defined body of standards and behaviors sanctioned by the mercantile and professional groups who sponsored him.

Emerson could become this powerful national symbol because the structure of the lecture system encouraged speakers and audiences alike to view what happened on the lecture platform as unbiased and apolitical.72 The moral knowledge dispensed from the platform by the guileless speaker could shape a national consensus. Especially in the Midwest, where the proliferation of religious denominations provided some measure of ideological division, Emerson's ideas were bled of any philosophical, political, or religious implications and used as the basis for a secular faith that focused on a materially defined progress, unlimited wealth, and conspicuous social achievement within the framework of a stable and proscriptive set of moral values. If professional and mercantile people dominated the values of this new consensus, if the moral orientation of the mercantile community and its Young Men's Associations was generalized and taken to be impartial and unbiased knowledge, it was not through hypocrisy. The intentions of the groups were sincere, even if the result was to extend their own hegemony over American culture as a whole.

Certainly, this is not the whole story of Emerson or the whole story of what audiences made of him. There remains the question of what he may have thought of his audience's misapprehension of him. In general, he seems to have believed that a person had to speak the truth and maintain a studied oblivion toward what hearers might or might not make of it.73 Other audiences contested for the right to interpret his words definitively, among them, religious scholars, philosophers, literary critics, historians, and radical reformers, who did not cease to appropriate his discourse to their own ends, despite the popular triumph of the mercantile Emerson. Because he claimed to speak a truth that transcended context, Emerson may also be a particularly blatant example of the process by which an intellectual may be “made” by the interpretive stance of a specific discourse community. With other intellectuals, the process may not be nearly so clear cut.

A view of the mercantile Emerson nevertheless helps sort out many of the apparent contradictions within Emerson scholarship, as scholars may belong to more than one discourse community at a time. It reminds us that there is one Emerson but many discourse communities to hear his message. It is not only the speaker who represents a battleground in which conflicting cultural tensions or differing discourse communities strive for reconciliation; the text itself is debated and interpreted by various publics. Groups that are catalyzed into new forms of self-consciousness as a result of hearing texts that resonate for them receive ways not only of naming the world for themselves but also of seeming to share a common vision with others who share the text. No matter that the same words may be recognized in a wholly different way by other communities of listeners or readers. If Emerson has come down to us as a cultural prophet, it is not necessarily evidence that we all share a common culture founded on a common intellectual philosophy—only that the words themselves are common to enough cultural groups that we are willing to overlook the sometimes radically different ways in which we hear them.


  1. Perry Miller, “From Edwards to Emerson,” New England Quarterly, 13 (1940): 589-617; F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York, 1941); Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1976). For a variety of views on Emerson spanning 150 years, see Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert E. Burkholder and Joel Myerson, eds. (Boston, 1983). Some of the major biographies of Emerson include Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1949); Joel Porte, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (New York, 1979); Maurice Gonnaud, Individu et société dans l'oeuvre de Ralph Waldo Emerson (Paris, 1964); Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia, Pa., 1953); Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography (New York, 1981); and John McAleer. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, 1984).

  2. Robert E. Burkholder and Joel Myerson, Emerson: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1985).

  3. See Burkholder and Myerson, Bibliography, 12-27; and selected reactions to Nature in Emerson's Nature—Origin, Growth, Meaning, Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson, eds. (New York, 1969), 74-110.

  4. Donald M. Scott, “The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History, 66 (1980): 791-809. On the lyceum movement, see Carl Bode, The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind (New York, 1956); and David Mead, Yankee Eloquence in the Middle West: The Ohio Lyceum, 1850-1870 (East Lansing, Mich., 1951).

  5. Until 1835, even publication was predominantly a local matter, with few materials marketed outside the area where the bookseller had printed and bound them. Of the lecturers during the first decade of the lyceum in Salem, Massachusetts, for example, fewer than half resided in Salem itself. The rest included locally prominent politicians, ministers, and college professors, such as William Sullivan, Edward and Alexander H. Everett, and Henry Ware, Jr. See William Charvat, “James T. Fields and the Beginnings of Book Promotion, 1840-1855,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 8 (1944-45): 76; and Historical Sketch of the Salem Lyceum, with a List of the Officers and Lectures since its Formation in 1830 (Salem, Mass., 1879), rpt. in Kenneth Walter Cameron, ed., The Massachusetts Lyceum during the American Renaissance (Hartford, Conn., 1969), 15-17.

  6. Boston Daily Advertiser, 21, 22, and 26 October 1838.

  7. Boston Daily Advertiser, 21 February 1839.

  8. To publish accounts of lectures, or even to describe the lecturer so as possibly to misrepresent him, the Post argued, was tantamount to robbing him of his daily bread, because it precluded his right to give the lecture again and to receive remuneration for it. Excerpts from this article are reprinted in the Boston Daily Advertiser and Patriot, 7 December 1841.

  9. Salem Register (Massachusetts), 3 June 1850, p. 2, rpt. in Kenneth Walter Cameron, ed., Literary Comment in American Renaissance Newspapers (Hartford, Conn., 1977), 19.

  10. William Alexander Linn, Horace Greeley (New York, 1912), 71.

  11. Emerson met Greeley in 1842; throughout the decade, Greeley published sympathetic reports of what had come to be called “transcendentalism.” In 1844, Emerson's stock undoubtedly rose further as Greeley hired Margaret Fuller as his regular literary editor. Her first piece for the Tribune was a review of Emerson's Essays, Second Series. George Ripley, late of Brook Farm, followed her as the Tribune's literary critic in 1849. See Linn, Horace Greeley, 71-109; Greeley, Recollections of a Busy Life (New York, 1869), 169-91; James Parton, The Life of Horace Greeley (Boston, 1855), 219-28; and Glyndon G. Van Deusen, Horace Greeley: Nineteenth-Century Crusader (Philadelphia, Pa., 1953). Charvat indicated that, during the period of the commercialization of the book trade (1840-55), an author's “literary and social contacts”—and those of the publisher—were instrumental in getting books reviewed in the popular press (“Fields and the Beginnings of Book Promotion,” 77-78). Hence the contact of Emerson's friends with the influential world of New York periodicals seems particularly significant. Charvat's Literary Publishing in America, 1790-1850 (Philadelphia, Pa., 1959) provides a fuller description of the way in which publishing networks in the United States operated during this period.

  12. Boston Daily Advertiser, 7 December 1841.

  13. Boston Daily Advertiser, 16 December 1841.

  14. Boston Daily Advertiser, 16 December 1841.

  15. See, for example, George Gilfillan, “Ralph Waldo Emerson; or The ‘Coming Man,’” Tait's Magazine, rpt. in Littell's Living Age, 17 (April 1848). This article is in turn reprinted in Kenneth Walter Cameron, ed., Emerson among His Contemporaries (Hartford, Conn., 1967), 15-19.

  16. In addition to Gilfillan's article, see “Emerson,” Blackwood's Magazine, rpt. in Eclectic Magazine, 13 (February 1848): 145-58, in turn rpt. in Cameron, Emerson among His Contemporaries, 8-14; “Mr. Emerson's Lectures,” Jerrold's Newspaper, rpt. in The Daguerrotype, 2 (12 August 1848): 467-73, and in Cameron, 20-24; “The Emerson Mania,” The English Review, 12 (September 1849): 139 and following, rpt. in The Eclectic Magazine, 23 (December 1849): 546-53, in Littell's Living Age, 25 (6 April 1850): 37-38, and in Cameron, 38-39; “Review of Representative Men,” British Quarterly Review, 11 (1 May 1850): 281-315, rpt. in Littell's Living Age, 26 (6 July 1850): 1-16, and in Cameron, 45-56. On the wide notice taken of Emerson in British periodicals from 1840-50, see William J. Sowder, Emerson's Impact on the British Isles and Canada (Charlottesville, Va., 1966), 1-28.

  17. E. Douglas Branch, The Sentimental Years, 1836-1860: A Social History (New York, 1934), 111.

  18. The article is almost certainly “Emerson,” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 62 (December 1847): 643-57. This was the first article on Emerson published in Blackwood's.

  19. Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography, Memories and Experiences, 2 vols. (London, 1904), 1:68-70.

  20. Evidence is both summarized and quoted at length in Townsend Scudder, “Emerson's British Lecture Tour, 1847-1848,” American Literature, 7 (1935): 166-80.

  21. Robert Chambers, “Mechanics' Institutions,” Papers for the People (Philadelphia, Pa., 1851), 3: 197-228, quoted in Scudder, “Emerson's British Lecture Tour,” 35. For more extensive remarks on the nature of Emerson's British audiences, see Scudder, 15-36; see also David D. Hall, “The Victorian Connection,” in Victorian America, Daniel Walker Howe, ed. (Philadelphia, Pa., 1976), 84.

  22. John J. Rowe, “Cincinnati's Early Cultural and Educational Enterprises,” Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, 8 (1950): 304-06; Elbert Jay Benton, Cultural Study of an American City: Cleveland, Part II (Cleveland, Ohio, 1944), 38-39; William Alexander Taylor, Centennial History of Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, 2 vols. (Chicago and Columbus, 1909), 1: 241; W. R. Holloway, Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City (Indianapolis, Ind., 1870), 50. Mead, Yankee Eloquence, provides the fullest account of the growth of the lecture system in Ohio.

  23. Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 109.

  24. See Boyer, Urban Masses, 108-20; Irvin G. Wyllie, The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches (New Brunswick, N.J., 1954), 34-54; and Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (New Haven, Conn., 1982), 1-32. On the moral dangers inherent in the theater, see Claudia D. Johnson, “That Guilty Third Tier: Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century American Theaters,” in Howe, Victorian America, 111-20.

  25. William Ellery Channing, in Self-Culture (1838) noted the importance of “Utterance”—not only because he considered speaking in public a prime way of improving one's intellect but also because “to have intercourse with respectable people we must speak their language.” He noted that social rank and social advancement depended on this fluency. See Self-Culture (rpt. edn., New York, 1969), 27-28.

  26. Wyllie, Self-Made Man, 21-54 and 94-115; and John G. Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man (Chicago, 1965), 39-98.

  27. On character as a defense of virtue against the corrupt, see Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 1-55.

  28. This is not to suggest that the mercantile classes of eastern cities were not also influential in the establishment of its cultural institutions. The leisure and professional classes nevertheless seem to have been more strongly represented there than in the West. See Ronald Story, “Class and Culture in Boston: The Athenaeum, 1807-1860,” American Quarterly, 27 (1975): 178-99. An example of mercantile leadership in cultural affairs that I take to be fairly typical in the Midwest was the organization of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association, the organization that sponsored Emerson's visit in 1852. It was established and funded by merchants and businessmen. Convinced by mercantile journals such as Hunt's Merchant Magazine that their young clerks needed to be educated beyond practical matters of business to do their jobs well, merchants took pride in the “inestimable value” that the new association would offer “the young men connected with commerce” by sponsoring lectures and discussions as well as providing books. Missouri Reporter (St. Louis), 6 January 1846. The typical founder of the association tended to be an older and established merchant involved in business dealings with the New York financial market and with markets outside St. Louis. He had probably migrated to St. Louis in his youth in search of “a wider field of enterprise,” as the stock phrase for the sort of ambition that was positively evaluated went. He looked on himself as a self-made man whose thirst for self-culture led to his success. A canny businessman as well as a morally responsible employer, he took personal responsibility for promoting the reputation of his city as a cultural center. See Brad Luckingham. “A Note on the Significance of the Merchant in the Development of St. Louis Society as Expressed in the Philosophy of the Mercantile Library Association, 1846-1854,” Missouri Historical Review, 57 (1963): 184-98.

  29. For the St. Louis case as one example, see Richard Edwards and M. Hopewell, Edward's Great West and Her Commercial Metropolis, Embracing a General View of the West, and a Complete History of St. Louis, from the Landing of Ligueste, in 1764, to the Present Time (St. Louis, Mo., 1860), 389, which lists thirty-six individuals instrumental in the establishment of the Mercantile Library Association.

  30. Anne Louise Hastings, “Emerson's Journal at the West, 1850-1853” (Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1942), 8.

  31. This is the traditional notion of the self-made man, as opposed to the ideal of self-culture. It is discussed at length in Wyllie, Self-Made Man; and Cawelti, Apostles of the Self-Made Man.

  32. Taylor, Centennial History, 241.

  33. Although the responses to Emerson's visits to Cincinnati had at times their own character, they are, so far as I can tell, fairly typical of the range of reaction he received elsewhere in the region. I base this judgment mainly on a wealth of accounts of Emerson's lecture tours in the Middle West and his reception there that rely heavily on local periodicals for documentation: Mead, Yankee Eloquence, 24-61; Willard Thorpe, “Emerson on Tour,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 16 (1930): 19-34; Samuel P. Orth, A History of Cleveland, Ohio, 3 vols. (Chicago and Cleveland, 1910), 1: 491-93; Owen Philip Hawley, Orient Pearls at Random Strung: Mr. Emerson Comes to Marietta (Marietta, Ohio, 1967); C. J. Wasung, “Emerson Comes to Detroit,” Michigan History Magazine, 29 (1945): 59-72; Russel B. Nye, “Emerson in Michigan and the Northwest,” Michigan History Magazine, 26 (1942): 159-72; Donald F. Tingley, “Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Illinois Lecture Circuit,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 64 (1971): 192-205; Paul Russell Anderson, “Quincy, An Outpost of Philosophy,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 34 (1941): 54-57; Robert R. Hubach, “Illinois, Host to Nineteenth Century Authors,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 38 (1945): 454-59; Hubert H. Hoeltje, “Ralph Waldo Emerson in Iowa,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, 25 (1927): 236-76; Hubert H. Hoeltje, “Notes on the History of Lecturing in Iowa, 1855-1885,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, 25 (1927): 62-131; Luella M. Wright, “Culture through Lectures,” Iowa Journal of History and Politics, 38 (1940): 115-62; Brad Luckingham, “The Pioneer Lecturer in the West: A Note on the Appearance of Ralph Waldo Emerson in St. Louis, 1852-1853,” Missouri Historical Review, 58 (1963): 70-88; “Emerson in Indianapolis,” Indiana History Bulletin, 30 (1953): 115-16; Lynda Beltz, “Emerson's Lectures in Indianapolis,” Indiana Magazine of History, 60 (1964): 269-80; Hubert H. Hoeltje, “Emerson in Minnesota,” Minnesota History, 11 (1930): 145-59; and C. E. Schorer, “Emerson and the Wisconsin Lyceum,” American Literature, 24 (1953): 462-75. Louise Hastings, “Emerson in Cincinnati,” New England Quarterly, 11 (1930): 443-69, focuses on Emerson's reception in this city.

  34. Cincinnati Literary Club, Minutes, vol. 1, MS., Cincinnati Public Library. On the Cincinnati Library Club, see Hastings, “Emerson's Journal at the West,” 6-7; James Albert Green, The Literary Club and Cincinnati in 1849 (Cincinnati, Ohio, 1931), 3; and Eslie Asbury, “The Literary Club,” Cincinnati Historical Society Bulletin, 32 (1974): 105-21.

  35. Ainsworth Rand Spofford, “Address Delivered at the Literary Club's 50th Anniversary,” Minutes of the Literary Club, 28 October 1899, quoted in Hastings, “Emerson in Cincinnati,” 443.

  36. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 15 May 1850.

  37. Salem Register, 3 June 1850.

  38. Carl Abbott, Boosters and Businessmen: Popular Economic Thought and Urban Growth in the Antebellum Middle West (Westport, Conn., 1981), 39. On the booster mentality on the midwestern frontier, see also Don Harrison Doyle, The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois, 1825-70 (Urbana, Ill., 1978), 62-91.

  39. “Emerson's Lectures,” Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 22 May 1850.

  40. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 24 May 1850.

  41. Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 23 May 1850; Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 24 May 1850, Columbian and Great West, 1 June 1850; Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 30 May 1850.

  42. Columbian and Great West, 1 June 1850.

  43. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 30 May 1850. For a complete text of “Eloquence,” see W 1: 59-100.

  44. Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Charles Richard Williams, ed., 5 vols. (Columbus, Ohio, 1922), 1: 315.

  45. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 30 May 1850, 3 June 1850. For the printed essay versions of these lectures, see W 7: 187-222 (“Books”), and 12: 65-89 (“Instinct and Inspiration”).

  46. Chicago Tribune, 23 January 1857.

  47. Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, 28 January 1857.

  48. Diary and Letters of Hayes, 301. For a similar reaction, see the commentary of William Cullen Bryant a decade earlier, who, as he listened to Emerson in New York, explicitly listened for transcendentalism: “In regard to the peculiar doctrines of Mr. Emerson, we hardly consider ourselves qualified to judge. We cannot say that we precisely apprehend what they are. Now and then, in listening to his discourses, or reading his essays, we have fancied that we caught glimpses of great and novel truths”; New York Evening Post, 3 March 1842, rpt. in Charles I. Glicksberg, “Bryant on Emerson the Lecturer,” New England Quarterly, 12 (1939): 530-34.

  49. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 13 December 1852.

  50. W 6: 85-86.

  51. W 6: 55, 58.

  52. Instances in which parallel texts can be compared include reportage on “Power” in the Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 10 December 1852, with “Power” in The Conduct of Life (W 6: 51-82); and a summary of “Power” in The Illinois Journal, 13 January 1853, rpt. in Robert R. Hubach, “Emerson's Lectures in Springfield, Illinois, in January, 1853,” American Notes and Queries, 6 (1947): 164-67. Compare a summary of “Books” in The Independent (New York), 4 April 1850, with “Books” in Society and Solitude (W 7: 187-221). Compare “Social Aims” and “Resources,” summarized in Boston Semi-Weekly Advertiser, 30 November 1864, with the essays of those titles in Letters and Social Aims (W 8: 77-108, 135-54). Summaries of lectures for which I have not yet 30 November 1864; “The Man of the World,” Cincinnati Daily Gazette [same periodical as Daily Cincinnati Gazette], 15 March 1867; “Economy,” Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 14 December 1852; “Culture,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 February 1854.

  53. 20 December 1867, rpt. in Paul O. Williams, “Emerson in Alton, Illinois”, ESQ [Emerson Society Quarterly], 47 (1967): 98. Among those who declined to synopsize because of the “condensed nature” of the utterance were the Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 5 June 1850; and the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, 1 February 1857.

  54. Stephen Toulmin, Richard Rieke, and Allan Janik, An Introduction to Reasoning (New York, 1979), 25-26.

  55. On Barnum, see Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (Boston, 1973), 154-58, 193-95.

  56. I have borrowed the term “culture industry” from Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York, 1969), 120-67.

  57. Harris, Humbug, 121.

  58. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 22 November 1852; 15 December 1852. On the tendency toward the creation of media personalities, see Richard Sennett, who, in The Fall of Public Man (New York, 1976), made the case that, by the nineteenth century in Western culture, privatization of experience led to a distorted emphasis on personality of public figures rather than attention to their social roles.

  59. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 28 January 1857. Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women, 56-152, has commented on the use of dress and mannerisms during this period to communicate an image of personal sincerity.

  60. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 31 January 1857; Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 February 1854.

  61. Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, 25 January 1857.

  62. Sandusky Commercial Register, 24 October 1855. Mead, Yankee Eloquence, 194-95, discussed the growing disenchantment with eastern lecturers by the end of the 1850s; W. H. Venable, Beginning of Literary Culture in the Ohio Valley: Historical and Biographical Sketches (New York, 1949), 251-53, lists the eastern and western lectures being promoted by the various factions.

  63. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 23 and 30 November 1852; 22 May 1850; and 8 December 1852. Cincinnati Daily Times, 8 December 1852, printed the only mixed description of an audience I have come across. The auditors were mixed in character, it observed, and “people who never had a Father, and do not possess a thousand dollars in the world to bless themselves and progeny” took the front seats.

  64. Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 3 February 1857; Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 8 February 1854; Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 15 March 1867; Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 15 March 1867; Chicago Tribune, 28 November 1871.

  65. Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 10 December 1852; Chicago Tribune, 2 February 1854; Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 27 January 1857.

  66. This definition of culture as acquisition of a certain body of knowledge and style is suggested by Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York, 1982), 140-81; and Burton J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism: The Middle Class and the Development of Higher Education in America (New York, 1976), 1-45.

  67. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “The American Lecture-System,” Every Saturday, 5 (18 April 1868): 494.

  68. Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, 1 February 1857.

  69. Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 February 1854.

  70. Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum of the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (New York, 1957), 1.

  71. Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 2 February 1860.

  72. The Cincinnati Young Men's Mercantile Library Association, for example, took pains to prevent discussion of anything “political” in its lecture program. Orestes Brownson caused a ruckus in 1852 when he made inflammatory remarks about Louis Kossuth. See David Mead, “Brownson and Kossuth at Cincinnati,” Bulletin of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, 7 (1949): 90-93. Henry Ward Beecher was invited to St. Louis in 1860 on the condition that he “eschew all subjects pertaining either to politics or religion”; Daily Cincinnati Gazette, 2 February 1860. He refused the invitation. Emerson himself received some difficulty in the press in Cincinnati after he had publicly spoken elsewhere in praise of John Brown. See Cincinnati Daily Times, 1 February 1860; and Cincinnati Daily Commercial, 2 February 1860.

  73. On Emerson's attitude toward audience reception, see John H. Sloan, “‘The Miraculous Uplifting’: Emerson's Relationship with His Audience,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 52 (1966): 10-15. Passages in Emerson's own writing that are illuminating include L 5: 4 and JMN 9: 10-11, 50, 225, 258, 430; 10: 315.


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Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803-1882

American essayist and poet.

Universally regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the founders of the Transcendental movement, a group of New England literary figures who believed deeply in the presence of the divine in human beings. The Transcendentalists asserted that each individual must determine what is morally correct regardless of religious dogma, and Emerson's essays are regarded as some of the most important and commanding literary expressions of this philosophy. In addition, Emerson is also widely regarded as one of the most effective architects of a distinctly American philosophy embracing optimism, individuality, and mysticism, and he is noted for his influence on such authors as Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Dickinson.

Biographical Information

Emerson was born in Boston to a long line of Unitarian ministers and it was there that he spent a sheltered childhood. He graduated from Harvard University in 1821, taught school in Boston for four years, and began attending Harvard Divinity School in 1825. The following year, he became a minister and was ordained pastor of Boston's Second Church in 1829. At this time he also married his first wife, Ellen Tucker, whose death in 1831 left Emerson with an inheritance that secured his financial future. Despite his traditional academic career, Emerson was familiar with numerous modern religious influences, including ideas regarding Romantic subjectivity, a philosophy that was just then beginning to reach America from Europe. Additionally, his years at Harvard had exposed him to the publications of the German Higher Critics, as well as translations of Hindu and Buddhist poetry. Thus, even while he assumed the pastorate of his church, Emerson brought with him many doubts concerning traditional Christian belief. Unable to stem these growing misgivings, in 1832 Emerson resigned his position as pastor after expressing objections to the traditional meaning and function of the Communion ritual. Following his resignation, Emerson spent the next year traveling in Europe, where he met such writers as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. During these years he also visited the botanical gardens at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an experience he claimed inspired his interest in the mystical significance of nature. He returned to America in 1833 and settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where he began his career as a lecturer. He soon established his reputation as one of the most successful speakers on the country's new lyceum circuit. During the late 1830s and early 1840s Emerson published several works that presented his thought at its most idealistic and optimistic. His first published work, an essay entitled Nature (1836), repudiated traditional religion, declaring nature to be the divine example of inspiration, as well as the source of boundless possibilities of human fulfillment. This work in particular is believed to have helped found what would later become known as the Transcendental Club, a group of intellectuals that included Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Emerson frequently contributed poetry to the group's journal, the Dial, and later served as its editor. It was also during this time that Emerson wrote and delivered two of his most important lectures: “The American Scholar” (1837), an address delivered to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society, widely regarded as a call for a distinct school of American intellectualism that was independent of European influence; and “The Divinity School Address” in which he caused tremendous controversy by challenging the tenets of traditional Christianity and defined Transcendental philosophy in terms of the “impersoneity” of God. Emerson undertook a second journey to Europe in 1847, which included a lecture tour in England. This trip also resulted in the publication of his English Traits (1856), a work that was hailed by contemporaries as an accurate evaluation of contemporary English society. For the next two decades, Emerson continued to write and lecture and was often referred to as the “Sage of Concord.” He died in Concord in 1882.

Major Works

Emerson wrote essays and poetry over several decades, but most of his thoughts regarding Transcendentalism were laid out in his earliest works, including Nature and his lectures “The American Scholar” and “The Divinity School Address.” The doctrines he formulated in these early works were later expanded and elaborated upon in Essays (1838) and Essays: Second Series (1844). From these collections, the essays “Self-Reliance,” “The Over-Soul,” and “The Poet” are among the best known. The philosophical and religious outlook of Emerson's works are traced to many sources, including the Unitarian religion, German Philosophical Idealism, the work of Swedish scientist and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the Hindu scriptures, all of which emphasize the unity of nature, humanity, and God. Much of Emerson's Transcendental philosophy is encapsulated in Nature, a work in which he argued that nature is a symbolic language that can reveal the mind of God, and that through the experience of oneness with nature, a communion with God is possible. In addition to his essays, Emerson was a prolific contributor of poetry to the Dial and later issued many of his poems in Poems (1847) and May-Day, and Other Pieces (1867). Well-known poems in these collections include “The Rhodora,” “The Sphinx,” “Brahma,” “The Humble Bee,” and one of his earliest works, the “Concord Hymn.” Scholars have charted a steady decline in Emerson's idealism in his poetry and prose works following his contributions to the Dial and the publication of his Essays: Second Series. The most noted example of his humanistic acquiescence to the reality of circumstances surrounding mortal limitations is The Conduct of Life (1860). Other important works include Representative Men (1850), a series of essays on the men who most closely fit Emerson's ideal, and another collection titled Society and Solitude (1870). Emerson spent the last years of his life in Concord, writing little, but enjoying national recognition throughout America as a central figure of the American Renaissance.

Critical Reception

Emerson left a large literary legacy and is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential writers of the nineteenth century. However, critics have found it difficult to agree on which facet of Emerson's work deserves the most attention and where his influence has been most profoundly felt. Filled with maxims, his writings offer encouragement and consoling wisdom, which has gained him an enduring place in American popular culture. On the other hand, he has also been openly acknowledged by scholars as one of the most important influences in the fields of poetry and philosophy. Although he published a large number of poems in his lifetime, Emerson's poetry has often been regarded as secondary to his prose writing. In fact, it wasn't until the 1990s that a collected edition of his poems was issued and it is only in the last few years that any significant critical analyses of his poetry have become available. According to Saundra Morris, a balanced overview of Emerson's work is impossible without a significant emphasis on his verse. Morris states that Emerson identified himself primarily as a poet and that as a poet-essayist he has exerted an enormous influence on other poets. While Emerson's writing was well received by most nineteenth-century scholars, he fell out of favor with critics during the 1920s and 1930s, many of whom charged that his works lacked unity and logical structure. More recent criticism, however, has repudiated this charge, noting a dialectical structure in Emerson's philosophy that unifies his otherwise disparate statements. Regardless of his critical reception, his poetry and theories regarding writing have been often cited as vitally influential to the work of authors such as Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In fact, Emerson the poet is now lauded as a theorist and goal-setter, and is revered for the creation of a distinctly American tradition in poetry. In recent years, Emerson and his writings have enjoyed renewed critical attention, including a re-evaluation of the artistic and philosophic merits of his work. In fact, during the 1980s and 1990s, Emerson's writing was acknowledged as a complex mixture of deeply resonant rhetoric that goes far beyond the traditional representations of his work. Now seen as one of the founding figures in the American philosophical tradition, Emerson's prose and poetry reflect the many contradictory mantles he assumed in his work, including those of Transcendentalist, philosopher, prose stylist, theorist, and social commentator.

Russell B. Goodman (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 34-57.

[In the following essay, Goodman provides an overview of Emerson's philosophical beliefs as expressed in his writings.]

Emerson is a direct link between American philosophy and European Romanticism. Soon after leaving his ministry in the Unitarian church (in part because he no longer believed in the “divine authority and supernatural efficacy”1 of the communion he administered), Emerson traveled to Europe where he met his heroes Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle. There is little doubt of their influence on his thought or of Emerson's founding role in American Romanticism. As Harold Bloom observed, “Emerson is to American Romanticism what Wordsworth is to the British or parent version.”2

What is less clearly established is Emerson's importance as a philosopher. His thought plays a minor role in many histories and surveys of American philosophy,3 perhaps because it has no obvious connection with the major American movement of pragmatism. Yet one pragmatist, John Dewey, thought that Emerson was “the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato,”4 and another, William James, thought enough of Emerson to deliver an address to the Emerson centenary celebrations (after rereading his entire corpus), in which he called him a “real seer … [who] could perceive the full squalor of the individual fact, but … also … the transfiguration.”5 In recent years, Stanley Cavell, Barbara Packer, David Van Leer, and Cornel West have worked at establishing Emerson's philosophical credentials.6

In this chapter I shall focus on Emerson's philosophical views, particularly on his epistemology and metaphysics.7 In Emerson's writings, the ideas and projects of the European Romantics—“the feeling intellect,” the “marriage of self and world,” the human mind as a shaper of experience, the criticism and expansion of empiricism, and the naturalization and humanization of the divine—developed in a philosophically distinctive way on American soil.

Emerson, then, is America's first Romantic philosopher. His relation to those who follow him is both significant and complex. He actually met the young William James in the James family home in New York, where he was a frequent visitor of William's father, Henry James, Sr. There is, as Richard Poirier has shown us, a deep Emersonian layer in James's thought. But it was John Dewey and, later, Stanley Cavell who better enunciated Emerson's philosophical importance.8 Dewey saw Emerson as a philosopher of experience, an “idealist” who traced the existence of ideals not to a transcendental realm but to their sources in human life. Cavell treats him as an “epistemologist of moods” who teaches the Romantic doctrine that our feelings are as objective and revelatory of the world as are our thoughts or sensations. All the American philosophers whom I shall examine criticize and attempt to move beyond what Emerson calls “paltry empiricism.”9


Emerson's views on the metaphysical topic of freedom serve as a convenient introduction to his philosophy. In general, Emerson is not so much interested in analyzing the concept of freedom (though some of his remarks are relevant to such analyses) as he is in exploring ways in which human beings are or can be free and, correspondingly, ways in which we—by either our own wills or the forces of fate—are less free than we might be. I shall look to Emerson's earlier essays and addresses for his outlook on freedom and to some of his later ones to show the severe constraints on freedom that he discerns. This is not to say that he ignores such constraints in his earlier essays nor that he abandons belief in or hope for freedom later on. Indeed, most of Emerson's ideas that concern us in this chapter are expressed throughout his career. Emerson's vision does darken, however, especially after the death of his son Waldo,10 and this fact is reflected in the comparative ease with which one can find discussions of freedom in the earlier works and discussions of limitations on freedom in the later ones.

In his first writings, Nature (1836) and “The American Scholar” (1837),11 Emerson is concerned with our freedom from the traditions and institutions of the past. It is not that he sees no value in them—books are of great value if well used—but that valuable as they are, they can prevent our enjoying what he calls in Nature “an original relation to the universe.” Why, he begins that work by asking, should we not enjoy such a relation? “Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”12

“The American Scholar” amplifies this message. Emerson criticizes traditional scholarship precisely because of its slavishness. He warns against “the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.”13 These idolizers of books may know all that they contain, page by page, but they lack what Emerson calls “their own sight of principles,” the source of all good thinking and writing. (There is an obvious connection here with Wordsworth's injunction to “close up those barren leaves” and “Come forth … with … a heart / That watches and receives.” However, Emerson stresses the active, as opposed to the receptive, powers of humanity more than does Wordsworth.)14 Emerson criticizes his contemporary “meek young men” who “grow up in libraries” and who feel duty bound to find out and follow the dictates of the works they worship. Such duty is that of the slave: The “guide” has become a “tyrant.”15

Emerson accordingly puts forward a different conception of the scholar, one that depicts him or her as self-reliant, not dependent, exploratory, not tied to already-discovered truth. The true purpose of books, he tells us, is “to inspire,” not to promote imitation or idolization. Their power may be misused: “I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit.” Emerson is confident that within each man or woman lies a “genius,” a unique capacity. As he later stated in “Self-Reliance”: “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”16 True scholarship sets this genius free: discovering, developing, and relying on it.

Emerson's idea of self-reliance, so prominent in his early addresses and essays, is explicitly connected with freedom in “The American Scholar”: “In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be,—free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, ‘without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.’ Brave; for fear is a thing which a scholar by his very function puts behind him.”17 This passage shows Emerson thinking of freedom as a virtue, like courage. He is not, then, treating freedom or its lack as a metaphysical condition affecting all people equally but as something of which people can have more or less. By enjoining his readers to become self-reliant, Emerson evinces his belief that we can control, to some extent at least, our freedom, that—to use “free” in the more usual philosophical sense—we are free to become more free by becoming more self-reliant.

Although Emerson's aim is toward freedom—forward rather than backward as he says18—“The American Scholar” both implicitly and explicitly records our failures to act freely. “We are the cowed,” he writes, “the trustless.”19 Using images that remind one of his admirer Nietzsche, he characterizes human existence as like that of bugs or spawn or, as in the following case, as that of a herd: “Men in history, men in the world of to-day … are called ‘the mass’ and ‘the herd.’”20 Yet “The American Scholar” is suffused with confidence that a new day is at hand and that humankind, and particularly Americans, are ready to slough off the past. Emerson writes in the first paragraph that “our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” and in the last paragraph he predicts that “we will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”21

If “The American Scholar” urges the abandonment of slavish scholarship for the self-reliant and creative life of “Man Thinking,” Emerson's “Divinity School Address” urges the abandonment of slavish religion for the free apprehension of a divinity that “is, not was.”22 As scholars idolize books, so do Christians idolize Christ: “The language that describes Christ to Europe and America is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal,—paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.”23 Emerson's shocking moral is that we should try not to imitate Christ but to achieve our own original spiritual relationship to the universe.24 Each of the Harvard Divinity College graduates to whom he is speaking is “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,” who must “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” The imitator is hopelessly mediocre; he “bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.”25 Once again, one is to be free from all external reliance, even on so good a model as Jesus or Moses. Our religion is characterized by a “soul-destroying slavery to habit.” Still, Emerson maintains, “it is not to be doubted, that all men have sublime thoughts; that all men do value the few real hours of life.”26 (Emerson's assertion that all men have sublime thoughts is an indication of the democratic impulse that Dewey so admired in him.27 Although it might seem to conflict with his portrayal of our domination by herdlike instincts, one should remember that the hours of sublime thought are “few.”)

It is these “few real hours” that Emerson constantly seeks. In “Circles,” published as one of his first series of essays in 1841, he identifies these hours with those times in our lives when we cast off the old, whether in the form of a model (like Christ or Locke or, a philosopher might add today, Wittgenstein or Husserl or Derrida) or a habit. “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn.”28 Each new circle represents freedom from the constriction of the old one, but each will harden into a new constriction: “It is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance,—as, for instance, an empire, rules of an art, a local usage, a religious rite,—to heap itself on that ridge, and to solidify, and hem in the life.” Our real hours are our original ones, when “the heart refuses to be imprisoned”29 and we burst through to a new circle, thereby abandoning the old.

In “Circles” this idea of abandoning our old forms begins to assume the status of a metaphysical principle, as when Emerson writes: “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”30 Abandonment of the old imprisoning circle is, Emerson asserts, both the way in which “life” actually proceeds (though not the way in which human life is conducted) and an ideal of human conduct, as if we become real (enjoy our few real hours) only in such transitions. Although Emerson's links to the Platonic (including the Neoplatonic) tradition are important, he is not, like Plato, a follower of Pythagoras, who maintained that the real is the unchanging. Emerson is a Heraclitean rather than a Pythagorean on this issue, maintaining that the real is the changing: “In nature, every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. … No truth so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled, is there any hope for them.”31

Emerson applies his notion of radical human freedom to the moral domain in “Circles,” again foreshadowing Nietzsche.32 “The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur.”33 In the idea of deducing his virtues from the grandeur of his character, Emerson expresses the thought that the great man is responsible only to himself, that he is, as Nietzsche would say, a creator of values. A consequence of this view is that the great man is not limited even to commonly and deeply accepted virtues (of which prudence is a minor example). For Emerson all virtues are, as he puts it, “initial.” “The terror of reform,” he continues, “is the discovery that we must cast away our virtues, or what we have always esteemed such, into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.” Not only may we abandon good; we also may abandon, or transcend, evil: “It is the highest power of divine moments that they abolish our contritions also.”34

That Emerson's notion of freedom is akin to those of philosophers like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger is suggested also by Cavell's analysis of a key passage in “Self-Reliance” in his complex and provocative paper “Being Odd, Getting Even: Threats to Individuality.”35 The passage in question is this one: “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.”36 Once he points it out, one must be struck, as Cavell is, by the seeming allusion to Descartes's classical argument in the Second Meditation in which he proves his own existence. Cavell reminds us of the importance in the Cartesian argument of actually saying or thinking “I am, I exist” and examines the ways in which, for Emerson, saying becomes a metaphor for existing, and quoting a metaphor for herdlike, conforming, “ghostly” nonexistence. Just as saying or thinking in Descartes's account is necessary for certain knowledge of my own existence, so for Emerson, saying becomes a metaphor for the enactment of my existence. Here “existence” is used in the existentialists' sense of a way of human life that one does not have merely by virtue of being a live human being but that one must acquire (Kierkegaard's word for this is “choosing”).37 We are beings, Cavell interprets Emerson as meaning, for whom their existence is an issue and who must claim or enact it for it to occur.38 Quotation, the opposite of saying, is the equivalent of the “warping out of one's orbit” that Emerson warns against in “The American Scholar” and “Divinity School Address.” In “Self-Reliance” Emerson is saying that our quotation, our slavery to others (even to our own past sayings and doings), robs us of our existence. The only real existence is a free one (i.e., “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution”). “Imitation,” as he stated, “is suicide.”39

If Emerson hopes for a constantly renewed “original relation to the universe,” he is not unaware of the barriers to, and the general unlikelihood of, such relations taking place. In “Experience,” published in his second series of essays in 1844, he records his disenchantment with even those people who seem least conforming and hidebound:

There is an optical illusion about every person we meet. In truth, they are all creatures of given temperament, which will appear in a given character, whose boundaries they will never pass: but we look at them, they seem alive, and we presume there is impulse in them. In the moment, it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play.40

Life moves by expanding circles, he had written, but here in “Experience” he pictures people who only “seem alive” (i.e., in Kierkegaardian terms, who seem to exist) and whose “boundaries” will never expand. “Temperament shuts us in a prison of glass,”41 a prison we cannot even see.

Emerson notes restrictions on our freedom in all his writing, maintaining even in the ebullient “Self-Reliance,” for example, that through our conformity to society we are “as it were, clapped into jail by [our] consciousness.”42 In his later essays, however—as in the preceding quotation—he comes to emphasize the extent to which these restrictions are not under our control. Nowhere is this recognition more apparent than in his late essay “Fate,” published in 1860 in The Conduct of Life. There, fate becomes a name for “whatever limits us,”43 and Emerson provides a veritable catalogue of forces that limit our ability to find or express ourselves: earthquakes, climatic changes, disease, sex, “organization tyrannizing over character.”44 Emerson seems to be talking about his earlier thought when he explains: “Once we thought positive power was all. Now we learn that negative power, or circumstance, is half. Nature is the tyrannous circumstance, the thick skull, the sheathed snake, the ponderous, rock-like jaw.”45 Even when he stresses our human influence over events, Emerson's moral seems to be that this too is fated and that such influence comes unconsciously, unintelligently, like bodily secretions:

Each creature puts forth from itself its own condition and sphere, as the slug sweats out its slimy house on the pear leaf, and the woolly aphides on the apple perspire their own bed, and the fish its shell. In youth we clothe ourselves with rainbows and go as brave as the zodiac. In age we put out another sort of perspiration,—gout, fever, rheumatism, caprice, doubt, fretting and avarice. … A man will see his character emitted in the events that seem to meet, but which exude from and accompany him.46

At the end of “Fate,” Emerson offers a “solution to the older knots of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge.” But it is difficult to make sense of this. It lies, he tells us, in “the propounding … of the double consciousness.” His idea seems to be not that the universe is essentially dual—for he speaks of it as a “Blessed Unity”47—but that our consciousness of it is. We vary, he explains, in the way we handle the dictates of fate.48 A person may be “the victim of his fate,” but he ought then (and this would presumably be the alternative or double consciousness of which Emerson speaks) “to rally on his relation to the Universe, which his ruin benefits. Leaving the daemon who suffers, he is to take sides with the Deity who secures universal benefit by his pain.”49 Note that “his ruin” remains, and so Emerson is not talking about escape to another (e.g., a transcendental or noumenal) “world.” We are stuck with this one, but we can, he seems to hold, accommodate ourselves to it.

So far, this sounds like typical Stoic doctrine. Emerson departs from this position, however, by saying that we can, after all, “offset the drag of temperament,” that we are compensated for “taking sides with the Deity” by an access of “sudden power. When a god wishes to ride, any chip or pebble will bud and shoot out winged feet and serve him for a horse.”50 Fate becomes something that we can control. Whether this position makes sense is questionable; a fuller examination of it must await our examination of Emerson's idealism. It is in any case characteristic of Emerson both to set out the limitations on our power and to testify to their being overcome. Perhaps the fairest summary of Emerson's position is that offered earlier in “Fate” and just quoted: “Circumstance is half,” but “positive power” is the other half. And although his talk of “impulse” might make it seem as if Emerson posits a contracausal notion of freedom, it seems just as easy to make him out to be a Humean on this question (if on few others), his list of the forces arrayed against us just a catalogue of those “chains”51 that we must and can avoid if we wish to be free.


Emerson's idealism is a blend of many elements: Neoplatonic, Hindu, Kantian, Coleridgean, and others. These philosophies share a sense of the immense power of the human mind in determining both reality and our knowledge of it. In this respect, Emerson is an inheritor of Kant, who stressed this power of the mind. Like Kant and his followers (including Coleridge), but unlike Berkeley, Emerson is not a simple idealist. He does not hold that reality is only mental, and he gives substantial play (as in the idea of fate) to the idea that there are objective forces beyond our influence. Emerson's idealism does not come neatly packaged, however, so that our task is to distinguish some of its main parts.


We begin with the Platonic/Neoplatonic/Hindu strain, which we met when discussing “Fate.” In that essay, Emerson sets out the forces of fate arrayed against us but maintains that by an access of sudden power it can be transcended. In such places in his writing, Emerson comes close to the Platonic view that the world we inhabit is (like the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave) an illusion and that we can transcend that illusion, breaking out to reality. In “Experience,” for example, after discussing the limitations brought about by temperament, Emerson writes:

On its own level … temperament is final. … But it is impossible that the creative power should exclude itself. Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the creator passes. The intellect, seeker of absolute truth, or the heart, lover of absolute good, intervenes for our succor, and at one whisper of these high powers we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare. We hurl it into its own hell, and cannot again contract ourselves to so base a state.52

Emerson suggests that the world we see (or the way we see the world) is dreamlike or, worse, nightmarish. It is in any case base and ghostly, not solid or elevated. We may hope to wake up to “reality.”

Emerson tends to identify the reality with which we come in touch in the elevated moments he describes as “ours,” the “soul's,” or that of some cosmic “self.” This makes his position similar to the Hindu view that behind all phenomena lies an “atman,” or world-soul. The poem with which “Experience” begins, for example, lists the forms of experience Emerson calls the “lords of life” (which include “Temperament,” “Dream,” “Succession,” and “Surprise”), but though these lords appear to tower over the “little man, least of all,” they are in fact just his creations or emanations:

“To-morrow they will wear another face,
The founder thou! these are thy race!”

More Neoplatonic in tone is Emerson's remark, again in “Experience,” that “the consciousness in each man is a sliding scale, which identifies him now with the First Cause, and now with the flesh of his body; life above life, in infinite degrees.”53 Again, “man” can be identified with divinity, with the “First Cause” that created the world.

Although Emerson shares the idea of the soul's waking up to a higher order of things with Hindus and Platonists, there are important differences. The Platonic Ideas are timeless, unchanging, and the soul that ascends to them becomes more steady and settled (as in the Phaedo).54 Emerson offers, however, a Heraclitean rather than a Pythagorean outlook, what he calls a philosophy of “fluxions.”55 “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose,” he writes in “Intellect.” “Take which you please,—you can never have both.”56

Again, Emerson does not think that one can make a direct assault on truth—as the geometer does in piling up one reliable truth on another, or the yogi by years of meditation. For Emerson reality comes in flashes and gleams, and it is these “few real hours” of our lives for which he searches. These gleaming moments may not be only in the past, as in Wordsworth's poetry, but they are equally rare: “Reason, the prized reality, the Law, is apprehended now and then for a serene and profound moment amidst the hubbub of cares and works which have no direct bearing on it;—is then lost, for months or years, and again found, for an interval, to be lost again. If we compute it in time, we may, in fifty years, have half a dozen reasonable hours.”57

Finally, we should note that the dualism (of dream and reality) that Emerson seems to embrace is countered by an equally strong sense that this world, the world we experience, contains all the divinity we shall ever need or find. “Life wears to me a visionary face,” he reports in “Experience.”58 And earlier, in a passage from “The American Scholar” that Cavell rightly connects with the Wordsworthian (and Wittgensteinian) interest in the “ordinary” or “common,” Emerson writes:

I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds. … The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature … and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order.59

Although Emerson calls for us to awake from our nightmare, it is not to a separate, transcendent world that he calls us, but to a vision of “the sublime presence” at work in the “familiar” phenomena of our lives.


Emerson flirts with the subjective idealism of Berkeley, particularly in Nature. According to Berkeley, the world just is our ideas of it, so that reality is made up entirely of ideas and the selves who experience them. Emerson clearly has Berkeley in mind when he treats idealism as the view that “matter is a phenomenon, not a substance.” But he criticizes this view: It “leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perceptions, to wander without end. Then the heart resists it, because it baulks the affections in denying substantive being to men and women. … This theory makes nature foreign to me, and does not account for that consanguinity which we acknowledge to it.”60 Berkeley's theory “makes nature foreign” because it makes it just a set of ideas, whereas I am not a set of ideas. Emerson insists that on the contrary, nature, including the “men and women,” are consanguineous—of the same blood—with me. The subjective idealist errs in saying that they are ideas and I am substantial. For Emerson, we all are equally substantial.

Emerson counters in another way the solipsistic implications of his flirtation with Berkelian idealism in Nature, by speaking of a relationship between mind and world that, like those depicted in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry, resembles a marriage. “I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty,” he writes at the end of Nature's first chapter:

In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. … Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.61

This passage emphasizes our relations with nature, though its vision is a shifting one. The first paragraph praises the wilderness and opposes it to the “I” by portraying it as “distant” and by contrasting it with one's “own nature.” But the ultimate praise offered the wilderness is that it is as beautiful as man's own nature, which suggests a link between it and ourselves. And the first clause of the last sentence veers toward subjectivism in asserting that “this delight”—presumably the beauty of nature—resides “in man.” Yet on the other hand, the pronouncement, or phenomenological report, that “I am not alone and unacknowledged” is surely not the language of the solipsist. Further complicating Emerson's view is the alternation contained in the last sentence: The power resides in man and not in nature, its first half tells us, but the second adds, “or in a harmony of both.”

Although Emerson is talking about beauty here, and not about the world in toto, his suggestions and withdrawals or qualifications of idealism are entirely typical.62 This same section of Nature, in which he asserts the alternatives of the self's dominance over, or harmony with, nature also includes the famous (and in some quarters, infamous)63 “transparent eyeball” passage, which postulates the disappearance of the self: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.” (Note, however, that it is only “mean” egotism that vanishes.)

Although in Nature Emerson rejects idealism, at least of a solipsistic sort, he does admit that it is “a useful introductory hypothesis.” In later writings he continues to suggest, if not to assert, the insubstantiality of the “men and women” who surround us: “Let us treat the men and women well,” he writes in “Experience,” “treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”64


Emerson wants both to assert the vast powers of the human mind in forming our experience and to acknowledge the objectivity or substantiality of the world that this mind encounters. These two ideas come together in a form of idealism that was available to Emerson through his knowledge of Coleridge, the transcendental idealism developed by Kant.

Stanley Cavell has attempted, beginning with his 1978 paper “Thinking of Emerson” and in later papers, to assess Emerson's place in a Romantic Kantian tradition.65 (Van Leer's Emerson's Epistemology also argues, though in a rather different way than Cavell does, for Emerson's basic Kantianism.)66 In “Thinking of Emerson” Cavell contends that Emerson revises Kant's scheme of categories beyond Kant's twelve pure concepts of the Understanding, by countenancing more ways of knowing or making the world than did Kant. (This would presumably be part of Emerson's active opposition to what he refers to as “paltry” empiricisms.)67 Just as Kant is trying to justify our claims to necessary knowledge of geometry, arithmetic, and Newtonian physics, so Emerson is trying to justify claims to other necessary knowledge, for example, that centering on our moods. “Experience,” Cavell maintains, “is about the epistemology, or say the logic, of moods.”68

For moods to deserve a transcendental deduction or exploration, they would have to constitute a form of knowledge, just as geometry, arithmetic, or physics is knowledge. That they do is a point Cavell wants to confirm: “The idea is roughly that moods must be taken as having at least as sound a role in advising us of reality as sense-experience has.”69

But should we take moods as revelatory? There is no established science of moods as there is a science of physics or geometry. Here it must be said that Emerson is as much interested in discovering as in justifying the truths about moods he treats; his essay contains penetrating observations about the operation of moods in our knowledge of the world. In this respect, he does more than Kant does in the Critique of Pure Reason. There Kant relies on Euclid and Newton to provide his sciences of geometry and physics (though in the moral and political realms, Kant has a greater claim to be a discoverer of truth, for example, the Categorical Imperative). Many of the most important laws on which Emerson relies are those he has observed himself (which is not to say that he does not look to science or literature for such laws). Emerson is at once an empiricist (insofar as he relies on observations), a transcendental idealist (insofar as he attempts to justify their validity by invoking some structure in us), and an experimenter (insofar as he discovers truths).

What truths, then, does Emerson investigate? In “Experience,” he observes that it “depends on the mood of the man whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem”70 and adds that the universe “inevitably … wear[s] our color. … As I am, so I see.”71 (The word “inevitably” marks the truth as necessary, thus signaling the need for a transcendental explanation.) Emerson indicates an area of experience about which Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus when he said that “the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.”72 Wittgenstein's way of phrasing it coheres with Emerson's in stressing the global (and hence for a Kantian categorial or formal) extent of such “moody” structures: The whole world is “colored.” In his treatment, Cavell maintains that “sense-experience is to objects what moods are to the world.”73 This means, first, that moods reveal the world (as our senses reveal objects) but, second, that “the world” is to be distinguished from “objects.” “The world” is to be understood as indicated by our whole sense of things, what William James calls those “dumb responses” or “consents,” which seemed to him, as they did to Emerson, to be “our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things.”74 “Mood” in this context is much like “will,” as discussed in Chapter 1: It is both subjective and revelatory. Coleridge wrote that “all true reality has both its ground and its evidence in the will,” thereby regarding the will as having both the metaphysical (“ground”) and epistemological force (“evidence”) that Emerson and Cavell ascribe to mood. Kant sets the stage for these claims with his view that other (if less obviously) subjective structures—such as space, time, and causality—both determine and furnish us with knowledge of the world.

Another candidate for a synthetic a priori truth about moods is Emerson's remark in “Circles,” that “our moods do not believe in each other.”75 It is not just that our moods vary but that they affect what Emerson calls the whole “tissue of facts and beliefs”76 we encounter, so that (as in the difference between Wittgenstein's happy and unhappy world) they bring about a radical discontinuity of outlook and being. Our problems look different in the middle of a sleepless night than they do in the bright morning. “Our life is March weather,” Emerson notes in “Montaigne,” “savage and serene in one hour. We go forth … believing in the iron links of Destiny … but a book … or only the sound of a name, shoots a spark through the nerves, and we suddenly believe in will. … All is possible to the resolved mind. Presently, a new experience gives a new turn to our thoughts; common sense resumes its tyranny.”77

To the extent that Emerson is a Kantian, he would want to stress not only our (subjective) role in experience but also the objectivity of the knowledge with which experience furnishes us. Cavell admits that many of Emerson's remarks (e.g., that the universe “wears our color”) sound subjective but responds that “whether you take this to be subjective or objective depends upon whether you take the successive colors or moods of the universe to be subjective or objective.” Emerson, Cavell argues, “is out to destroy the ground on which such a problem takes itself seriously, I mean interprets itself as a metaphysical fixture. The universe is as separate from me, but as intimately part of me, as one on whose behalf I contest, and who therefore wears my color. We are in a state of ‘romance’ with the universe (to use a word from the last sentence of [“Experience”]).”78 This “intimate separation” between ourselves and the universe is what Wordsworth and Coleridge call a “marriage” of self and world. Some such vision is characteristic of each of the American Romantic philosophers.

Another way in which Emerson incorporates objectivity into his epistemology of mood is to stress the receptive, rather than the active, element in knowing. The treatment of our organizing powers as receptive rather than active is, according to Cavell, Emerson's “most explicit reversal of Kant,” for in Kant one knows by synthesizing—gathering together and shaping. But at the end of “Experience” Emerson concludes: “All I know is reception; I am and I have: but I do not get, and when I have fancied I had gotten anything, I found I did not. I worship with wonder the great Fortune.”79 Emerson here describes a mode of apprehending the world that is receptive, not active (not “getting”), but also subjectively influenced, “moody” in its “worship” and “wonder.” Cavell links this receptive mode of apprehension with the thought of Heidegger, who stresses “listening” and who connects truth with an attitude he calls “thinking,” but equally “thanking.”


If one follows up Cavell's suggestion that one can “hear Kant working throughout Emerson's essay ‘Experience,’”80 then one must be struck by the “lords of life” that are the essay's ostensible subject. Emerson lists them in the essay's last section—“Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectiveness”—and speaks of them as “threads on the loom of time.” The metaphor suggests that they are woven into time, just as Kant's categories weave objects by synthesizing, weaving together, the temporalized material furnished through our faculty of sensibility. Each lord, then, would be a way of weaving temporalized material, a Kantian category.81

There is much that is attractive about this view, though there are important problems with it as well. One problem is that some of the lords seem more plausible as categories than do others. For example, because Temperament is subjective yet also yields us knowledge (of a person, of the world as seen through or responding to a person), it is a plausible candidate for a category. But Illusion seems distinctly implausible, for it seems on its face not to give us knowledge, something a category must do. Again, Reality seems hard to construe as a category both because it is not an epistemological notion but a metaphysical one and because it seems, especially as Emerson uses it, too objective, not subjective enough to be traced to a faculty of our mind. That is, Emerson seems at times to mean by Reality something nonphenomenal.

Another problem with the list of lords is that moods—for which Cavell provides the compelling argument that they function as Kantian categories and which, because of their shifting nature, are clearly temporalized—are not on Emerson's list of lords, even though they are a dominant subject of “Experience” and other of Emerson's essays. We can handle this problem by noting that Emerson's list is only an approximate one, that moods do concern him, and that the case for moods as categories is as strong as that produced for any named lord. Indeed, the list at the end of “Experience” does not match the list given in the poem that begins the essay. Van Leer sees the list of seven lords at the end as corresponding to the essay's seven sections, and there is some textual evidence for this, but there is also evidence against it. For example, Emerson makes the important general claim that “life is a series of surprises” not in the section Van Leer identifies as being about surprise but in the one that he takes to be about Surface.82 Again, Emerson remarks that “our friends early appear to us as representative of certain ideas which they never pass or exceed,” a remark about character in the section Van Leer regards as about succession,83 and all sections of the essay treat Reality in some way. Sharon Cameron seems to be on more solid ground in claiming that “these designations seem divorced from, and seem only arbitrarily to apply to, discrete portions of the essay.”84 In any case, it is instructive to treat at least some of the lords of life as Emerson's extensions of Kantian categories and to look not just to “Experience” but to other of Emerson's essays for help in understanding how this is so.

Temperament. In connection with Emerson's views on freedom, we discussed temperament and its associated notion of character. Like the category of causality or the form of space, temperament provides limits to reality, boundaries that a person “will never pass,” a “uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play.” (As with moods, Emerson indicates necessity here by his use of the word “must.”)85 In an inversion that we can now recognize as characteristic, Emerson does allow that “it is impossible that the creative power should exclude itself,”86 but temperament is clearly a powerful force hemming it in.

Sometimes temperament issues in the kind of potent character Emerson discusses in the essay of that title. A hero or genius like Napoleon or Washington is “destined” to organize events: “He encloses the world, as the patriot does his country, as a material basis for his character, and a theatre for action.”87 The unswerving force of temperament is as effectual in the world as a law of physics: “It is of no use to ape it, or to contend with it. … The hero sees that the event is ancillary: it must follow him.88

Emerson's talent for observation is at work in his many reports of the pervasive force of character in human life. To one person—but to no one else we have ever met—we will reveal secrets that normally make us “wretched either to keep or to betray.”89 To others we cannot speak at all; our bodies “seem to lose their cartilage.” Our friends exert a positive force on us just by their characters, refreshing and energizing us just by their presence: “The entrance of a friend adds grace, boldness, and eloquence.”

Temperament and the character in which it issues are forces for Emerson, but like gravity, they both shackle and enable us to act. Temperament is responsible for “the power and furniture of man” and makes possible that “profound good understanding”90 that arises between friends. But it operates implacably even when we wish it would not, so that we become the prey of our personalities or temperaments. “Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.”91

Surface. We “emit” our characters constantly, Emerson holds, in the ways we sit or walk, respond or ignore, talk or laugh: We lie exposed to view. But that exposure does not reveal all there is to know about us. We may be able to tell that “this or that man is fortunate” just by meeting him, but we cannot discover “the reason why.”92 Indeed, just at the point a person is most self-reliant, most himself or herself, Emerson sees a mystery: “A man will not be observed in doing that which he can do best. There is a certain magic about his properest action, which stupefies your powers of observation, so that though it is done before you, you wist not of it.”93 (Think of Wittgenstein “doing philosophy,” of Larry Bird playing basketball.)

Emerson finds such hiddenness or obliqueness, which can be assigned to the lord Surface but also in some respects to Dream and Illusion, to be a characteristic of all human experience: “Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.” We can give a cricket ball a good whack, but we cannot touch—except by accident—any of our philosophical berries, cannot grasp or understand life. The context for this remark, as indeed for the entire essay in which it appears, is the death of Emerson's son Waldo.

It does not touch me: something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. … The Indian who was laid under a curse, that the wind should not blow on him, nor water flow to him, nor fire burn him, is a type of us all. The dearest events are summer-rain, and we the Para coats that shed every drop.”94

Although the inaccessibility of, or our obliqueness to, experience takes on a deeply personal tone in “Experience,” Emerson in fact uses Waldo's death to register a more general complaint, about the essential “evanescence and lubricity” of all phenomena. This is the dark side, the darker mood of the inaccessibility praised when it was manifested in the form of the genius, doing what “he can do best.” Now, in “Experience,” Emerson laments that the tendency for things to “slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest [is] the most unhandsome part of our condition.”95

Surface, Illusion, and Dream thus emerge in Emerson's account as phenomenal, or phenomenological terms, describing not something arrived at as a conclusion from an argument (as in Plato or Descartes) but a characteristic of human experience. Descartes argued that dreams do not have a dreamlike quality, for if they did, we could tell them from waking experiences and refute radical skepticism.96 But Emerson is saying that waking experiences have a dreamlike quality: “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion.”97

Surprise. There is still, as always in Emerson, another mood, another side to the play of surfaces: “In liberated moments, we know that a new picture of life and duty is already possible.”98 Such moments, which must also be recognized as part of the “succession of moods or objects,” come as surprises to us. Emerson records some of them in Nature: “The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown.”99 Again, in a famous passage employed by both James and Dewey:100 “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”101 These surprising insights may be brought about by a person, by art rather than nature: “In the thought of genius there is always a surprise.” Or they may come about for no clearly assignable reason, with the mere passage of time: “The results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know. The persons who compose our company, converse, and come and go, and design and execute many things, and somewhat comes of it all, but an unlooked for result. … It turns out somewhat new.”102

Surprise is essential to Emerson's conception of life as a set of concentric circles, around every one of which another can be drawn. When it is drawn, the limitations and possibilities of life take on an entirely different aspect. Emerson concludes “Circles” in his hopeful voice, stressing the surprise of overcoming rather than the routine of confinement:

Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess to-day the mood, the pleasure, the power of to-morrow, when we are building up our being. … The masterpieces of God, the total growths and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable. … The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.103

The last sentence here portrays surprise not as a limitation that, as it were, causes us to lose our way by disorienting us but, rather, as something that is helpful in forming our expanding series of circles and so leads us on our way to what we desire. (The last sentence is interesting too for its blending of the Platonic and Neoplatonic image of desire—felt by the soul for the Ideas in Plato's Phaedo and Symposium, for example—with the Romantic and Kantian idea that knowledge and the reality it discloses (Emerson's new circle) are constructed by us, are things that we draw.)104

The form of experience Emerson wants to explain by positing a category of Surprise is expressed not only in such general pronouncements as “life is a series of surprises”105 but also in his frequently stated thought that what we know comes, as it were, in our side glances, by the wayside. Emerson writes in “Intellect,” for example: “You cannot, with your best deliberation and heed, come so close to any question as your spontaneous glance shall bring you, whilst you rise from your bed, or walk abroad in the morning after meditating the matter before sleep, on the previous night.”106 Truth comes in glimpses, for Emerson, not in a total and finished product. He searches widely for these genuinely new ideas or insights, finding “every surmise and vaticination of the mind … entitled to a certain respect. … We learn to prefer imperfect theories, and sentences which contain glimpses of truth, to digested systems which have no one valuable suggestion.”107 The surprising and indirect character of truth requires the special epistemological attitude that Emerson sees in his self-reliant heroes: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” But there is a darker, even tragic side to the claim that truth comes only by surprise: We cannot be surprised twice by the same object. One must thus, Emerson advises, leave a picture forever, after seeing it well once: “You shall never see it again.” This is a painful discovery, one that “murmurs” a “plaint of tragedy” to us “in regard to persons, to friendship and love.”108

With Surprise, we reach a feature of experience that is problematic when seen as a category. For although one might say there are synthetic a priori truths about surprise (e.g., that life is a series of surprises), it is implausible to say that those surprises come from us. Indeed, the surprises of life give us the sense of how much we do not determine, how much of our experience is not up to us.109 Nevertheless, no matter how Emerson wishes to account for the surprising newness we find from time to time in our experience, he clearly wishes to record his strong sense of it. More than Wordsworth (who wrote in The Prelude of a “gentle shock of mild surprise”) or Dewey, with whom he shares it, Emerson has a vast appreciation for the role that the unexpected or novel plays in our life and thought.


Even when he lists the lords of life, Emerson is careful to put them forward tentatively or experimentally:

Illusion, Temperament, Succession, Surface, Surprise, Reality, Subjectiveness,—these are threads on the loom of time, these are the lords of life. I dare not assume to give their order, but I name them as I find them in my way. I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment, and this is a fragment of me. I can very confidently announce one or another law, which throws itself into relief and form, but I am too young yet by some ages to compile a code. I gossip for my hour concerning the eternal politics.”110

Emerson shares an open-ended, experimental attitude with the pragmatists James and Dewey. They all leave room for the possibility that the true account of a given matter is quite different even from what they are convinced of. James distinguishes himself from Hegel on this point, for example, by finding the “completed” Hegelian system “suffocating” (see Chapter 3). Because he is an “idealist,” it might seem that Emerson must be committed to the idea, which attracted Hegel and Plato, of a completed and unchanging account of the world. But Emerson is committed to experimentation; his idealism is, as Dewey's was to be, experimental.

The idea of testing is essential both to the meaning of the words “experience” and “experiment” and to Emerson's use of them. The English word “experience,” deriving from the French expérience (the word used by Montaigne in his essay on experience), in turn comes from the Latin verb meaning “to try, to put to the test.” (“Experiment” is derived from the same verb.) It may seem odd to think of Emerson as a tester rather than a speculator, spinning ideas out of his head, but that is perhaps because we associate experience with the Lockean (and Humean, Russellian, etc.) account, according to which experience consists primarily of sensation.

Like traditional empiricists, Emerson values the senses and the natural world they reveal. As a young man he was excited more by the discoveries of geologists or botanists than by the world of art. In Paris in 1833 (on the trip during which he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle) he was “only mildly excited” by the Louvre but had “memorable experiences in the Musée Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle and the Jardin des Plantes.” There he confronted what he called in his journal “the inexhaustible riches of nature.”111 When he returned from Europe he continued his study of astronomy, thermodynamics, and geology and gave lectures on these topics.112 “I have no hostility to nature, but a child's love to it,” he writes in Nature. “I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons.”113 But Emerson does want to “expand and live” in that nature, not to be confined in his experience of it. He complains in “The Poet” that “too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists.” The word “impressions” here marks his awareness of his connection with the experiential philosophy of Locke and Hume, whereas his search for an artistic way through the world marks his Romantic criticism of their unimaginative account of human life.

Emerson enacts his commitment to observation and experiment by his use of the essay form, a form invented by his hero Montaigne. An essay is, etymologically, a trial or test of something, an examination. Such an inquiry need not present the final and unrevisable word on some issue, as so many philosophical and religious texts (e.g., Hegel's Logic, Wittgenstein's Tractatus) claim to do. Emerson pays homage to the spirit of open inquiry that he finds in Montaigne's essays in his own essay “Montaigne; or the Skeptic,” published in 1850 as part of Representative Men:

I weary of these dogmatizers. I tire of these hacks of routine, who deny the dogmas. I neither affirm nor deny. I stand here to try the case. I am here to consider, sκεπτειν, to consider how it is. … Why pretend that life is so simple a game, when we know how subtle and elusive the Proteus is? Why think to shut up all things in your narrow coop, when we think there are not one or two only, but ten, twenty, a thousand things, and unlike? Why fancy that you have all the truth in your keeping? There is much to say on all sides.114

Skepticism is not Emerson's most considered stance: He sees it as something to be incorporated but also transcended in a larger truth: “The new philosophy must take [skepticisms] in and make affirmations outside of them.”115 But in “Montaigne,” Emerson gives voice to a part of his outlook that, because of its naturalistic sense of uncertainty and risk combined with its emphasis on our great human powers, coheres especially well with the pragmatic projects of James and Dewey. Emerson values Montaigne's sense that the uncertainty of the universe is a spur to do better, not a reason for resignation. The following passage from Montaigne's great essay “On Experience” captures—as it surely inspired—the spirit in which Emerson conducts his inquiries: “There is no end to our investigations. … No generous spirit stays within itself. … If it does not advance and push forward … it is only half alive. Its pursuits have no bounds or rules; its food is wonder, search, and ambiguity.”116 Emerson accepts “the clamor and jangle of contrary tendencies,” but he finds among them patches and places of insight: “The seer's hour of vision is short and rare,” and the “authentic utterances of the oracle” are sparingly distributed even among the works of Plato and Shakespeare. But these are what the experimenter seeks.117

Emerson's incipient pragmatism emerges in such early essays as “Man the Reformer,” in which he holds that “manual labor is the study of the external world,” and in “The American Scholar,” in which he maintains that without action “thought can never ripen into truth.” “Only so much do I know,” he continues, “as I have lived.”118 When Dewey defines knowing as “a form of doing” and holds that we in part constitute the objects we know by the actions we take in knowing them, he takes a path prepared by Emerson.119

The dwarflike, still-emerging man that Emerson describes in Nature is just learning to guide the changes of nature: “We do not know the uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple, the potato and the vine.”120 In the chapters “Commodity” and “Discipline” Emerson sets out the project of understanding nature by influencing it. And even though he follows his Romantic forebears Wordsworth and Coleridge in giving a primary role to the imagination, he gives it a practical cast: “The imagination may be defined to be, the use which the Reason makes of the material world.”121 In later essays, Emerson continues to ascribe not only insight to his heroes but power as well: “the thought and the publication.”122

Emerson extends his experimentalism to our reading, anticipating Cavell's development of the thought that our experience takes special and important forms in the realm of literature. Books can speak to us, although they may, depending on our attitude or background, be entirely mute. Emerson aspires to write such telling books. “There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise,” he writes in “The American Scholar,” “when this poet, who lived in some past world … says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said.” But, he warns, “one must be an inventor to read well,” a creative reader as well as a creative writer. Emerson's wide-ranging discussions of the classics of East and West are as much records of his experience as is Hume's discussion of the collision of two billiard balls. In commenting on Emerson, John Dewey was surely correct in stressing the basic experientialism of his philosophy: “I fancy he reads the so-called eclecticism of Emerson wrongly who does not see that it is a reduction of all the philosophers of the race, even the prophets like Plato and Proclus, whom Emerson holds most dear, to the test of trial by the service of the present and immediate experience.”123

Emerson's experimentalism infiltrates not only his religion, epistemology, and metaphysics but also, as Poirier and West have seen, his philosophy of language. “All symbols are fluxional,” he states in “The Poet,” indicating the impermanence he sees even in those instruments with which we order change. Furthermore, he believes that “all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.” He thus treats language as an instrument needed for some result, not as mirroring some preexisting reality. Emerson's position anticipates those of the pragmatists: James's view, for example, that truth is what we can “ride” and that “essences” are not “the copying, but the enrichment of the previous world,” or Dewey's claims that ideas are operations and that “essences are provisional.”124

In concluding “Circles,” Emerson writes:

But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head, and obey my own whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.125

Emerson here gives us a rule for interpreting all of his pronouncements. He does not lack conviction or passion, but he commits himself to the possible overturning of even those convictions that he feels most strongly. Emerson is open to phenomena. He embraces the surprises that experience brings. Yet he is a “seeker” of truth, even as he claims to “settle” nothing.


There was only one thought which could set him aflame, and that was the unfathomed might of man.

John Jay Chapman

Emerson's heroes are experimenters, confident, as he remarked in “The American Scholar,” “in the unsearched might of man.”126 If Emerson was a “transcendentalist,” his transcendentalism was, as Firkins states, “in essence, a disclosure of possibilities; it showed vistas within man.”127 The Unitarianism of Emerson's day postulated a supernatural rather than a deified Christ, an intrusion or eruption from beyond the human and natural.128 But Emerson advances a natural and human supernaturalism in “The Divinity School Address,” stressing not the divinity but the humanity of Christ. He argues that “we degrade” Christ's life and dialogues by making them transcendental and that we should rather “let them lie as they befel, alive and warm, part of human life, and of the landscape, and of the cheerful day.”129 He understands religion to be in partnership with the natural world, maintaining (in language clearly reminiscent of “Tintern Abbey”) that “faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.” Where in this divine natural world, he asks, “sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origin in heaven?”130

Emerson's experiments require a human contribution, as in his idea that to be a good reader one must also be a creative one. Here Emerson embraces what we called in Chapter 1 a voluntarist picture of knowledge: To know something (in this case, the book one is reading) one must do something (read creatively), take a special attitude or stance. Coleridge took such attitudes to be produced by the will, and some of Emerson's language describing the power of the human mind clearly derives from Coleridge. For example, he writes: “Such is the constitution of all things, or such the plastic power of the human eye, that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves.”131 The “plastic power” of the human eye echoes Coleridge's account of the imagination as an “esemplastic power,” that is, as a power of shaping.132 Coleridge's idea of the human mind “giving form to a yielding material” (which is the first Oxford English Dictionary meaning of “plastic”) derives from Kant, whose forms and categories do just that. But Coleridge and, following him, Emerson depict such shaping not as automatic operations of the faculties of sensibility, imagination, and understanding, as in Kant, but as, to some degree at least, under our control, subject to our will. Emerson follows Coleridge in complaining of “the wintry light of the understanding” and in placing redemptive hopes in an “educated Will.”133

In “Experience” Emerson asserts that the universe “inevitably wear[s] our color,” that character and mood determine the world we experience. These ideas and some of the same language go back to Nature, in which Emerson claims: “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” Some of Emerson's most Coleridgean expressions of the mind's plastic powers occur in Nature: “The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts. The one esteems nature as rooted and fast; the other, as fluid, and impresses his being thereon. To him, the refractory world is ductile and flexible; he invests dust and stones with humanity, and makes them the words of the Reason.”134 From the standpoint of someone who believes that there are things-in-themselves, a possibly inaccessible set of facts or truths against which our human “facts” or “truths” are measured, Emerson's talk of ductility and fluidity will seem like a glorification of illusion and of the poetic embroidery of illusion. But it is important to see that Emerson associates such ductility with truth. Like Kant, who defends the reality of the humanized or phenomenal, or James, who writes that “the trail of the human serpent is … over everything,” Emerson denies that we can separate the human from the real.135 When properly employed, the plastic powers of the human mind gain us access to, as they shape, the only world about which we can possibly gain truth.

A great part of what seems idealistic in Emerson is his development of this Romantic doctrine of the shaping power of the individual mind. It is easy to take him as being some sort of solipsist, with the Oversoul perhaps as the single cosmic entity, spinning off the world from itself or creating it ex nihilo. The shaping metaphor, on the contrary, suggests that the mind works on and with its material. “We want men and women,” he states in “Self-Reliance,” “who shall renovate life and our social state.”136 Although Emerson clearly glorifies the individual, he does not call for isolation. He envisions a society reconstituted, not eliminated, in which men and women will “sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” But he warns of the dangers of “an excess of fellowship” and counsels “lovers” to “guard their strangeness.”137

Emerson's claim is that we are not sufficiently aware of our powers, not sufficiently noble. “Man,” he notes in Nature, “is the dwarf of himself.” This striving and transformative man emerges further in the work of William James and John Dewey, who participate in the formation of the new human-oriented Romantic myth described by Frye and in “the act of discovery that is also a making” which Bloom sees as essential to Romanticism.138 Dewey's theory of education, for example, is a recipe for producing an active and imaginative human being, not the narrow and skulking “dwarf” diagnosed by Emerson. Both James and Dewey follow Emerson in focusing on the shaping power of the human mind, holding that the world we know is a malleable product of our pragmatically determined concepts. James particularly stresses the role of temperament in forming our vision of things, especially our philosophical visions. James and Dewey follow Emerson in criticizing the paltry notion of experience with which empiricism traditionally operates. Whether through their interest in feeling, in religious experience, in imagination, or in the shaping powers of the mind, the American Romantic philosophers seek to expand the narrow focus of classical empiricism while retaining the empiricist commitment to human experience for our knowledge of the world.


  1. Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson (New York: Penguin, 1982), p. 187.

  2. Harold Bloom, The Ringers in the Tower (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 297. See also Bloom's discussion of “Romanticism and the Rational,” pp. 323-38 of The Ringers; his discussion of “Emerson and His Influence,” in his A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 160-76; and B. L. Packer, Emerson's Fall (New York: Continuum, 1982), passim. On Emerson's use of the marriage metaphor for expressing the mind-world relationship, see Eric Cheyfitz, The Trans-Parent: Sexual Politics in the Language of Emerson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 69 ff.

  3. See notes 2 and 3 in the Preface.

  4. John Dewey, The Middle Works (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976-83), 3:191 (hereafter cited as MW).

  5. William James, Essays in Religion and Morality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 114.

  6. Stanley Cavell, “Thinking of Emerson” and “An Emerson Mood,” in The Senses of Walden (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), hereafter cited as SW; “Genteel Responses to Kant? In Emerson's ‘Fate’ and Coleridge's Biographia Literaria,Raritan 3 (1985):34-61; hereafter cited as GR; and “Being Odd, Getting Even: Threats to Individuality,” Salmagundi no. 67 (Summer 1985):97-128, hereafter cited as BO (the two previous papers are reprinted in Cavell's In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); David Van Leer, Emerson's Epistemology (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986), Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Geneology of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); and Packer, Emerson's Fall. See also Julie Ellison, Emerson's Romantic Style (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984); and Evan Carton, The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) for application of the deconstructive philosophy of Barthes and Derrida to Emerson's works.

  7. Emerson is often treated as a moral philosopher. See, for example, Ellen Kappy Sukiel, “Emerson on the Virtues,” in Marcus G. Singer, ed., American Philosophy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 135-52. West understands him to be a political philosopher who “evades” traditional epistemological issues.

  8. For a comparison of Dewey's and James's evaluations of Emerson, see John McDermott, “Spires of Influence: The Importance of Emerson for Classical American Philosophy,” in his Streams of Experience (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), pp. 29-43. Poirier argues in The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (New York: Random House, 1986)—convincingly in my view—that whether or not he acknowledged it, James was profoundly influenced by Emerson, for example, in his focus on action and transition (pp. 9-17).

  9. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971-), 3:48; hereafter cited as CW.

  10. See the interpretation of “Experience,” provided by Sharon Cameron in “Representing Grief: Emerson's Experience,” Representations 15 (Summer 1986):15-41.

  11. Emerson, CW, 1:7-70.

  12. Ibid., 1:7.

  13. Ibid., 1:56.

  14. A point stressed by Ellison, Emerson's Romantic Style, passim.

  15. Emerson, CW, 1:56.

  16. Emerson, CW, 2:28. For the idea that the scholar's freedom is essentially interpretive, see Ellison, Emerson's Romantic Style, pp. 97-104.

  17. Emerson, CW, 1:63-4.

  18. Such forward looking is a link between Emerson and the pragmatists. “Genius looks forward,” Emerson stated, “The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead. Man hopes. Genius creates” (Ibid., 1:57).

  19. Ibid., 1:64.

  20. Ibid., 1:65.

  21. Ibid., 1:52, 70.

  22. Ibid., 1:89.

  23. Ibid., 1:82.

  24. For the contemporary reaction to the address, see Allen, Waldo Emerson, pp. 316 ff. Emerson was attacked for his “infidelity, pantheism, and atheism” (p. 322).

  25. Emerson, CW, 1:90.

  26. Ibid.

  27. See his essay on Emerson.

  28. Emerson, CW, 2:179.

  29. Ibid., 2:180-1.

  30. Ibid., 2:190. I broach the subject of Emerson's transitional metaphysics in my paper “Freedom in the Philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tulane Studies in Philosophy 35 (1987):7.

  31. Emerson, CW, 2:189. On the notion of transition or flux in Emerson, see Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, passim; West, The American Evasion, pp. 15 ff.; and my paper “Reconstructing American Philosophy: Emerson and Dewey,” given at a conference, “Frontiers in American Philosophy,” in June 1988 and forthcoming in Texas A & M Studies in American Philosophy. Cf. Friedrich Schlegel's idea that becoming is the essence of Romantic poetry, in Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde and the Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971), p. 173 (Athenaeum Fragment 116); and the discussion in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 43.

  32. For some treatments of Emerson and Nietzsche, see Van Leer, Emerson's Epistemology, p. 217, n. 52.

  33. Emerson, CW, 2:186.

  34. Ibid., 2:187.

  35. See note 6.

  36. Emerson, CW, 2:38. Van Leer's discussion of this passage suggests his unfamiliarity with the Cartesian source, for he maintains that Emerson's statement of it lacks a “therefore” (Van Leer, Emerson's Epistemology, p. 136). “I think, therefore I am” occurs in the Discourse on the Method but not in the Meditations, in which Descartes writes “‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever I utter it or conceive it in my mind,” using exactly the words that Emerson reproduces.

  37. See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941). For a brief account of Kierkegaard's picture of human existence, see Section III of my paper “How a Thing Is Said and Heard: Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 3 (July 1986): 335-53.

  38. Cavell, BO, p. 102.

  39. Emerson, CW, 2:27.

  40. Emerson, CW, 3:31.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Emerson, CW, 2:29.

  43. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), p. 20; hereafter cited as CL. A classic discussion of Emerson's dialectic of freedom and fate occurs in Stephen Whicher's Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953).

  44. Emerson, CL, pp. 8-9.

  45. Ibid., p. 15; for the view that Emerson is not talking about his earlier thought in this passage, see Cavell, GR, p. 43.

  46. Emerson, CL, pp. 41-2.

  47. Ibid., p. 48.

  48. But, one might ask, why shouldn't the way we handle it be part of fate, as our temperament is?

  49. Emerson, CL, p. 47.

  50. Ibid., pp. 47-8.

  51. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), p. 104.

  52. Emerson, CW, 3:32.

  53. Ibid., 3:42.

  54. The Heraclitean side of Plato emerges, however, in such dialogues as the Phaedrus and Symposium.

  55. Emerson, CW, 4:91.

  56. Ibid., 2:202.

  57. Ibid., 4:101.

  58. Ibid., 3:48.

  59. Cavell's discussion is in Cavell, SW, pp. 142-3.

  60. Emerson, CW, 1:37-8.

  61. Ibid., 1:10.

  62. Ellison argues that these are essential to Emerson's “aggressive” project of mastering the universe by interpreting it.

  63. Allen, Waldo Emerson, p. 278.

  64. Emerson, CW, 3:35.

  65. See note 6.

  66. Van Leer comes at Emerson's Kantianism independently of Cavell's work, producing an original argument about the Kantian claims of Nature and also enlightening discussions of many other Emersonian texts.

    Although he is familiar with many philosophical sources, Van Leer's understanding of philosophical literature is somewhat shaky. For example, in discussing criticisms of Emerson for missing the distinction between “transcendental” (a priori and in some sense human) and “transcendent” (apart from all determination by what is human, beyond “the bounds of sense”) in Kant, he misstates that very distinction by understanding transcendent principles as “organizing mental principles that are inaccessible to experience.” For Kant they are illusions, not existing but inaccessible principles. The point of them (in the illusory tale, as it were) is that they are not mental and not subjective but, rather, that they reflect things as they are in themselves. Again, Van Leer takes transcendental idealism to mean that space and time are illusions; for example, he speaks of the rapidity with which “time and space vanish … in Kant's Aesthetic” (Emerson's Epistemology, p. 40) and maintains that “transcendental idealism ensures that experience will always be illusion, a tempest of fancies” (p. 163). Kant's project was to justify the objectivity of space and time.

    More technically, Van Leer confuses entailment with identity (p. 91), gives an account of transcendental argument in which that notoriously difficult notion amounts merely to showing entailments (“that certain concepts are logically built into other concepts,” p. 112); misses Austin's notion of a performative, for example, by saying that “performatives are oughts” (p. 243, n. 91); (If I insult you, I do not necessarily command you; only some performatives are “oughts”); and is unreliable on Wittgenstein—remarking (p. 175) that “a pain is not a possessing or even a content of any kind, but a behavioral act” or (p. 176) that in Wittgenstein's parable of the beetle in the box, pain drops out like the beetle (which misses Wittgenstein's point that this is so only if we “construe” pain “on the model of object and designation”).

  67. Emerson, CW, 3:48. Cf. Cavell, SW, p. 126.

  68. Cavell, SW, p. 126.

  69. Ibid., p. 125. This is a point that Van Leer fails to consider, for example, when he interprets Emerson's discussions as having moved beyond epistemology when they reach a sentiment such as Romantic joy (Emerson's Epistemology, p. 92). Van Leer, in fact, has an extremely puzzling notion of epistemology, maintaining for example, that Emerson's essay “Montaigne; or the Skeptic” is not about an epistemological topic (pp. 194-5). He appears to believe that if one regards faith or mystical experience (or, as one might say, a certain mood) as superseding doubt and as leading to truth, as Emerson does in “Montaigne” (and elsewhere), then one has somehow passed beyond the domain of epistemology. But this is to restrict epistemology, the theory of knowledge, to certain kinds of knowledge.

  70. Emerson, CW, 3:30.

  71. Ibid., 3:30, 45-6.

  72. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), para. 6.43.

  73. Cavell, SW, p. 125.

  74. William James, The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 1182.

  75. Emerson, CW, 2:182.

  76. Ibid., 4:99.

  77. Ibid.; here the “common” is not to be embraced but avoided.

  78. Cavell, SW, p. 128.

  79. Emerson, CW, 3:48.

  80. Cavell, SW, p. 126.

  81. Cavell does not actually suggest this use of the “lords” in SW, though his interpretation of Emerson led me to it. Cf. Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures After Emerson After Wittgenstein (Albuquerque, N.M.: Living Batch Press, 1989), p. 88. Van Leer also treats the lords as Kantian categories or forms in his discussion of “Experience” (Emerson's Epistemology, pp. 150-87).

  82. Emerson, CW, 3:39; Van Leer, Emerson's Epistemology, p. 158.

  83. Emerson, CW, 3:33.

  84. Cameron, “Representing Grief,” p. 21.

  85. Emerson, CW, 3:31.

  86. Ibid., 3:32.

  87. Ibid., 3:57.

  88. Ibid., 3:61, 57.

  89. As Milly Theale does to Lord Mark in Henry James's The Wings of the Dove.

  90. Emerson, CW, 3:64.

  91. Ibid., 2:34.

  92. Ibid., 3:54.

  93. Ibid., 3:40.

  94. Ibid., 3:29-30.

  95. Ibid.

  96. “There is no mark by which we can tell dreaming from waking.” René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979). Cf. J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 48-9.

  97. Emerson, CW, 3:30.

  98. Ibid., 3:43.

  99. Ibid., 1:10.

  100. James in Varieties of Religious Experience, and Dewey in Democracy and Education. See Chapters 3 and 4 in this text.

  101. Emerson, CW, 1:10.

  102. Ibid., 3:40.

  103. Ibid., 2:189-90.

  104. The contrast between the Platonic idea of knowledge as recollection and Emerson's idea of losing our memory is also striking.

  105. Emerson, CW, 3:189 (“Circles”); CW, 3:39 (“Experience”).

  106. Ibid., 2:195.

  107. Ibid., 1:41.

  108. Ibid., 3:33.

  109. Van Leer makes this point (Emerson's Epistemology, p. 165), though he does not seem to see the problem it raises for his claim that surprise is a category.

  110. Emerson, CW, 3:47.

  111. Allen, Waldo Emerson, p. 209.

  112. Gay Wilson Allen, “A New Look at Emerson and Science,” in Robert E. Burkholder and Joel Myerson, eds., Critical Essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983), pp. 339-40.

  113. Emerson, CW, 1:35.

  114. Ibid., 4:89. The last sentence is Montaigne's famous slogan in Essays, bk. 1, chap. 47.

  115. Ibid., 3:43.

  116. Montaigne, “On Experience,” in Selected Essays (New York: Penguin, 1958), p. 348.

  117. Emerson, CW, 1:58.

  118. Ibid., 1:59, 150.

  119. The Later Works of John Dewey, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press 1981-), 4:164-5.

  120. Emerson, CW, 1:39.

  121. Ibid., 1:31.

  122. Ibid., 2:198.

  123. Dewey, MW, p. 3

  124. Emerson, CW, 3:20; William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 34; The Later Works of John Dewey, 4:92; and R. W. Sleeper, The Necessity of Pragmatism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 69. Cf. Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, pp. 33, 58; and West, The American Evasion, p. 36.

  125. Emerson, CW, 2:188.

  126. Ibid., 1:69.

  127. Oscar W. Firkins, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915), p. 68.

  128. Ibid., p. 33.

  129. Emerson, CW, 1:83.

  130. Ibid., 1:85. There is a voluntarist structure of evidence here, in that “my heart” provides the criterion of “origin in heaven.”

  131. Ibid., 1:12.

  132. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), chap. 13. On the links with Coleridge, see Packer, Emerson's Fall.

  133. Emerson, CW, 1:44.

  134. Ibid., 1:31.

  135. James, Pragmatism, p. 37. Cf. Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1987).

  136. Emerson, CW, 2:43.

  137. Ibid., 3:80-1.

  138. Bloom, The Ringers, p. 337.

Principal Works

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Nature (essay) 1836

An Oration, Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge (essay) 1837; also published as The American Scholar 1901

Essays (essays) 1838; also published as Essays: First Series 1854

Essays: Second Series (essays) 1844

Poems (poetry) 1847

Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (essays) 1849

Representative Men: Seven Lectures (essays) 1850

English Traits (essays) 1856

The Conduct of Life (essays) 1860

May-Day and Other Pieces (poetry) 1867

Society and Solitude (essays) 1870

Letters and Social Aims (essays) 1876

Fortune of the Republic. Lecture Delivered at the Old South Church (essay) 1878

Lectures and Biographical Sketches (essays and biographies) 1884

Natural History of the Intellect, and Other Papers (essays) 1893

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. (essays and poetry) 1903-21

The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 6 vols. (letters) 1939

Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. 16 vols. (journals and notebooks) 1960-82

The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson 4 vols. (sermons) 1989-92

The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 3 vols. (notebooks) 1990-94

Emerson's Antislavery Writings (essays) 1995

The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson 2 vols. (essays) 2000

David Jacobson (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Vision's Imperative: ‘Self-Reliance’ and the Command to See Things As They Are,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 29, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 555-70.

[In the following essay, Jacobson explores Emerson's early theories on self-reliance, explaining that for Emerson, self-reliance leads to an emancipation of the will, allowing for a clearer understanding of the universe.]

Emerson sets down the practical imperative of his early thought in the opening paragraph of “Self-Reliance” when he writes, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense.”1 He describes a hyperbolic conception of freedom, freedom conceived as the unmediated expression of personal conviction unconstrained by regulations or rules. However, Emerson does not merely embrace the premise of pure expressivity; he goes on to assert in these lines that free expression affirms, shall affirm, “the universal sense.” Here we find what is peculiar and what is characteristic about Emerson's idea of self-reliance: its claim that radical freedom shall issue of necessity in universal value, that the hyperbolically private shall issue in a universal sense. The peculiarity of this belief can be emphasized by comparing it to its most obvious precedent, Kant's Categorical Imperative. Emerson's statement in some respects repeats, and may even be intended to evoke, Kant's famous assertion that freedom is the basis of universal value. When placed side by side, the two formulations show their similarity: “Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense” echoes Kant's command to “Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will it should become a universal law.”2 Moreover, Kant recognized the essential oddness of his thought: “The thing is strange enough,” he writes in reference to the Categorical Imperative, “and has no parallel in the remainder of practical knowledge. For the a priori thought of the possibility of giving universal law, which is thus merely problematic, is unconditionally commanded as a law without borrowing anything from experience or from any external will.”3

Kant's moral thought rests on the intuition that pure freedom itself can be the transcendental condition of moral action.4 And in this respect Emerson follows him. It is well known, however, that Kant mitigates the peculiarity of the impulse toward the Categorical Imperative by asserting that the transformation of pure freedom to universal law occurs through the mediation of reason—freedom legislates universal laws by appeal to the forms of reason. If the faculty of freedom overlooks all particular practical maxims, for Kant it does not overlook the structure of rational thought itself. On the contrary, it works through the structure of reason, and only thereby does Kant believe it returns freedom to practical efficacy. Thus the practical imperative in Kant's thought is finally no more or less than the command to be rational. Emerson, on the other hand, resists this and all limitation. He maintains the uncanniness of his intuition by refusing to retreat from the hyperbole of radical freedom to any definitive mediating structure, any antecedent criterion of value. Self-reliance thus consists of a skeptical release of the will from antecedent conditions, including especially the conditions of rational thought. It grows from the form of thought that Emerson identifies in Nature as matutina cognitio, the morning thought of forward-directed will that ignores a backward glance to prior limits of action and finds its value in what Emerson calls onwardness. As this suggests, self-reliance consists in an unlimited will, a will that knows no formal conditions. Emerson's early thought is founded on a skeptical will that, as he writes in his 1837 journal, comes “armed and impassioned to parricide thus murderously inclined ever to traverse and kill the Divine Life.”5 Insofar as recent criticism has focused on Emerson's representation and justification of conditionless will, it has accurately reflected that the individual for Emerson consists of the health of the will, the state of being oriented toward onwardness itself.

However, the emancipation of will does not entail for Emerson an essentially critical posture in the world, nor does it define an attitude that initiates or stands for the negation of meaning and value. That self-reliance affirms the universal sense makes clear that, for Emerson at least, the skeptical release of the will does not institute a negative method. It goes without saying that the emancipation of will involves a destructive moment. But Emerson found in skepticism the possibility for a fundamental affirmation, and it is in this respect that his imperative reminds us of Kant, that it has its Kant-like moment. However much self-reliance contrasts with Kant's rational Categorical Imperative, Emerson nonetheless shares with Kant a faith in the efficacy of a unified transcendental will. It is not enough, then, to infer from the destructive elements of Emerson's thought, from his skepticism in general, that his theory merely overthrows meaning, or that it leads to a prolific indeterminacy, or least of all, that it leads to some sort of broad deconstructionist position.6 The challenge for readers of Emerson's early essays and lectures is rather to understand how his deep and far-reaching skepticism can be reconciled with an equally far-reaching affirmation: how skepticism can signify the infinite self.

I would urge that we can meet this challenge by recognizing that Emerson's skepticism does not function within the limits of the epistemological project that largely defines modern philosophical thought, and that it thus reflects less a strategy of rational thought than an attitude of will. For modern rationalism, skepticism is limited to either providing a tactical means to locate the sure grounds of knowledge, or, when this fails, to becoming the spearhead of a nihilistic assault on the forms of rational thought itself. In the latter case, the destructive moment in skepticism becomes the endpoint of thought, finding its destiny in the subversion of constructions of meaning. The history of modern philosophy consists in part of the portrayal of this destiny. But, as I have indicated, it does not represent the value skepticism holds for Emerson. If his writings refute modern philosophical positions, his skepticism nonetheless is not aimed principally at argumentation. Or put otherwise, it is not limited to a rationalist project. Aligning Emerson's position with radical epistemological skepticism thus runs a sizeable risk: that of inappropriately situating Emerson's thought in a context he would not recognize as his own. More importantly, it has the effect of de-emphasizing, even eliding, the “vast affirmative” at the core of his early thought, and replacing it with a negative thesis.

Emerson is rightly read in the context of religious thought, as a writer who recognized the power of human will to manifest the world, and thus gave to human will the revelatory power displaced by Christian ideology to the otherworldly will of God. Emersonian skepticism serves this humanist thesis insofar as he conceives of it as the attitude of will, the way of being in the world, that describes the central causality of human will, returning to it the capacity, not merely to act freely, but by doing so to bring the world to appearance, to speak the universal sense of the world. Emerson's purpose in “Self-Reliance,” and in all of his early lectures and essays, is to describe such infinite power of human will, and thereby to recognize the centrality of Man in the world, a centrality veiled behind myths of the omnipotence of God or nature.

My principal concern in this article is to demonstrate that self-reliance is linked to a phenomenological capacity, to the ability to see truly; and that only thereby can it speak the universal sense. I will do so first by showing that self-reliance and skepticism are closely related, that the freedom of the self-reliant individual is not isolated or unprecedented in Emerson's writings, but rather intersects with and can be articulated through the terms Emerson attributes to the skeptical attitude. The vigor and life—the transcendent virtue—of self-reliance can thus be seen to consist, not of mere randomness of will, but rather of the activity of living skeptically in the world. I will then go on to show that the skeptical attitude implies the phenomenological capacity to see truly by willing the transparency of the world. The imperative to self-reliance thereby shows itself to involve two discernible elements: the performances of emancipated will, and the consequent universal transparency of the world before a healthy will. In the first respect, self-reliance stands directly opposed to the essentially contemplative posture at the core of reflective thought, and as such, opposed to the project of epistemology, a fact that I will develop by following Stanley Cavell's reading of the essay.7 Cavell's essay on “Self-Reliance” well demonstrates the performative nature of Emerson's skepticism, and by extension of self-reliance, and thereby distances Emerson from the tradition of modern reflective philosophy. The universal sense, however, can be understood only insofar as we recognize the phenomenological power of performative will. Therefore, I will trace the conjunction of self-reliance and the skeptical attitude to the capacity to bring the world to presence. Doing so will provide an explanation of Emerson's early thought that accommodates both the command to radical freedom and the insistence that free utterance establishes the universal sense. Moreover, it will allow me to specify the ways in which Emerson remains faithful to Kant's transcendental project, and the ways in which he revises it.


The most engaging of Emerson's descriptions of self-reliance is found a short way into the essay, where he writes, “The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature” (CW ii: 29). Emerson raises through this description the image of an attitude of indifference that accords with an unconditioned will. He goes on to fill out the idea:

A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.

(CW ii: 29)

As a description of self-reliance, this statement is dominated by the sense of a will emancipated from crippling responsibility and released to the indifference that characterizes the boy's attitude before he is “clapped into jail by his consciousness” (CW ii: 29). It undoubtedly reflects the unconditioned spontaneity most often associated with self-reliance. However, the statement is more interesting for the capacity of evaluation that it connects to the boy's attitude. Indifference is set out as a posture of immediate judgment, and moreover, the posture from which genuine verdicts derive. If the boy's attitude is one of irresponsibility, then the effect of his attitude is evaluation of the most authentic kind. The most remarkable aspect of this description, then, is the relation it establishes between a conditionless will and genuine or right evaluation.

When, a few sentences later, Emerson characterizes the boy's attitude as the posture of “neutrality,” he provides the means necessary to link the boy's healthy attitude to the meaning of skepticism that he elaborates over the course of his writings. Neutrality carries precisely the sense of the suspension of judgment that Emerson identifies in “Montaigne” as the principle of skepticism. The boy is neither a critic nor a believer, his back is turned on the conditions of criticism and belief, and he stands, like the skeptic, as an “innocent” observer in the midst of the world. We can hear an echo of the description of the boy in Emerson's later depiction of the skeptic: “I neither affirm nor deny,” Emerson's skeptic says, “I stand here to try the case. I am here to consider, skopein, to consider how it is.”8

In neither the instance of self-reliance nor of skepticism does neutrality indicate a broad indifference to value, the mere negation entailed by universal doubt. Rather, in each case it stands for a specific indifference to antecedent criteria of value, and thereby represents the capacity for giving genuine verdicts, a capacity enabled by the scope that indifference or neutrality implies. It is not at all correct then to see neutrality as incapacitating or merely playful whim; evaluations that issue from neutrality, from a position of “unaffected, unbiassed, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence,” are not inconsequential or frivolous. On the contrary, they “must always be formidable” (CW ii: 29). Emerson says he writes whim on the lintels of his door-post to protect his genius, not to disarm it. The boy and the skeptic alike are marked by the unprecedented capacity to observe, to “look out” from their corner of the world, and to give value to the world without blame or prejudice. Although the statement comes from “Montaigne,” Emerson could as well have written of the self-reliant individual that “Every thing that is excellent in mankind … he will see and judge” (W 4: 161).9

What interests me here, at least first of all, is the connection between self-reliance and skepticism, and the implication that skepticism runs through and is essential to all of Emerson's thought. Stanley Cavell has recognized the central place of the skeptical attitude in Emerson's thought, and has developed its role. There is good reason, then, to turn to his work on “Self-Reliance” in order to sharpen our understanding of the meaning of Emersonian skepticism.

Cavell develops his reading by juxtaposing Emerson's notion of self-reliance to Descartes' skeptical cogito in order to note in Emerson's writings a rejection of the contemplative model of reason that stands at the core of reflective philosophy, and then to replace it with a performative model of reason. He thereby situates Emerson's thought in an emerging tradition of theories of action that dismiss material and ideal bases of value and engender the value of the self and nature through an act of will. Cavell's interpretation of “Self-Reliance” is important because he shows that the skeptical subject is essentially performative.

Cavell argues that Descartes' theory is weakened by its failure to show the dependence of self-identity on individual performance, or to be more precise, on the issuance of a skeptical attitude in an evaluative stance in the world. Cavell brings this issue to a discussion of “Self-Reliance” by focusing on Emerson's description of the upright position as a willingness to dare to say “I think, I am,” taking this statement to be a direct allusion to Descartes' famous epistemological formulation, “I think, therefore, I am.” Unlike Descartes, Cavell argues, Emerson recognized the necessity of action for the description of the cogito. In Emerson's use of it, the fundamental axiom of modern epistemology, as well as the set of problems it initiates, gives way to issues of action. Thus, if Emerson quotes Descartes, he does not quote him exactly. Or at least in quoting him he affirms, as Descartes hadn't, the moral imperative in the epistemological assertion, and with it the necessity of performance for the acknowledgement of the value of the self.

However, Cavell's critique of Descartes (as well as his consequent defense of Emerson) involves more than the suggestion that the self-reliant individual is active. More importantly, he indicates that within a skeptical method like Emerson's true individuality, or as he would have it, self-acknowledgement, is possible only to the extent that a context of otherness is itself acknowledged. “Because,” he writes, “it turns out that to gain the assurance, as Descartes had put it, that I am not alone in the world has turned out to require that I allow myself to be known” (Cavell 293). Descartes failed to make this clear. His “use of [the “I”] arises exactly in a context in which there are no others to distinguish himself (so to speak) from. So the force of the pronoun is in apparent conflict with its sense” (Cavell 280). The challenge to skeptical thought as Cavell describes it is to provide the means of locating one's skepticism in a context of otherness, for only thereby is effective or postural self-identity enabled. The figure of the upright individual attracts him, not only because it indicates action but because it is precisely an effective posture, a figure that is defined in relation to the world, that has value as a posture in the context of the world. It implies for him the position of standing, or of standing for, something—and thus indicates conviction as a function of one's position in some context of action. The “imperative of human existence,” he writes, “[is] that it must prove or declare itself,” which means it must bear responsibility for itself in a community of others (Cavell 279). The crucial fact of self-reliance for Cavell is that by acting—by daring to act—we dispose ourselves in a context of otherness, and thereby can be acknowledged.

Cavell's discussion sets our reading of Emerson on the right track; it is useful for its explication of the problem of self-reliance in terms of skepticism, of performance and effective value; for his insistence that self-reliance describes an active individual and reveals the individual in relation to the world, as it is disposed in the world, and as it thereby bears responsibility for itself. By drawing a connection between a formal cogito and Emerson's idea of individuality, Cavell convincingly demonstrates that Emerson's skeptical approach is rooted in a performance that enables the recognition of the self in the world. He indicates that the individual is thus present as an instance of becoming, a transitional moment, or as he says, “a transience of being, a being of transience” (Cavell 284). However, my sense is that Cavell does not sufficiently emphasize the phenomenological core of the performative act, the fact that for Emerson the boy “looks on” the world and the skeptic “sees and judges.” For Emerson, there is a profound intimacy between skepticism and sight, which is to say, between performance and sight. Later I will suggest why I believe that Cavell's failure to emphasize this intimacy leads him to misconstrue Emerson's meaning in an important way, but first I want to point out that even the upright position, which Cavell treats as a figure of a postural and dispositional individual, in fact refers to the process of sight.

Emerson derived the figure of uprightness from Milton in the seventh book of Paradise Lost, where it refers to the attitude of man at his creation. But more importantly, he calls it up in this essay from his own earlier writings, which show that he clearly understood the human attitude as a way of seeing. In his 1835 journals Emerson wrote: “I ought to have no shame in publishing the records of one who aimed only at the upright position more anxious that the thing should be truly seen than careful what thing it was” (JMN V: 43). The statement indicates that to be in the upright posture means for Emerson to be in a condition or attitude of seeing truly, to be identified with and to find oneself as the process of sight.

Cavell's emphasis on performance is thus only half of the story of self-reliance. For to do in Emerson principally means to make visible; to speak is to lay out the appearance of nature. To be sure, the appearance of nature presents an effective context in which self and otherness are mutually disposed—indeed the relations between them are rendered transparent. But it is important to recognize that the essential individual in Emerson's early writings is not the self found in a dispositional relation to otherness; rather, the act of self-reliance consists of a fundamental trust in one's vision, and the authentic individual is recognized as the prolific capacity to bring nature to appearance. What Emerson has in mind in “Self-Reliance” is a phenomenological account of individuality for which the “Trustee,” the “aboriginal Self on which a universal reliance may be grounded” consists of such a phenomenological power (CW ii: 37). In the very paragraph of “Self-Reliance” that refers to the final trustee as Instinct or Spontaneity—i.e. unconditioned will—Emerson completes his thought by describing the “involuntary perceptions” to which “a perfect faith is due” (CW ii: 37). The final trustee of the individual is the phenomenological capacity of unconditioned will, the involuntary, inevitable, unmediated illumination of the world, and secondarily, our place in it.

If we wish to understand Emerson's “philosophy of the erect position,” we should then take a lively interest in what he means when he says “the thing should be truly seen.”10 It goes without saying that he does not mean seeing either what is objectively there or what is subjectively-represented as being there. That epistemological distinction is not relevant to Emerson. That a thing be truly seen means that it be recognized before the eye of an emancipated will, transparent for matutina cognitio. Here we see the importance that Emerson places in uprightness; it is a skeptical attitude and a phenomenological power—an attitude that consists in the power of vision. Uprightness is Emerson's principal figure for a specific manner of being in the world, i.e. as the human power to manifest the world. Self-reliance consists of a phenomenological way of being in the world. It consists of unconditioned will in the service of a phenomenological method. Insofar as uprightness is the proper figure of Emersonian individuality, it suggests that the self-reliant individual consists of a causal power to manifest the world anew, that it names an orientation of thought that is directed away from any predictable appearance, and enables the appearance of a plurality of natural effects. Uprightness converges for Emerson with the boy's attitude and means the capacity to see without shame, to observe innocent of prior conditions. The boy's “formidable” verdicts stem from thus seeing, willing, things as they are.

That Emerson believed in the possibility of skeptical sight to manifest the sheer and unmediated effects of the world is suggested as early as the end of Nature in his well-known assertion that “The ruin or blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things” (CW i: 43). The coincidence of the axis of vision and the axis of things, enabled by the forward orientation of matutina cognitio, describes unmediated vision of the world as a natural unfolding of the effects of emancipated will. This statement in Nature is an early indication of Emerson's turning away from a rationalist approach to the value of self and nature, an approach he believed necessarily intervened in the relation between seer and nature, rendering the latter through fixed categories of thought and alienating the former from the consequent static world. The figure of the coincidence of vision and nature graphically illustrates Emerson's conception of the immediacy of the relation between will and phusis. It also suggests the essentially pragmatic nature of Emerson's insight; pragmatic, that is, inasmuch as the figure of twin axes places emphasis on the integrity of natural effects, and indicates that the value of self and world, for Emerson, will be found in the visible effects of nature.11 The central causality of human will knows itself and has value for Emerson in and through the world it manifests. Emerson thus calls on us to be in the world as the occasion of the pragmatic manifestation of the world. The “transparent eyeball,” described early in Nature, is an effective figure of the idea of pragmatic sight. It well describes the location of the value of self and world in the appearance and gathering of nature's effects. Moreover, it identifies the eye and individuality without asserting the epistemological subjectivity of the eye. Emerson makes clear that all categories that could define subjectivity and objectivity are lost in the sheer manifestation of nature, and the individual is taken to be no more than the occasion of nature's presence. The individual does not mediate or condition nature's appearance so much as it is, to use a Heideggerian term, the “clearing” in which nature appears.

The conception of individuality as sight does not indicate a static manifestation of nature, however, but the process of nature's coming to appearance; this is the core meaning of the figure of the coincidence of the axes of vision and things. Emerson best reflects the fluidity and transitional nature of sight in “Circles” by representing the imperative to overcome any single horizon of the eye. The horizon of the eye establishes the limit of the appearance of nature. The eye's horizon is then the first and the only circle; it demarcates the space within which natural effects appear. However, the constancy of any single horizon of the eye establishes a fixed economy of value according to which natural presence is determined and rendered static. More importantly, within the economy of any horizon the individual is diminished to functional self-identity. Emerson's Orphic poet in Nature speaks of such dwarfing of ourselves (CW i: 42). The economic disposition effected by the horizon of the eye fixes the self in opposition to nature, subverts the coincidence of vision and things, and introduces an artificial divide between self and nature. The sedimentation and repetition of a particular order, as revealed within the eye's view, acts to construct normative and theoretical values that effectively constitute one's lived experience. Emerson's embrace of a performative phenomenological capacity is the foundation for his attacks on conventions and more broadly on all circumstantial limits. He views the delimitation of sight to a particular horizon of the eye as the consequence of foreclosing the coincidence of vision and things, denying the performance of the individual or turning away from the forward orientation of a healthy will.

Time and again, in “Circles” and elsewhere, Emerson characterizes the phenomenological destruction and progressiveness essential to his thought. He insists in a litany of phrases and sentences that his central value is the manifestation of pure onwardness: “There are no fixtures to men,” “no Past at my back,” “Life is a series of surprises,” “The continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height, betrays itself in a man's relations,” and most characteristically, “We can never go so far back as to preclude a still higher vision” (CW ii: 182, 188, 189, 182, 183). Everything emerges within the eye's horizon, but equally, there is no limit to what we can see, and therefore to how we can find ourselves: “There is no outside, no enclosing wall, no circumference to us” (CW ii: 181). Here Emerson advocates a phenomenological attitude of evaluation that consists of the sheer activity of overcoming one's limits, of recognizing that “the only sin is limitation” (CW ii: 182). In order to stand upright as the focal point of nature's gathering and appearance, the individual must overcome its self-diminution within any circle and find a new generalization, a new horizon of sight. Emerson conceives no end to this process; it is not as though eventually the true horizon of the eye, and thus of nature and the individual, will be found. Rather, the true horizon is found each time a previous economy is overcome; the true horizon is the emergent horizon that reveals the individual as the clearing that enables the appearance of nature. Seeing beyond is thus to see truly, to be in the upright posture, to think, to dare. And the practical activity that enables right vision is the process of overcoming self- and natural determination.

If the upright position implies a phenomenological power, then it should be added that recognizing this fact is crucial to our understanding of the universal sense. This point can be emphasized by thinking again about Cavell's article, for the universal sense is explicable only on the terms of the phenomenological thesis, and I would suggest Cavell's reading falls short of explaining Emerson's early thought, and specifically “Self-Reliance,” on just this point. Insofar as uprightness speaks the transparent appearance of the world as the body of relations that fall in place around acts of will, it lays out the universal sense of the world; it represents the fundamental capacity that Emerson attributes to human will, the power to bring the world to appearance, to enclose nature within the horizon of the eye, and thereby to effect the universal sense. Although he rightly emphasizes the active, performative nature of the upright position, Cavell overlooks its phenomenological value, and is led, therefore, to locate the self-reliant individual in the world, rather than noting the causality of the individual for the world's appearance. Specifically, Cavell depicts the individual as situated in a larger field of value, stating that the individual dares to think and to act up against the terms of an overwhelming external power, the sort of power that Emerson would later speak of as fate. By so doing Cavell places truth, or at least the provisional terms of true value, outside the individual and beyond the efficacy of human will. The revolution that Emerson conceived of under the sign of self-reliance consists, however, of recognizing the universality of authentic human will, of the essential life above the “running sea of circumstance” (CW ii: 70). I do not want to overstate my differences with Cavell, for there can be little doubt that by emphasizing the performative nature of the Emersonian individual he has established important terms for considering self-reliance, directing attention toward the individual's way of being in the world, the quality of his existence. But there is nonetheless an important point to be made here: in a fundamental respect Cavell's interpretation skews Emerson's early thought, turns Emerson on his head. Because he ignores the phenomenological causality of the individual, Cavell disposes the individual in an essentially alien world. Having done so, he can only construe the universal sense in formal terms, casting Emerson's thought as more rhetorical than it is, and finally asserting that the command to speak one's latent conviction is a “proposed therapy,” no more than “a fantasy of finding your own voice” (Cavell 286, 288).

It is not adequate to Emerson's early thought, however, to give to human will a merely rhetorical power, the power to create formal transparency. Emerson's early insight is not partial or limited, but rather consists of a profound belief in the universal power of human being to will the world's appearance, a belief in the possibility of the coincidence of vision and things. It is essential to recognize the phenomenological core of uprightness, its intersection with the argument of “Circles,” because thereby we see that uprightness provides the foundation for the utterance of the universal sense, and that it figures forth the cause of the real, living appearance of nature. It is a well known fact that Emerson would soon enough reject his early faith in the centrality of human will, but if we are to understand the imperative of the early thought—and indeed, the significance of his later turn to fate—we must recognize the phenomenological power that Emerson attributes to human will.12 When we do, it is clear that the imperative of Emerson's early thought is not simply to acknowledge ourselves—though doing so is certainly an aspect of Emerson's concern, and the phenomenological thematics of the figure of uprightness hardly obstruct the illumination of the relations of self and otherness. The imperative, however, is to recognize the individual as the sole principle and occasion of nature's appearance, and thus to disclose nature, to act in such a way as to bring nature from behind the concealments that are put in place by the imposition of prescriptive conditions on the will. Emerson's imperative to speak your latent conviction is thus a command to see the world as it is, to discover the world you have built and your place in it.

Emerson's principal concern in “Self-Reliance,” as in all of the early essays, is to describe the meaning and manner of unconcealing nature, of being with nature. He doesn't naively ignore that we make reasoned decisions about our role in society, that we operate through the terms of conventions and norms. But he denies that doing so is the meaning of self-reliance. On the contrary, it shows the ultimate dependence of identity—the account we give of ourselves—on antecedent evaluative structures, broadly, the structures of society that he says are in conspiracy against the individual. Emerson describes a performative individual that bespeaks his coincidence with nature and thereby his engagement of Being; not the subjective domination or construction of nature, but human activity that discloses the nearness of human and natural being under the causality of emancipated will. The authentic speech he has in mind is not bound by the customs of social language; it speaks the plurality of value opened by the individual, by the individual's immediate relation to the proliferation of nature. Such speech has very little to do with being responsible to society in the narrow sense of rational reckoning, a fact that Emerson's critics have often pointed out. Emerson struggled, however, to convince his readers that it has everything to do with being responsible to human being in the broad sense, in the sense of recognizing the quality of our being in the world. The latter sort of responsibility implies Emersonian transcendentalism, a capacity that eludes appropriation by conventional forms of thought, and thereby affords a direct relation to Being.


I began this article by suggesting that Emerson shared Kant's intuition of the basis of moral value in freedom but substantially altered the conception of transcendence attached to it, maintaining the immediate transformation of private will into the universal sense. It is now possible to articulate the difference in Emerson's notion of transcendence by using the terms of the central imagery of sight. Emerson understood transcendence as the clearing of the eye, the space opened up within the horizon of the eye. His then is a phenomenological transcendence, not a rational one. It is height, the upright posture, understood as the activity of rising above normative conventions—which for Emerson means all principled determinations of thought—and seeing truly. To see truly is to establish a phenomenological opening in which nature and the self appear, and moreover, in which they appear immediately as manifest value. Transcendence, the upright posture and height are all comprehensible as nothing but this phenomenological opening.

If so, then Emerson altered the meaning of transcendence mainly by indicating that it is a matter of action, not contemplation, by inverting the traditional priority of theory over practice and rendering universality finite. The imperative in Emerson's thought is to act, rather than to deliberate; specifically, to act in such a way as to establish the eye's opening, to clear the area of the eye's horizon, to manifest nature. “Self-Reliance” compels us to action that destroys the mediate forms of thought that conceal nature and diminish the individual. Action accordingly precedes and enables thought. The fundamental imperative standing behind “Self-Reliance” is not Kant's imperative on freedom to legislate rationally, an imperative that presupposes thought's priority over action, but the Emersonian command to act freely and thus give rise to thought as the presence of the world; i.e. to ignore the external language of grounds and principles and to “Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is” (CW ii: 40). The imperative of early Emersonian thought is to act out of innocence in order to think, to see, clearly. Emerson often spoke of his imperative as abandonment. In “Spiritual Laws,” for example, he noted that our public speaking “has not abandonment.” Here oratory only figures forth Emerson's larger claim about authenticity. “Somewhere,” he wrote, “not only every orator but every man should let out all the length of all the reins; should find or make a frank and hardy expression of what force and meaning is in him” (CW ii: 83). Emersonian transcendence, figured by the decisiveness of speech, manifests being by following no pre-given path and having no definite goal, and thereby enables the universal sense as the authentic effect of actions by which the individual brings the world to appearance. The teleological structure assumed by rationalism locates universality in a discursive final cause. Advocating the willful abandonment of rational teleology, Emerson effectively reconceives the meaning of universal causality, construing it not as a formal and alien law but as a quality of life, the recognition of one's causality in nature, one's coincidence with the directionality, the onward appearance of nature, and thus one's manifestation of the universal sense of nature.

Critics who understand self-reliance strictly in terms of the imperative to abandonment are in an important sense not mistaken. Genuine verdicts do reflect the utterance of an unconditioned will. From the perspective of rationalist conventions of thought they are evaluations made without aim, random shots in the dark. The boy's attitude gives value—achieves self- and natural determination—without purpose or goal, as scattered assertions whose only intent is “the shooting of the gulf … the darting to an aim,” and whose only end is illuminating the unknown transition, “advancing on Chaos and the Dark” (CW ii: 40, 28). However, Emersonian transcendence, although emancipated from formal reason and impelled by the activity of abandonment, nonetheless identifies unified individuality, not the dispersal and fragmentation of the will, and it does so because assertion situates a phenomenological clearing, and speech articulates the boundary of sight. Self-reliance is therefore not only a feeling of onwardness, an affect of the will's power and freedom, but the presence, the universal sense, of the world as the effect of the will's authenticity. The act of speech lays out the terms of a decision that gives presence to the world and defines the individual. Insofar as decision consists of the pure act of severing or cutting off one's vision, the unity of the individual emerges through the decisive act of speech. Choice implies no rational deliberation and presupposes no a priori structure of identity, but it results in the unity of phenomenological resolution: the individual understood as the gathering of the transparent relations of self and nature. It involves a fundamental trust in one's own vision; to decide—and thereby to identify oneself—means both to believe your private heart, your latent convictions, and to speak their appearance as the emergence of the world, as the ever-new definition of the individual given by the willed manifestation of the world.

Emerson's phenomenological transcendentalism thus converges with the meaning of individuality, it returns the individual in the nonchalance of the boy's attitude, an attitude of abandonment that as such signifies the appearance of the world, an attitude that passes genuine verdicts and speaks truly out of its innocent observation, an attitude of will that speaks the involuntary perception given to it. Thus, when Emerson asks in his journal “Who can define to me an individual? … armed and impassioned to parricide thus murderously inclined, ever to traverse and kill the Divine Life,” he has already his answer (JMN v: 336-37). The individual is defined when we recognize our power to decide to blend with nature's appearance, to speak the truth of nature, and to identify ourselves as the occasion of that true appearance. Out of his skepticism, out of the death of God, Emerson found the possibility of practical transcendence and individuality in the decision that thus heeds the “awful invitation … to blend with [the dawn's] aurora” (JMN v: 337).


  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed., Alfred R. Ferguson, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971) ii: 27; hereafter cited as CW, with volume and page number.

  2. Immanuel Kant, The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, ed., H. J. Paton (London: The Mayflower Press; Hutchinson University Library, 1947) 88.

  3. Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, ed., Lewis White Beck (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1949) 142.

  4. Cf. “Instead of this vainly sought deduction of the moral principle something entirely different and unexpected appears: the moral principle itself serves as a principle of the deduction of an inscrutable faculty … the faculty of freedom” (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, cited in Robert J. Benton, Kant's Second Critique and the Problem of Transcendental Arguments [The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977]) 55.

  5. Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed., William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960) v: 337; hereafter cited as JMN, with volume and page number.

  6. See, for example, Barbara Packer, “Uriel's Cloud: Emerson's Rhetoric,” Georgia Review 31: 322-42; Harold Bloom, “Emerson: The American Religion,” in Agon: Toward a Theory of Revision (New York: Oxford UP, 1982); Julie Ellison, “The Laws of Ice Cream: Emerson's Irony and ‘The Comic’” ESQ 30 (2): 73-82. My reading of Emerson corresponds in some respects to the work of each of these writers, and I do not support the sort of return to epistemological readings that David Van Leer puts forward in his recent book (Emerson's Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays [New York: Cambridge UP, 1986]). However, for Emerson the disruption of epistemological categories of thought yields an affirmative potential, rather than a negative, deconstructive or merely ironic value. I will urge in this article that a complete interpretation of Emerson's thought requires a recognition of the identity of will and sight and thus of a consequent affirmative phenomenology. By noting the phenomenological core of the early thought, we not only enrich our reading of “Self-Reliance,” but also provide the terms necessary to comprehend the changes that occur in Emerson's philosophical method during and after the 1840's.

  7. Stanley Cavell, “Being Odd, Getting Even: Threats to Individuality,” in Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality and the Self in Western Thought, ed., Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, David E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986); hereafter cited as Cavell, with page number.

  8. Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed., Edward Emerson (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1903) iv: 156; hereafter cited as W, with volume and page number.

  9. If the self-reliant boy and the skeptic share the capacity of innocent sight, they nonetheless mark quite different roles for that capacity in Emerson's thought. “Self-Reliance” is Emerson's most powerful humanist statement, which is to say he identifies sight and judgment as human capacities. By the time he writes “Montaigne” Emerson has revised his theory, turning to a method of philosophical anti-humanism. The principal effect this has on human nature is to render it representative, typical. Thus, whereas the boy's innocence reflects the universal sense of individual authenticity, the skeptic's is a delimited, representative capacity. It is nonetheless wrong to conclude that no continuity exists between skepticism and the self-reliant attitude. On the contrary, both are motivated by the central enduring fact of Emerson's thought: his meditation on skeptical sight.

  10. The development of the “philosophy of the erect position” can be traced over a number of years (JMN iv: 333). It refers to Emerson's theory of judgment and reason, which consist of the phenomenological exposition of the relations initiated and engaged by an active will. The treatment of uprightness as sight receives its most detailed development in “Circles,” where uprightness and individuality are explicitly identified with the figure of the eye.

  11. Peirce formulates the pragmatic maxim this way: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object” (The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed., Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1931] 5: 402).

  12. Emerson's later thought is philosophically anti-humanist. But, this point will continue to be overlooked until we give due weight to the universal phenomenological causality of human will in the early essays, and thus are able to recognize that the turn to fate is predicated on a rejection of the phenomenological power of human will.

Eduardo Cadava (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “The Nature of War in Emerson's ‘Boston Hymn,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 21-58.

[In the following essay, Cadava traces the link between nature and politics, in addition to examining Emerson's views on war in the context of his poem “The Boston Hymn.”]

Less than five years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Emerson announces a crisis in the structures of political and linguistic representation. “Language has lost its meaning in the universal cant,” he writes, “Representative Government is misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the privilege of paying for; the adding of Cuba and Central America to the slave marts is enlarging the area of Freedom. Manifest Destiny, Democracy, Freedom, fine names for a ugly thing.”1 He makes this statement within the context of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise and legislated that the question of slavery be determined by individual state constitutions rather than by a national policy of exclusion. For Emerson, that slavery is to be preserved and extended signals a contradiction in the meaning of America, a contradiction that is dissimulated within a rhetoric of representation, democracy, and freedom. Declaring the rhetorical and historical basis of the virtues upon which America was to be founded, Emerson here predicts the crisis of representation that would define the issues over which the coming war would be fought.2 These issues included debates over who could claim the right to representation and over the relations of power existing between state and federal governments within the system of representation. The crisis to which Emerson refers is therefore a crisis written into the history of America, insofar as America was itself conceived in various efforts to rethink and define the nature and concept of representation.

As Emerson suggests, however, this crisis in political representation is inseparable from the acts of representation that would soon render, and sometimes justify, the suffering and death brought on by the war. What interests him are the various rhetorical means whereby the war or its ideological implications are legitimated. Throughout the war, his lectures, essays, poems, and journal entries persistently challenge the tendencies of contemporary representations of the war either to justify the effects of its violence or to have them disappear in the name of the ideological discourses that helped both the North and the South negotiate the meaning of the war even before it had ended. We should not be surprised if, within this arena of representation, Emerson's attention focuses upon the recourse to a rhetoric of nature. Both Union and Confederate soldiers and civilians enlisted nature in the service of legitimating their respective causes as well as the war's violence. Moreover, the rhetoric of nature was central to the constitution of a nationalist ideology in the antebellum period. Insofar as this rhetoric attempts to dissimulate the violence that has been effected in its name, the historical issues and questions that have led to the civil crisis, or the death and violence of the war, Emerson positions himself against it.

Nevertheless, amidst the brutality and terror of the Civil War, Emerson's own appeal to the virtues of liberty and justice converges with an appeal to a rhetoric of nature. Aroused by the dangers of the war, by the danger that the ethical dimension of the war might be attenuated by the colossal carnage and suffering that define the struggle's most visible effects, he consistently mobilizes his efforts in the direction of stirring up enthusiasm for the war and its moral benefits. Nothing characterizes these efforts more than his use of natural imagery. Men and women need to be moved to act, he argues. They need to be persuaded to make sacrifices in the name of justice and freedom. And nothing moves or persuades people better than the evocation of nature. The idiom of nature is in fact everywhere in Emerson. If he seems to use the same rhetoric used by others to justify the war, though, he uses it in order to trace its operations within the many efforts to define the meaning of the war: he uses this rhetoric in order to mobilize it in another direction. Only in this way, he says, may we take a step in the direction of justice.

The war itself is of course such a step, but Emerson suggests at least two more such steps in his poetry written during this time, each in their own way a turning point for the war—Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army. In his “Boston Hymn” he celebrates the occasion and significance of the Proclamation and in “Voluntaries” he eulogizes the heroism of the Massachusetts 54th regiment, perhaps the most renowned black regiment of the war.3 In both poems, Emerson names the revolutionary forces of emancipation with natural metaphors. In the first, he turns to the natural phenomena of snow to figure the gathering momentum of the Northern drive toward freedom. In the second, he joins this same climatic metaphor to a meteorological one, the aurora borealis, in order to emphasize the moral center around which the North, having welcomed black soldiers into its army, is now magnetized. In the process, the metaphors of snow and the aurora take on specific historical, political, theological, and literary connotations that require us to turn to the relationship between these domains and questions of language. Always in Emerson, the urgency that we align ourselves with the laws of nature corresponds to the necessity that we be attentive to the rhetorical dimension of our historical and political existence. In what follows, I wish to trace the link between nature and politics as it manifests itself in his “Boston Hymn.” If the political agenda of this poem sometimes seems to support Unionism, it at the same time works to criticize the political and rhetorical assumptions that might ground such support. This work of criticism can often be read more easily in the actual practice of Emerson's writing, that is to say, in its staging and treatment of the rhetoric of slavery and war, than in any explicit and straightforward arguments. This is why much of what follows will involve tracking the history sealed within the language of Emerson's poem. In the long run, this approach hopes to contribute to the recent reevaluations of Emerson's relation to this same history.4


Emerson delivered his “Boston Hymn” on January 1, 1863, the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, at a “Jubilee Concert” in the Boston Music Hall. He praises the Proclamation for having inaugurated the dawning of a new day in the meaning of America and challenges his audience to meet the responsibilities this new day and meaning entail. For him, the Proclamation revises America's legacy and thereby renews the legacy's power and promise. It declares a promise that is also a rethinking of the promise of America's settlement, its revolution and future. This is to say, however, that the Proclamation draws its social and political force from the history it wishes to overcome. If the Proclamation is not to repeat the sins of this history, if it is to realize its promise of political and social change, it must convey the promise of its own truth to all peoples. But this can only happen if the declaration at the same time encourages people to take responsibility for their own history. Men and women must risk thinking the history that has made this declaration necessary. Only in this way may they be prepared to respond to the demands of emancipation. What is at stake for Emerson as he writes his poem is the possibility of translating the truth of the Proclamation into the minds and hearts of his audience. The hymn rehearses the history of the proclamation, of its terms and conditions—in its present form as well as in its Puritan form—and encourages the audience to commit itself to realizing the proclamation within history. Such commitment is necessary because the mere declaration of a promise may never be its realization. The revolutionary emancipation of the slave can only begin with this act and can only take place if it is continually renewed by every individual who receives the force of its truth. “Every revolution,” he explains in his essay “History,” is “first a thought in one man's mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era” (Works 2: 3). The Proclamation itself attests to this necessity. From the beginning of the war, abolitionists had individually and collectively called for emancipation as a war policy. As the conflict grew in intensity, the exigencies of war began to convince more and more Northerners that emancipation was the only means to victory. Coming as a powerful means of persuasion, the war itself declared what was necessary.

The task of abolitionists and anti-slavery Republicans was, in a fundamental and essential way, a rhetorical one: the North had to be convinced that slavery was the issue of the war. “The negro is the key of the situation,” Douglass pronounced in September of 1861, “the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns. … To fight against slaveholders, without fighting against slavery, is but a half-hearted business, and paralyzes the hands engaged in it.”5 Emancipation was presented as a “military necessity.” This phrase became the watchword for abolitionists in subsequent months and was eventually cited by Lincoln as the primary reason for his Proclamation. Despite opposition to emancipation within the administration, there was a dramatic increase of emancipationist sentiment in the weeks following the North's defeat at Bull Run. Even the New York Tribune and the New York Times revised their earlier stances and began to hint at emancipation. Still discouraged by Lincoln's reluctance to forward a resolution for emancipation and by conservative hostility toward their cause, however, abolitionists began a broad program of popular education aimed at moving public opinion toward the abolition of slavery. This new organization, tentatively called the Boston Emancipation League, was to distribute articles and editorials by prominent abolitionists to newspapers all over the North. The campaign was to be kept temporarily under cover because of the prevailing prejudice against abolitionists. This battle of words was supplemented by well-advertised speeches by Charles Sumner, William Garrison, Wendell Phillips and others during the months of October through November. The campaign was successful and on December 16, because of the growing support of emancipation and the consequent increase in the prestige of abolitionists, the Emancipation League brought their organization into the open. In the winter and spring of 1861-62 the number of emancipation organizations and lecture associations grew rapidly.6 Pressured by the continued defeats of the North and the growing forces of the abolitionist movement, Lincoln finally issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.

Although the terms of the proclamation still provoked disappointment and suspicion amongst the abolitionists, most believed that the deliberateness with which Lincoln had finally announced his decision indicated that the President had every intention of putting his promise into effect. Garrison and Phillips encouraged abolitionists to use their forces to influence public opinion in favor of emancipation rather than to denounce the weakness of the administration's announcement. Garrison, for example, after having expressed his concern that the emancipation would not be immediate, that it was only confined to the rebelling states, and that once again it was coupled with Lincoln's favorite scheme of gradual, compensated emancipation, publicly rejoiced in the Proclamation as “an important step in the right direction, and an act of immense historic consequence.”7 Within a few days, abolitionists arranged a rally in Boston at which Emerson was asked to speak. Emerson's speech is traversed by the political and rhetorical exigencies of the moment. Linking the Proclamation to such acts as “the plantation of America … the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and the British emancipation of slaves in the West Indies,” he calls the act “poetic” and encourages his audience to recognize its “great scope.” In his famous opening sentences, he writes:

In so many arid forms which states encrust themselves with, once in a century, if so often, a poetic act and record occur. These are the jets of thought into affairs, when, roused by danger or inspired by genius, the political leaders of the day break the else insurmountable routine of class and local legislation, and take a step forward in the direction of catholic and universal interests. Every step in the history of political liberty is a sally of the human mind into the untried Future. … This act makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired. With a victory like this, we can stand many disasters. … We have recovered ourselves from our false position, and planted ourselves on a law of Nature.

(Works 11: 315, 320)

Emphasizing the poetic and moral force of an act of thought that follows the laws of Nature, Emerson points to the revolutionary character of the Proclamation. The Proclamation is in fact revolutionary because it aligns itself with the forces of Nature, the forces of transformation. The very act of its declaration propels the country beyond the prejudice and legislation that until now had so forcefully determined national sentiment against emancipation. But now “the cause of disunion and war has been reached and begun to be removed” (Works 11: 321-22). Lincoln's edict reveals its force, its transformative power, by committing the country to justice. In doing so, it promises political and social changes that call forth “a new public … to greet the new event” (Works 11: 316). Clearing the way for an “untried Future,” the proclamation recalls the American people to their founding in Nature. Both a promise and a memory, it indicates the nation's health. “In the light of this event,” Emerson says, “the public distress begins to be removed” (Works 11: 321). Whatever we might have thought of as Lincoln's shortcomings, “every mistake, every delay,” may now be called “endurance, wisdom, magnanimity.” “Liberty is a slow fruit,” Emerson explains, “It comes, like religion, for short periods, and in rare conditions. … We are beginning to think that we have underestimated the capacity and virtue which the Divine Providence has made an instrument of benefit so vast” (Works 11: 315, 317).8

Emerson's invocation of organic and religious imagery is far more than a spontaneous response to an act whose moral aspect seems unquestionable. In joining an act of great political and national significance with the movement of religious history, Emerson's rhetoric exploits the pervasive sense among many Northerners that God's hand could be recognized in Lincoln's edict.9 In this edict, religious and political mission are brought together through the promise of their ultimate realization. January 1, 1863, marks a new era in the history of America—an era in which injustice and oppression would be forced to flee before the divine principles of justice and righteousness. The Proclamation itself bears witness to the sacred cause of the war. The justice of the Northern cause turns the Civil War from a crisis of national legitimacy into a conflict with eschatological significance.

For Emerson, the Emancipation Proclamation plays a decisive role within the history of this transformation. It is precisely this role and this history that are the subjects of his “Boston Hymn.” Written for the specific purpose of celebrating the moral and historical importance of the Proclamation, the poem opened the festivities at the Music Hall. It was read to a wildly enthusiastic audience that included many former slaves.10 In the poem, Emerson dramatizes the importance of the pronouncement by inscribing it within the form of a jeremiad that presents in small the history of American as “the great charity of God to the human race” (Works 11: 540). Choosing to frame his poem within the jeremiad form in fact enables him to respond to the heterogeneity of his audience. The jeremiad had frequently been adapted by abolitionist and black political writing in order both to reproach a country that had been unfaithful to its sacred beginnings and to recall the promise upon which American was founded.11 Providing a lesson in national genealogy, Emerson's sermon sets out the sacred history of the New World and describes the typology of the American mission. By situating the significance of the Proclamation within a history that claims to reveal the nation's divine mission, Emerson emphasizes the historical significance of the Proclamation and the political and cultural significance of this Puritan history. He also entwines this history with the motifs of black emancipation and national regeneration at work within antebellum black rhetoric. This joining of the history of recent events with the history of the meaning of America requires that we read every line of the poem according to a double register. For Emerson, whatever significance we may attribute to the force of Lincoln's pronouncement, this significance can only be read through the history of similar pronouncements, each of which, in their own way, have worked to link the destinies of America's peoples.

Still, within the movement of the poem, the particular pronouncement to which Lincoln's is compared is that of God to his chosen people. In both cases, the pronouncement takes the form of a promise, the promise of freedom. If the Emancipation Proclamation has the force of God's edict, it is because it is the promised realization of God's will. What is most striking about this particular jeremiad, however, is that both it, and by implication, the Proclamation, are spoken by God himself. It is God who laments the tyranny and the selfishness of the Old World and who reveals the terms of his promise to his listeners—the Pilgrims mentioned in the poem certainly, but also their descendants, including all Americans of the year 1863:

The word of the Lord by night
To the watching Pilgrims came,
As they sat by the seaside,
And filled their hearts with flame.
God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor.
Think ye I made this ball
A field of havoc and war,
Where tyrants great and tyrants small
Might harry the weak and poor?
My angel,—his name is Freedom,—
Choose him to be your king;
He shall cut pathways east and west
And fend you with his wing.
Lo! I uncover the land
Which I hid of old time in the West
As the sculptor uncovers the statue
When he has wrought his best.

(Works 9: 201)

Emerson's sources for this emergent allegory of the history of America are the writings of the early colonists.12 These opening stanzas identify what was perhaps the single most important element in the formation of the colonists' collective identity: their typological reading of history, a reading that both presumes and accounts for their strong identification with the covenanted people of Israel. As Philip Gura has suggested, the New England Puritans defined their community “not so much through its political or territorial integrity as through a common ideology: specifically, their incessant rhetorical justification of what they regarded as their divinely ordained purpose.”13 For the Puritans, the typological relationship that existed between the New Testament and the Old linked the progressive unfolding of history to the possibility of redemption in this world.14 At the same time, since the New Testament speaks of things still to be realized, when events in England transformed the New England Puritans' relation to their homeland, they came to believe that they alone were left to fulfill Biblical prophecy. It is no accident, then, that the model for the Great Migration to which Emerson alludes here is the Biblical exodus. Guided by the hand of Providence, the pilgrims, like the Hebrews, abandon an oppressive monarchy for a new promised land. The Puritan God delivers the Pilgrims from the rod of tyranny and oppression and leads them to America.15 Although this country is the latest found, it is also the earliest. Both the New Canaan and the New Jerusalem, this Columbia “Of clouds and the boreal fleece” is integral to God's sacred design. In giving the pilgrims a new opportunity, He calls upon His people to renew their covenant with Him.

The poem's next six stanzas outline the conditions of the covenant, the rules for this alliance between God and his chosen people. He promises to divide his goods. He promises expansion and growth for all of humanity. He offers to all, without distinction of color or creed, the infinite variety of America's natural resources. In return, he asks that the people build schools and churches in his name, govern the land and sea with just laws, not give way to selfish or proud rulers, refuse to swerve away from what is right, and, most of all, never bind another man or woman into their service. For Emerson, the measure of the degree to which the Puritans and their descendants have lived up to their end of the promise, have followed the laws of the covenant, is nothing less than the entire history of America—from the settlement of New England up to the pronouncement he now celebrates. Emerson's judgment here is decisive. Rather than suggest in any explicit fashion what this history has been, he brings his audience to the moment within which they are listening to him deliver his poem:

Lo, now! if these poor men
Can govern the land and sea
And make just laws below the sun,
As planets faithful be.
And ye shall succor men;
'T is nobleness to serve;
Help them who cannot help again:
Beware from right to swerve.
I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth
As wind and wandering wave.

(Works 9: 203)

Fusing the legacy of the Puritan founders with the present—according to a law of reading that recalls the law that governs the pilgrims' reading of their own special place within history—Emerson implies a typological relationship between the promise of the Puritan settlement of America and its fulfillment in the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. If the first half of his poem evokes the “birth” of this legacy, the second half will serve to call upon his audience, or rather to have God call upon his audience, to recognize that it is within its support of the Proclamation that the renewal of His promise will take place. But if God's “Lo, now!” calls attention to the present, it at the same time expresses a kind of surprise at what God sees, almost as though He had, in growing even wearier than before in the face of continued disappointment, come to wonder whether or not men could ever “govern the land and sea” with justice. Nevertheless, the Proclamation is presented as a profound indication that “these poor men” can “make just laws.”

The directness with which both Emerson and God turn to this act as the fulfillment of the alliance between God and the pilgrims, however, makes it difficult not to notice their silence upon the years that intervene between these two “events.” This silence is hardly an omission. Rather it is a quiet condemnation of everything that, within the history of America, has betrayed or breached this special alliance. It is especially an indictment of those transgressions that occurred in the name of this promise, that justified themselves within the rhetoric and claim of God's grace. If Emerson begins his poem by having God give voice to the terms and conditions of the covenant, he does so not only to draw a link between the covenant and its realization in Lincoln's edict, but also to draw attention to the very rhetoric with which the Puritan founders attempted to conquer and transform the New World in God's name. In giving voice to the story of the covenant, God tells the story of the Puritans as well. That is to say, he tells to the Puritans their own story, the story that they themselves told in order to rationalize the often violent means whereby they settled their new home. The America whose history goes unspoken in Emerson's poem has also been “A field of havoc and war,” a place where “tyrants great and small” have consistently oppressed “the weak and poor.” The Puritan understanding of the nation's eschatological significance installed an understanding of the sanctity of the national union that in turn enabled the pilgrims to justify westward expansion, slavery, the extermination of the native population, the marginalization of cultural diversity in general, and the idea of manifest destiny. In carrying the notion of America as God's chosen westward, the Puritans and their descendants felt obliged to subdue, transform, and overcome nature. The strong sense of their place within this sacred history gave them license to “cut down trees in the forest / And trim the straightest boughs.” The settlement of America, while it may have at one time promised a beneficent reunion with Nature, now revealed the more selfish and material impulses that the vision of a “free” and “prosperous” land proffered.

For Emerson, the Puritan capacity to appropriate anything before them within the rhetoric of the covenant indicates the power of this rhetoric as well as the Puritan will to authority. The legitimacy accorded to their rhetoric, for example, enabled them to determine in advance what belonged to the chosen community and what did not. This rhetoric in fact demanded the marginalization or assimilation of immigrants and other groups who did not fit into their conception of American nationality. In addition to the exclusion of other cultures, this nationalistic dimension of Puritan thought worked to bring the wide range of theological opinion in the colonies within the boundaries of what Gura has called “the internal development of Puritan doctrine.” Although there was no unified community of Puritan thought, the unity of purpose and mission claimed by the New England Puritans was not only essential to their social and political organization, but also defended by recourse to the covenant.16 This unity was then used to require submission to the authority of the founding fathers and their laws, conformity to convention, and reverence for the sacred moral purpose of whatever this community might deem necessary to further its special mission—even if such purpose might in truth go against every one of the terms of the covenant. For Emerson, such respect, conformity, and reverence works against the virtue of independence in the name of which the New World was founded. If Emerson and God turn from the terms and conditions of the covenant directly to the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation, it is in part because each wishes to suggest that, until this day, the rhetoric of God's promise has been used primarily to promote interests that betray the letter of this same promise. That is to say: since the plantation of America there have been no truly just laws. There have been no laws which protect the divine rights of all men. Only with this Proclamation does America redeem itself; only with this act does it meet the conditions of God's promise.17 This act works to purify the covenant as it has been passed down from generation to generation, to recover the promise of an America without slavery. Within the terms of Emerson's poem, the emancipation of the slaves will revise older concepts of manifest destiny, concepts which, emerging from the Puritan rhetoric of mission and errand, took their currency, at least implicitly, from the expansion of the southern slaveholding system.18

If the powerful ethical force of the Proclamation corresponds with the justice of divine law, it is also because, as Emerson states, in pronouncing this law, men have planted themselves on “a law of Nature.” God himself seconds this point when he claims that as long as men “make just laws” they remain as faithful to the divine order of nature as do the planets.19 Such claims are by no means surprising, however. For over two hundred years eschatological and prophetic images within Puritan rhetoric had been inseparable from natural metaphors. One could now find figurations of divine order not only through the figurative expressions that appear in the Bible, but also through the seemingly more direct revelation of the divine principle in the activities of the natural world. “Every natural fact,” Emerson writes, “is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (Works 1: 26). What is surprising, though, is the recognition that God's words already echo Emerson's own language. The matter becomes immediately more complicated when we notice that nearly every single stanza in the second half of the poem alludes in some way to the various speeches, lectures, essays, and even poems that Emerson had written on the question of freedom, that is, on the question of emancipation. Drawing in particular from Emerson's speeches on the “Emancipation Proclamation” (1862), on “American Civilization” (1861), on “American Slavery” (1855), and on “the “Emancipation of the British West Indies” (1844), Emerson's God speaks Emerson's language.20 The “Lo, now!” of January 1, 1863, merges the voice of the Puritan God with the voice of Emerson's God, with that of men who speak in the name of “just laws.” “If a man is at heart just,” Emerson proclaims in his “Divinity School Address,” “then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter that man with justice” (Works 1: 122). The Puritan God is not the God of To-day. The God of To-day is man himself. The God of To-day is the man who, refusing to swerve from right, proclaims this act of emancipation, revealing in this way the divinity that lies within his heart and his hands. Breaking away from the God of Puritan tradition and rhetoric, this man finds the presence of God within his own soul.21 This man is not only Lincoln; rather, he is any man who recognizes the divinity of Lincoln's edict and chooses to serve its cause of universal freedom. If the Emancipation Proclamation is the fulfillment of God's promise, the Proclamation is itself a promise requiring fulfillment. This is why the act cannot accomplish the work of its promise all alone. Emerson tells us that this measure will not “be suddenly marked by any signal result” (Works 11: 319) on the slaves or on the rebel masters. Rather, this declaration—if it is not to be “a paper proclamation”—will require that men “succor” each other. Not only will Lincoln have to “repeat and follow up his stroke,” but the nation will be asked to “add its inevitable strength.” “If the ruler has duties,” Emerson says, “so has the citizen. … What right has any one to read in the journals tidings of victories, if he has not bought them with his own valor, treasure, personal sacrifice, or by service as good in his own department” (Works 11: 321).


The effectuation of the proclamation within history depends upon the acts and thoughts of men and women whom every day and every hour renew their alliance with the declaration's revolutionary truth. This Proclamation is in fact a declaration of independence truer to the spirit of the revolution than that of the revolutionary fathers because it remembers a people whom they had forgotten. If the edict fulfills the promise of God's covenant, it also realizes the promise of the revolutionary struggle for freedom. From the beginning of the war, abolitionists and others had evoked the rhetoric of the revolution in order to further their cause. By the early 1860s the revolution had become a trope of persuasion within the war's new crusade for freedom. In an editorial entitled “The Second American Revolution,” written less than three weeks after the attack on Fort Sumter, William Goodell pronounced: “It has begun. It is in progress … The Revolution must go on, to its completion—A National Abolition of Slavery. … What … can long delay the proclamation, inviting the slave to a share in the glorious second American Revolution.22 The virtue of this second revolution was that it revealed what had always been the nation's “fatal weakness.” In The Rejected Stone, a book which went through three editions in 1861-62, Conway argued that when the founding fathers constructed the edifice of the Union they cast aside one essential “foundation stone.” That stone, he suggested, was “essentially, Justice.” “The form in which it stands for us,” he went on to say, “is the african slave.”23

It was on the basis of such arguments that abolitionists refused to recognize the Southern rebellion as a revolution. Only the North was in a position to fight a revolution of freedom. “The revolution is on our side,” Conway argued, “and as soon as the nation feels that, and acts upon it, the strength of the South is gone. … we are the revolutionists.”24 But if “we are the revolutionists” because we break the “bonds and masterships” of all Americans, including those of the slave, for Emerson we are also the revolutionists because we break these bonds and chains before God does. By the time that God declares His own emancipation proclamation in stanza 14, He has already acknowledged in stanza 12 that men have preceded Him in this act. If the hand of God is really at work within Lincoln's Proclamation, it is because the Proclamation, as an image of our creativity and freedom, is already divine. If God is preceded in this act, it is because he has also been preceded in other, perhaps more fundamental, ways. From the moment that His voice merges with the voice through whom He speaks on January 1, 1863, He speaks in a voice other than His own—in the same way that He had earlier spoken in the voice attributed to Him by the Puritan pilgrims. This is to say at least two things: i) the God of To-day speaks in a voice that is different from the voice in which He spoke to the pilgrims; and ii) the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation precedes the proclamation of To-day's God by fulfilling the promise of the Puritan God, but in a way that questions the Puritan conception of God. From the moment that Emerson has God address the present, God's voice is one with Emerson's.

This is not to say that God speaks the words that Emerson has Him speak solely because He is a persona within Emerson's poem. Instead, we need to recognize that Emerson does not speak for God; he speaks as God. The force of Emerson's rhetoric lies in its assumption of divinity. Emerson's thought is “ejaculated as Logos, or Word” (Works 3: 40). Whenever God says “I,” Emerson says “I.” Whenever God speaks, He quotes Emerson. Emerson's God is an emanation of Emerson's own rhetoric, a figure for Emerson's ambitions as a powerful political orator. Moreover, in having God speak within his language, Emerson sets up a typological relationship between the revolutionary promise of his earlier writings and the Proclamation as the fulfillment of this promise. In a certain sense, God's voice makes the potentiality within Emerson's language real. If God's rhetoric depends upon Emerson's, Emerson's is in turn enhanced through its being spoken by God. Emerson subsumes his own voice, his own rhetoric, within the voice of God in order to lend it more authority, in order to better persuade his audience of the virtue of the Proclamation as well as the necessity to constantly renew one's commitment to its promise of justice. In the passage from which God derives the sentence He speaks in stanza 13, Emerson claims that “God is God because he is the servant of all” (Works 11: 298). God has served the Puritan founders. Now, in this poem, God serves Emerson as a figure of persuasion. We can only imagine the impact that Emerson's rhetoric would have had upon his audience. Having been recalled to their present moment by the “Lo, now!” of the twelfth stanza, his listeners could not have overlooked the powerful fusion of God's “I” with Emerson's.

We will never know the tone or force with which Emerson read this poem—a poem whose themes had been his for over thirty years—but anyone familiar with Emerson's writings would have certainly heard his voice within the following four stanzas:

I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow:
As much as he is and doeth,
So much he shall bestow.
But, laying hands on another
To coin his labor and sweat,
He goes in pawn to his victim
For eternal years in debt.
To-day unbind the captive,
So only are ye unbound;
Lift up a people from the dust,
Trump of their rescue, sound!
Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him.

(Works 9: 203-4)

God speaks here in the voice of the Emersonian Poet whose task it is to liberate all men. Like the Poet, God breaks the chains that prevent men from recognizing and realizing their divine potential—that “proper good” which determines who man is and what he does.25 He takes on the Poet's “office of announcement and affirming” (Works 3: 13) and declares the necessity and rectitude of emancipation. Relying on the language of Emerson's essay “American Civilization,” He explains that the moment a man lays his hands upon another person and tries to transform this person's “labor and sweat” into “coin,” into money, he reverses the “natural sentiments of mankind” (Works 11: 297). In the opening paragraph to this essay, Emerson had already argued that, in accordance with the laws of nature, “man coins himself into his labor; turns his day, his strength, his thought, his affection into some product which remains as the visible sign of his power” (Works 11: 297). To secure this labor for the laborer, this should be “the object of all government.” Insofar as the slaveholder presumes that “the well-being of a man” consists “in eating the fruit of other men's labor,” however, he not only prevents the establishment of a just government, but he also goes against Nature (Works 11: 297). Betraying nature, he betrays himself. In exploiting the slave's labor he becomes eternally indebted to him, eternally subjected to the institution of slavery. Emerson had delineated this argument almost twenty years earlier in his address on the “Emancipation of the British West Indies,” suggesting that it had in fact played an important role in the history and events that contributed to that emancipation. “It was shown to the planters,” he explains, “that they, as well as the negroes, were slaves. … The oppression of the slave recoiled on them. … Many planters have said, since the emancipation, that, before that day, they were the greatest slaves on the estates” (Works 11: 125). This argument both follows and anticipates those made by Phillips and Sumner as they tried to persuade both the North and the South of the insidiousness of slavery. Slaveholding, they argued, especially corrupted the manners and morals of white Southerners, since it presented their children with examples of brutal violence and despotism.26 Phillips, in his speech on the “Right of Petition” (1837), had already emphasized national complicity in the issue of slavery. “Our fate is bound up with that of the South,” he said, “so that they cannot be corrupt and we sound; they cannot fail and we stand.”27 In his own speech, Emerson hints at the planters' exaggeration of their own suffering in relation to that of the slave and then links Phillips' point to an older, more philosophical issue: “The civility of no race can be perfect whilst another race is degraded. It is a doctrine alike of the oldest and of the newest philosophy, that man is one, and that you cannot injure any member, without a sympathetic injury to all the members. America is not civil, whilst Africa is barbarous” (Works 11: 145).28 Since “Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same” (Works 2: 3), no man can commit a violence upon another without committing a similar violence upon himself. If any man is a slave every man is a slave. For Emerson, this consideration leaves no choice for the country's conscience. In the name of respect, for both ourselves and others, we must rid ourselves of slavery. As he states in his 1851 address on the Fugitive Slave Act, “Everything invites emancipation” (Works 11: 208).

Emerson's God invites emancipation as well. But if His invitation is made in Emerson's language, this language takes a turn in stanza 18 against Emerson's earlier statements—in his addresses on the West Indies, the Fugitive Slave Law, and especially his 1855 speech on “American Slavery”—on the necessity of compensating slaveholders for their losses upon emancipation. Following the example of the British emancipation of the West Indies, Emerson argues in these speeches that Southern slaveholders ought to be paid a kind of “ransom” for their slaves. In his 1851 address against the Fugitive Slave Law, for example, he proclaims: “Why not end this dangerous dispute on some ground of fair compensation on one side, and satisfaction on the other to the conscience of the free states? It is really the great task fit for this country to accomplish, to buy that property of the planters, as the British nation bought the West Indian slaves. I say buy,—never conceding the right of the planter to own, but that we may acknowledge the calamity of his position, and bear a countryman's share in relieving him; and because it is the only practicable course, and is innocent” (Works 11: 208).29 Such claims were prevalent in the North in the late 1840s and 1850s and were generally made either in the name of preserving the Union or in the name of admitting some shared responsibility in the matter. If Emerson argues for disunion after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, we may still question his willingness to risk reinforcing the claim that slaves were property owned by the slaveholders. Indeed, many abolitionists were hostile to compensation for just this reason. Nevertheless, after the outbreak of the war, while Lincoln and others were still making similar arguments in the interest of effecting some kind of wartime compromise, Emerson claimed that such a suggestion was no longer either “practicable” or “innocent.” His “Boston Hymn” records this turn of mind. If stanza 18 begins by referring to Emerson's earlier appeals to his countrymen to “Pay ransom to the owner / And fill the bag to the brim,” it ends by questioning the appeal's assumption that the slave could be considered as property. “Who is the owner?” God asks. “The slave is owner, / And ever was,” comes the answer, “Pay him.”30 These lines implicate an earlier Emerson in the outrages the Proclamation wishes to overcome. The poem is at this point a confession of Emerson's shared guilt, a renunciation of his earlier position, and a passionately challenging exhortation that no one ever forget again that the slave has always owned his or her own labor.

This admonishment and appeal are particularly pertinent at a time when many abolitionists were wondering whether the Proclamation had itself been purchased at too great a cost. What disturbed them most was their sense that Lincoln's edict was based upon the argument of “military necessity” rather than upon a concern for the rights of the black man as a person. Although he later changed his position, even Sumner himself had claimed that abolition was not “the object of the war, but simply one of its agencies.” He repeated this point in a letter of November 10, 1861, to John Jay, arguing that emancipation “is to be presented strictly as a measure of military necessity, and the argument is to be thus supported rather than on grounds of philanthropy.”31 For both Sumner and Jay, the argument for emancipation based upon “military necessity” was a strategic, that is to say, rhetorical one. They, as did many others, assumed that the administration would respond more quickly to this argument than to the moral issues they had already been promoting for over thirty years. Some abolitionists strongly questioned these tactics, however. Emancipation would be worth very little, they argued, if it did not proceed from a strong commitment to justice and human rights. As Lydia Maria Child solemnly proclaimed, “This entire absence of a moral sense on the subject, has disheartened me more than anything else. Even should they be emancipated, merely as a ‘war necessity,’ everything must go wrong, if there is no heart or conscience on the subject. … It is evident that a great moral work still needs to be done.”32 Douglass expressed the same fear in a speech he delivered at Cooper Union on February 6, 1863, five weeks after the enactment of the Proclamation. “Much as I value the present apparent hostility to Slavery at the North,” he said, “I plainly see that it is less the outgrowth of high and intelligent moral conviction against Slavery, as such, than because of the trouble its friends have brought upon country. I would have Slavery hated for that and more. A man that hates Slavery for what it does to the white man, stands ready to embrace it the moment its injuries are confined to the black man, and he ceases to feel those injuries in his own person.”33

These arguments would have had special force for the Emerson who insists that everything be thought according to first principles. He might have been particularly moved by Douglass's remarks since he had himself opened his 1854 speech on the Fugitive Slave Law by admitting that until this law had been passed he had lived all his life “without suffering any known inconvenience from American Slavery.” “I never saw it,” he says, “I never heard the whip; I never felt the check on my free speech and action, until, the other day, when Mr. Webster, by his personal influence, brought the Fugitive Slave Law on the country” (Works 11: 219). Although these sentences would need to be read as part of the rhetorical pose that Emerson takes in this speech, we can still say that they at least dramatize his awareness of the ease with which we can neglect suffering that does not touch our own person. In drawing attention to these arguments in his poem, Emerson reveals his shared concern over the possibility that the Proclamation might become a dead letter if it is not taken up into the hearts and minds of individuals willing to commit themselves to the difficult struggle of genuine emancipation. His insistence that the slave be treated as a person rather than as property serves as a powerful reminder of the tremendous moral stakes involved in this struggle. They are nothing less than the integrity of the self-reliant individual. If compensation should go to anyone, it should therefore go to the slave. But this compensation can only take the form of true emancipation. This is to say that the slave may only be truly compensated through a task of thinking: a thinking whose task it is to think the slave as a person rather than as a thing.

This task will involve a confrontation with the painful and distressing history that has led to the necessity of this moral reevaluation. Emerson encourages his listeners to begin this task by offering his own sense of this history. Racing against time, because going against the embattled history of America, emancipation must be immediate, but genuine.34 Emerson's God commands the slaves to arise and run to meet the challenge of their newly pronounced freedom. In the poem's final two stanzas, He calls upon peoples of all races to carry His purpose forth into the world. He then ends his speech by turning, in a properly Emersonian fashion, to the force and efficacy of His own rhetoric:

Come, East and West and North,
By races, as snowflakes,
And carry my purpose forth,
Which neither halts nor shakes.
My will fulfilled shall be,
For, in daylight or in dark,
My thunderbolt has eyes to see
His way home to the mark.

(Works 9: 204)

God's Word works as a force of provocation and gathering. He enjoins all races to come together and carry his declaration of emancipation into the slaveholding South—as snowflakes. Coming in accordance with the laws of nature, these peoples come as snowflakes—that is to say, in one of the figure's many connotations, in numbers—to realize the will of God. “Every spark of intellect,” Emerson tells us in his speech on the Proclamation, “every virtuous feeling, every religious heart, every man of honor, every poet, every philosopher, the generosity of cities, the health of the country, the strong arms of the mechanic, the endurance of farmers, the passionate conscience of women, the sympathy of distant nations” (Works 11: 320)—all rally to the support of this edict. A host of different peoples and sentiments shall draw together in this “great and good work” of emancipation.

But what exactly does it mean for them to draw together as snowflakes? What could it mean for Emerson's God to associate men and women of different colors to an element of nature known by its single color—especially when, within the context of questions of slavery and race, this color is hardly an innocent one? In calling for men and women from different races rather than from a single race, God suggests that these questions may not be as black and white as they seem. The figural connotations of snowflakes within such a context are in fact multiple and in no way simple. Within the Biblical and theological traditions to which both God and Emerson belong, snow and snowflakes have borne an array of rhetorical significances—all of which have some figural relationship to God's will. For example, in H. W. Beecher's “Teachings of Snow,” the movement of snowflakes is seen as a figure for the movement of God's hosts in battle.35 Wafting down from the sky like the thoughts of God, snowflakes fight to realize the will of God. They conceal in their beauty a great power of annihilation and in their color a means of purification. Covering the land and thereby changing the whole aspect of nature, they represent a powerful force of conversion. It “tends to mitigate the severity of winter” and, when it melts, it serves as a powerful force of regeneration.36 As a figure for the will of God, it figures the hand of God in Matthew 10: 29-30 and the Word of God itself. In Isaiah 55: 29-30, for example, God says: “as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

When God demands that the men and women of all races come together as snowflakes for the purpose of enacting his will, His language evokes each and all of these connotations. Coming to battle slavery in the name of God, these peoples will purify the sin that has beset America from its beginning. “Announced by all the trumpets of the sky” (Works 9: 41), like the snow in Emerson's poem “The Snow-Storm,” they are architects of a new union, fierce artificers of a new revolution. Rebuilding the edifice of America according to the principles of nature and in realization of the divine potential of man's creative capacity for reform, these snowflakes shall inaugurate a new era. The snowflake is, as Emerson says elsewhere, “Freedom's star.”37 Led by the light of this star, God's hosts are to fulfill simultaneously the Word of God, the Words of Emerson's God, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the words of Lincoln, who, in 1854, had already pronounced the necessity that would eventuate in his 1863 Proclamation. “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust,” he said, “Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. … Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices and policies which harmonize with it. Let north and south—let all Americans—let all lovers of liberty everywhere—join in the great and good work.”38 The snow falling downward from the heavens—like the races which, coming from the East and the West and the North according to God's directive, move southward—represents the descent of the thought which will become the new ground for a new Declaration of Independence. Transforming the landscape of American history, the snowflake brings men and women to rethink their relation to both nature and history.

Like the God whose word it figures, the snowflake is a force of provocation and emancipation. It gains its force as a trope through the religious and literary associations attributed to it by the same men and women it now wishes to mobilize. If history has as its goal the process of moral justice and freedom, that process can only be achieved, according to Emerson, by the forces of Nature; and similarly, if Nature is the means to human justice and freedom, its end is to be found in human action and human history. If the Proclamation is a poetic act, it is precisely because it joins human history with natural history. As Emerson writes in Nature, “Natural history by itself has no value; it is like a single sex. But marry it to human history, & it is poetry” (Works 1: 28; Journals 4: 311). God's poetry works to define the grounds and necessity of this cooperation. Emerson himself had proclaimed this necessity in the final sentence of his 1854 speech on the Fugitive Slave Act. There, forcefully encouraging his audience to believe in the amelioration that “will not save us but through our own cooperation,” Emerson prophesizes the end of slavery (Works 11: 244). No matter how much he may evoke the necessity of self-reliant deeds, “free doers” are bound together in a community of believers whose votes must cooperate with the work of emancipation—which is to say that, for Emerson, the burden of self-reliance is the burden of cooperation.39 The difficulty of taking on this responsibility, however, is not due to any contradiction here. Emerson's doctrine of “self-reliance” is inseparable from its commitment to social and political reform. The self-reliant individual is from the very beginning “related and engaged” with others (Works 11: 217). In the very act of delivering this poem, Emerson himself keeps this engagement and fulfills this relation. Engaging his audience through the force of his rhetoric, Emerson transforms his exhortation into a commitment—his as well as his audience's—toward emancipation. Emerson and his God pronounce the virtues and necessity of having everyone support Lincoln's edict. This edict breaks “bonds” and “masterships” and unchains the slave by binding “lovers of liberty” into a community that can cooperate in revolt against the institution of slavery as well as against its own guilt in this institution—for who among us, Emerson seems to suggest, has not at one time or another relied on an idea of America that includes the possibility of slavery within its language. What is necessary, he argues, is a renewal of the community of the covenant that remains vigilant toward the various ways in which the covenant can at the same time become a means of enslavement. Rather than fleeing before the demands of the revolution, we should become “guides, redeemers, and benefactors” who, “obeying the Almighty effort and advancing on Chaos and the Dark,” do not fear entering the struggle for emancipation (Works 2: 47).

We should all race to become snowflakes—agents of cooperation and regeneration. To say this is to admit the role of rhetoric within the process of emancipation. God uses the trope of the snowflake precisely in order to persuade His listeners to meet the challenges of freedom. Like Emerson, He knows that “Nothing so works on the human mind … as a trope” (Works 7: 90). He condenses the urgency and necessity of His message of freedom into the figure of the snowflake and, in doing so, expects to move all men and women in the direction of this freedom. As Emerson tells us in “The Poet,” the use of tropes “has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all” (Works 3: 30). It is within this context that we should understand Lincoln's Proclamation as a powerful act of language. The necessarily rhetorical dimension of any such Proclamation answers to the demand that men and women of all races be persuaded to act in the name of this act.

The importance of the rhetorical dimension of the poem is high-lighted in a striking and unmistakable fashion in its final sentence, as Emerson's God announces the irresistible force of His rhetoric: “My will fulfilled shall be, / For, in daylight or in dark, / My thunderbolt has eyes to see / His way home to the mark.” God's unerring flash of lightning recalls the Puritan use of thunder and lightning as signals of God's voice. This topos is pervasive within Biblical literature and commentary and is quite common in Massachusetts literature from the seventeenth-century on. In Michael Wigglesworth's God's Controversy with New England, for example, thunder is the voice of God reprimanding the sins of the Puritan pilgrims: “The Air became tempestuous; / The wilderness gan quake: / And from above with awfull voice / Th' Almighty thundring spake.”40 The image also recurs in sermons such as Cotton Mather's “Brontologia Sacra,” included in the Magnalia Christi Americana, and Jonathan Edwards's Personal Narrative. As Mitchell Breitweiser reminds us, Mather's sermon was in fact given “extemporaneously upon the occasion of a thunderstorm in September 1694.”41 “The omnipotent God in the thunder,” Mather explained to his audience, “speaks to those hardy Typhons, that are found fighting against him.” In Edwards's narrative, the association between thunder and God's voice is made within a discussion of his present understanding of the thunder's significance. “Before,” he writes, “I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck with terror when I saw a thunder storm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm; and used to take the opportunity to … hear the majestic and awful voice of God's thunder.”42 God's claim for the inevitable power of His rhetoric in the poem's last sentence should be read against the background of this Puritan rhetoric. This is to say that the poem ends where it began—by recalling the rhetoric of the Puritan God. It is framed by the burning words of the God that had earlier filled the Pilgrim's hearts with flame and that now wishes to enflame men and women of all races toward the difficult but necessary work of emancipation.

But the apocalyptic language of the God of 1863 takes a different form than that of the God of the early seventeenth century. The meaning of His covenant has been altered to meet the challenges of the Civil War and of the slave's emancipation. Now the voice of the Puritan God merges with the voice of Emerson's God and together their target is at least fourfold. The primary target is of course emancipation for the slave, but this emancipation can only occur through the cooperation of the audience listening to Emerson and God within the walls of the Music Hall, the men and women called together in stanza 21 to fulfill the terms of God's covenant, and finally the slave himself—although we might say that this last target is implied in each of the other three. That the slave is a mark internal to the others is made clear in the end rhyme of lines two and four in the poem's last stanza—in the rhyme, that is, between “dark” and “mark.” The slave is the “dark mark” of God's word. God's word shall reach the ears of the black man and pronounce his freedom. As in stanza 20, God encourages the slave to take part in his own emancipation.43 In this instance, however, He at the same time condemns the interpretations of the Biblical curse of Canaan and of the exile of Cain sometimes used to justify the black man's color and enslavement.44 He distinguishes the dark mark to which His voice is now directed from the “dark mark” which, according to these interpretations, His voice had earlier condemned. In the Biblical account, when the drunken Noah realizes that his son, Ham, has been staring at his naked body, he curses Ham's son, Canaan. He condemns Canaan to servitude and, according to Talmudic and Midrashic sources, tells Ham that his seed will from then on “be ugly and darkskinned.” As David Brion Davis suggests, these explanations for the black man's enslavement were most likely intensified by religious cosmologies that “envisioned spiritual progress as the triumph of the children of light over the pagan or infidel children of darkness.”45 For Emerson, however, the difficulty that the issue of slavery poses for people who understand America's mission as furthering the cause of divine truth and enlightenment is precisely that of distinguishing between the forces of light and those of darkness. The rhetoric of this mission has too often been used to reinforce rather than to undo patterns of enslavement among both blacks and whites for such a distinction to be clear. The conditions of genuine emancipation ought to include a reconsideration of the implications of this difficulty. As Emerson declares in his speech on the “Emancipation of the British West Indies,” at the moment of emancipation, all “disqualifications and distinctions of color” cease and “men of all colors have equal rights in law. … If you have man, black or white is an insignificance” (Works 11: 121, 144).

Rather than curse the black man for any original sin, God prophesies his redemption and emancipation from the sins committed against him in the name of a justice determined by color. If the black man is still marked, he is now marked for freedom rather than punishment. He is marked for inclusion within the family of man.46 Like the snowflake—whose angles “are invariable” but whose forms exhibit “the greatest variety and beauty”47—the black man has a share in what is universal in man's nature, even as he maintains the singularity of his history and existence. God's rhetoric displays its force by re-marking the marks of Cain and Canaan in the direction of a more just understanding of the divinity that the black man shares with all men. In this, God also questions the rhetoric within which both the North and the South described the Civil War as a fratricidal conflict. Each tried to mark the other with the brand of Cain. Each claimed that it was the righteous brother—trying to defend the legacy bequeathed to the nation by the Founding Fathers.48 Within the context of the poem's last sentence, such branding coincides with the rhetoric and logic of exclusion that has justified and thereby maintained the institution of slavery. If God's thunderbolt does indeed see its way home to the mark, it does so by striking against any rhetoric and logic that would privilege any mark over another.

The authority of God's Word therefore cannot be separated from His vision of emancipation. His thunderbolt has eyes that enable it to see its way home to its mark and His voice has eyes that enable it to see its way toward expressing His Will. God's speech is visionary and His vision can be communicated. The Word of God and the vision of God are, as Emerson writes in a journal entry of 1835, “not two acts but one. The sight commands, the command sees” (Journals 5: 272). The poem's last stanza can be read as a tribute to the inexorable force of God's visionary rhetoric. But to stop here would be to miss what is now the poem's trademark: God's Word and vision gain their power from the force of Emerson's own visionary rhetoric. God and Emerson steal each other's thunder. This is to say that the poem's last stanza is also a tribute to Emerson's marksmanship. Not only because God continues to evoke arguments that Emerson has already made, but also because, in this case, He cites Emerson speaking eloquently on the importance and power of eloquence. God takes his final sentence from a passage in Emerson's “The Celebration of Intellect,” an address that Emerson delivered before the students of Tufts College on July 10, 1861, less than four months after the firing of Fort Sumter. In the address, Emerson encourages his audience not to be swayed away from the urgent tasks of thinking that the present times of “arraignment,” “trial,” and “judgment” require. Rather than be taken in by the “fracas of politics” and the “brute noise of the cannon,” we should instead think the principles that motivate both politics and cannons. For even though the “brute noise of the cannon” has “a most poetic echo in these days when it is an instrument of freedom and the primal sentiments of humanity … it is but representative and a far-off means” (Works 12: 113). We should think the creative cause of the war's fracas and brute noise, the “sanctity and omnipotence of Intellectual Law.” “The whole battle is fought in a few heads,” he says (Works 12: 121).

To think the relationship between the laws of the intellect and the laws of politics, however, requires us to think the place of rhetoric within these laws. For as we have already seen, nothing moves the minds of men and women or affects the direction of politics more than rhetoric does. But to say this is to say as well that nothing moves people or affects politics more than history does, since, for Emerson, rhetoric is essentially historical. What gives force to a trope like that of the snowflake, for example, are the myriad associations that have been attributed to the crystal within history. If there is, and Emerson says there is, a relationship between questions of politics, history, and language, the issue becomes one of how to direct one's rhetoric toward the accomplishment of moral effects. The issue becomes one of how one's rhetoric may see its way home to the mark when the figures one uses may include, within their history, connotations that lead one's argument away from its intended end. It is within this context that Emerson declares the passage from which God will draw His final sentence. “I wish you to be eloquent,” he says:

to grasp the bolt and to hurl it home to the mark. I wish to see that Mirabeau who knows how to seize the heart-strings of the people and drive their hands and feet in the way he wishes them to go, to fill them with himself, to enchant men so that their will and purpose is in abeyance and they serve him with a million hands just as implicitly as his own members obey him. But I value it more when it is legitimate, when the talent is in true order, subject to genius, subject to the total and native sentiment of the man, and therefore in harmony with the public sentiment of mankind. Such is the patriotism of Demosthenes, of Patrick Henry and of what was best in Cicero and Burke; not an ingenious special pleading, not the making of a plausible case, but strong by the strength of the facts themselves. Then the orator is still one of the audience, persuaded by the same reasons which persuade them, not a ventriloquist, not a juggler, not a wire-puller paid to manage the lobby and caucus.

(Works 12: 119-20)

Emerson encourages his audience to become eloquent by providing them with examples of the power a skilled orator may have over his listeners. The orator who knows his art well knows how to seduce and direct the hearts and minds of the people. Giving free reign to his creative and transformative power, the orator thereby claims his rightful identity. The truth he offers is the effect of a language powerful enough to persuade his listeners to believe that it is transparent to a Power beyond that language. Whether this orator is a Mirabeau, a Demosthenes, a Henry, a Cicero, a Burke, or even God, he has the capacity to direct people to the fulfillment of his will rather than theirs. He has the power “to grasp the bolt” of rhetoric and “hurl it home to the mark.” But the orator's singular power may quickly become despotic if it is not “legitimate.” The orator risks tyrannizing over his audience whenever he simply effects “an ingenious special pleading,” or constructs “a plausible case,” in order to realize his own personal aims. To say that an orator's eloquence is legitimate, however, is not to say that he may do just about anything with language, as long as he remains fully aware of the misleading power of his rhetoric. Rather, his rhetoric is legitimate only if it is: i) in true order, that is to say, in accord with the laws of nature, with the demand that we think the rhetoricity of nature; ii) subject to genius, that is to say, subject to the particularity of the orator's own history as well as to all of history; and iii) subject to the native sentiment of man. The orator must, as Emerson explains in the opening paragraph of “American Civilization,” think, speak, and act in a way that respects the self-reliance of each of his listeners. Only by meeting these conditions may an orator remain “in harmony with the public sentiment of mankind.” Only in this way are “the spells of persuasion, the keys of power … put into his hands.”

These are the directives that guide Emerson's hand as he writes the “Boston Hymn.” He wishes to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, to encourage his listeners to pledge their support for emancipation, but without imposing his own particular will upon them. Directing his efforts toward emancipation and self-reliance rather than enslavement and dependence, he remains “one of the audience.” He too must promise to keep the promise of the Proclamation. For although the Proclamation comes, as the Fugitive Slave Law did, like “a sheet of lightning at midnight” to strike the truth of emancipation into the hearts and minds of the populace, even though it affects the country with the suddenness and revelatory force of God's Word, as Emerson well knows, “the habit of oppression will not be destroyed by a law and a day of jubilee” (Works 11: 117). What is required is that we rethink the meaning of emancipation, while remaining vigilant to the ways in which the promise of freedom can easily become a means to enslavement. We should consider the habits of thinking that determine our “habit of oppression,” habits that include the rhetoric of nationalism, cultural difference, and racial superiority. As the Puritan God set out the conditions and terms of His promise, the Emersonian Poet must set out the terms and conditions of the task of thinking his audience must meet if the Proclamation is to be fulfilled. While this is a difficult task, the Poet may find help by drawing from a source of energy that is larger than he is. He may abandon himself to “the nature of things” (Works 3: 26). “Besides his privacy of power as an individual man,” Emerson explains, “there is a great public power on which he can draw, but unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll up into the life of the universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law” (Works 3: 26-27). If Emerson chooses to subsume his voice within the authority and “ethereal tides” of God's voice, he does so because he knows that, within the nature of things, God has “a great public power,” a great power over the public. He knows that when God speaks, people listen. He speaks as God not only because he wishes to indicate the divine creative potential he believes exists within us all, but also because he may then appropriate God's “public power” as his own—by surrendering himself to its effects. Using God as a powerful trope of persuasion, Emerson mobilizes God's “public power” in the direction of emancipation. Abandoning himself to this trope of power, Emerson transforms his voice into thunder and his thought into law. He becomes “the mere tongue of the occasion and the hour, and says what cannot but be said.” He surrenders himself to “the principle on which he is horsed, the great connection and crisis of events, thunder in the ear of the crowd” (Works 7: 49). The power of Emerson's strategy becomes evident when we recognize that the force of his poem may remain intact regardless of whom his audience thinks is speaking—God or Emerson as God. In either case, God's thunder reaches its mark—for once it enters the ear of the crowd, it matters little whose thunder it was; it becomes the listener's responsibility. Lincoln's edict may only be realized if men and women of all races take on the challenge of Self-reliance—a reliance on the Self that, as we know from Emerson's second “Fugitive Slave Law Address,” is nothing else than a reliance on God (Works 11: 235). To rely on the “public power” of God is to rely on one's self—because one's self is already infused with the power that is God. This is the recognition upon which emancipation depends. Emerson writes the “Boston Hymn” in order to proclaim the conditions for realizing the promise of emancipation, to signal the divinity that defines our potential for freedom. Like the voice of God that calls forth men and women to realize His will as snowflakes, the poem creates the audience that is to hear it by speaking to it as if it could already hear. The thunderbolt that it is sees its way home to the mark insofar as it brings forth the possibility of a future. This future lies in the hands of the races who, coming like snowflakes, commit themselves to its chances. The “Hymn” celebrates an emancipation that does not yet exist but is already occurring in the form of a promise—a promise that has always magnetized American desire.

Rather than distance itself aesthetically from the war, Emerson's “Boston Hymn” registers the traces that the Civil War has left upon it. The concern that it expresses over its own status as an act of representation is one and the same with its analysis of the varied cultural and political attempts to invent and enforce a particular image of America. Linking its language to the events of its time, evoking their various contexts and enacting the way in which history informs its own movement, the poem also suggests the way in which texts inform the practices of history. If the poem—with its figures, emblems, and symbols—is linked to America's capacity to institute, within a general network of representation, the political experience of its citizens, Emerson wishes it to reflect critically on efforts to evade the historical issues that had led to the civil crisis and to legitimate the war and its violence by recourse to the rhetoric against which the war is being fought. In recalling these issues and this history, in evoking the genealogy of the rhetorics within which his listeners thought about their place within this same history, the poem works to encourage a rethinking of our relation to the meaning of America, to an America that realizes its promise of emancipation.


  1. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-4) 11: 259. Further citations from Emerson's essays are to this edition unless otherwise noted.

  2. Compare this point with Timothy Sweet's recent book, Traces of War: Poetry, Photography, and the Crisis of the Union (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

  3. Emerson was not alone in granting such importance to these two steps. In a public letter of August 26, 1863, attacking opponents of emancipation, Lincoln himself proclaimed that “Some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion.” See The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953) 6: 408.

  4. I refer here to the efforts of, among others, Len Gougeon, Carolyn Porter, Michael Gilmore, John Michael, and Maurice Gonnaud, to demonstrate Emerson's preoccupation with the central political and social issues of his time, and to do so against what critics such as F. O. Matthiessen, Stephen Whicher, R. W. B. Lewis, Irving Howe, and Harold Bloom, and historians such as Anne Rose and George Frederickson have seen as the ahistorical character of Emerson's writings. In tracing the connections between Emerson and the domain of history, these efforts have helped to revise the perception of Emerson as a writer who retreated from history and politics. See Gougeon, Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990); Porter, Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981); Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Michael, Emerson and Skepticism: The Cipher of the World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); and Gonnaud, An Uneasy Solitude: Individual and Society in the Work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987). Although the reading of “Boston Hymn” that follows has certain relays with this ongoing reassessment of Emerson's relation to history, it differs in its effort to integrate the methods of rhetorical reading with the materials and concerns of the more “external” historicism evident in the above-mentioned works. It assumes that Emerson's rhetoric takes place between what we might call “internal,” formal or conceptual difficulties and the “external” conditions and forces it addresses. It requires, and in fact is, a kind of commentary that situates rhetoric materially within the political and historical moment of its production.

  5. Douglass Monthly, September 1861.

  6. The Washington Lecture Association was perhaps one of the most effective of these organizations, perhaps because of its location in the nation's capital. The Association sponsored more than twenty lectures in the hall of the Smithsonian Institute during the winter. Emerson's speech on “American Civilization” was delivered within this series.

  7. The Liberator, Sept. 26, 1862; cited in James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964) 119. Although always for total and immediate abolition, Garrison himself, as late as in the fall of 1861, had written a widely circulated petition in which he urged Congress to decree abolition under the war power, but also recommended giving fair compensation to loyal masters “as a conciliatory measure, and to facilitate an amicable adjustment of difficulties” (see The Struggle for Equality 93). The petition, although resisted by some because of the inclusion of compensation, was nevertheless signed by most abolitionists. This is just another indication of the difficult contradictions that were so pervasive within the rhetoric of abolition certainly, but also within any of the efforts attempting to confront the incalculability of the war's outcome.

  8. Emerson had already been arguing for emancipation as early as the fall of 1861 and in January of 1862, in “American Civilization,” a lecture he delivered before the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., he proclaimed its immediate necessity:

    If the American people hesitate, it is not for want of warning or advice. The telegraph has been swift enough to announce our disasters. The journals have not suppressed the extent of the calamity. … We cannot but remember that there have been days in American history, when, if the free states had done their duty, slavery had been blocked by an immovable barrier, and our recent calamities forever precluded. The free states yielded, and every compromise was surrender and invited new demands. Here again is a new occasion which heaven offers to sense and virtue. It looks as if we held the fate of the fairest possession of mankind in our hands, to be saved by our firmness or to be lost by hesitation. Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue. … Congress can, by edict, as a part of the military defense which it is the duty of Congress to provide, abolish slavery. …

    (Works 11: 300, 303-5)

    With Lincoln's pronouncement of his preliminary Proclamation, however, Emerson, along with other abolitionists who had also criticized Lincoln for his hesitation to support such an act, chooses to praise the act in order to help see it through. Given the exigencies of the moment, he temporarily puts aside his doubts for the sake of drawing up support for the proclamation. Finding himself in a similar position as he speaks on the “Emancipation of the British West Indies,” he explains that although “There are other comparisons and other imperative duties which come sadly to mind … I do not wish to darken the hours of this day by crimination; I turn gladly to the rightful theme, to the bright aspects of the occasion” (Works 11: 135).

  9. See David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984) 268-70; and Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Knopf, 1979) 64-103, 169.

  10. For a summary of the reactions to Emerson's reading see the January 8, 1863, issue of The Liberator and the February 1863 issue of the Douglass Monthly.

  11. For an account of the role and place of the jeremiad sermon form within black rhetoric, see David Howard-Pitney's The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

  12. See Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), and The Puritans Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975); Nathan Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977); and Emory Elliott, Power and the Pulpit in Puritan New England (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).

  13. See A Glimpse of Sion's Glory: Puritan Radicalism in New England, 1620-1660 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984) 215.

  14. On this point, see Gura, A Glimpse of Sion's Glory, especially Part II. Gura is particularly useful in discussing the evolution of this myth during the first two decades of the settlement.

  15. In late summer of 1860, Emerson cites a passage from a letter of Humboldt to Varnhagen von Ense in his journal. The passage is itself already a citation and I cite it here because it serves as a source for the first line that God speaks to the pilgrims: “God getting tired of Kings. Antonio Perez quotes a wise counsellor of Philip II. who said to him, ‘Should God once get tired of monarchies, he will give another form to the political world’” (Journals 14: 356). It is rather unusual for God to be speaking in the form of a jeremiad, but, as this citation makes clear, God is not speaking in his own voice. In fact one of the main questions within the “Hymn” is precisely that of what gets said in the name of God.

  16. On the heterogeneity that characterized the colony's religious life, see Gura, A Glimpse of Sion's Glory; Darrett Rutman, American Puritanism: Faith and Practice (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970) and Winthrop's Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town: 1630-1649 (1965; rpt. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972); and William K. B. Stoever, “A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978). Each of these writers in one way or another challenge Perry Miller's conclusions about the existence of a unified body of thought called “American Puritanism.” As Gura suggests, “A full understanding of seventeenth-century New England Puritanism depends on an acknowledgement that many of those who migrated to America did not share a fixed ideology or commitment to an agreed-upon ecclesiastical program as much as a common spiritual hunger and a disenchantment with the Church of England's refusal to address the nation's spiritual famine” (A Glimpse of Sion's Glory 8).

  17. Although in his speech on the “Emancipation Proclamation” Emerson links the Proclamation to the Declaration of Independence, his omission here is perhaps not without significance. More than once Emerson points to the ambiguities within a declaration that pretends to speak for everyone but in truth only speaks for a limited few. Neither the South's declaration of independence through secession nor the revolutionaries' declaration of independence from British rule made provisions for the independence of the black man.

  18. As Davis explains, “Early expansionists like William Gilmore Simms had hailed black slavery as ‘the medium & great agent for rescuing and recovering to freedom & civilization all the vast tracts of Texas, Mexico, & c.’ See Slavery and Human Progress 271.

  19. The use of the motion of the planets as a metaphor for one's fidelity to the Law was pervasive during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in both England and America and corresponds to the attempt to join the tenets of theology with those emerging from Newtonian and Keplerian physics. As Emerson notes in his sermon on “Astronomy”:

    the science of astronomy has had an irresistible effect in modifying and enlarging the doctrines of theology. … Cheered by these results we come to feel that planet gravitates to planet and star attracts star, each fulfilling the last mile of its orbit as surely in the round of space as the bee which launches forth for the first time from its dark cell into light, and wandering amidst flowers all day, comes back at eve with unerring wing to the hive. It is the same invisible guide that pilots the bee and pilots the planet, that established the whole and perfected the parts, that giveth to all beauty, and order, and life, and usefulness. And thus I say, my friends, that to the human race the discoveries have reconciled the greatness to the greatness of the mind.

    See Young Emerson Speaks: Unpublished Discourses on Many Subjects, ed. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr. (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1968) 173, 176. The planetary metaphor goes back at least to Milton who, in his The Reason of Church Government, in a discussion of the freedom consequent upon reading the Gospels, claims that man may therefore become “as it were an invariable Planet of joy and felicity.” See Works (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931) 186. See also Mitchell Breitweiser, Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin: The Price of Representative Personality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 33-34; and Mason I. Lowance, The Language of Canaan: Metaphor and Symbol in New England from the Puritans to the Transcendentalists (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).

  20. For example, stanzas 13 and 16 come directly from the opening of “American Civilization.” There Emerson writes:

    Use, labor of each for all, is the health and virtue of all beings. Ich dien, I serve, is a truly royal motto. And it is the mark of nobleness to volunteer the lowest service, the greatest spirit only attaining to humility. Nay, God is God because he is the servant of all … now here comes this conspiracy of slavery,—they call it an institution, I call it a destitution … standing on this doleful experience, these people have endeavored to reverse the natural sentiments of mankind, and to pronounce labor disgraceful, and the well-being of a man to consist in eating the fruit of other men's labor. Labor: a man coins himself into his labor; turns his day, his strength, his thought, his affection into some product which remains as the visible sign of his power; and to protect that … is the object of all government.

    (Works 11: 297)

    Stanzas 16-18 are indebted to “Emancipation of the British West Indies” and “American Slavery” (Works 11: 125-26, 145, 469). For stanza 18 see also “American Civilization” (Works 11: 310-11). Stanza 22 is indebted to “The Celebration of the Intellect” (Works 12: 119, 121). Other references are perhaps less direct although one can hear echoes of “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar,” and “Over-Soul” in stanzas 14-15, and 17.

  21. Compare the following passage from Emerson's “Over-Soul”: “When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence” (Works 2: 292).

  22. Cited in McPherson, The Struggle for Equality 65.

  23. The Rejected Stone: or Insurrection vs. Resurrection in America (Boston, 1861) 23-24.

  24. Rejected Stone 110. No doubt the situation was more complex and difficult than Conway wished it to be. As Anne Norton notes:

    When the South seceded, declaring its independence of the Union, those who disputed the legality of the act, Lincoln among them, named their independence mere rebellion. But Lincoln knew, as much as any other man, that there could no longer be mere rebellion in America. The nation's revolutionary origins had granted all such popular upheavals a kinship with creative authority. The Rebellion had at least a family resemblance to the Revolution. … Confederates engaged in the active emulation of that enterprise recognized that this aspect of reenactment brought not merely legitimacy, but grandeur and sanctity to their cause.

    (Alternative Americas: A Reading of Antebellum Political Culture [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986] 240)

    Nevertheless, the necessity of emancipation compelled many abolitionists to overlook their own earlier attacks upon the North's support of slavery. Not wishing to detract from the administration's movements towards emancipation, these freedom fighters, Emerson included, threw their weight in support of the northern cause.

  25. Compare the following from Emerson's essay “The Poet”: “With what joy I begin to read a poem which I confide in as an inspiration! And now my chains are to be broken: I shall mount above these clouds and opaque airs in which I live,—opaque, though they seem transparent,—and from the heaven of truth I shall see and comprehend my relations. … Poets are thus liberating gods” (Works 3: 12, 30).

  26. See especially Sumner, The Landmark of Freedom: Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, against the Repeal of the Missouri Prohibition of Slavery (Boston, 1854).

  27. Speeches, Lectures, and Letters, 2nd Series, ed. Rev. Theodore C. Pease (Boston, 1900) 5.

  28. Compare with the following, even earlier argument in his essay “Politics”: “Whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of his also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him … it is a lie, and hurts like a lie to both him and me” (Works 3: 214).

  29. Emerson expands this argument in a remarkable passage at the end of his speech on “American Slavery.” I quote it in its entirety:

    We shall one day bring the States shoulder to shoulder, and the citizens man to man, to exterminate slavery. It was said a little while ago that it would cost a thousand or twelve hundred millions, now it is said it would cost two thousand millions; such is the enhancement of property. Well, was there ever any contribution that was so enthusiastically paid as this will be? The United States will be brought to give every inch of their public lands for a purpose like this. Every State will contribute its surplus revenue. Every man will bear his part. We will have a chimney tax. We will give up our coaches and wine and watches. The church will melt her plate. The father of his country shall wait, well pleased, a little longer for his monument;—Franklin will wait for his; the Pilgrim Fathers for theirs; and the patient Columbus, who waited all his mortality for justice, shall wait a part of immortality also. … The rich shall give of their riches; the merchants of their commerce; the mechanics of their strength; the needlewomen will give, and children can have a Cent Society. If, really, the thing could come to a negotiation and a price were named, I do not think that any price, founded upon an estimate that figures could fairly represent, would be unmanageable. Every man in this land would give a week's work to dig away this accursed mountain of slavery, and force it forever out of the world.”

    (Works 9: 469)

  30. That these lines may have had particular resonance for the former slaves in Emerson's Music Hall audience can be gathered from a letter of January 1864 from Thomas Westworth Higginson to Emerson. In the letter, Higginson, a leader of a regiment of black troops, tells Emerson that his surgeon, Doctor Rogers, had recently read the “Boston Hymn” to his black soldiers and that “they understood every word of it … I recall vividly the thrill that went through me as he read the grand verse beginning ‘Pay ransom to the owner,’ and thought that these were the owners before us.” Cited in Gougeon, Virtue's Hero 305-6.

  31. See Edward L. Pierce, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner, 4 vols. (Boston, 1877-94) 4: 49.

  32. Liberator, January 17, 1862.

  33. Cited in McPherson, The Struggle for Equality 93.

  34. At the end of “American Civilization” Emerson makes it clear that he supports immediate rather than gradual emancipation. He writes: “If Congress accords with the President, it is not yet too late to begin the emancipation; but we think it will always be too late to make it gradual. All experience agrees that it should be immediate” (Works 11: 310-11).

  35. See Cloud Crystals: A Snowflake Album, Collected and Edited by a Lady (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1864) 53.

  36. Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1961) 1: 59.

  37. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-) 15: 250.

  38. Collected Works 2: 276.

  39. On this point see Gertrude Reif Hughes, Emerson's Demanding Optimism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), especially chapter 4.

  40. This figure also reappears in Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom. See Harrison T. Messerole, ed., Seventeenth Century American Poetry (New York: New York University Press, 1968) 46, 56.

  41. See Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin 210.

  42. See Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (New York: Russell and Russell, 1967) 2: 368; and Edwards, Works (New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1830) 1: 62.

  43. This participation is the subject of Emerson's poem “Voluntaries,” a poem written in celebration of the Massachusetts 54th regiment, one of the first black regiments in the Union army.

  44. See, for example, Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963) 5; Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966) 63-64, 316-17; Slavery and Human Progress 21-22, 42-43, 86-87; The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution: 1770-1823 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975) 539-41; and Winthrop Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968) 18-19, 35-37, 41-42, 54-56.

  45. Slavery and Human Progress 39.

  46. Compare this statement from his speech on the emancipation of the British West Indies: “a man is added to the human family” (Works 11: 140). Emerson suggests the necessity of this inclusion in a journal entry from 1846 and does so within the context of the Cain story. Indicating his awareness of the association between the curse of Cain and the black man, he writes: “Nature loves to cross her stocks. A pure blood, Bramin on Bramin, marrying in & in, soon becomes puny & wears out. Some strong Cain son, some black blood must renew & refresh the paler veins of Seth” (Journals 9: 365).

  47. Early Lectures 1: 64.

  48. On this point, see Norton, Alternative Americas 299.

Further Reading

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Tuttleton, James W. “The Drop Too Much: Emerson's Eccentric Circle.” In The New Criterion 14, No. 9 (1996): 19-27.

A biographical overview of Emerson's social circle, which included Henry David Thoreau, Edward Thompson Taylor, and several other contemporary intellectuals.


Bickman, Martin. “From Emerson to Dewey: The Fate of Freedom in American Education.” In American Literary History 6, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 385-408.

A review of Emerson's contributions as an educational thinker, citing examples of his educational principles in his essays.

Bosco, Ronald A. “The ‘Somewhat Spheral and Infinite’ in Every Man: Emerson's Theory of Biography. In Emersonian Circles: Essays in Honor of Joel Myerson, edited by Wesley T. Mott and Robert E. Burkholder. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997, pp. 67-103.

Outlines Emerson's philosophy of biography in the context of the Plutarchan model.

Burkholder, Robert E. “History's Mad Pranks: Some Recent Emerson Studies.” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 38, No. 3 (1992): 231-63.

A review of ten Emersonian studies, including several reprints of his sermons and philosophical essays.

Coltharp, Duane. “Landscapes of Commodity: Nature as Economy in Emerson's Poems.” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 38, No. 4 (1992): 265-91.

Contends that in contrast to Emerson's prose writing, which presents a serious examination of social, political, and economic issues, his poetry contains great ambiguities and personal ambivalence.

Gougeon, Len and Joel Myerson. Emerson's Antislavery Writings. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 232 p.

Reprints Emerson's essays regarding antislavery, including textual commentary and an essay providing historical background on the antislavery movement.

Meyer Jr., William E. H. “Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.: The Emersonian Test of American Authorship.” In The Mississippi Quarterly 51, No. 3 (Summer 1998): 557-71.

Examines the influence of Emerson's philosophy of American writing on the styles of American writers, including Ernest Hemingway.

Kronick, Joseph G. “Emerson and the Divisions of Criticism.” In Review, ed. James O. Hoge. V. 21 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999): 59-98.

An overview of varying critical responses to Emerson, including a review of several books that examine Emerson's writings in the context of his transcendentalist beliefs.

Levin, Jonathan. “Life in the Transitions: Emerson, William James, Wallace Stevens.” In Arizona Quarterly 48, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 75-97.

A comparative analysis of the dynamic processes that infuse the working of language in the works of Emerson, James, and Stevens.

Morris, Saundra. “The Threshold Poem, Emerson, and ‘The Sphinx.’” In American Literature 69, No. 3 (September 1997): 547-70.

A review of “The Sphinx” as an overture or “threshold poem” to the material that follows it in Emerson's Poems.

Newfield, Christopher. “Controlling the Voice: Emerson's Early Theory of Language.” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 38, No. 1 (1992): 1-29.

An examination of Emerson's theory of language as outlined in his Nature, stressing the relationship between invention and imitation.

Porte, Joel and Saundra Morris, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 280 p.

A collection of critical, biographical, and interpretive essays on Emerson's works, including bibliographical references and indices.

Thomas, Joseph M. “‘The Property of My Own Book’: Emerson's Poems (1847) and the Literary Marketplace.” In New England Quarterly 69, No. 3 (September 1996): 406-25.

An examination of Emerson's handling of his authorial affairs using the 1847 edition of Poems as an example.

Additional coverage of Emerson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1640-1865; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 59, 73, and 223; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 18; and World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present.

David M. Robinson (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Toward a Grammar of Moral Life,” in Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatic and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 181-201.

[In the following excerpt, Robinson provides an assessment of Emerson's later career, noting that the author's personal struggles with authorship should prompt caution in too closely analyzing these texts as true examples of Emerson's ideas and writing.]


“I am of the oldest religion”

(W, 12:16).

The assessment of Emerson's later career is complicated by the gradual decline in creative order that he was able to bring to his work after Society and Solitude. The pattern of revision and rearrangement of journal and lecture material into book form that had begun in the 1830s served him well in many respects, but the final process of selection, organization, and revision was always a burden to him, perhaps because it seemed further removed from the original moment of inspiration and lacked the immediacy of a potential living audience.1 Emerson's personal struggles with authorship were exacerbated in the 1860s by the emotional burdens and material constrictions of the Civil War, and his will and capacity to bring his papers into book form declined precipitously after a fire at his home in 1872.2 The resulting situation, in which James E. Cabot took charge of editing much of the later work, prompts caution in analyzing these texts, but less for their validity as Emerson's ideas than for the authority of their combination and arrangement. “There is nothing here that he did not write, and he gave his full approval to whatever was done in the way of selection and arrangement,” Cabot explained, adding, as I pointed out in Chapter 8, “but I cannot say that he applied his mind very closely to the matter” (W, 8:xiii).

Emerson's failure to push toward book completion should not, however, overshadow his intellectual vigor in the 1860s, and the decline in his creative power during the next decade should not obscure the significance of a number of later pieces. Several later texts authoritatively express Emerson's continuing orientation toward the ethical expression of spirituality and extend the pragmatic direction of his work in the 1850s. Emerson's exploration of the interplay of spiritual enlightenment with ethical action continued in Natural History of Intellect, “Poetry and Imagination,” and “Character.” These works chart the resurgence of Emerson's long-held faith in the moral sentiment, which the political experience of the 1850s and 1860s had confirmed and revivified. Emerson composed by accretion, and the roots of his later texts are usually deep in his journals and lectures. But the later texts indicate clearly that moral philosophy permeated all aspects of his thought. Although Emerson could arguably be labeled a moral philosopher throughout his career, that is emphatically true of his final productive decades.

We have noted how the tour of England in 1847-8 had a significant impact on Emerson's shift, the most tangible result of which was English Traits. But England jolted Emerson in another way, by rekindling an attraction to science that had long been part of his intellectual outlook. With fresh exposure to current work in empirical science, Emerson undertook the ambitious project of translating the paradigm of the scientific study of nature into an inquiry into the processes of mind and spirit. Natural History of Intellect was the title Emerson gave to this essentially uncompleted project, a compilation of loosely related speculations that in their present form exemplify what Nancy Craig Simmons has termed the “synthetic” texts Cabot had a hand in arranging.3 But despite its long and tangled history, the work still suggests the original intellectual stimulus that was first embodied in lectures presented in England in 1848. Struck anew by the power of English science, Emerson hoped that the same observation, classification, and generalization that had made “natural history” a revolutionary intellectual discipline might be harnessed in the profounder work of the inner life.4

This compelling philosophical project has been largely overlooked in Emerson studies, its state of incompletion contributing to the general assessment of failure and waning intellectual force in his later work. But Natural History of Intellect is significant as a point of reference for Emerson's attempt to correlate knowledge with ethical action. The term natural history, when applied to the mind, implied that the same laws of genesis and development that controlled organic nature also operated on mental processes. If mind and nature operated by the same laws and could be understood with the same rigor, Emerson felt that these laws could be put to work to derive an ordered economy of mental power. But it was the hope, not the finally unpersuasive demonstration, that was intellectually fertile. In a formative journal entry for the project, written shortly before he departed for England in 1847, he noted that “the highest value of natural history & mainly of these new & secular results like the inferences from geology, & the discovery of parallax, & the resolution of Nebulae, is its translation into an universal cipher applicable to Man viewed as Intellect also” (JMN, 10:136). The mind and nature were different manifestations of a seamless whole, and nature stood as the “cipher” of that reality, the means by which the mind could pursue a knowledge that ultimately coincided with self-determination.

The promise of science had a formative influence on Emerson's early career, but he increasingly felt that a more rigorous attempt might be made to specify the correlations that existed between the physical world and the mind. In entertaining the idea of applying a scientific model to the mind, Emerson implied that the success of pure observation, the mark of scientific advancement, might also characterize self-reflexive knowledge. The scientist observes and compiles facts, and from these observations, classifications and laws emerge. Emerson was confident that similar results would obtain if the mind were closely observed, and when he heard lectures by Richard Owen and Michael Faraday in England, and attended meetings of the Geological Society of London, that conviction was renewed. Science became again, at least for a time, his paradigm for philosophical speculation.5 Emerson measured himself, with a sense of vulnerability, against the scientific example that he saw: “One could not help admiring the irresponsible security and happiness of the attitude of the naturalist; sure of admiration for his facts, sure of their sufficiency” (W, 12:3). To be “sure”—this was a quality that appealed to the Emerson of the late 1840s, when certainty had become a scarce commodity.

Natural history seemed to offer this promise of stable knowledge at a crucial moment, when Emerson had been battling with skepticism about the capacity of the self to make an impact on the world through willed choice. The subject of nature, and the example of the naturalist, offered an alternative to the introspection inevitable to the philosophy of self-culture, while also suggesting that certainties, even in the inner life, might be approached. It was a welcome and provocative stimulus to the Emerson who had risked so much of himself in the introspective probings of “Experience.” It is therefore significant to find, in the aftermath of “Experience,” an important credo: “I believe in the existence of the material world as the expression of the spiritual or the real, and in the impenetrable mystery which hides (and hides through absolute transparency) the mental nature, I await the insight which our advancing knowledge of material laws shall furnish” (W, 12:5). But it is a credo that admits “impenetrable mystery” and thus suggests the bounds of its own capacity to know fully.

Emerson's reaction to the claims of science to certainty was the basis of that credo. He wondered whether “a similar enumeration” might not “be made of the laws and powers of the Intellect.” Would these not “possess the same claims on the student”? Enthralled by the power of facts, he was driven to search for them in the more problematic realm of the intellect: “Could we have, that is, the exhaustive accuracy of distribution which chemists use in their nomenclature and anatomists in their descriptions, applied to a higher class of facts; to those laws, namely, which are common to chemistry, anatomy, astronomy, geometry, intellect, morals and social life;—laws of the world?” (W, 12:3-4). Emerson's list is carefully structured to move from the more concrete and factual objects of study to the more abstract and subjective ones. Anatomy yields to astronomy, also a physical science, but of greater compass, which in turn yields to geometry, a discipline with a different, though no less compelling, aura of certainty. But the move from the physical solidity of astronomy to the abstract mathematical truths of geometry prepares him for the greater leap from geometry to intellect; his progressions into morals and social life are deeper forays into the regions in which speculation must replace empiricism. It is here, of course, that we find the seeds of his project's failure—but also its enormous challenge and appeal. His assumption, finally, was that the “certainty” of empirical observation was one manifestation of a system of symbolic resonances that constituted our perception of the world. The scientist's capacity to move from fact to law was the evidence that the spiritual world showed itself in the material.

That such correlations between the material and the spiritual existed, Emerson had never doubted. His immersion in scientific reading in the early 1830s, leavened by his background in natural theology, Platonism, and his new reading of the Swedenborgian Sampson Reed, had helped him to develop a theory of corresponding levels of reality, in which the phenomena of the physical world were reflections of a deeper series of spiritual laws.6 Nature thus became the means for the education of the mind, and the key intellectual task was to perceive and express the analogy between physical and spiritual phenomena. Such perception, and its correlative expression, were problematic, standing at the crossroads between ecstatic intuition, symbolic perception, metaphysical speculation, and exact scientific observation. But the conviction that in certain moments a glimpse of unified being might be available, a perception that would prove the connection between the physical and the spiritual, was the motivating promise of much of his intellectual career.

The revelation of the spirit through the processes of nature served Emerson best as a working hypothesis, or a basis from which to reason by analogy. Its fragility as a philosophical concept is suggested by the eventual failure of Natural History of Intellect, which he himself also seemed to feel. The most persuasive part of the project is the statement of the method and assumptions, not the effort to work them out. Emerson's premise that laws and operations of the mind could be mastered in the way that the forms of nature had been was far from a dry statement of procedural assumptions; it was the evidence of a hope in the mind's growing comprehension of being. Ironically, as Emerson's conviction of the possibility of specifying the identity of nature and the mind grew, building a momentum for a more thorough analysis, the suggestive potential of the doctrine decreased. Reality, he thought at times, could be conceived as a continuum between mind and matter, or perhaps a series of ascending planes of significance, or a material surface under which depths of spiritual truths were to be found. All of these poetic images served well as a framework for speculation, even though they could not sustain the weight of minute and detailed analysis.

An important moment in the initial development of his project was recorded in a journal entry of 1848 (JMN, 10:316-17), written under the influence of a recent visit to the British Museum. The renewed exposure to science had reinforced Emerson's sense of the monistic unity of matter and mind, and he expressed that insight in terms of a unifying power. “One power streams into all natures,” he noted, pursuing the implications of that law into an analysis of mind. “Mind is vegetable, & grows thought out of thought as joint out of joint in corn.” This was the first of several analogies in which mental processes were considered in terms of the natural world. “Mind is chemical, & shows all the affinities & repulsions of chemistry, & works by presence.” The analogy of chemistry is followed by the notations “Mind grows, crystallizes, electricity,” as Emerson stretches to capture the suggestions of the mind's conformity to natural law. This insight might be regarded as the starting point for his speculation on natural history, but it marks its end point as well. Even though it illumined the dark connection between spirit and matter, it was a flash of insight hard to sustain. The entry continues in an abbreviated but fascinating recapitulation of Emerson's entire structure of metaphysical belief:

This all comes of a higher fact, one substance
          Mind knows the way because it has trode it before
          Knowledge is becoming of that thing
          Somewhere sometime some eternity we have played this game
          Go thro' British Museum & we are full of occult sympathies
          I was azote

The curious sense of completion contained in the bare bones of this sketch suggests the problem of the entire project—the prosaic analysis and descriptions of exactly how the mind is “vegetable” or “chemical” constitute a significant reduction of intellectual intensity from the initial recognition of the similarity. These poetic assertions have greater impact when they remain suggestive, free of heavy explanatory comment.

The last statement is a three-word summation of what Emerson defined a decade later (1857) as the laws of his “philosophy”: “1. Identity, whence comes the fact that metaphysical faculties & facts are the transcendency of physical. 2. Flowing, or transition, or shooting the gulf, the perpetual striving to ascend to a higher platform, the same thing in new & higher forms” (JMN, 14:191-2). The identity of the human self with so distant a form as the mineral is the telling exemplification of the law of identity.7 The capacity to sense that identity is itself the evidence of the series of similarly patterned levels of reality that for Emerson was the form of the universe. “Mind knows the way because it has trode it before.”

But to read Natural History of Intellect is a frustrating experience. It is permeated with the Neoplatonism that marks the preceding journal entry, but also claims a skepticism of all metaphysics: “I confess to a little distrust of that completeness of system which metaphysicians are apt to affect. 'Tis the gnat grasping the world. All these exhaustive theories appear indeed a false and vain attempt to introvert and analyze the Primal Thought” (W, 12:12). One of the attractions the scientific method held for Emerson was its seeming release from rational systematization. Its inductiveness suggested a certain pragmatic humility and reemphasized close observation as a key to the truth. “We have invincible repugnance to introversion, to study of the eyes instead of that which the eyes see,” he wrote, seeing in rational and deductive metaphysical systems a damaging solipsism. For Emerson, “the natural direction of the intellectual powers is from within outward” (W, 12:12). Natural History of Intellect shares with Nature the belief that natural objects serve as a symbol or cipher of a larger reality, but this devaluation of the introspective and the deductively rational sets quite a different tone. Nature had devolved ultimately to the moral and pragmatic injunction “Build, therefore, your own world” (CW, 1:45). Similarly, Natural History of Intellect is finally less a treatise of philosophical speculation or scientific observation than a search for usable truth for the conduct of life. “My metaphysics are to the end of use,” Emerson declared. “I wish to know the laws of this wonderful power [mind], that I may domesticate it.” The object of observing the mind, as one would observe the facts of the natural world, is “to learn to live with it wisely, court its aid, catch sight of its splendor, feel its approach, hear and save its oracles and obey them.” And just as he had given the final and authoritative words of Nature to his figure of the “Orphic Poet,” he admits in Natural History of Intellect that philosophy “will one day be taught by poets”—the poet “is believing; the philosopher, after some struggle, having only reasons for believing” (W, 12:13-14).

Emerson's plan of observing the intellect thus subtly becomes a plea for the moral advantages of its cultivation and an argument for the greater social valuation of intellectual pursuits. Moreover, he aspires not only to describe the mind, but to offer a practical guidebook for intellectual development. His remark on “instinct,” which he has described as the groundwork of the intellect, typifies the nature of his pragmatic orientation toward epistemology. “To make a practical use of this instinct in every part of life constitutes true wisdom, and we must form the habit of preferring in all cases this guidance, which is given as it is used” (W, 12:67). The applications of this attitude amount to no more, really, than the development of a habit for the instinctual and a faith that acting out of it will increase its availability. Emerson has instinct enough to know that the further specification of the means of intellectual cultivation would be reductive, narrowing the appeal to openness that he is trying to broaden. This limitation offers one example of the irony of Natural History of Intellect. Despite its rhetoric of scientific specificity and close observation of the factual, the work's greatest accomplishment is its demonstration of the impenetrable mystery of the intellect.

We might borrow the very terms that Emerson uses to describe the basis of the intellect to indicate how the work thus undercuts itself. For Emerson, all intellectual power is a reduction to instinct, the individual's access to the fundamental power of being. Contact with that source of power requires a constant discarding of impediments, a perpetual turning back to an unobstructed rediscovery of one's primary orientation. Similarly, the reader of Natural History of Intellect finds that Emerson's rational accounts of the working of the mind are less impressive than his images of its mystery. Emerson's desire to describe the intellect in the terms he has set forth is thus undermined by the operation of the very power he has described, instinct, when the reader directs it to the text. I have in mind in particular Emerson's strangely compelling presentation of the metaphor of the stream of consciousness: “In my thought I seem to stand on the bank of a river and watch the endless flow of the stream, floating objects of all shapes, colors and natures; nor can I much detain them as they pass, except by running beside them a little way along the bank. But whence they come or whither they go is not told me” (W, 12:16). This image of the self helplessly witnessing the processes of the mind overpowers most of the talk about the precise observation and practical use of intellect. Emerson's adept dramatization of the desperation involved in running for a closer look drains the text of its assurance of power. Where is the surety that he has envied in the scientist? In the face of such absolute mystery, talk of certainty seems out of place. This eruption of vulnerability clouds the whole enterprise of tracing the mind's “natural history,” but it stands as one of the valuable lessons of this divided and revealing work. Emerson stressed instinct as the primary power of intellect because he saw it as the entry to “that unknown country in which all the rivers of our knowledge have their fountains, and which, by its qualities and structure, determines both the nature of the waters and the direction in which they flow” (W, 12:33). The metaphor of the stream is extended to include the mysterious source of the waters, emphasizing that the value of instinct is its contiguity with this fundamental mystery.

Emerson's motivating paradigm of scientific observation is thus inadequate to the elucidation of the mind, but he is left with other means of binding his observations together, loci of value rather than observations or categories. Primary among them is a faith in the essential identity of reality, the assumption that has underlain his entire project. “There is in Nature a parallel unity which corresponds to the unity in the mind and makes it available.” That this unity has a mysterious source does not weaken Emerson's conviction that “without identity at base, chaos must be forever” (W, 12:19-20). This faith in a final order compensates for the vulnerability of our limited knowledge, and is closely related to a valuation of “impressionability,” the constant openness to perception, as an ethical quality. This is the same value that he expounded in “Success,” when he turned the definition of successful living to a renewed attention to the quality of open sensitivity. In Natural History of Intellect he bolsters that idea with reference to our sense of our place in the larger cosmic order. “The universe is traversed by paths or bridges or stepping-stones across the gulfs of space in every direction. To every soul that is created is its path, invisible to all but itself” (W, 12:42). The responsibility of the intellect is to maintain those paths and thus retain a vital connection with the order of things, which is, after all, a part of ourselves, as we are a part of that order. “The conduct of Intellect must respect nothing so much as preserving the sensibility,” alive to the nuances that confirm the complexity and richness of reality. Everything of which we remain sensible, after all, helps us to discover or reconfirm another part of ourselves, so that self-knowledge and open impressionability become one and the same. “That mind is best,” Emerson declared, “which is most impressionable” (W, 12:43).

Daily life must be imbued with this kind of heightened sensibility, which can show itself as the capacity to value the ordinary as a revelation. “There are times when the cawing of a crow, a weed, a snow-flake, a boy's willow whistle, or a farmer planting in his field is more suggestive to the mind than the Yosemite gorge or the Vatican would be in another hour” (W, 12:43). This catalog of the homely and rural elevates the quality of the day and the hour to a quest for divinity in the ordinary conduct of life, but made extraordinary through a consecrated openness of the senses and the mind. Such “suggestive” moments become occasions in which the assumption of faith in a holistic order is reconfirmed through symbolic seeing.

The valuation of “impressionability” entails a similar emphasis on “transition,” an energetic capacity to change and adapt. Although impressionability is a word with passive connotations, it has a latent orientation toward the seizure of the world in perception. “Transition is the attitude of power,” Emerson asserted, thus emphasizing the necessity of an impressionability turned active. This is the mood of “Circles,” and it emerges fresh in Emerson's later analysis of the mind's response to uncertainty and illusion. “The universe exists only in transit, or we behold it shooting the gulf from the past to the future” (W, 12:59). Richard Poirier's persuasive meditation on the Emersonian attitude of “transition” has suggested the fundamental importance of Emerson's distrust of stasis in any form and its continuing value as an example.8 It is telling that Emerson sounded this note well beyond “Circles.” Embedded in Natural History of Intellect, the thrust of which was to reduce the operations of mind to factual laws, we find this energetic declaration: “A fact is only a fulcrum of the spirit. It is the terminus of a past thought, but only a means now to new sallies of the imagination and new progress of wisdom” (W, 12:59). Facts, as tools, are only the means by which we work.

The method of science never functions in Natural History of Intellect as a true methodology, but only as a scaffolding, discarded when Emerson's meditation on intellect becomes self-supporting. It metaphorically suggests the fundamental connection between nature and the mind, but as metaphor rather than as method, it is enabling, returning him by a different route to his old faith in energy. Since it is the leap itself that Emerson values, he honors whatever brings him to the edge. In Nature, the energy for movement was derived from the mystical charge best described in the transparent eyeball passage. In Natural History of Intellect the mysticism has largely evaporated, leaving the complex promise of natural history, and the desire to employ a corresponding economy of mind and spirit, as the remaining source of power.


“For the value of a trope is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes”

(W, 8:15).

Despite its empiricist rhetoric, Natural History of Intellect was at bottom a poetic project, a consideration of the relation of power to the creation and recognition of symbolic forms. It aimed to achieve a deeper symbolic knowing, an apprehension of the correspondence and ultimate unity of the physical and the mental. This aim was a restatement through the metaphor of science of the centrality of poetic knowledge. This recurring emphasis on symbolic perception in Emerson's later work is important, for as he replaced the wilder voice of his earlier work with a more tempered and pragmatic one, he reduced the potential of his work for emotional nurture. His pragmatic emphasis, as we have seen, was in part an attempt to compensate for the scarcity and unreliability of the ecstatic moment, and he continued to explore ways of reaffirming truths that he had earlier asserted by vision. The claim of symbolic knowledge, and of poetry in particular, thus remained a crucially stable element in Emerson's transition from mystic visionary to pragmatic moralist.

Among Emerson's most significant explorations of the nature of symbolic knowledge and its connection to moral action is “Poetry and Imagination,” an essay whose significance has been recently noted by both Barbara Packer and Ronald A. Bosco. Like Natural History of Intellect, the essay has its roots in the late 1840s and developed over the next two decades in Emerson's lecturing.9 The epistemological concern fundamental to Natural History of Intellect also drives “Poetry and Imagination,” which begins its exploration of the symbolic consciousness with an acknowledgment that “the perception of matter is made the common sense, and for cause.” As in Nature, the perception of matter is shown to be only the first stage of perception, but crucial in the development of the individual's capacity to establish a relation with the order of things. “We must learn the homely laws of fire and water; we must feed, wash, plant, build. These are ends of necessity, and first in the order of Nature. Poverty, frost, famine, disease, debt, are the beadles and guardsmen that hold us to common sense. The intellect, yielded up to itself, cannot supersede this tyrannic necessity” (W, 8:3). We might compare this passage with the discussion of the use of nature as “Commodity” in Nature to understand the rather significant change of focus in Emerson's later work. Nature had stressed the successful use of the world to solve human material needs; “Poetry and Imagination” describes, with less confidence and considerably more gravity, the “tyrannic” and threatening qualities of material necessity that the “common sense” reinforces.

Although this depiction of the tragic limitations of human experience is consonant with the more somber strains of “Experience” and “Fate,” it has a larger purpose in Emerson's description of the working of the symbolic imagination. The common sense, as he calls it, is the first and most elemental reminder that intellectual power is a power of synthesis. The mind has no power outside the range of possible convergences that nature represents. One manifestation of romanticism, represented in its extremest form by Poe, posited the power of intellect as arrayed against the material world, and the poet as one who struggles against the restraints that materiality and empiricism represent.10 Emerson's opening acknowledgment of the material “ends of necessity” is a recognition not only that rebellion against nature is finally impossible but that it is undesirable as well, for the nature of its impossibility is self-destruction. Common sense respects “the existence of matter, not because we can touch it or conceive of it, but because it agrees with ourselves, and the universe does not jest with us, but is in earnest, is the house of health and life” (W, 8:3). Materiality is thus the most fundamental expression of the governing laws that establish our identity, and the limitations represented by these laws are in this sense forms of self-expression.

Emerson's project in “Poetry and Imagination” is to develop this insight about material knowing into a recognition that symbolic knowing is also a form of self-knowledge. The limits imposed by materiality are, as Emerson reads them, the signs of a fundamental cosmic unity, and the apprehension of this unity is the work of poetry. The imagination is not, however, simply an echo of the life of the senses or of empirical knowledge. Emerson stresses “the independent action of the mind” with its “strange suggestions and laws,” and describes a quality of thought that resonates with his opening discussion of matter: “a certain tyranny which springs up in his own thoughts, which have an order, method and beliefs of their own, very different from the order which this common sense uses” (W, 8:6). Emerson's recurrence to the term tyranny to describe the workings of the mind implies that its laws are as ironclad as those of matter, and his reference to the “order, method and beliefs” of the mind suggests a uniform structure of mental activity that was the fundamental assumption of Natural History of Intellect.

But Emerson develops his theory of mind less in terms of its static structural elements than in terms of process and metamorphosis, arguing that the tyranny of mind is its persistent movement toward unity. Commenting on the tendency of science to rise to ever higher and more inclusive general classifications, he concludes that “all multiplicity rushes to be resolved into unity” (W, 8:7). It is this perceptual “rush” that Emerson finds at the basis of symbolic perception, a process in which the mind discerns the metamorphosis of a physical form into part of a larger pattern or order, the form serving as the entry into that order. Poetic knowledge is thus the pursuit of the larger contextual pattern that will make sense of an individual object by demonstrating its relation to the whole. Emerson takes reading itself as a metaphor for perception, a striking moment in which the reader is asked to perceive metaphorically the process of metaphor: “Natural objects, if individually described and out of connection, are not yet known, since they are really parts of a symmetrical universe, like words of a sentence; and if their true order is found, the poet can read their divine significance orderly as in a Bible.” The relation between the establishment of a scientific order and the workings of language confirms the assumption that “identity of law, perfect order in physics, perfect parallelism between the laws of Nature and the laws of thought exist,” or more simply that “there is one animal, one plant, one matter and one force” (W, 8:8-9).

This pervasive unity suggests the limits of the empirical method of science, which attempts to isolate a phenomenon rather than find its larger context and is therefore “false by being unpoetical” (W, 8:10). Poetic knowing, which is fundamentally a recognition that perception is connection, strives not to isolate objects from each other or the object of perception from the perceiving subject. Emerson's recognition of the self-referential element of symbolic perception makes the perceiver of a symbol also a symbol, an argument that is crucial to his eventual reading of poetic perception as a form of the moral imagination. “For the value of a trope is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes” (W, 8:15). In the resonant ambiguity of Emerson's phrase, “the hearer” is “one,” a trope, that is, in the sense of being similar to what he or she perceives. But the hearer is also “one” in the sense of having achieved oneness with the object of perception, and with the unity that is the fundamental quality of the cosmos. Symbolic perception is a means of transcending the self through participating momentarily in the rush of energy that defines both the natural order and the pattern of the mind. “The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these forms.” It is significant that Emerson again uses reading to represent this participation in the widening of a consciousness of our larger context, expanding it into an image of the cosmos as a vast language. The “productions and changes of Nature” come to be viewed by the poet “as the nouns of language” (W, 8:15). Used “representatively” they provide interpretive access to the same grammar that provides and defines the poet's identity as well.

There is pleasure as well as knowledge in reading this text of nature. Emerson's testimony to that pleasure is striking, particularly in light of the waning of his dependence on mystical ecstasy that we have traced. “Every new object so seen”—seen, that is, as part of the vocabulary of natural unity—“gives a shock of agreeable surprise” (W, 8:15). Emerson's description of the experience of recognizing that the identity of one thing slides perennially into the identity of another, in an ever-enlarging whole, is permeated with a sense of bodily excitement and emotional intensity that is, many readers might be tempted to say, positively un-Emersonian. If he has found the ecstasy of mystical rapture fleeting and precarious, his closest emotional substitute has become the Bacchanalian quality of the peak moment of poetic insight, the perception of the collapse of individual identity into a newer form: “The act of imagination is ever attended by pure delight. It infuses a certain volatility and intoxication into all Nature. It has a flute which sets the atoms of our frame in a dance. Our indeterminate size is a delicious secret which it reveals to us. The mountains begin to dislimn, and float in the air” (W, 8:18). This dizzying rapture that seems to threaten the solidity of the material world is a result of experiencing the flow of energy that confirms the unity of nature, a flow Emerson had identified earlier as the principal law or quality of the mind.

Emerson denotes the experiential apprehension of this law as imagination, and his description of the phenomenon of imaginative perception stresses the sense in which it is a form of knowing in which mind and object are both encompassed in a comprehensive energy: “The imagination exists by sharing the ethereal currents.” Such a phenomenon is essentially one of process rather than stasis; knowing is an event, one that defines the knower as it reveals the world. The “central identity” moves “with divine flowings, through remotest things.” This is also the movement of the mind in symbolic perception. The poet “can detect essential resemblances in natures … because he is sensible of the sweep of the celestial stream, from which nothing is exempt.” As Emerson emphasizes, that inclusiveness extends to the poet or perceiver, whose act of perception is a surrender to the “celestial stream” of identity. “His own body is a fleeting apparition,—his personality as fugitive as the trope he employs” (W, 8:21).

Yet as ethereal as this description of symbolic perception seems—“In certain hours we can almost pass our hand through our own body” (W, 8:21)—it is, like the pursuit of scientific perception in Natural History of Intellect, ultimately linked to a moral imperative. The capacity of the self to blend into a larger flow of cosmic identity is at bottom a moral quality for Emerson, indicating the larger possibilities of the self and the grounding of moral decisions in self-transcendence. In moving from the description of the symbolic perception essential to poetry to a consideration of the effects of poetry in a larger social framework, Emerson argues that the value of poetry lies in its capacity to address human possibility: “All writings must be in a degree exoteric, written to a human should or would, instead of to the fatal is: this holds even of the bravest and sincerest writers” (W, 8:30-1). The poet's address to human potential is grounded in the recognition that the human mind is linked to vastly larger powers, a revelation that the moment of symbolic insight has provided. The ethereal sense of the self's evaporation into a larger stream of natural energy thus gives way to the recognition that larger power is always the power to do and that poetry is finally a pragmatic discipline. “To the poet the world is virgin soil; all is practicable; the men are ready for virtue; it is always time to do right.” Poetry is the expression of the reality and immediacy of moral choice, for the poet “affirms the applicability of the ideal law to this moment and the present knot of affairs” (W, 8:31).

Poetry is vision, but as Emerson describes it here, it is completed only in the grounding of that vision in practical power. “None of your parlor or piano verse, none of your carpet poets, who are content to amuse, will satisfy us. Power, new power, is the good which the soul seeks” (W, 8:63). Emerson associates that power with the concept of “metamorphosis,” another term, like “transition,” that captured his sense of reality as process. Such terms became increasingly crucial in his later philosophical vocabulary. Metamorphic energy comes to represent the condition of human possibility. “The nature of things is flowing, a metamorphosis. The free spirit sympathizes not only with the actual form, but with the power or possible forms.” Although he admits the conservative tendency to “rest on to-day's forms,” he sees that inertia as a contributing element to the rush of energy that accompanies the renewed recognition of change. “Hence the shudder of joy with which in each clear moment we recognize the metamorphosis, because it is always a conquest, a surprise from the heart of things” (W, 8:71). The term conquest suggests initially the poet's triumphant perception, but its more lasting implication is that in the act of perception the individual is conquered, overtaken by power that had been heretofore unknown.

That sense of surprised surrender is finally the product of the nature of perception as a series of enlarging generalizations in which the mind is carried from the particular to an inclusive whole. “Power of generalizing differences men,” Emerson argues, equating the capacity “of not pausing but going on” with “the Divine effort in a man” (W, 8:72). He discusses this as a form of aesthetic energy, in which the poet is elevated by a larger capacity for generalization, but this aesthetic energy is a form of the moral energy that is required in the transcendence of the limited desires and perspectives of the self into a larger will for the benefit of the whole. “Poetry and Imagination” reminds us how closely Emerson had interwoven his aesthetic concerns with his moral perspective, and of the increasingly important role his aesthetics of symbolic perception played in the growing predominance of the ethical in his later outlook.


“The progress of religion is steadily to its identity with morals”

(JMN, 16:209).

As noted earlier, Emerson had turned to the concept of character in Essays: Second Series (1844) to express the increasingly social and moral grounding of his spirituality. The renewed emphasis on moral theory that resulted from his pragmatic turn permeates most of his work from the middle 1840s on and is encapsulated in a second essay on character, published in the North American Review in 1866.11 Relegated to deep obscurity in the general neglect of his later work, “Character” is nevertheless a significant text for assessing Emerson's transformation of the doctrine of self-culture under the pressures of fleeting mysticism and rising ethical responsibility. The essay reflects Emerson's renewed emphasis on ethical action, and its tone of earnest determination reflects his response to the nation's moral and political crisis. The essay makes it clear that purpose and commitment are central values, and the threats of introspective paralysis and constitutional restriction enunciated in “Experience” and “Fate” seem to have lost some of their urgency. Although the essay is not explicitly political, its edge of hard-won confidence in moral fortitude reflects an attempt to find and maintain moral bearings in the aftermath of the antislavery struggle and the Civil War. The “steadfastness” that Emerson praises as essential to the moral character (W, 10:102) has not been abstractly deduced but has proved itself as both a personal and national resource in difficult times.

“Character” is most significant for the force with which it restates Emerson's doctrine of the moral sentiment, the foundation of his earliest thinking and the most important point of continuity in his thinking from first to last. He had identified it in a sermon of 1827 as “the main, central, prominent power of the soul” (CS, 1:116), and it had remained a crucial point of reference, the various depictions of his vision of self-development always circling back to this fundamental quality of the self. His explication of the concept of character as a version of the moral sentiment marks no new philosophical departure, but it is a good example of Emerson's later emphatic dependence on the ethical as the subsuming spiritual category. Called in 1867 to address an organizational meeting of the religious radicals who were forming the Free Religious Association, he made clear his conviction that religion was less a matter of speculation than action: “Pure doctrine always bears fruit in pure benefits. It is only by good works, it is only on the basis of active duty, that worship finds expression” (W, 11:480). He had come to feel that “the progress of religion is steadily to its identity with morals” (JMN, 16:209), and the moral category had become the means of testing and confirming both religious experience and perceptual validity.

Even though “Character,” with its exposition of the moral sense, marks no major philosophical departure, it does suggest how the national crisis had confirmed Emerson's faith. The antislavery movement and the Civil War were crusades that had tested and might restore the moral fiber of American culture. Emerson's evocation of qualities such as steadfastness, stability, and determination represents an important tonal shift from the aggressive defiance of earlier texts like the “Divinity School Address” and “Self-Reliance.” Emerson describes character as the representation of the moral sense in the cumulative action of the individual, “the habit of action from the permanent vision of truth” (W, 10:120). It is the product of two potentially contradictory factors, namely, the exercise of the will and the orientation of the self toward a universal rather than a personal good. The construction of character is a result of perpetual work in both these directions, in each of which it is vulnerable to a different form of skepticism: a surrender to fate or a narrowing pursuit of selfish ends. The battle against these forms of skepticism, the obstacles to the achievement of character, constitutes the narrative of Emerson's later work.

Emerson locates the work of character building in the perpetual necessity of choice, the condition of life that gives to every moment a moral quality. The fatalism that loomed as such a pressing issue in “Experience” and “Fate” has been displaced in “Character” by an unequivocal affirmation of the freedom of human moral expression: “Morals implies freedom and will. The will constitutes the man.” Emerson argues that the distinction of humanity among the species lies in this capacity for choice: “Choice is born in him; here is he that chooses” (W, 10:91-2). The cumulative lesson of the 1850s and 1860s, decades saturated with political challenge and struggle, has been to reaffirm the centrality of will. “For the world is a battle-ground; every principle is a war-note, and the most quiet and protected life is at any moment exposed to incidents which test your firmness” (W, 10:87), he wrote in “Perpetual Forces,” another late essay with close affinities to “Character.” “Character” reflects that shift in moral vision with its emphasis on will, choice, and action as the fundamental expressions of the moral sentiment.

Emerson is careful, however, to specify that “will, pure and perceiving, is not wilfulness” (W, 10:92), a distinction that allows the power of choice to be insulated from narrowly individualistic ends: “Morals is the direction of the will on universal ends. He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral,—we say it with Marcus Aurelius and with Kant,—whose aim or motive may become a universal rule, binding on all intelligent beings.” The consideration of universal ends thus lies at the foundation of all human virtues, which are “special directions of this motive” (W, 10:92). The cooperative enterprise that the antislavery movement and the Civil War represented had demonstrated how the individual will might be conjoined into a larger social movement with an end that went beyond the individual. That possibility had not been excluded from his moral reasoning in the 1830s, of course, but his problem then had been a different one—to separate the individual from a suffocating social identity, whose moral ends were questionable.

In “Character,” Emerson points to unrestrained individualism as the fundamental moral challenge. A deeper problem for the moral life than fatalism is the fundamental antagonism between “the wishes and interests of the individual” who “craves a private benefit,” and the pursuit of an “absolute good.” The individual's cultivation of the capacity to renounce private interest in deference to a larger good is “the moral discipline of life” (W, 10:94). Despite the renunciatory and ascetic nature of this principle, the essay communicates a celebratory quality, according with the energetic rush of fulfillment associated with symbolic perception in “Poetry and Imagination.” The moral sentiment “puts us in place. It centres, it concentrates us. It puts us at the heart of Nature, where we belong, in the cabinet of science and of causes, there where all the wires terminate which hold the world in magnetic unity, and so converts us into universal beings” (W, 10:95). The imagery of circuitry suggests both the instantaneous unity and mysterious power of the moral sense, but we should not overlook Emerson's use of a term drawn from an entirely different world of discourse, the suggestion of conversion. He is cognizant of a resistance to a religion of morals alone, arising from the “fear that pure truth, pure morals, will not make a religion for the affections” (W, 10:119). All the emotional dynamics concentrated in the Protestant concept of conversion are therefore lent to the action of the moral sentiment. Although Emerson notes that “Truth, Power, Goodness, Beauty, are its varied names,” he also ties the moral sense to more specific and historically resonant religious terminology: “the light, the seed, the Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, the Dæmon, the still, small voice” (W, 10:95-7). The burden of this assertion is not only to establish the universality of the moral sense but to imbue it with the emotional and spiritual coloration that will save it from being perceived as mere legalism.

From this perspective, religious forms represent the mythical expression of an enduring moral energy. “The religions we call false were once true. They also were affirmations of the conscience correcting the evil customs of their times.” Although the comment seems at first to affirm religious forms and institutions, its deeper strategy is to undermine a belief in the stability of any particular historical manifestation of religion, including, of course, Protestant Christianity as most of Emerson's readers would have known it. “The populace drag down the gods to their own level, and give them their egotism; whilst in Nature is none at all, God keeping out of sight, and known only as pure law, though resistless” (W, 10:103-4). Emerson thus offers an assurance of religious development based on the capacity of the moral sentiment to evoke perpetually a critique of the religious forms in which it is periodically embodied. “Men will learn to put back the emphasis peremptorily on pure morals, always the same, not subject to doubtful interpretation, with no sale of indulgences, no massacre of heretics, no female slaves, no disfranchisement of woman, no stigma on race; to make morals the absolute test, and so to uncover and drive out the false religions” (W, 10:114). The progression of religious abuses is notable, for it equates the modern movements for feminism and racial equality with the struggle against the most egregious historical examples of religious bigotry. The immediate relevance of the working of this law is clear: “It is only yesterday that our American churches, so long silent on Slavery, and notoriously hostile to the Abolitionist, wheeled into line for Emancipation” (W, 10:114). These reform movements have thus become the gauges of the workings of the moral sentiment.

This analysis of the course of American religion articulates Emerson's larger concern about the social context within which the development of character must occur, and it suggests his concern about the moral condition of the new American culture that was emerging from the war. Emerson's sense that a new and less institutionalized form of religion was emerging was much in accord with the spirit of the Free Religious Association, which hoped to foster a “radical” religion based on noncreedal theological speculation and a decentered, individualized worship through ethical commitment and moral work.12 Emerson recognized that during the 1840-60 period, American culture's moral impetus had passed from the churches to the reform movements. “The churches are obsolete,” he wrote in 1859, because “the reforms do not proceed from the churches” (JMN, 14:236). The sign of that cultural shift was confirmed for him in the growing schism between the church and the intellectuals. “Every intellectual man is out of the old Church,” he noted in 1867. “All the young men of intelligence are on what is called the radical side” (JMN, 16:72). “Character” and other writings that reflect the experience of the 1850s and 1860s suggest that Emerson had been profoundly impressed with the coalescence of the ethical imperative of antislavery with the national political purpose, and that this conjunction of events had a renewing effect on his moral confidence. “We see the dawn of a new era,” he wrote in 1865, “worth to mankind all the treasure & all the lives it has cost, yes, worth to the world the lives of all this generation of American men, if they had been demanded.” He noted the cost in lives, but he argued that the war “has made many lives valuable that were not so before” and has effectively “moralized cities & states” (JMN, 15:64). Although he worried, prophetically, that in the war's aftermath “the high tragic historic justice which the nation with severest consideration should execute, will be softened & dissipated & toasted away at dinner-tables” (JMN, 15:459), his final phase of thought emphasized the ethical renewal that he found in the unavoidable commitment that the slavery crisis and the war had forced on the nation. He had, through experience, come to stake all on a single proposition: “The only incorruptible thing is morals” (JMN, 15:471).


“Will is always miraculous, being the presence of God to men”

(W, 12:46).

In an address at Waterville College in 1863, Emerson remarked on the “dark, but heroic” times: “The times develop the strength they need” (W, 10:258). This faith in the nation's moral resolve during the war was conditioned by his own experience of renewed strength as he brought his philosophy into working relationship with the moral demands of his day. Although the war confirmed that strength for him, it had been secured well before in the ethical emphasis that had marked a turn in his work in the 1840s. Emerson had needed strength to believe in the possibility of the “transformation of genius into practical power” (CW, 3:49), and the narrative of his work after “Experience” focuses on the growth of that faith in will, power, and moral action. This pragmatic turn entailed, especially as the slavery crisis deepened and the war approached, a circling back to his early vocabulary of the moral sense. But by the 1860s, Emerson was not simply parroting the terminology of his college texts, but expounding a position he had earned with some difficulty. No, we do not find in his later texts the buoyancy we associate with Nature or “The American Scholar.” But the burden of the later texts has its own value, especially when placed in the context of Emerson's career.

The persistence of Emerson's moral-sense terminology, from very early to very late in his career, also helps us understand with wider reference the five-year burst of expression, from 1836 to 1841, that has been historically regarded as his most important phase. The version of philosophical idealism and the concomitant exploration of mystical experience that characterize that period were motivated in large part by his earlier conviction that the soul grasped moral imperatives without mediation—apart from, and perhaps in opposition to, institutionalized religious forms and socially defined moral codes. The mystical and transcendental Emerson, the Emerson American literary scholars have come to accept as the “real” or “important” Emerson, was from the beginning in the process of exploring the connection of morals with intuitive enlightenment. He had combined, in the supple concept of self-culture, his belief in the moral sense, inherited from the Unitarian theological milieu, with an intense personal commitment to religious experience as a form of ecstasy, an inheritance from the larger tradition of New England congregationalism. That synthesis kept elements of the moral and the mystical in a delicate balance for a while, but when Emerson began to see ecstasy as an increasingly problematic and unreliable concept in the early 1840s, he entered a new phase of his thinking. It was in some respects a crisis in epistemology, centering on the difficulty of assurance in perception. But it was also a crisis in moral philosophy, a reassessment of the capabilities of the will. Emerson's essentially pragmatic answer to his problem, an emphasis on action and work, led him to see that action could generate new experience, and thus bolster faith. His experience in the later 1840s and the 1850s helped him formulate in the notions of will and work a broad conception of moral action that integrated the inner life and the social world. These efforts represent a patient attempt to understand the moral sense as the expression of a comprehensive but progressive natural unity, a unity best revealed through moral action that subsumed the individual for a larger end.

Talk of moral sense or moral law inevitably seems rigid and rulebound, but Emerson's final stance is really an appeal to a life less of settled patterns and relations than of “very mutable” circumstances, in which the individual must “carry his possessions, his relations to persons, and even his opinions, in his hand, and in all these to pierce to the principle and moral law, and everywhere to find that.” Such a stance, fundamentally open, relational, and dynamic, is also a position of faith, for in assuming it, one stands “out of the reach of all skepticism” (W, 10:213-14).


  1. For the argument that the journal was fundamental, see Lawrence Rosenwald, Emerson and the Art of the Diary.

  2. There seems to have been a struggle involved in bringing each of Emerson's books to print, but it is especially notable in the cases of English Traits and Society and Solitude. With Letters and Social Aims, the difficulties became insurmountable, and the book was finally arranged with the help of James E. Cabot.

  3. See Nancy Craig Simmons, “Arranging the Sibylline Leaves,” pp. 335-89. For further analysis of Emerson's later compositional practice, and the resulting textual problems, see Ronald A. Bosco, “‘Poetry for the World of Readers’ and ‘Poetry for Bards Proper.’”

  4. Emerson began to gather notes for his “Natural History of Reason” as early as 1838 (JMN, 5:482), and the first and most significant gestures toward its completion were made in the 1848 lecture series “Mind and Manners of the Nineteenth Century,” delivered in England. On the earliest delivery of these lectures and their English context, see Larry J. Reynolds, European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance, pp. 38-40. Versions of the lectures were delivered in various contexts in the 1850s and 1860s, the period in which Emerson was also working through the ethical pragmatism that marks his later work. Of particular interest are the lectures “Powers and Laws of Thought” (1848-50, Houghton Library, Harvard University, b MS Am 1280.200 [3], [4], and [5]) and “Relation of Intellect to Natural Science” (1848-50, b MS Am 1280.200 [6] and [7]). The project was culminated in Emerson's lectures in the Harvard philosophy department in 1870. Natural History of Intellect as we now have it in James E. Cabot's arrangement is a good example of the textual problem presented by Emerson's later work. I do not believe that anything absolutely definitive can be written of this and other such later texts until the later volumes of Emerson's Collected Works are completed and we have an edition of his later lectures. Even so, these later texts cannot be absolutely ignored either, containing as they do powerful passages that reveal important aspects of Emerson's thought.

  5. See Ralph L. Rusk, The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, pp. 341-6, and Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson, p. 509.

  6. On the intellectual influences on Nature, see Kenneth Walter Cameron, Emerson the Essayist.

  7. See Robert D. Richardson, Jr.'s discussion of the expanded sense of the “organic” in Henry David Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, pp. 310-13.

  8. Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, pp. 47-8.

  9. In “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” p. 390, Barbara Packer termed “Poetry and Imagination” a “brilliant” essay. In “‘Poetry for the World of Readers' and ‘Poetry for Bards Proper,’” Ronald A. Bosco characterized it as “the unrecognized fullest statement by Emerson of poetic theory” (p. 280). As Bosco demonstrates, the essay is closely connected with the development of Emerson's late poetry anthology Parnassus. For other details on the essay's evolution, see W, 8:357-8.

  10. The example of Poe is delineated in Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Murder as Fine Art: Basic Connections Between Poe's Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision.”

  11. See JMN, 15:468-71, for Emerson's notes on the essay. “Character” concluded a series of lectures at the Parker Fraternity in 1864-5 (W, 10:531).

  12. On the Free Religious Association, see Stow Persons, Free Religion: An American Faith, and David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, pp. 107-22.


The following abbreviations are cited parenthetically in the text to refer to various editions of Emerson's writings.

CEC The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle. Edited by Joseph Slater. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

CS The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Albert J. von Frank et al. 4 volumes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989-.

CW The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Alfred R. Ferguson et al. 4 volumes to date. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971-.

EL The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Robert E. Spiller, Stephen E. Whicher, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 volumes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1964, 1972.

JMN The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. 16 volumes. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960-82.

L The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Ralph L. Rusk (Volumes 1-6) and Eleanor Tilton (Volumes 7-8). 8 volumes to date. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939-.

W The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Centenary Edition). Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-4.

Ronald Bosco (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “‘What poems are many private lives’: Emerson Writing the American Plutarch,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 103-29.

[In the following essay, Bosco examines Emerson's views on the link between biography and history in the context of his two biographical works, Representative Men and Lectures and Biographical Sketches.]

The world looks poor & mean so long as I think only of its great men; most of them of spotted reputation. But when I remember how many obscure persons I myself have seen possessing gifts that excited wonder, speculation, & delight in me … when I consider the absolute boundlessness of our capacity … [when] I recollect the charms of certain women, what poems are many private lives, each of which can fill our eye if we so will … then I feel the riches of my inheritance in being set down in this world gifted with organs of communication with this accomplished company.

(JMN 4:353-54; emphasis added)


Suffering from the trauma of witnessing his house burn in July, 1872, Ralph Waldo Emerson began to dictate his “last wishes” concerning his extensive collection of manuscript journals, notebooks, and related papers. During a recuperative journey, he gave specific instructions to his daughter Ellen Emerson. Writing from Waterford, Maine, on 22 August, Ellen Emerson shared the instructions with her sister Edith Emerson Forbes:

[Father] seems to return to the thought that this is possibly the end. … Just now he came in to tell me where the money is. … And he gives me directions about his books and M.SS. which ought to be written and I'll write them now to you. Then we shall both know, and two depositions are safer than one. ‘What to do with them?’ he keeps saying. ‘They are invaluable to anyone like me.’ … The M.S. books date way back to 1820. [T]he … early ones are worthless and must be burnt without exception, also all the sermons for what was good in them has been extracted for the Essays &c. … Then come the large quarto books, A, B, and D, &c. Those are valuable. Those are of the date 1834 and later. S. and Z. are collections of good stories, not his but collected. … Among [others] … are WO, (which is filled with sketches of Webster all taken from life at the moment, and good, and other matter, collected while for a long time he had the idea of writing … a History of Liberty from the beginning and therein are recorded obscure anecdotes bearing on it, small and important steps). ED (which is about England contains the record of his interviews with Carlyle, Tennyson and others, precious material not to be used in their lifetime, and more). … Another time he said he had material for beautiful lives of Mr. Channing [the younger] and Mr. Alcott, and it would be a pity if they outlived him, for the world would miss two very good chapters, but he spoke as if nothing could be done about it.


This neglected letter raises an important point for students of Emerson's biography. Ellen's juxtaposition of the shocking effects of the fire with her father's anguish over his papers provides insight into Emerson's state of mind during the vexed last decade of his life. While it is clear that he wanted Edward, his son, to inherit his manuscripts—“they would be a mine of riches to him”—regrettably Edward was not “a scholar by profession.” At the same time, Ellen reported Emerson's “dread” that Moncure Conway, Franklin Sanborn, “or anyone like that should get hold of them.” He feared the kind of biographical trifle they might make out of them. Although Emerson mentioned that Frederic Henry Hedge or James Elliot Cabot could be trusted to do justice to such and to prepare a sensible account of his life, in 1872 he was reluctant to impose on their good will (2:690).

Ellen Emerson's letter shows that her father considered his manuscripts valuable for their relevance to his already composed or anticipated lives of other worthies. Suggestions in the letter about what constitute the proper materials for biography—good stories, obscure anecdotes, character sketches, reports of “life at the moment”—in fact match literary techniques Emerson routinely employed in journal and notebook entries, lectures, and essays. His insistence that a biographer respect the privilege of conversations with those around him and protect it until the death of his subject undoubtedly served as a liberating influence on conversations between Emerson and those in his ever-expanding circle of literary, philosophical, and social acquaintances. It certainly explains how Emerson came to possess the mass of factual and anecdotal detail preserved in his manuscripts about the lives of such famous or obscure contemporaries as his brothers Charles and William, Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, and step-grandfather Ezra Ripley, his Concord intimates Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, William Ellery Channing, and Bronson Alcott, and his distant correspondents Philip Physick Randolph and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson's opinion that the lives of worthy figures make “very good chapters” in the history of mankind is an understated characterization of his long-held view of the function of biographical writing. Believing in a necessary relation between the lives of worthy figures and the history of the race, he held that biography and history are indistinguishable.

Emerson applied a distinctive theory of biography to the lives of persons featured in his 1835 “Biography” lectures, Representative Men (1850), and Lectures and Biographical Sketches, a posthumous miscellany of biographical lectures, memorial addresses, and essays published in 1884 by James Elliot Cabot. Few of the nearly one thousand recent studies of Emerson have been concerned with his theory and practice of biography. Informing the present essay is a reading of Emerson's theory of biography drawn principally from his journals and notebooks, a theory heretofore acknowledged only in the occasional headnote or explanatory note.1 Emerson's theory of biography takes him from an aspiring Plutarchan-style biographer in his sermons and lectures of the early to mid-1830s, to a biographer whose idealism dating from the late 1830s through the end of his career in the 1870s encouraged him to challenge Plutarchan biographical tradition first in theory and then in practice. Emerson challenged Plutarchan theory wherein history is defined as a discrete reality consisting of a finite number of representational lives that all adhere to a prescribed formula for greatness. By collapsing the distinction between the exemplary heroes of Plutarchan biography, historical “Bigendians” such as Plato and Napoleon, and his own “Littleendians” such as Alcott and Thoreau, Emerson enlarged on what had traditionally constituted individual greatness. He reassessed those “great men” who might exert a claim on their own and succeeding generations, and he reexamined the extent to which emulation of them was desirable or even possible.2

Evidence of Emerson's ambition to write biography occurs throughout his early journals, often in conjunction with his reading of history, particularly his re-reading of Plutarch's Lives. In 1832, noting that “the modern Plutarch is yet to be written,” Emerson imagined that he might undertake biographies of Sir Thomas More, George Fox, Luther, Milton, the elder John Adams, and Sir Walter Scott, among others. He would write their lives “from love & from seeing the beauty that was to be desired in them.” Like Plutarch, he pledged that “I would draw characters, not write lives. I would evoke the spirit of each [while] their relics might rot. … I would walk among … dry bones & wherever on the face of the earth I found a living man I would say here is life & life is communicable” (JMN 4:35). In funeral sermons, the “Biography” lectures of 1835, and lectures on English writers in 1835-36, Emerson relied on the Plutarchan definition of temporal distance and exemplariness in identifying greatness. He relied on the Plutarchan view of biography and history as fixed, finite realities, varying from one age to another only in the accidents of time and place.

However, during the fifteen years between these works and the appearance of his next major biographical endeavor, Representative Men, he departed from Plutarch's theory. Between 1836 and 1844, in essays such as Nature, “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “The Method of Nature,” and “Nominalist and Realist,” in lectures such as “The Present Age,” “Heroism,” “Genius,” and “The Poet,” and in numerous journal passages, Emerson brought the key terms of his idealistic system to bear upon his ideas concerning biography and history. Emphasizing spirit, thought, universality, and human achievement, he challenged the Plutarchan concept of greatness. As he explained in “Nominalist and Realist,” he would allow any whose lives bear witness to one or more of these ideal features of experience into the select Emersonian class of great men: “[T]here is somewhat spheral and infinite in every man. … [E]very man is a channel through which heaven floweth. … Nature keeps herself whole, and her representation complete in the experience of each mind” (CW 3:142).

Just as he defined biography as the record of the “deep and sublime” (“History,” CW 2:12), he also defined history anew. Rejecting mere physical and practical advancements, he now defined history as the record of the “one mind common to all individual men.” He discerned within that unified record “the intellectual step, or short series of steps … [in effect] the spiritual act” as the “precious” element whereby the race progressively constitutes and advances itself (“History,” CW 2:3; “The Method of Nature,” CW 1:120). Emerson thus supplanted the old view of history as fixed and finite with a view of history as “fluid and true” (“History,” CW 2:12). With biography newly defined as “deep and sublime” and history as “fluid and true,” biographers and historians could no longer merely string together events in chronological narrative. From the 1830s on, Emerson argued that biography and history had to be read and written “in the light of these two facts, namely, that the mind is One, and that nature is its correlative. … History … walk[s] incarnate in every just and wise man” (“History,” CW 2:21-22; “Introductory,” The Philosophy of History, EL 2:19.). Emerson had merged separate ideas and disciplines into a single ideal discipline. He proclaimed in 1839:

There is no history: There is only Biography. The attempt to perpetuate, to fix a thought or principle, fails continually. You can only live for yourself: Your action is good only whilst it is alive,—whilst it is in you. The awkward imitation of it by your child or your disciple, is not a repetition of it, is not the same thing but another thing. The new individual must work out the whole problem of science, letters, & theology for himself [and he] can owe his fathers nothing. …

There is no history, only biography. The private soul ascends to transcendental virtue. Like Very, he works hard without moving hand or foot; like Agathon, he loves the goddess & not the woman; like Alcott he refuses to pay a debt without injustice; but this liberty is not transferable to any disciple[,] no nor to the man himself when he falls out of his trance & comes down from the tripod.

(JMN 7:202, 216; “History,” CW 2:6)3

A long span of time separates Emerson's formulation of an idealistic theory of biography from the appearance of Representative Men. An even greater span of time separates Emerson's theory from his numerous biographical miscellanies. These intervals between theory and practice exasperated one of his closest friends, and they possibly account for occasional misjudgments of Emerson's accomplishments in biography. In the first instance, after receiving Emerson's gift of “The Method of Nature,” Carlyle, who seems to have read the piece as a treatment of biography and its relation to history, sympathized with the first audience who, on hearing the piece as an address, cried “Whitherward? What? What?” Writing on 19 November 1841, Carlyle complained to Emerson that his theory was “all spirit-like, aeriform, aurora-borealis like.” He wondered, “[w]ill no angel body himself out of that; no stalwart Yankee man, with colour in the cheeks of him, and a coat on his back!” Observing that without application to the lives and works of real men Emerson's merger of biography and history would remain an idealist's dream, Carlyle writes that “I … desiderate some concretion of these beautiful abstracta. It seems to me they will never be right otherwise; that otherwise they are but as prophecies yet, not fulfilments” (Emerson, Correspondence 312-13).

Carlyle is not alone in misunderstanding Emerson's method. More recently, failing to notice that the lives of Representative Men and the figures Emerson developed in other biographical addresses and essays represent applications of his own idealistic philosophy, Edmund G. Berry in Emerson's Plutarch, the sole book-length treatment of Emerson as a biographer, considers Emerson's biographical writings nothing more than variations on Plutarch's Lives. Similarly, ignoring Emerson's assertion of an operative idealism in the lives of real men and women, Emersonians have failed to credit Emerson with erecting, through the imperfection and obscurity of his biographical subjects, a theoretic defense against the anarchy and pessimism of material culture.4

Napoleon, Swedenborg, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott confirmed for Emerson how “the great object” of biography and history would be “commensurate with the object of life”: “to teach self-trust; to inspire … man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives” (“Education,” W 10:135). Unlike exemplary heroes in Plutarchan biography, Emerson's real men and women ministered “balm and consolation and immortality” to those who struggled with the dire realities of his age. As early as 1832, Emerson invested biography with a sacramental function. He commented that biographers could and should speak with the authority of Christ, who “truly said,” “life is communicable … my flesh is meat … I am the bread” (JMN 4:35-35). Years later, describing how “graces and forces” of individuals can elevate domestic life, Emerson complained that “our negligence of these fine monitors [biographers]” makes religion “cold” and life itself “low” (“The Sovereignty of Ethics,” W 10:198).

Except for some Plutarchan techniques and didactic tonalities, Emerson was not a Plutarchan biographer.5 His idealism eliminated the distance imposed by Plutarch between modern readers and exemplary figures either from the past or from his own time. For both Emerson and Plutarch the surest biographical method is one that relies on the subject's thought and action to illustrate his “permanent vision of truth.”


What is it that interests us in biography? Is there not always a silent comparison between the intellectual & moral endowments portrayed & those of which we [in our own minds] are conscious? … [W]e take the picture for a standard Man, and so let every line accuse or approve our own ways of thinking & living by comparison. …

[M]aterials … exist for a Portraiture of Man which should be at once history & prophecy. Does it not seem as if a perfect parallelism existed between every great & fully developed man & every other?

There are ever & anon in history expressions uttered that seem to be fourfold-visaged & look with significant smile to all the quarters of time.

(JMN 4:256, 336-37, 339)

Employing a modified Plutarchan method in the “Biography” lectures, Emerson emphasized universality of mind, history, and the affections. Subjects such as Michel Angelo, Luther, Milton, George Fox, and Edmund Burke transcend time and place; their character is timeless, worthy of inspiring others for whom they serve as “types” of mankind (JMN 4:354). In “John Milton,” for instance, Milton does not appear as a Puritan poet or author of influential tracts on liberty and education. Instead, he “stands erect, commanding … [and] visible as a man among men, [a man who] read the laws of the moral sentiment to the newborn race.” Emerson's Milton is a “commissioned spirit,” a sacramental oracle: “Better than any other he has … raise[d] the idea of Man in the minds of his contemporaries and of posterity,—[he has] drawn after nature a life of man, exhibiting such a composition of grace, of strength, and of virtue, as poet had not described nor hero lived” (EL 1:149). Milton actualized capacities of the mind and imagination. Milton's virtues—bravery, purity, temperance, toil, independence, angelic idealism—are virtues for all time (EL 1:163).

In “Martin Luther,” Luther lives as “a simple erect Man … [and] because his head and heart are sound, [he is] a sort of Adam, one of that class of standard men in which … unsophisticated humanity seems ever and anon to be reproduced in its first simplicity, as model and leader of new generations.” Emerson emphasizes Luther's “good humor” in facing religious debates, “sanity” in the face of fanaticism, and “humanity” in liking music and a joke. Even so, Emerson prudently reports that Luther was a most “earnest man” in an “earnest age” (EL 1:138, 140, 142).

Like Milton, Luther served Emerson's auditors as a man who pursued the ideal and thus taught that any individual may flourish in relation to the universal mind. Emerson pauses early in “Martin Luther” to lavish extravagant praise on Luther's poetic consciousness:

Luther was a Poet but not in the literary sense. He wrote no poems, but he walked in a charmed world. Everything to his eye assumed a symbolical aspect. All occurrences, all institutions, all natural agents, God in a personal form, angels, Satan, and his devils are never out of his mind's eye. All objects, all events are transparent. He sees through them the love or malignity which is working behind them.

(EL 1:132)

Luther's talent for discovering symbolic truths is a talent available to everyone. Emerson humanizes the distant Luther as an ideal hero:

He believed and therefore spake, hit or miss, please or sting whom it might. If you tickled him, he would laugh,—if you pricked him, he would bleed. He loved, he hated, he feared God, he dared the world and the devils, he prayed, he sang, he desponded, he married, he served his prince, he abhorred dependence and became free, he erred, and repented, he worked unceasingly, he advanced unceasingly.

(EL 1:142)

Lectures on Milton and Luther extend Plutarch's method. They also develop Emerson's own ideas, particularly his 1835 theory of biography with its assumptions about history. For Emerson, an ideal or “perfect sympathy” transcends time, place, and personality (JMN 5:11). Each figure portrays one who enabled a hero for the common man, a fulfillment of the commonplace. Each figure emblematizes the race, the capacity to move from facts to spirit. To credit facts with “a symbolical aspect,” hardly a Plutarchan principle, is indeed quintessentially Emersonian.

Ironically, a non-Plutarchan principle of Emerson's method apparent in the “Biography” lectures allows the biographer to speak with a kind of Plutarchan authority. Many subjects are measured against some classical figure whose ideals they appear to recreate. Although Edmund Berry considered this feature among the most compelling proofs that Emerson practiced Plutarchan biography (262-68), another explanation for this feature is more likely. Without referring to Plutarch, Emerson asserted that the sympathy between similar minds assists the reader to come to terms with his own values and ideas and also to discover his own self-identity. He observes that

the faintest sentiments which we have shunned from fear of singularity are older than the oldest institutions,—are eternal in man”; consequently, in biography “we can find ourselves, our private thoughts, our preferences, & aversions, & our moral judgments perhaps … truly matched in an ancient Lombard, or Saxon, or Greek.”

(JMN 5:11)

Emerson's system of classical typology represents an original, non-Plutarchan strategy for reducing the distance between a biographer and his audience, between the audience and the figures readers must measure themselves against. Emerson's classical typology enhances the human qualities of his biographical subjects, underscoring their timelessness, and elevating the attractiveness of their ideal character. Readers who do in fact identify themselves with the biographical subjects enjoy the pleasure of admiring their own character:

We recognize with delight a strict likeness between … [the] noblest impulses [of biographical subjects] & our own. We are tried in their trial. By our cordial approval we conquer in their victory. We participate in their act by our … understanding of it. … These affinities atone to us for the narrowness of our society, & the prison of our single lot, by making the human race our society, & the vast variety of human fortune the arena of actions on which we … take part.

(JMN 5:11-12)

In its application, Emerson's classical typology serves equally well the author and the reader. When Emerson describes Milton's possessing “the senses of a Greek” and “the prudence of the Roman soldier,” or when he introduces a litany of Milton's virtues, or when he states that “[they] remind us of what Plutarch said of Timoleon's victories, that they resembled Homer's verses, they ran so easy and natural,” he virtually guarantees the authority of his own remarks on Milton, he stresses the timeless appeal of Milton's most noteworthy qualities, and he humanizes Milton's character for the reader (EL 1:151, 154, 156).

More extravagantly drawn, Emerson's portrait of Luther produces comparable results. Shortly after characterizing Luther as “a sort of Adam … of new generations,” Emerson summarizes Luther's universality by reference to two pairs of ancients, one from the Middle Ages and one from modern times: “[Luther] is to us in the German age what Homer is in the Greek; Moses in the Hebrew; Alfred in the Saxon; Washington in the American epoch” (EL 1:138). Elsewhere, to humanize and elevate Luther's defining talents, Emerson remarks that Luther was a scholar and philosopher comparable to “Isaiah or Ezekiel among the ancient Hebrews”; like them, a Prophet and Poet; he possessed “the will of Attila or Napoleon”; and took delight in the satisfaction and honor his fight for conscience brought to his family and the memory of his parents (EL 1:132, 140, 141).


And it seems as if nature, contemplating the long geologic night behind her, when at last in five or six millenniums she had turned out five or six men,—say, Phidias, Plato, Menu, Columbus, was nowise impatient of the millions of disgusting blockheads she had spawned along with them, but was well contented with these few.

(JMN 11:167; “Plato: New Readings,” CW 4:45)

Nature has as seldom a success in her machines, as we in ours. There is almost never good adjustment between the spring & the regulator, in a man. He only is a well made man, who has a good determination. Now, with most men, it does not appear for what they were made, until after a long time.

(JMN 11:197-98; “Culture,” W 6:134, and “Society and Solitude,” W 7:8)

While the exemplary lives of “Biography” illustrate Emerson's early dependence upon Plutarchan theory and method, the flawed personalities and misapplied virtues of the specific Representative Men designated “Bigendians” illustrate his own contributions to his own theory. The idealistic biography Emerson writes in Representative Men expresses his conviction that a biographical figure need not be a Milton or a Luther to prove that “every man is a channel through which heaven floweth.” It is responsive to Carlyle's complaint that theory without practical application represents only “prophecies yet, not fulfilments.” In “Uses of Great Men,” the preface to Representative Men, and in scattered authorial intrusions, Emerson calls attention to the realism of his lives of Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. He notes that while his candid portrayals of materialism, egotism, narrow-mindedness, or self-delusion may preclude his subjects from uncritical emulation, they are worthy of admiration for having actualized the universal. He also acknowledges that the variance between his idealistic theory and his flawed characters may be construed as itself a flaw. In “Montaigne, or the Skeptic,” Emerson admits that the “astonishment of life, is, the absence of any appearance of reconciliation between the theory and practice of life,” between the “largest promise of ideal power” and the actual “shabby experience” (CW 4:101, 104). Nevertheless, he insists, the seeming absence of reconciliation between the promise and the experience need not mean that the theory is flawed. He cryptically adds: “needles are nothing; the magnetism is all” (CW 4:104).

Bigendians” portrayed in Representative Men predictably represent the ideal power of the human race. As “needles,” Milton and Luther or Shakespeare and Montaigne point to “the qualities of primary nature, admit us to the constitution of things.” However, their real significance lies in their being illuminators of that “magnetism” which introduces “moral truths into the general mind” (CW 4:12-13). Ideal power (spirit, “magnetism,” moral truth) in Representative Men shows forth in Plato's, Shakespeare's, or Goethe's command of human aspirations, or Napoleon's political spirit, or Montaigne's or Swedenborg's transforming abstractions into thought and conduct. Flaws inherent in these representative men are diminished in proportion to their ideal “largeness.” He explains: “I look on Swedenborg as on Kant, Newton, Leibnitz, Goethe, Humboldt, men of a larger stature than others, & possessing very great advantages in that preternatural size. He & Newton were both cracked or bursten; yet 'tis easier to see the reflection of the sphere in globes of this magnitude, cracked or not, than in the common minute globe” (JMN 11:91).

Similarly, in “Uses of Great Men,” he justified subjects of mixed reputation by arguing that their reputation is less important than their “mental and moral force.”

Men are helpful through the intellect and the affections. Other help I find a false appearance. If you affect to give me bread and fire, I perceive that I pay for it the full price, and at last it leaves me as it found me, neither better nor worse; but all mental and moral force is a positive good. … This is the moral of biography.

(CW 4:8-9)

Emerson thus invoked a transcendentalist's anticipation of reader-response theory, inviting readers to infer at will and to “supply many chasms” in his reports of blemished lives. Years before, he legitimated this kind of reading in “Nominalist and Realist,” when, describing his own general style of reading, he stated, “What is well done, I feel as if I did; what is ill done, I reck not of. … I read Proclus, and sometimes Plato, as I might read a dictionary, for a mechanical help to the fancy and the imagination. I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colors. 'Tis not Proclus, but a piece of nature and fate … I explore” (CW 3:137). Only by wilfully reading for “lustres” can one lay claim to the readerly joy available in literature. For Emerson, it is a greater joy to see the “author's author, than himself” (CW 3:137); reading for “lustres” in biography means reading for the operations of spirit. Emerson expected his readers to fashion out of the “mechanical” materials of imperfect but large personalities or misapplied values, coupled with momentous actions, a biography even better than Emerson's own heuristic version:

The history of the universe is symptomatic, and life is mnemonical. No man in all the procession of famous men is reason or illumination, or that essence we are looking for. … The study of many individuals leads us to an elemental region wherein the individual is lost, or wherein all touch by their summits. Thought and feeling that break out there, cannot be impounded by any fence of personality.

The vessels on which you read sacred emblems, turn out to be common pottery, but the sense of the pictures is sacred, and you may still read them transferred to the walls of the world.

(CW 4:18-19)

Bigendians” represent a balance between the “sacred” (spirit) and the “common pottery” (masks of human nature); thus Emerson preserves the enchantment of the world. Readers can achieve a “sense” of the prevalence of spirit in thoughts and actions, but with varying degrees of success. In Representative Men, for example, Emerson creates a distinct hierarchy, with Shakespeare, Goethe, and Montaigne representing the highest degree of correspondence between spirit and human nature, whereas Plato, Swedenborg, and Napoleon represent the lowest.

In Shakespeare, Emerson finds the best conceivable balance between spirit and human nature. Emerson recites an extended litany of praise. Shakespeare's poetic imagination “dilates the closet he writes in to the world's dimension, crowds it with agents in rank and order, [and] quickly reduces … reality to the glimpses of the moon.” Shakespeare is “inconceivably wise,” possessing a unique “executive faculty, for creation” and an “omnipresent humanity [that] coordinates all his faculties”; he “has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly, the small subordinately [so that he] is wise without emphasis or assertion … [and] strong as nature is strong”; he exudes supreme “cheerfulness, without which no man can be a poet, for beauty is his aim”; and because “[h]e loves virtue, not for its obligation, but for its grace[,] … the spirit of joy and hilarity, he sheds over the universe” (CW 4:118-19, 121-23). Emerson's admiration of Shakespeare's art as a literary extension of the greatness of the man is no less extravagant. He asks, “What point of morals, of manners, of economy, of philosophy, of religion, of taste, of the conduct of life, has [Shakespeare] not settled [in it]?” (CW 4:120).

[H]e drew the man of England and Europe; the father of the man in America: he drew the man, and described the day, and what is done in it: he read the hearts of men and women, their probity, and their second thought and wiles; the wiles of innocence, and the transitions by which virtues and vices slide into their contraries: he could divide the mother's part from the father's part in the face of the child, or draw the fine demarcations of freedom and fate: he knew the laws of repression, which makes the police of nature: and all the sweets and all the terrors of human lot lay in his mind as truly but as softly as the landscape lies on the eye.

(CW 4:121)

With only slightly less enthusiasm, Emerson portrays Montaigne, who commands an ideal equanimity with which one must read and respond to the world. Emerson avows that all men are “natural believers” in the principle that men and events and life come to us “connected by a common thread,” even if experience usually “scatters or pulls down” that which “affirms, connects, preserves” (CW 4:96). Thinking men must confront such reality and decide how they will respond to it. Those of a philosophic bent choose optimism. Men of toil and trade and “luxury” choose materialism. Still others, whose attraction to materialism “runs into indifferentism, and then into disgust,” choose cynicism (CW 4:85-88).

Against these three typical responses to disruptive or chaotic reality, Emerson measures Montaigne, who took the moral high road mapped out by “a wise skepticism.” Skepticism is a philosophy “of consideration, of selfcontaining, not at all of unbelief, not at all of universal denying, nor of universal doubting … [and] least of all, of scoffing, and profligate jeering at all that is stable and good.” Its practitioner is “the Considerer, the prudent, taking in sail, counting stock, husbanding his means, believing that a man has too many enemies, than that he can afford to be his own.” He very nearly embodies Nature's own philosophy of “fluxions and mobility” (CW 4:89-91). Emerson takes personal delight in the way Montaigne's skepticism blends pragmatism and idealism. Montaigne “labours to plant his feet, to be the beam of … balance[;] … he stands for the intellectual faculties, a cool head, and whatever serves to keep it cool: no unadvised industry, no unrewarded self-devotion, no loss of the brains in toil[;] … [he knows] that human strength is not [found] in [espousing philosophic] extremes, but in avoiding extremes” (CW 4:88-89). Montaigne conducted his affairs in a manner “[d]ownright and plaindealing” and he “abhorr[ed] to be deceived or to deceive.” He was “esteemed … for his sense and probity.”

Taking up even menial tasks with earnestness, Montaigne encouraged comparable action in those around him which produced at least one tangible effect that might reduce a materialist to envy: he “made his farms yield the most.” In time of war, he alone could keep “his gates open, and his house without defence,” for “his courage and honor [were] universally esteemed.” “[A] biblical plainness coupled with a most uncanonical levity” in his conversation as in his writing made Montaigne “the frankest and honestest of all” men (CW 4:93). Because “[t]he sincerity and marrow of the man reache[d] to his sentences,” Montaigne's essays, like Shakespeare's plays, serve Emerson as texts of life:

Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world, and books, and himself, and uses the positive degree: never shrieks, or protests, or prays; no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain, because it makes him feel himself, and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground, and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, selfrespecting, and keeping the middle of the road.

(CW 4:95-96)

Neither Shakespeare nor Montaigne entirely escapes censure in Representative Men. Emerson must have felt that he had to lessen Shakespeare's allure so that this “bard and benefactor” could be reduced to parity with surrounding figures. Reaching back to his “Biography” lecture on Milton in which he had praised Milton at Shakespeare's expense by pointing to the latter's “mean and jocular way of life,” Emerson concludes “Shakspeare, or the Poet” by remarking sadly that “the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement” (EL 1:161; CW 4:125). In Montaigne's case, Emerson's censure is more severe, but with good reason. Even if Montaigne's “wise skepticism” surpasses some other responses to reality, it does not completely avoid suspicions of petty egotism. “The ground occupied by the skeptic,” Emerson states, is merely “the vestibule to the temple” of “moral sentiment,” which as a rebuke to reality's compromising the ideal, “never forfeits its supremacy” (CW 4:97, 103). Although in the sensible ebb and flow of his thought the skeptic comes closer than most men to portraying Nature's own philosophy of “fluxions and mobility,” he does not actually replicate “the thought that is parent of the universe: that the masses of nature do undulate and flow” (CW 4:103). Paradoxically, Montaigne the skeptic is an imperfect representative of the ideal, but for Emerson he reaffirms the enchantment of the universe:

The expansive nature of truth comes to our succour, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize, to believe what the years and the centuries say against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense. Things seem to say one thing, and say the reverse. …

Let … man learn to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence, without losing his reverence; let him learn that he is here not to work, but to be worked upon, and, that, though abyss open under abyss, and opinion displace opinion, all are at last contained in the eternal Cause.

(CW 4:104-105)

“[G]reat men exist,” Emerson asserts at the conclusion of “Uses of Great Men,” “that there may be greater men.” Because “[t]he destiny of organized nature is amelioration” to which, ideally, there is no limit, the service great men provide is to glimpse mankind's achieved glory and to improve upon such glory (CW 4:20). Although the world still lacks its poet-priest, a “reconciler who shall not trifle,” in Shakespeare the world has a model by which to test the claims of pretenders. Although the world has yet to espouse an Emersonian system of romantic contrarities, the world has in Montaigne a model by which to test responses to reality inferior to a “wise skepticism” (CW 4:103-104, 125).

Emerson's second-rank representative men exhibit an unresolved tension between the operations of spirit and the accidents of human nature. Even here, though, Swedenborg and Napoleon deserve recognition as “great men,” as heroes, if not “in the high sense” (CW 4:120). Believing “[t]he world has a sure chemistry by which it extracts what is excellent in its children, and lets fall the infirmities and limitations of the grandest mind,” in his portraits of Swedenborg and Napoleon, Emerson is interested in selectively drawing traits and habits that appeal broadly to “the intellect and the affections” (CW 4:8, 70). Swedenborg's appeal is exclusively intellectual. A “colossal soul” in the mystic tradition of Plotinus, Porphyry, Bunyan, and Pascal, who executed an extended review of “the atmosphere of moral sentiment” and its relation to nature, Swedenborg wrote “a sufficient library to … [the] athletic student,” nearly fifty books which, “by the sustained dignity of thinking,” are “an honour to the human race” (CW 4:54, 58, 60). “[V]isionary and elixir of moonbeams” to his countrymen, Swedenborg's “varied and solid knowledge” taxes and baffles the minds of any who come his way. This includes Emerson, who admits that it is a life's work to master the cosmology, metaphysics, and theology that Swedenborg assimilated into his own thought (CW 4:56, 59-60). To study nature as he captured its “points and shooting spicula of thought” is to discover oneself alive on “one of those winter mornings when the air sparkles with crystals” (CW 4:60).

As Swedenborg appeals to the intellect, Napoleon appeals to the affections. He is “the incarnate Democrat,” actualizing the virtue, vice, spirit, and aim of the rising middle class. Emerson states, “precisely what is agreeable to the heart of every man in the nineteenth century, this powerful man possessed. … Bonaparte was the idol of the common man, because he had in transcendent degree the qualities and powers of common men” (CW 4:130-31). The “qualities and powers” exhibited by Napoleon comprise a litany of attributes which outnumber those of any other figure in Representative Men. “[A] man of stone and iron,” Napoleon is “not embarrassed by any scruples,” and “[w]ith him is no miracle, and no magic”; he is “a worker in brass, in iron, in wood, in earth, in roads, in buildings, in money, and in troops, and a very consistent and wise master workman”; he is “never weak and literary, but acts with the solidity and the precision of natural agents,” nor has he “lost his native sense and sympathy with things”; he is “compact, instant … prudent, and of a perception which did not suffer itself to be baulked or misled by any pretenses of others, or any superstition or any heat or haste of his own”; he is “a realist, terrific to all talkers and confused truth-obscuring persons”; he is “strong in the right manner, namely, by insight” and “inspires confidence and vigor by the extraordinary unity of his action”; and he is “firm, sure, self-denying, self-postponing, sacrificing everything to his aim,—money, troops, generals, and his own safety also, to his aim; not misled, like common adventurers, by the splendour of his own means” (CW 4:132-34).

Whereas Shakespeare and Montaigne appeal to intellect and affections, Swedenborg and Napoleon erred as persons and hence are flawed by their inability to rise above the accidents of human nature. They have not integrated the commanding intellect or military genius into the larger requirements of idealism. They exemplify one of the deficiencies (asymmetry) that damage potentially ideal men.

Great men or men of great gifts you shall easily find, but symmetrical men never. When I meet a pure intellectual force, or a generosity of affection, I believe, here then is man; and am presently mortified by the discovery, that this individual is no more available to his own or to the general ends, than his companions; because the power which drew my respect, is not supported by the total symphony of his talents. All persons exist to society by some shining trait of beauty or utility, which they have. We borrow the proportions of the man from that one fine feature, and finish the portrait symmetrically; which is false; for the rest … is small or deformed. … All our poets, heroes, and saints, fail utterly in some one or in many parts to satisfy our idea, fail to draw our spontaneous interest, and so leave us without any hope of realization but in our own future.

(“Nominalist and Realist,” CW 3:134)

Swedenborg and Napoleon exhibit defects of character. Poet-priests and mystics may find in Swedenborg's complex symbols a precedent to build on, but they will also find a narrow “theological bias.” Swedenborg overvalues form, so he lacks “central spontaneity” and is unable to incorporate the “apparatus of poetic expression” into his philosophy (CW 4:67-68, 74, 80). Swedenborg and his system are too cerebral. The vision of nature is “dynamic[,] not vital, and lacks the power to generate life.” (CW 4:74-75).

Swedenborg's excessive intellection is matched by Napoleon's unparalleled power, identification with social class, physical might, and military genius having run amok without the least constraints of conscience (CW 4:147). Napoleon's lack of moral sentiment deprives him of ultimate or ideal victory. In a burst of uncharacteristic rage, Emerson launches an extended attack:

Bonaparte was singularly destitute of generous sentiments. The highest placed individual in the most cultivated age … of the world, he has not the merit of common truth and honesty. He is unjust to his generals, egotistic, and monopolizing; meanly stealing the credit of their great actions. … He is a boundless liar … [who] sat in his premature old age … coldly falsifying facts and dates and characters, and giving to history a theatrical éclat. … His doctrine of immortality is simply fame. His theory of influence is not flattering. [As he himself writes,] “There are two levers for moving men, interest and fear. Love is a silly infatuation. … Friendship is but a name. I love nobody.” … He was thoroughly unscrupulous. He would steal, slander, down, and poison, as his interest dictated. He had no generosity, but mere vulgar hatred: he was intensely selfish; he was perfidious: he cheated at cards: he was a prodigious gossip; … and delighted in his infamous police. … His manners were coarse: He treated women with low familiarity. … In short, when you have penetrated through all the circles of power and splendour, you [are] not dealing with a gentleman at last, but with an impostor and a rogue.

(CW 4:145-46)

Despite the unresolved tension between the sacred and the mundane in Swedenborg and Napoleon, both figures belong with Shakespeare and Montaigne because they too represent a “type” of mankind. Their lives of exploit and achievement encourage fresh resolve in observers to improve upon their own performance. Even their failures prove useful to the idealist: recorded failures of poets and heroes, saints and sinners, prove that the last word on advancement has not been written.

Things balance out. In Representative Men, Napoleon's embodiment of nineteenth-century crassness is offset by Shakespeare's poetic genius. Montaigne's equanimity in the face of war reduces the allure of Napoleonic militarism, and his genial warmth asserts, by contrast with Swedenborg, that a life of the mind does not preclude humane love or openness to nature. Emerson drew on his essential idealism, doctrine of self-reliance, and sense of Nature's constancy as a solid basis for confidence in symmetrically great men. These saviors would possess rare gifts and poetic talents to be drawn upon in “our own future.”


Our reading is mendicant and sycophantic. In history, our imagination plays us false. Kingdom and lordship, power and estate are a gaudier vocabulary than private John and Edward in a small house and common day's work: but the things of life are the same to both: the sum total of both is the same. Why all this deference to Alfred … and Gustavus? Suppose they were virtuous: did they wear out virtue? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day, as followed their public and renowned steps. When private men shall act with original views, the lustre will be transferred from the actions of kings.

(“Self-Reliance,” CW 2:36; JMN 5:394-98)

Given Emerson's progressive application of biographical theory from the exemplary lives of “Biography” to the imperfect lives of Representative Men, together with his belief that the “talent and means which operate great results … are common to all men,” formal attention to the lives of “obscure persons … that excited wonder, speculation, & delight” would seem inevitable. Emerson could only believe that individuals from the past were not entirely adequate to his own time, particularly the materialism and pessimism he documented in English Traits (1856) and The Conduct of Life (1860). Montaigne could exemplify a class of enlightened minds and generous hearts capable of thwarting materialism and pessimism, but Emerson conceded that such examples were, after all, centuries old and not altogether pertinent to the crisis of values in the mid-nineteenth century. In an aside in “Uses of Great Men,” he admitted as much.

[I]t is hard for departed men to touch the quick like our own companions, [even those] whose names may not last as long. What is he whom I never think of? whilst in every solitude are those who succour our genius, and stimulate us in wonderful manners. There is a power in love to divine another's destiny better than that other can, and by heroic encouragements hold him to his task. What has friendship so signal as its sublime attraction to whatever virtue is in us? We will never think more cheaply of ourselves or of life. We are piqued to some purpose.

(CW 4:9)

In quantity, the written record of Emerson's attraction to the conduct, values, and heroism of his contemporaries is almost staggering. His journals from the 1820s to the 1870s contain entries on individuals with whom he claimed intimate acquaintance and who served him as “types” of mankind representing noble aspirations. His spouse, children, siblings, other relatives, neighbors, friends, correspondents, and companions of the mind and heart—all appealed to Emerson by their character and insight, by their submission to the ideal spirit. Emerson's journal accounts of their opinions, activities, and relation to him constitute an informal and personalized type of biography. Some special ones proved particularly attractive. As early as the 1840s he extracted anecdotes about, details of personal contacts with, and character descriptions of several persons from his journals, entering them, together with excerpts from their writings and conversation, into individualized topical notebooks.

Emerson's aim, as reported by his daughter in 1872, was to produce some “very good chapters” of human history out of notebooks devoted to Mary Moody Emerson, Thoreau, Charles King Newcomb, Bronson Alcott, and others. The type of biography represented by these accounts is more formal than the journals. Emerson's method endows each subject with life-like integrity and coherence.6

Lives memorializing Emerson's contemporaries are perhaps surprisingly similar to those of great men from the past. Emerson portrays his “Littleendian” heroes as exerting a moral claim on his audience by their representation of spirit, actualization of ideas, conduct, and universal values. Rhetorical strategies, literary devices, and authorial tone in the essays are virtually indistinguishable from those in Emerson's biographical lectures and writings of the 1830s and 1840s. The only discernible difference is predictable, given that Emerson was actually living among his subjects. It is perhaps reasonable to expect that he would demonstrate authorial approbation in part by means of gracious and generous turns of description.

Despite Mary Moody Emerson's well-known idiosyncracies, her nephew portrays her as an inspiring character who “had a deep sympathy with genius,” one who “gave high counsels” to the minds of those, like young Emerson and his brothers, entrusted to her care (W 10:403, 432). Reading through her papers, Emerson is impressed by her acumen and personal genius: “Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus,—how venerable and organic as Nature they are in her mind.” On a par with Dante, Aunt Mary excites her biographer with wonder at her biblical authority and ability to create “paraphrases to signify with more adequateness Christ or Jehovah” than the inspired texts themselves (W 10:402). Conversant with Marcus Antoninus, Milton, Young, Jonathan Edwards, Locke, and even Byron, Aunt Mary's lively mind and fertile imagination confirm the idealism of “The Method of Nature”: “An individual … is a fruit which it cost all the foregoing ages to form and ripen” (CW 1:128). Her sensibility made her feel at home “in the fiery depths of Calvinism, [with] its high and mysterious elections,” but she could just as easily become a Transcendentalist, “driven,” as she was at times, “to find Nature her companion and solace” (W 10:403, 411). Aunt Mary also draws praise as being a good Greek: “Our Delphian,” one who could tame and be tamed “by large and sincere conversation”; one always attendant to expressions of “thought and eloquence”; one whose life and mind “burned … [with] the glow of … pure and poetic spirit” (W 10:408). In sum, she was a modern Cassandra, uttering “to a frivolous, skeptical time, the arcana of the Gods” by representing the great Christian truth, “Faith alone, Faith alone” (W 10:433).

In contrast to Emerson's sketch of his aunt, drawn against the background of late-eighteenth-century Puritan New England, his essays on Samuel Hoar and Thoreau measure his subjects against contemporary America. To these might be added a proposed but unfinished life of Bronson Alcott. Emerson would have written it had not, as Ellen Emerson reported in 1872, his own declining health and Alcott's longevity interfered. Alcott material in his journals, together with a brief account of Alcott's character preserved in notebook “A[mos] B[ronson] A[lcott],” suggest that Emerson's portrayal of this “Littleendian” Plato would have been consistent with his essays on Hoar and Thoreau. Taken together, the essays on Hoar and Thoreau and the one he intended to write on Alcott would form a trilogy dramatizing an intellectual and imaginative bulwark against mid-century materialism and pessimism.

Like Mary Moody Emerson, attorney Samuel Hoar has personally tapped the moral reserves of character—integrity, honesty, manliness, personal conviction, naturalness, simplicity, and clear perception. He remains his own man in a world of convention and conformity. According to Emerson,

[Hoar] was a very natural, but a very high character; a man of simple tastes, plain and true in speech, with clear perception of justice, and a perfect obedience thereto in his action; of a strong understanding, precise and methodical. … The severity of his logic might have inspired fear, had it not been restrained by his natural reverence, which made him modest and courteous. … He combined a uniform self-respect with a natural reverence for every other man.

(W 10:439)

Hoar becomes “our old Roman,” a Christian Cato who exemplifies ideals present in the universal mind ranging from truth and justice to self-reliance and charity.

He was born under a Christian and humane star, full of mansuetude and nobleness, honor, and charity; and, whilst he was willing to face every disagreeable duty, whilst he dared to do all that might beseem a man, his self-respect restrained him from any foolhardiness. The Homeric heroes, when they saw gods mingling in the fray, sheathed their swords. So did not he feel any call to make it a contest of personal strength with mobs or nations; but when he saw the day and the gods went against him, he withdrew, but with unaltered belief. All was conquered praeter atrocem animum Catonis.

(W 10:437)

By virtue of practicing the law, Hoar stands out among Emerson's subjects as a man of the world. Nonetheless, he is a vigorous model of Emerson's ideal, proving that no matter what profession or place one fills, one may possess the capacity to integrate operations of spirit with one's own conduct.

Writing about his friend Thoreau, Emerson portrays his subject as representing an ideal response to materialism and pessimism and thus as personifying an ideal version of life for nineteenth-century America. Thoreau the man is indistinguishable from his ideals: he is the ideal actualized.

Thoreau was sincerity itself, and might fortify the convictions of prophets in ethical laws, by his holy living. It was an affirmative experience which refused to be set aside. A truth-speaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation; a physician to the wounds of any soul; a friend knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart. He thought that without religion or devotion of some kind, nothing great was ever accomplished. … Himself of a perfect probity, he required not less of others. … He praised wild mountains and winter forests for their domestic air; in snow and ice, he would find sultriness; and commended the wilderness for resembling Rome and Paris. … [He possessed a] tendency to magnify the moment, to read all the laws of nature in the one subject or one combination under [his] eye.

(“Emerson's ‘Thoreau’” 52)

Thoreau's habits and social relations in and around Concord sound forth as a panegyric to one who has perhaps uniquely fulfilled Emerson's program. Thoreau was a student of nature, and his study of nature, “a perpetual ornament to him[,] … inspired his friends with curiosity to see … through his eyes.” In society, he “interrogated every custom, and wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation.” In matters religious, he “was a protestant à outrance, and few lives contain so many renunciations.” In a world devoted to commerce, industry, and material gain, he “had no temptations to fight against; no appetites, no passions, no taste for elegant trifles”; in a world that glorified the dandy, he was always “somewhat military in his nature, not to be subdued, always manly and able.” His intellectual and imaginative needs define him as an Emersonian type for “man thinking”: “[h]e wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory.” Although sometimes hermit-like and stoic, Thoreau was susceptible to the whole range of good feelings that could move a heart. He was “fond of sympathy, and threw himself heartily and childlike into the company of young people whom he loved, and whom he delighted to entertain.” In sum, Thoreau “was a speaker and actor of the truth” (“Thoreau” 37-39, 53).

Emerson's extravagant praise of Thoreau stands out as unique among his biographical sketches. Likewise, he contradicts one of his cardinal principles with regard to specificity of personal detail: “Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize” (CW 4:104). In “Thoreau,” Emerson developed his subject with an unexpected degree of specificity. In keeping perhaps with his nationalistic theme, Thoreau is not only an ideal man but also an ideal American man.

Considerable space is devoted to a sympathy and symmetry between Thoreau's physical traits and the landscape of Concord, where he roams and where he prepares his charts and communes with nature. Emerson notes that Thoreau was adapted to the environment much like James Fenimore Cooper's character Natty Bumpo.

He was short of stature, firmly built. … His senses were acute, his frame well-knit and hardy, his hands strong and skilful in the use of tools. And there was a wonderful fitness of body and mind. He could pace sixteen rods more accurately than another man could measure them with rod and chain. He could find his path in the woods at night … better by his feet than his eyes. He could estimate the measure of a tree very well by his eye; he could estimate the weight of a calf or pig, like a dealer. … He was a good swimmer, runner, skater, boatman, and would probably out-walk most countrymen in a day's journey. And the relation of body to mind was still finer than we have indicated.

(“Emerson's ‘Thoreau’” 41)

Like Bumpo, Emerson's real-life hero is a born naturalist whose feeling for natural history was so “organic,” so “very deep in his mind,” that he refused to define “the meaning of Nature.” Thoreau let “[e]very [natural] fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole” (46-7). Thoreau confessed that he sometimes felt like a hound or a panther, and, “if born among Indians, would have been a fell hunter.” Too civilized actually to take up bow and arrow or tomahawk, he nevertheless enjoyed a prelapsarian familiarity with the creatures of the land: “[s]nakes coiled round his leg; the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection” (47). Emerson also remarks on the authority one commands in politics, society, and moral debate achieved by such an identification with the natural environment.

[So] much knowledge of Nature's secret and genius few others possessed; none in a more large and religious synthesis. For not a particle of respect had he to the opinions of any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself. … He grew to be revered and admired by his townsmen, who had at first known him only as an oddity. The farmers who employed him as a surveyor soon discovered his rare accuracy and skill, his knowledge of their lands, of trees, of birds, of Indian remains and the like, which enabled him to tell every farmer more than he knew before of his own farm. … They felt, too, the superiority of character which addressed all men with a native authority.


As a fitting conclusion to a native life so well lived, Emerson revisits Thoreau's privileged relation to transcendent Nature and native landscape. Thoreau was a “commissioned spirit,” a human voice ordained by Nature to advertise and protect the landscape and the ideal vision it offers to right-minded, poetic human beings. Thoreau's lament in the following passage resembles Natty Bumpo's lament at the destruction of nature.

[Thoreau] delighted in echoes, and said, they were almost the only kind of kindred voices that he heard. He loved nature so well, was so happy in her solitude, that he became very jealous of cities, and the sad work which their refinements and artifices made with man and his dwelling. The axe was always destroying his forest—“Thank God,” he said, “they cannot cut down the clouds. All kinds of figures are drawn on the blue ground, with this fibrous white paint.”


Bronson Alcott is a very different case in contrast to Samuel Hoar, who exists in a world of commerce and law, and to Thoreau, the child of nature and mediator between nature's facts and the thoughts they signify. Alcott is an impractical reformer who lives immediately in and for his quasi-Platonic mind. Although he shares with Hoar and Thoreau the Plutarchan and Emersonian trait of natural largeness, he espouses a philosophy which, to the extent that it has become his “biography,” frustrates any attempt to extract a system out of his life or to capture his essence for general emulation. Like a “gold ore in great abundance in which the gold is in combination with such elements that no chemistry has yet been able to separate it without great loss[,] Alcott is a man of unquestionable genius, yet no doctrine or sentence or word or action of his which is excellent can be detached & quoted” (JMN 11:51; ABA 18, 27-28). As much as Hoar and Thoreau are defined by versions of mid-nineteenth-century American life which they represent, Alcott may be defined only by subjective worlds where his friends find solace by finding in him representations of themselves. Alcott has the capacity to fathom and reflect back onto those in his little circle their own best intellectual and imaginative abilities. Alcott's good nature is foremost in Emerson's mind when he describes their own personal relationship.

Alcott is a certain 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. Of course, he seems to them the only & wise man. But when they meet people of another sort, critics & practical, & are asked concerning Alcott's wisdom, they have no books to open, no doctrines to impart, no sentences or sayings to repeat, and they find it quite impossible to communicate to these their good opinion.

Me he has served … in that way; he was the reasonable creature to speak to, that I wanted.

(JMN 11:19; ABA 25)

Emerson would never write his life of Alcott, yet without any doubt he highly prized Alcott's generative powers or, as he once called them, “spermatic” powers, that is, his setting in motion countless ideas and ethical resolutions. In the privacy of his journals Emerson entered a sexual simile that best characterized Alcott: “[Alcott] was like a vigorous cock let into the coop of a farm house. He trod the hundred hens of the barnyard, and the very partridges for a mile round, and for the next fortnight the whole country side was filled with cackle over the eggs which they laid.”7 Any “eggs” fathered by Alcott would assuredly have run counter to expectations of orthodox nineteenth-century political wisdom, such hatchings hardly ever yielding financial profit or title to large tracts of land. Yet, for Emerson, Alcott is valuable because he ushers his companions out of modern meanspiritedness and back to the “Chaldaean, Egyptian, or Teutonic ages, when man was not featherbrained … or servile, but, if he stooped, he stooped under Ideas: times when the earth spoke & the heavens glowed, when the actions of men indicated vast conceptions … [and showed] that is only real which men love & rejoice in,—not the things which starve & freeze & terrify them” (JMN 8:6-7). Alcott provides a vision of “the first monks and anchorets without [one's having to cross] seas or centuries.” He verifies the thesis of “History”: “all History becomes subject & repeats itself. … [N]ow Alcott with his hatred of labor & commanding contemplation, a haughty beneficiary, makes good to the 19th Century Simeon the Stylite & the Thebaid, & the first Capuchins” (JMN 7:211; ABA 27; CW 2:16). In sum, Alcott is a “singular person, a natural Levite, a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek,” and though Emerson admits that were Alcott to be “a founder of a family or institution,” Emerson himself would not endeavor to raise funding, he believes Alcott's service is so crucial to the well-being of those he touches that “all good persons [should] readily combine … to maintain [Alcott] as a priest by voluntary contribution to live in his own cottage[,] literary, spiritual, and choosing his own methods of teaching & action” (JMN 8:300-301; ABA 19).

By virtue of his conversational and speculative abilities which transcend time and place, Alcott invites others to enjoy the inheritance of virtue and thought from earlier ages. Alcott is thus out of step with his time. To an age that believes in material progress only, Alcott stands as a philosophic anachronism, a defiant anomaly. He measures progress by its inherent “folly,” and he finds common labor “a cruel waste of time [that] depresse[s] his spirits even to tears” (JMN 8:211-12). Emerson might have praised Alcott as philosophic and defiant, as “the magnificent dreamer, brooding as ever on the … reedification of the social fabric after ideal law, heedless that he ha[s] been uniformly rejected by every class [except by his intimates] to whom he has addressed himself” (JMN 9:50; ABA 19). Conceding that Alcott “dissatisfies … & disgusts many” because “it is speculation which he loves & not action,” Emerson would have characterized him as an “intellectual Torso,” a “celestial mind incapable of offence, of haste, of care, of inhospitality, of peeping, of memory, incapable of being embarrassed, incapable of discourtesy, treating all with a sovereign equality” (JMN 8:212, 9:164; ABA 20-21, 26). Finally, however, because Alcott believes in the soul, Emerson would have lavished on him the praise which he reserved for those special persons who elevate joy and hope in the hearts of those they encounter, whose “actions are poetic and miraculous,” and in whose presence “one believes in … immortality” (“Character,” W 10:101). Because it was Alcott's belief in the soul that attracted Emerson to his company, it is likely that in his intended biography Emerson would have returned to a definitive description written in 1838, of Alcott's character and value.

I think he has more faith in the Ideal than any man I have known. Hence his welcome influence. A wise woman said to me that he has few thoughts, too few. She could count them all. Well. Books, conversation, discipline will give him more. But what were many thoughts if he had not this distinguishing Faith, which is palpable proclamation out of the deeps of nature that God yet is? With many thoughts, & without this, he would be only one more of a countless throng of lettered men; but now you cannot spare the fortification that he is.

(JMN 7:34; ABA 18)


We dissect Kant and Hegel, but the wonder is not explained. The central life we do not touch. It remains a miracle as astounding now as at the beginning of Philosophy. … I think … persons who are most impressive to us interest us without reference to their education. They have an insight we cannot explain. People who have been particularly attractive to me are those of whom I can give no account. They have neither families nor circumstances. They show qualities.

(Emerson at the Examiner Club, 7 March 1870)8

If interpreted only as discrete character studies, Emerson's lives of Hoar and Thoreau and his intended life of Alcott may be taken to represent three biographical contrasts between native Emersonian great men who do not, finally, disprove the wisdom of the realist's complaint: “Great men or men of great gifts you shall easily find, but symmetrical men never” (CW 3:134). Read this way, these accounts extend the discontinuity between the theoretical promise of ideal, great men and one's “shabby experience” of real men which Emerson conceded in Representative Men. At this level, the only difference between the figures of Representative Men and those of the biographical miscellanies is the poignancy with which the latter in effect insult the idealist by forcing him to make concessions about theory based not on his “sense” of “departed men” who lived on a grand but distant scale, but on his experience of his own dearest companions (see CW 4:9). Read as discreet character studies, these accounts also may be said to depict men of Emerson's age representing by their idiosyncrasy the exclusionary factions warring for dominance in mid-nineteenth-century America. In the first instance there is Samuel Hoar, man of business and the law, who as spokesperson for progress would seem to have little interest in the qualities—to him, more likely, the affectations and nuisances—attributed to Thoreau, and no interest whatsoever in Alcott's celestial dreams. Then there is Thoreau, who as creature of nature may find in a figure like Hoar a subject deserving his contempt and scorn and, except for noticing his coziness with rats and mice, may find he has little in common with a figure like Alcott who was never associated with even the minutest bit of physical exertion. And, finally, there is Alcott, who as pure intellect personified blithely living off the largesse of others takes delight in poking fun at the folly of men who, like Hoar, seem encumbered by their notions of progress and may wonder at the sense of those who, like Thoreau, find satisfaction in allowing snakes to curl around their legs or in pulling woodchucks by their tails.

Yet evidence from his journals as well as from the sketches themselves shows that Emerson never intended his writings on these obscure persons who excited wonder, speculation, and delight in him, and whose lives were lived poems to him, to be read this way; instead, he considered the lives of Hoar, Thoreau, Alcott, and those many others to whom he was attracted as, so Ellen Emerson remarked, very good chapters of human history. Although he portrays in each figure a trait derived from his vocation that sets him completely apart from the others, he also portrays in each an essential, attractive quality—a moral center—which all three share in common. For Emerson, Hoar is the New World's gentleman-businessman-democrat—a Napoleon with a conscience combined with a Montaigne without skepticism—who, by virtue of his conscience, has the ability to effect enlightened change in society and tame the crassness of the rising middle class through the exercise of will complemented by moral vision. Although he does not specifically address this aspect of Hoar's character and value in the printed sketch, in his journal for 1844 Emerson did address it in a paragraph he eventually adapted for use in “Montaigne, or the Skeptic”:

Men are edificant or otherwise. Samuel Hoar is to all men's eyes conservative & constructive: his presence supposes a well ordered society, agriculture, trade, large institutions & empire. If these things did not exist, they would begin to exist through his steady will & endeavours. Therefore he cheers & comforts men, who feel all this in him very readily. The reformer, the rebel, who comes by, says, all manner of unanswerable things against the existing republic, but discovers to my groping Daemon no plan of house or empire of his own. Therefore though Samuel Hoar's town & state are a very cheap and modest commonwealth men very rightly go for him & flout the reformer.

(JMN 9:113-14; CW 4:96-97)

By contrast, in Thoreau's naturalistic, physical, and moral vigor Emerson discovered the traits most needed in the New World environment in which Nature would proceed with her design of an ideal race. And, finally, Alcott is, for Emerson, the New World's Socratic agent provocateur, Nature's “commissioned spirit” who must be cultivated, sounded, and, literally, fed, because his intellectual and moral vigor is a necessary complement to Hoar's activism and Thoreau's environmentalism.

Thus if, as Emerson predicted in English Traits, “the elasticity and hope of mankind” reside in the ideas, poetry, cities, institutions, and spirit of America's evolving self-reliant men (W 5:314), then it is only because of the moral self-sufficiency which joins these three men together that the promise of the ideal in society will never be destroyed by the anarchy of material culture nor the advantages of idealism ever be outweighed by the decadent indulgences of pessimism. In Hoar, Thoreau, and Alcott, Emerson found his surest evidence that intellect and virtue had not been exhausted by the great men of earlier ages, that the sacred had not been permanently offset by the mundane. Indeed, in his lives of such “Littleendians,” Emerson reaffirmed the “riches of [his] inheritance in being set down in this world” and thus ironically realized his ambition of writing the American Plutarch.


  1. Except for studies by Berry and Roberson, or editorial introductions by Bosco (Emerson, “‘Blessed’”), Myerson (Emerson, “Emerson's ‘Thoreau’”), and Williams, or Sarah Wider's paper “Inventing a Life: The Example of the Sermons,” at the American Literature Association, Washington, D. C., 29 May 1991 and my own papers “Emerson's Littleendians: A Hedge against the Anarchy of Material Culture,” Modern Language Association of America, New York, 27 December 1989 and “The Anarchy of Material Culture: An Unspoken Side of Emerson's Nationalism,” American Literature Association, San Diego, 28 May 1992, most detailed commentary on Emerson's theory and practice of biography has occurred within discussions of his Christology, skepticism, and philosophy of history. See Michael, Mott, Neufeldt, Nicoloff, Richardson, Robinson (Apostle and “Sermons”), and Whicher.

  2. In 1849, Emerson established a correspondence between the figures developed in Representative Men and those who would represent the ideal in his proposed biographical essays. Thereby, he would preserve idealism from the vagaries of human conduct. Under the respective headings “Bigendians” and “Littleendians” he paired Plato with Alcott, Swedenborg with Jones Very, Shakespeare with Charles King Newcomb, Montaigne with Ellery Channing, Goethe with himself, and Napoleon with Thoreau (JMN 11:173). The editors of JMN volume 11 judged Emerson's juxtaposition of Napoleon and Thoreau unclear. Subsequently, drawing on Emerson's unpublished notebook “Auto,” Nancy Simmons recently observed that late in life Emerson removed Thoreau from the comparison with Napoleon and inserted James Elliot Cabot and Samuel Gray Ward. He replaced himself in the comparison with Goethe by substituting both Carlyle and Thoreau (1). However these pairings are construed, for Emerson they represented a continuity between the accomplishments of great men from the past and the promise of his own contemporaries.

  3. Many historical and biographical writings influenced Emerson's thought. Extensive reading in and journal commentary on an “organic” model of history show the influence of Coleridge, Goethe, and Friedrich von Schlegel. In his journals, Emerson debated assumptions about history and biography advanced by Carlyle and the French philosopher Victor Cousin. He assimilated Carlyle's definition of history as “the essence of innumerable biographies” into his own evolving idealistic system. At the same time, ideas from Cousin's Introduction a l'histoire de la philosophe (1828), which Emerson owned in an English translation, shaped or colored Emerson's ideas on the relation between history and biography as well as issues he raises in Nature, “The Method of Nature,” “Circles,” and “Nominalist and Realist.” A typical Cousin passage:

    What is the business of history? … What is the stuff of which it is made? Who is the personage of history? Man: evidently man and human nature. There are many different elements in history. What are they? Evidently again, the elements of human nature. History is therefore the development of humanity, and of humanity only; for nothing else but humanity develops itself, for nothing else than humanity is free. … We must begin with seeking the essential elements of humanity, and proceed by deriving from the nature of these elements their fundamental relations, and from these the laws of their development; and finally we must go to history and ask if it confirms or rejects our results.

    (Cited in EL 2:3)

    Emerson's debt to Cousin has attracted little critical attention, but his debt to Carlyle has been extensively reviewed. See particularly Harris (70-96), Nicoloff (70-90), and Williams (xix-xxi).

  4. Michael, Nicoloff, Whicher, and Williams take up Emerson's putative loss of idealism. They have contributed to what Neufeldt identifies as an “efficient assumption” (12) governing our understanding of Emerson's career. The “efficient assumption” is this: between the mid-1840s, when he began preparing the “Representative Men” lectures, and the appearance successively of English Traits (1856), The Conduct of Life (1860), and Society and Solitude (1870) Emerson moved away from idealism toward realism, skepticism, and naturalism. I do not subscribe to this theory of such an “efficient assumption.” Emerson frequently rejected realism, skepticism, and naturalism (JMN 11:95; W 6:48; JMN 13:229).

  5. Techniques Emerson and Plutarch share have been summarized by Berry: (1) at most, facts surrounding the life of the subject are briefly mentioned either at the beginning or the end of a biographical sketch or formal essay; (2) character, the biographical and moral center of the subject, is elaborated through anecdote, epigram, second-hand or third-hand accounts, and personal material such as letters, poems, diaries, and essays; and (3) sentiments and values most appropriate to an individual of noteworthy character are idealism, self-reliance, integrity, simplicity, manliness, and high principle (258-59ff).

  6. Lectures and Biographical Sketches, as first compiled by Cabot, is Volume 10 of Emerson's Complete Works (W). Emerson's biographical notebooks on his brother Charles, Margaret Fuller, and Thoreau have been printed in JMN 6:255-86, 9:455-509, and 15:483-92, respectively; his recently published notebook on Alcott is cited below. His notebooks C[harles] K[ing] N[ewcomb] and multi-volume M[ary] M[oody] E[merson] remain unpublished in the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

    Notebooks on Mary Moody Emerson and Thoreau, both of whom predeceased Emerson, proved handy resources for memorial lectures immediately upon their deaths. Posthumously, in essays collected by his executors as Lectures and Biographical Sketches, Emerson would produce his most formal biographical accounts of contemporary “Littleendians.” As with the pieces on Mary Moody Emerson and Thoreau, before being collected in 1884, essays on Ezra Ripley, Samuel Hoar, Carlyle, and George L. Stearns had done service variously as a funeral oration, an address before an interested society, or a magazine publication, but each, regardless of its prior service, was substantially drawn from materials Emerson had preserved in journals and topical notebooks.

  7. JMN 11:134. In the JMN entry this anecdote is used to describe the otherwise unidentified “M.” However, in journal indices in ABA (19), Emerson's keyed reference to Alcott's “spermatic powers” refers to this entry. The reference is a coarse pun on the original spelling of the Alcott name, which during the previous century-and-a-half had evolved from “Alcock” to “Alcocke” to “Alcox” before Bronson finally changed it to “Alcott.”

  8. Emerson's remarks, together with a brief history of his association with the Examiner Club and a transcription of the minutes of the Club's meeting on 7 March 1870, will appear in Litton's forthcoming article “Emerson and the Examiner Club.” I am grateful to Professor Litton for sharing his work with me in advance of its publication.

Works Cited

Berry, Edmund G. Emerson's Plutarch. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.

Emerson, Ellen Tucker. The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson. Ed. Edith E. W. Gregg. 2 vols. Kent: Kent State UP, 1982.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “‘Blessed Are They Who Have No Talent:’ Emerson's Unwritten Life of Amos Bronson Alcott.” Ed. Ronald A. Bosco. ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 36.1 (1990): 1-36. Cited as ABA.

———. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Alfred R. Ferguson, Joseph Slater, et al. 4 vols. to date. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971-. Cited as CW.

———. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903-1904. Cited as W.

———. The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle. Ed. Joseph Slater. New York: Columbia UP, 1964.

———. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959-71. Cited as EL.

———. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960-82. Cited as JMN.

———. “Emerson's ‘Thoreau’: a New Edition from Manuscript.” Ed. Joel Myerson. Studies in the American Renaissance 1979. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. 17-92.

Harris, Kenneth Marc. Carlyle and Emerson: Their Long Debate. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.

Litton, Alfred G. “Emerson and the Examiner Club: An Unpublished Conversation.” New England Quarterly [forthcoming 1994].

Michael, John. Emerson and Skepticism: The Cipher of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

Mott, Wesley T. The Strains of Eloquence: Emerson and His Sermons. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.

Neufeldt, Leonard. The House of Emerson. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

Nicoloff, Philip L. Emerson on Race and History: An Examination of English Traits. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.

Richardson, Robert D., Jr. “Emerson on History.” Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect. Ed. Joel Porte. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982. 49-64.

Roberson, Susan L. “Young Emerson and the Mantle of Biography.” American Transcendental Quarterly. N. S. 5 (1991): 151-68.

Robinson, David M. Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.

———. “The Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Introductory Historical Essay.” The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Albert J. von Frank et al. 4 vols. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989-92. I:1-32.

Simmons, Nancy Craig. “Thoreau as Napoleon; or A Note on Emerson's Big, Little, and Good Endians.” Emerson Society Papers 4.1 (1993): 1-4.

Whicher, Stephen E. Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.

Williams, Wallace E. “Historical Introduction.” Representative Men. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Wallace E. Williams and Douglas Emory Wilson. 4 vols. to date. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. IV:xi-lxv.

Barbara Ryan (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Emerson's ‘Domestic and Social Experiments’: Service, Slavery, and the Unhired Man,” in American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 485-508.

[In the following essay, Ryan outlines Emerson's ideas on abolition, examining the development of these views in the context of the writer's own domestic arrangements.]

I hope New England will come to boast itself in being a nation of servants, & leave to the planters the misery of being a nation of served.

—R. W. Emerson, Journal C (1837)

Len Gougeon has shown that Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled a long way between 1837, when he made his first “abolitionist” speech, and 1844, when he affirmed his opposition to chattel slavery. The first effort, Gougeon notes, disappointed Emerson's friends because it was more a defense of free speech than a denunciation of American slavery; indeed, the great idealist had recommended tolerance for slaveholders' views. Yet by 1844 Emerson made a stirring antislavery speech which, according to Gougeon, found him speaking “with an emotional as well as an intellectual appreciation” he had not demonstrated earlier. Gougeon explains this dramatic shift with reference to developments in Emerson's philosophy and sense of vocation.1

Here, I propose another perspective on Emerson's decision to advocate abolition precisely when, and on the terms, he did. This perspective helps explain three related phenomena: how a series of “domestic & social experiments” helped shape Emerson's published views on American slavery; how hard reformers had to struggle against prevailing notions of mastery, domestic service, and the home; and how Emerson's slow conversion to antislavery was part and parcel of his dwindling enthusiasm for the once-feted Henry Thoreau.

The linchpin holding these phenomena together is Emerson's unphilosophical vexation with America's “servant problem.” That much-discussed concern was a response to, and affirmation of, changing social patterns in the industrializing Northeast. From Puritan days through the eighteenth century, servants had been understood as members, or almost-members, of the families in which they served. But by the 1820s, that time-tested trope looked less pertinent to domestic patterns in America's industrializing areas. One change was that industrialization separated home and work, a shift that made waged co-residents seem anomalous. Another was that altered legal structures gave waged domestic workers increased mobility, a freedom their disgruntled employers deplored as upsetting their hearths and homes. Third, and perhaps most worrisome, dense urban populations eroded many served Americans' sense that non-kin domestic workers were, or could be made, familial co-residents who could be trusted within their ostensibly “privatized” abodes.2 Pinpointing these anxieties, Caroline Howard Gilman, an anti-abolitionist, wrote gleefully that a new waged servant was “a forlorn hope—one of those experiments that New-England ladies are so constantly obliged to make of the morals and dispositions of strangers.”3 Gilman's subtlety lies in her implicit comparison to the affectionate bonds supposed to exist between slaveholders and petted house chattel. The expression a “family white and black” usually included chattel field hands. But “family” feelings were thought especially likely among those house slaves who enjoyed long-term, intimate, and supposedly affectionate relationships with those they served. Those slaves, whom I call “chattel servants” or “house chattel,” were routinely praised as more loving, efficient, and loyal than the North's waged domestic workers.

Beginning in the 1830s, propagation of the notion of a “plantation family” invited middling homemakers of all regions to contrast the service relations extant on the two sides of the Mason-Dixon. In response to mounting abolitionist activity, proslavery propagandists boosted the idea that loving, childlike chattel, born and raised within sight of the Big House, would grow into more familial attendants than wage-hungry “strangers” ever could. These same writers also promoted the idea that affection foundered on waged relations. As everyone recognized, house chattel served without benefit of wages while waged servants were apt to leave if cash were not forthcoming. Under these circumstances, it was hard for wage-payers to claim “family” feeling, and proslavery writers were quick to seize the emotive edge. George Fitzhugh smirked: “we love our slaves, and we are ready to defend, assist and protect them; you hate and fear your white servants.”4 Much of Fitzhugh's popularity was due to such canny thrusts: this jibe reproduced exactly many wage-payers' own anxieties and envies.

Today, of course, Fitzhugh's claims appear disingenuous, rhetorical posturing in aid of repugnant political goals. But in the early years of the nineteenth century, many believed that slaveholders had found a better form of service. Those wage-payers who had never owned chattel servants, such as Waldo Emerson, would have been especially likely to believe that an extended and nonwaged “family” was the best model yet devised for providing comfortable and mutually beneficial service relations.

Emerson did not hope to reinstitute slavery in Massachusetts. But he did try, between 1837 and 1844, to establish “family-style” domestic service, as if to show that slaveholders were not the only ones who could create or maintain familial bonds. Only after a series of experiments had been tried and found wanting did he accede to friends' pleas to oppose slavery publicly. Then, like most antislavery speakers, he had most to say about the field hand. But it is noteworthy that when he did turn his attention to chattel servants, Emerson was particularly impressed by the “silent obedience” he thought those workers would supply.

Demands for silence were far from Emerson's mind when he first set up housekeeping at Bush, a large private home in Concord, in 1835. Before that date, Emerson did not recognize a servant problem, probably because, during his first marriage, he had “boarded out.” But when he married for a second time, Emerson was forced to confront the domestic workers he had once paid landladies to manage. By 1838, he thought the issues agitating American society to be: “War, Slavery, Alcohol, animal food, Domestic hired service, Colleges, Creeds, & now at last Money.”5 By 1840, he would come to see servants and slaves as more closely related; in his lecture “Religion,” given that same year, he publicly praised those who worked for “the freedom of the servant and the slave.”6 Later still, Emerson would retreat from this radical conflation: by the late 1840s, waged domestic servants were accepted as fixtures in the Emersons' home.

It is the interim period that interests me here, the years during which Emerson came to realize that waged relations offered savvy homemakers certain advantages. Lidian Emerson had always thought so: though an early and unwavering advocate of antislavery, she was happy to employ domestic assistants. Thus she had written in 1822: “I don't see how you can get along with so many ‘to make & mend for’ and bad help. I see but one remedy against being hurried all the time out of your wits, and that is to hire work enough done to enable you to get along easy. What is expense in comparison with the comfort of one's life and the improvement of ones mind.”7 Lidian did not share her husband's dis-ease with waged domestics. Indeed, she was willing to contend, acerbically, with a neighbor she thought had “stolen” a servant promised to the Emerson home.8

Servants, she recognized, were simple necessities, at least in a home as large and hospitable as Bush. But they were also encumbrances, especially for an inexperienced bride. According to Ellen Tucker Emerson's memoir of her mother, the erstwhile religieuse predicated her agreement to marry on her suitor's realization that she had not been trained to run a home. “[S]he foresaw,” wrote Ellen Emerson, “that with her long life wholly aside from housekeeping she should not be a skillful mistress of a house and that it would be a load of care and labour from which she shrank and a giving up of an existence she thoroughly enjoyed and to which she had become exactly fitted, and she could not undertake it unless he was sure he loved her and needed her enough to justify her in doing it.”9 Waldo inevitably replied that he was sure, and the reluctant housekeeper accepted his hand, his home, and the management of his mother's servants.

Newly arrived at Bush, Lidian gushed to her sister, Lucy Jackson Brown, “This Nancy of the Emerson's is indeed a treasure. I will when I have time write you particulars concerning her—such a rare blessing as wise and faithful help, is worth writing about” (SL, 34). Unfortunately, relations with Nancy Colesworthy did not run smoothly for long. Though Lidian gained confidence in housekeeping as she grew accustomed to staff management, Waldo recorded his wife's confession, in 1838, that “when she gives any new direction in the kitchen she feels like a boy who throws a stone & runs” (JMN, 5:479).

Waldo was alternately charmed by his wife's efforts and irritated by poor household management. In a genial mood, he could write: “The common household tasks are agreeable to the imagination: they are the subjects of all the Greek gems”; though another day would find him wishing: “my housekeeping should be clean & sweet & … it should not shame or annoy me” (JMN, 7:242 and 229). He usually vented his impatience on the servants whom he saw as causing the distress, but he could also indict his wife's incompetence. According to Waldo, “literary men” who marry should take a “shrew for a wife, a sharp-tongued notable dame who can & will assume the total economy of the house, and having some sense that her philosopher is best in his study suffers him not to intermeddle with her thrift” (JMN, 7:420).

Most advice manuals supported a husband's distance from servant problems.10 But when that husband was a clergyman, he was even less obliged to do household work: at least two advice books of the 1830s taught that domestic servants should minister to ministers. In one, a reluctant waged serving maid is persuaded that a servant is not “a low and a mean thing to be,” since “if there were no mechanics and no servants, then preachers and writers, and all such as have gained a good education, would have to get their own food and clothes, and do housework for themselves. And that would keep them busy all day long, and every day; so that they would not have time to preach and write books, and spread knowledge and religion, however fit and able they might be to do it; so there would be little or no good done.” “Yes,” this fictional servant-to-be concludes happily, “I see that servants help to get the gospel taught.”11

Her ideas were seconded by William Andrus Alcott, a popular and prolific writer of domestic advice manuals and, not incidentally, Bronson Alcott's cousin. In The Young Woman's Guide to Excellence, Alcott offered his own version of the preceding story, with his anecdote of a servant whose labors rivaled that of any missionary. “She is an ordinary domestic—and no more,” Alcott wrote, but because her employer is a teacher, her influence extends unto the multitude. “And if ninety millions,” he perorated, “or even one tenth that number of citizens should, in the course of the next two centuries, reap the benefit of his labors, and become lights in the world, is it too much to say that she has been an important aid in accomplishing the work?”12

Considering the popularity of this notion, Waldo Emerson may be excused for thinking devoted service his due. But he would also have known that most households did without servants and that many considered reliance on waged servants enervating, anti-Christian, and unrepublican. Despite these fears, Alcott admitted servants to selected homes, especially those with sick inmates and those which entertained frequently. This last condition may have soothed Waldo's doubts about his home's reliance on waged non-kin: in the early years of his second marriage, he kept open board for his admirers.

Of course Southerners were famous for hospitality, too. The difference in the South, at least in proslavery literature, was that domestic staffs were assumed to be always present, willing, and numerous, qualities sometimes lacking in the staff at Bush. With Swallow Barn (1832), Sheppard Lee (1836), and other plantation fantasies much in evidence, Emerson must have succumbed to a few sideways glances: that is, his views on slavery would have affected his dawning sense of a “servant problem” just as much as his gripes about waged service influenced his thoughts on chattel labor. With portraits of a loving, immobilized plantation “family” being promoted on all sides, any American homemaker could have found restless co-residents disturbing. But the point was particularly acute for the lecturer who proclaimed that the “constant progress of Culture is to a more interior life, to a deeper Home.”13 Obviously, with waged co-residents coming and going just as they pleased, this desideratum was out of step with most domestic employers' realities. William Gilmore Simms probed this wound succinctly in 1837. “Envy of the North by the South!” he snorted. “The boot is on the other leg, perhaps.”14

The progress of Emerson's thought suggests that Simm's mockery was well founded: during the period in which he abstained from abolition, Emerson directed his energies toward establishing a waged domestic staff as familial and immobilized as any slaveholder could boast. To accomplish the goal of a family-like serving force would have been a home-lover's triumph in a day when great spiritual value was attributed to a stable and stabilizing domestic realm. Emerson accepted these values: in his lecture “Home,” he grieves over the family in which a homemaker “had supposed a perfect understanding and intimate bonds subsisted,” only to find “with surprise that in proportion to the force of character existing all are in a degree strangers to and mutually observant of each other's acts” (EL, 32). To counteract domestic strangeness, this harried householder suggests that men become more involved in the domestic sphere: “He is not yet a man,” this same lecture asserts, “if he have not learned the Household Laws, if he have not learned how in some way to labor for the maintenance of himself and others” (EL, 33). This struggle to fit men into domestic life (still ongoing in some American homes) had its roots in the same home/market split that gave rise to the “servant problem.”

For if home was essentially woman's sphere, then where did men or servants fit within its sacralized boundaries? It is much to Emerson's credit that he tried to find himself domestic duties; it is much to his credit, too, that he saw servants' position in a non-kin family as ripe for reform. But his greatest imaginative leap was to see what most domestic employers refused to consider: that waged domestic service was not wholly different from Southern slavery.

In “Reforms,” another pre-Brook Farm lecture, this thinker reveals the conceptual proximity of waged and chattel service. “[I]n a community where labor was the point of honor,” he claims, “the vain and the idle would labor. What a mountain of chagrins, inconveniences, diseases, and sins would sink into the sea with the uprise of this one doctrine of labor. Domestic hired service would go over the dam. Slavery would fall into the pit. Shoals of maladies would be exterminated, and the Saturnian Age revive” (EL, 264).15 By 1839, then, Emerson was arguing that, in a better world, both forms of service would disappear. He expected, as did his friends George and Sophia Ripley, that the rethinking or revaluing of menial labor would put an end to both these abuses against the home.

Yet neither rethinking nor revaluing would help Lidian with what she dubbed the “Martha-like care of wine & custards” (SL, 62). Idealists could say that housekeeping itself was the real problem: hence Waldo's scorn of domestic fripperies and repeated calls for simpler housekeeping. But it is easy to imagine Lidian's reaction to such dreamy heights: her housekeeping was not arduous by choice. The more practical option, therefore, especially as one's family grew, might be to make servants seem more like kin.

This strategy explains why Waldo Emerson began, in 1840, a series of domestic reforms intended to make waged servants extended “family.” Only after these efforts failed did Emerson agree to speak out against slavery. In other words, he did not commit his energies to abolition until he had found, for himself, that servants could not be immobilized or made less disturbing simply by employers' treating them as members of one united household. It suggests a nice sense of honor—or bullheadedness—that Emerson refrained from attacking Southerners' domestic service while he tried to devise better labor arrangements within his own home.

Lidian, already committed to antislavery, thought at least one of her husband's domestic proposals “a wild scheme.”16 Her pragmatic scorn—or nineteenth-century gender roles—may explain why her husband most often discussed service reforms in the voice of the first person singular. For instance, in the letter expressing his half-apologetic decision not to join Brook Farm, Waldo tries to let the Ripleys down lightly, claiming to be “so ignorant & uncertain in my improvements that I would fain hide my attempts & failures in solitude where they shall perplex none or very few beside myself.”17 He adds, as if his wife played no part in such domestic efforts, “The ground of my decision is almost purely personal to myself” and “I think that all I shall solidly do, I must do alone” (Letters, 2:369-70).18

But the best explanation for Emerson's self-portrayed solitude is that his experiments were all attempts to establish more fully the so-called privatized home. Brook Farm was no solution, then, for the theorist of the single-family hearth. “I think,” suggests one version of this important apologia, “that my present position has even greater advantages than yours would offer me for testing my improvements in those small private parties into which men are all set off already throughout the world” (Letters, 2:370). This same letter makes it clear that service relations are the rub. “The principal particulars in which I wish to mend my domestic life,” Emerson declares, “are in acquiring habits of regular manual labor, and in ameliorating or abolishing in my house the condition of hired menial service. … But surely I need not sell my house & remove my family to Newton in order to make the experiment of labor & self help. I am already in the act of trying some domestic & social experiments which my present position favors” (2:370). This refusal of communitarian living includes the substitution of the words “ameliorating or abolishing” for the original “discontinuing.” There is little practical difference between “discontinuing” and “abolishing,” though the latter obviously echoes antislavery rhetoric. But there is a good deal of room between “ameliorating” and “abolishing,” and Emerson's real movement was toward the former.

Yet it is easy to see why the Ripleys thought the Emerson family a likely candidate for Brook Farm: in the late 1830s, Waldo was wont to proclaim the beauties of communal labor. In “Domestic Life,” a lecture delivered during these servant-conscious years, he sounds egalitarian and even gender-neutral, when he scoffs that “this voice of communities and ages, ‘Give us wealth, and the good household shall exist,’ is vicious, and leaves the whole difficulty untouched. It is better, certainly, in this form, ‘Give us your labor, and the household begins.’ I see not how serious labor, the labor of all and every day, is to be avoided.” Going further, he advises his audience that “the reform that applies itself to the household must not be partial. It must correct the whole system of our social living. It must come with plain living and high thinking; it must break up caste, and put domestic service on another foundation.”19 This sentiment, no doubt well intended, proved deceptive: as the Ripleys would find, this thinker preferred to mind his own hen-coop.20

Within that confined space, Emerson's first foray was the “hiring” of Alexander McCaffery, younger brother of a servant employed at William Emerson's home. In mid-March 1840, Emerson decided to “make the experiment for a few months. If we find that he is not good help for us, we can let him come back” (Letters, 7:375). Precisely why he calls this employment an “experiment” is not clear: it was common practice to hire from the family of an already familiar servant as a shortcut to establishing appropriate relations within one's home. Emerson's sense of risk may have resulted from McCaffery's youth, gender, or religious training. He advised Lidian that McCaffery was “to go to Church with us, & to Sunday School,” but does not mention who set these terms (Letters, 7:375).

But Emerson's sense of an “experiment” could also have been due to the fact that McCaffery's “hiring” was difficult to place within the usual categories of service. The boy was nothing if not a domestic servant, since most of his work was with Lidian and the Emerson children.21 On the other hand, he apparently spent most of his time at school, and was not paid: “I have made no other bargain with his sister,” Emerson wrote, “than that I will board & clothe him at present” (Letters, 7:375). Just how the Emersons viewed this arrangement is unclear, but it is close to the pattern of the “bound orphan” and thus a variation on that estate, the condition of human chattel.

Though the Emersons would have been horrified at the suggestion that they had “bought” McCaffery, the terms of the boy's co-residence had much in common with slaves' estate. A master's obligation to offer his slaves religious training marks one similarity; so does McCaffery's limited remuneration. From Emerson's point of view, though, McCaffery's co-residence was probably a blow against chattel conditions and a challenge to abolitionists' importunings. In one of his most famous essays, Emerson could have been talking about McCaffery when he disparaged much-publicized reform efforts as so much self-righteous obfuscation. The quotation is now well known: “If an angry bigot assumes,” he writes in “Self-Reliance,” “this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, ‘Go love thy infant; love thy woodchopper … and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.’”22 These lines admit the extent to which “self-reliance” depended on hired workers; they also suggest that when McCaffery arrived, Emerson hoped to love this woodchopper—that is, to make him part of the Bush “family.” If he could do so, this quotation suggests, he would have shown up Northern abolitionists' outcries as wrong-headed, self-aggrandizing, and remarkably blind to problems in their own backyards—or kitchens.

But of course, there were significant differences between Alexander McCaffery and, say, the young Frederick Douglass—namely, each worker's legal mobility. The flaw in Waldo Emerson's plan to make McCaffery “family” was that a free worker could not easily be held to a given post. Emerson was not, finally, allowed to enact the benevolent “good” master of plantation literature: though he took his duties in loco parentis seriously, he could not prevent Mrs. McCaffery from removing her son from his place at Bush. Sounding more than a little peeved at his waged servant's mobility, Emerson groused that “boys must not be expected to come & go like sheets of lightning. … [W]e had intended to keep the boy” (Letters, 2:382).23

In a more elevated tone, the philosopher admitted: “I should willingly have kept him & made him a partaker of what new experiments we shall try,” and Lidian thought him “my idea of what we should desire in a servant-boy, being quick & skilful as well as pleasant and orderly” (Letters, 2:386; SL, 86). Their contentment was not shared by McCaffery's mother, who preferred her son to learn a trade. Unfortunately for the Emersons' domestic comforts, she had the right to reclaim her offspring. Alexander's thoughts on his removal are not recorded.

Almost as soon as McCaffery was gone, Emerson tried another domestic “experiment,” this time an attempt to heal class divisions between servers and served. In March 1841, he expressed a yearning for family-style intimacy by inviting the cook and “second girl” to share his family's table. The impetus for such a gesture is suggested by related anecdotes. In one, Waldo Emerson expressed discomfort with the sense that servants and masters lived parallel lives within one “family” residence. Thus he noted with chagrin in 1837 that Nancy Colesworthy had felt the need to apologize for using the front door to go to church (JMN, 5:338). A few years later, when his first son was just a toddler, the concerned father recognized that class consciousness developed early. Asked one day to stay at home with a domestic servant, Waldo Jr. cried and refused. Ellen Emerson's memoir quotes the young boy as wailing: “‘I do not want to go with Mrs Hill! Because she has red on her face and red on her arms, and she eats at a table which is not painted [that is, not mahogany] and she is not beautiful’” (Life, 78-79). In Waldo Emerson's journal, a very similar tale has Waldo Jr. refusing to accompany a servant to church “because,” he reportedly told her, “you live in the kitchen” (JMN, 7:541).24

Waldo Jr.'s reference to separate dining arrangements must have smote his father's idealism: the great shibboleth of America's “servant problem” was that servants were not welcome (to sit) at their employers' tables. In the “old days,” liberal Americans liked to recall, waged and indentured servants had eaten with those they worked for and with; by the 1840s, though, genteel authorities forbade that practice. The realization that his young son had already noted and affirmed such class divisions likely influenced Emerson's thoughts on co-residential service. But as if unwilling to confront this thought too directly, he explained the famous invitation to his servants to share the family table (which coincided with the Ripleys' move to Roxbury) with reference not to labor reform but to a happier past. That is, he explained his second “experiment” in domestic service as an attempt to turn servants back into the familial workers associated with a rural age:

You know Lidian & I had dreamed that we would adopt the country practice of having but one table in the house. Well, Lidian went out the other evening & had an explanation on the subject with the two girls. Louisa accepted the plan with great kindness & readiness, but Lydia, the cook, firmly refused—A cook was never fit to come to table, &c. The next morning Waldo was sent to announce to Louisa that breakfast was ready but she had eaten already with Lydia & refuses to leave her alone.

(Letters, 2:389)

This account is not supplemented, unfortunately, by any records from Lydia or Louisa, yet its testimony is suggestive of in-house workers' different status and even power. For instance, while Lidian and the affectionate Louisa apparently concurred with this reform, the cook—a worker with much more clout—did not.

Though the ill-fated invitation is often recounted with a snicker, it provides important evidence that Emerson was trying to make non-kin servants seem familial. This was no easy task in a privatized home, where only one person could be master. Though Emerson admired communal imagery—“We are all boarders at one table,” notes a journal entry from July 1840, “White man, black man, ox and eagle, bee, & worm”—his son's tears remind us that, at this time, he maintained two tables in his own home (JMN, 7:382).

Emerson noted the contradiction but thought that abolitionists generally did not. “My dear little abolitionist,” he wrote in late October 1841, “do not puff & swell so; I am afraid our virtue is a little geographical and that there are sins nearer home that will one day be found of the self-same dye as this scarlet crime of the Virginians” (JMN, 8:138). His next attempt to deal with one of those sins would have consequences for American letters: this time, Emerson chose a servant who shared his own philosophy and who enjoyed an unusually excellent education. While the strategy was still to relieve ruling-class anxiety by making servants familial, new issues arose when the servitor was a thoughtful Harvard man who was also remarkably handy about the house.25

In April 1841, only a few weeks after McCaffery left and less than a month after the Ripleys moved to Roxbury, Emerson crowed: “Henry Thoreau … may stay with me a year. … [H]e is to have his board &c for what labor he chooses to do: and he is thus far a great benefactor & physician to me for he is an indefatigable & a very skilful laborer & I work with him as I should not without him. … Thoreau is a scholar & a poet & as full of buds of promise as a young apple tree” (Letters, 2:402). As this praise indicates, Thoreau, who moved into Bush as an adult and a disciple, was not called a servant. Nonetheless, he took on gardening, home repairs, and child care, jobs that Waldo Emerson professed to enjoy but found little time to do.

Thoreau's duties were not those of the ordinary servant. Instead, resident in the Emersons' home, responsible for duties they and their female staff could not manage, Thoreau was expected, biographer Robert Richardson writes, “to look after things while Emerson was away on his now-frequent lecture tours. … His was a very special position, the friend who is closer than many members of the family, an addition to the inner family group, certainly not a ‘hired man’ or a ‘boarder.’”26 I would argue, though, that Richardson's implied “mere” indicates the extent to which many still want relations within the home to rest on familial affection. For of course, Thoreau was a boarder, if not a hired hand: receiving only room and board, he was closer, as Sherman Paul asserts, to “the status of a poor relation.”27 Considering, though, that mentor and student preferred to dispense with wages, and that Thoreau was not really kin, one way to explain the younger man's presence is within the terms of “disciple service,” serving one's mentor without wages.28

Disciple service would explain a point every biographer questions: the puzzle of why Thoreau did not just live at home and walk to Bush as needed.29 On Emerson's side, the answer would seem to lie in his desire to inculcate family-like relations among all the residents of his home, coupled with his self-image as a patron for younger Transcendentalists. For Thoreau, the advantages were somewhat different: as Sherman Paul has pointed out, his journals of this period “are full of passages on the desire to serve.”30

It was during this period, of course, that Thoreau essayed the fumbling inquiry called “The Service.” Margaret Fuller, editing the Dial in December 1840, rejected this essay, despite Emerson's praise. Twentieth-century scholars have agreed with her assessment: the essay does not represent Thoreau's greatest literary skill. But when Thoreau's willingness to live at Bush is considered alongside his juvenilia, it is plain that the young man was groping for a life mission, one he viewed in terms of dignified self-abnegation. “The Service” was one attempt to determine what that mission might be. The braver attempt, a term at disciple service in a sage's home, was typically Thoreauvian in its insistence that the explorer not write about, but experience, a serving life.

Before moving into the Emersons' home, this stalwart had written: “All those contingences which the philanthropist, statesman, and housekeeper write so many books to meet are simply and quietly settled in the intercourse of friends.”31 One such “contingence” was the masterservant relationship, which Thoreau hoped to realize and improve upon through friendship. This aim Emerson would no doubt have applauded. Unfortunately, the homemaker's ideals could not keep pace with his need for service—nor, perhaps, with his taste for domestic mastery.

This lapse was not entirely Emerson's fault: he could not have known how swiftly his neighbor would come to find service uncomfortable, nor that reigning cultural notions of service would infect even Thoreau's independent mind. Nor, in all likelihood, could Emerson have fully realized how much his expectations had been shaped by a desire for non-kin coresidents who knew and kept their “place.” If either man was susceptible to reigning notions of his day—and it seems quite likely that both were—then good intentions were unlikely to paper over the unpalatable truth that one of the two was the servant, and one the master.

Relations no doubt looked placid enough on the surface: “Henry Thoreau,” Emerson wrote in early 1842, had been “one of the family for the last year” (JMN, 8:165). But Thoreau himself seems to have been troubled: “I want to go soon,” he had written, a few weeks earlier, “and live away by the pond” (JHDT, 299). One source of his dis-ease is suggested by Emerson's letters home, which do not demonstrate the equal friendship Thoreau had moved in to find. Not that Emerson ignored his unhired man: indeed, he was punctilious about sending Thoreau his regards. If those regards sometimes sound like the slaveholder's “Howdy to the servants,” that patronizing echo is pertinent. So is the paucity of reference to Thoreau's happiness or housework, though Emerson probably did not intend a slight. As Paul has noted, the Harvard-trained servant was quickly “taken for granted, superserviceable, the perfect transcendental handy man.”32 According to the domestic advice guides of the day, invisibility was desirable: “good” servants were prized for their near-ectoplasmic attendance. This was one of the reasons many wage-payers imagined slaves made better servants (while those with first-hand experience of chattel servants had their doubts). But the more important reason to consider chattel unintrusive was that, like disciple servants, they did not bring waged relations into the home.

“Sisters & brothers,” Emerson opined to Caroline Sturgis, “must not pay each other money, must they?” (Letters, 7:481). His decision to “adopt” rather than employ Thoreau was based on this same credo; what's more, his disciple fully agreed, at least in principle. One of Thoreau's favorite mottos from the Hindu teacher Menu was that the pure man “must avoid service for hire.”33 So it was not oppression or exploitation that caused Thoreau to be less remunerated than most chattel servants. On the contrary, his unhired status was undoubtedly a mutual decision, pleasing both to the servant-conscious Emerson and the service-conscious Thoreau. It was precisely because this wagelessness helped Emerson to conceive of his disciple as poised somewhere between “servant” and “family member,” paid employee and class equal, that Thoreau could seem to “solve” his guru's servant problem. He did not solve Lidian's staffing troubles: she continued to employ waged domestic servants the whole time Thoreau served at Bush. More to the point, he did not solve his own. In fact, it seems to have been his uncertain siting that most bothered Thoreau about disciple service.

The doubts began almost immediately. In a journal entry written on his first night at Bush and headed “At R. W. E.'s,” Thoreau wrote: “the civilized man has the habits of the house. His house is a prison, in which he finds himself oppressed and confined, not sheltered and protected. He walks as if he sustained the roof; he carries his arms as if the walls would fall in and crush him, and his feet remember the cellar beneath. His muscles are never relaxed. It is rare that he overcomes the house, and learns to sit at home in it” (JHDT, 253). The resentment, verging on fear, of this startling passage indicates more than first-night jitters. As Thoreau's letters and journals of this period indicate, his uneasy position continued to irritate: soon, he would dissociate himself from his menial post. Writing to Lidian's sister, Lucy Jackson Brown, he planned to erect barriers: “I shall hold the nobler part at least out of the service.”34

Of course, Thoreau was not everyone's idea of an easy co-resident. As another neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, noted, “Mr. Emerson appears to have suffered some inconveniency from his experience of Mr. Thoreau as an inmate. It may well be that such a sturdy and uncompromising person is fitter to meet occasionally in the open air, than to have as a permanent guest at table and fireside.”35 The observation should be taken with a grain of salt: Hawthorne was a man so devoted to his privacy that he might have projected his insularity onto Emerson. Yet it is true that Emerson began to question Thoreau's “buds of promise” during the very period he turned the erstwhile apple tree into a servant. This was not because Thoreau worked badly or shirked: when Waldo set out for Europe in 1847, Lidian asked that Henry return to Bush, though this time in the dignified role of secretary. She must have known about the discomfort he denied to Waldo Emerson; she probably recognized, too, that things would run more smoothly if the mentor were too far away to ruffle his disciple's feathers.36

For whatever Thoreau told Emerson—“I am well and happy in your house,” the disciple wrote—the Sage was not able to help his neighbor investigate the ideal friendship much on Thoreau's mind in his serving days (Correspondence, 84). Emerson probably thought he did, but Thoreau himself held a different view: in writings intended for other readers, he portrayed himself as a god forced to serve a king.37

Apollonian imagery could have been a laconic joke, but its implication of cosmic imbalance strongly indicates Thoreau's dis-ease. At the same time, of course, Apollonian imagery is rather arrogant, the consequence, perhaps, of seeing through inflated illusions. “I am constrained,” Thoreau wrote Lucy Jackson Brown, “to live a strangely mixed life” in which “all I hear about brooms and scouring and taxes and house keeping [reminds me that] even Valhalla might have its kitchen” (Correspondence, 76). Such a room in the Emerson home should not have surprised the practical Thoreau; that it did so suggests the degree of glamor with which he had once invested a servant's role. The glamor soon faded, though Thoreau served faithfully for over a year. When he left, he published two accounts of disciple service while living far from the precincts of Valhalla.38

The first account was a mocking review of J. A. Etzler's The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, Without Labor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery. As might be expected, Thoreau scorns those who evaded labor, even when the servant-surrogates were not human. “We saw last summer,” the essay recalls, “a dog employed to churn for a farmer's family, travelling upon a horizontal wheel, and though he had sore eyes, an alarming cough, and withal a demure aspect, yet their bread did get buttered for all that.”39 Dismissing Etzler's claims that, with proper technological design, “kitchen business” could be simplified to reduce domestic staff, the erstwhile Apollo suggests that those who would eat should cook for themselves. Calling for moral, not mechanical, reform, Thoreau spoke highly of manual labor, and insisted that fuzzy dreamers knuckle down to practical work.

It was a most Thoreauvian message, and one with which Emerson might have agreed. Yet the veiled criticism of the young man's next essay might have raised hackles back at Bush. In “The Landlord,” it is clearer that non-kin co-residence could have inspired resentment in a servant's breast, for in this essay, published in October 1843, Thoreau portrays the great-souled hero as one characterized by his welcoming home. Whether “The Landlord” is a Transcendentalist is open to question, but he is certainly one who dissolves social rankings in his all-encompassing bonhomie.

The ideal landlord, wrote the Emerson's ex-boarder, “is a man of more open and general sympathies, who possesses a spirit of hospitality which is its own reward, and feeds and shelters men from pure love of the creatures.”40 So far, this sounds like the man Emerson wanted to be: in fact, it is easy to imagine the Sage reading this and feeling pleased at such graceful praise. But “such universal sympathies” could have their drawbacks for co-residents, when “so broad and genial a human nature … would fain sacrifice the tender but narrow ties of private friendship to a broad, sunshiny, fair-weather-and-foul friendship for his race.” As Thoreau could have learned from his time at the Emersons', “the farthest-traveled is in some measure kindred to him who takes him into the bosom of his family,” while “he treats his nearest neighbor as a stranger.”

Since Thoreau was one of Emerson's nearest neighbors, both spiritually and geographically, this sentiment hints at grievances based on overwork or neglect. In one of the ironies of the Emerson marriage, Waldo Emerson's calls for a simpler, more private domestic life were contradicted by the open board he kept during the hectic period Lidian called “Transcendental times.” In fact, both Lidian and her domestic staff were exhausted by his hospitality: Nancy Colesworthy, one of the most obstreperous Bush servants, once threatened to post a sign saying, “This House is not a Hotel” (Life, 71-72). Thoreau, who was not obstreperous, may have posted his version of the sign for her and let him who had eyes to read it, read.

Though he does not mention it in “The Landlord,” Thoreau's own home (that is, his parents'), often took in boarders. So he may have been referring to his kinfolk's virtues when he described the ideal home as one in which all guests were welcomed by a host whose hands are callused. Emerson's hands, despite good intentions, were not hardened by manual labor. Nor was his home a place in which a “traveler steps across the threshold, and lo! he too is master,” at least not if that traveler was a Concord rambler abruptly transformed into a servant.41 But if the threshold was not a servant's place, the once-surprising kitchen might be. “[W]hy,” this essay asks, “should we have any serious disgust at kitchens? Perhaps they are the holiest recess of the house.”

Back at Bush, where Emerson may not have been privy to the “Valhalla” sentiment, there is no sure evidence that the householder read his disciple's essays as an attack. But we do know that the two men's friendship began to decline between 1842 and 1843 and that Emerson was wont to remark that his neighbor did not live up to early promise.42 What is less frequently noted is that Emerson was changing, too, perhaps most significantly by resolving to appear in public as an abolitionist. In his 1844 speech on the emancipation of West Indian slaves, delivered only a few months after the appearance of Thoreau's Etzler review and “The Landlord,” Emerson openly sympathizes with the slave. He shows a good deal less fellow-feeling for the waged domestic servant: according to this homemaker, waged service relations are “precarious.”43

He was as grudging, privately, in his attitude toward abolitionists: he described them, in a journal entry, as “an altogether odious set of people, whom one would be sure to shun as the worst of bores & canters” (JMN, 9:120). Nor was he persuaded that antislavery had solved the servant question: “Two tables in every house!” he groaned, in an entry from 1844. “Abolitionists at one & servants at the other! It is a calumny that you utter” (JMN, 9:127). But he seems to have been convinced, after Thoreau's departure, that he himself could do no better, an admission that could have helped push him, albeit reluctantly, into supporting abolition. In the speech that announced that support, Emerson argued from expediency, stating that it was “cheaper to pay wages than to own the slave.”

Obviously, moral punning is important: the “wages” indicated here are not to be equated with mere money. In part, Emerson meant to indicate a surcease of guilt: “Whilst we sit here talking & smiling,” he noted, after Thoreau's departure, “some person is out there in field & shop & kitchen doing what we need, without talk or smiles” (JMN, 9:127). At the same time, though, the more grievous cost could have been to this reserved man's self-esteem or public persona. This personal exaction suggests that, when Emerson publicly extolled “the picturesque luxury of [chattel] vassalage … their silent obedience, their hue of bronze, their turbaned heads,” aesthetic pleasure is only one advantage slaves provide. The other, perhaps more important to a middling householder, was that he thought well-treated chattel provided “silent” service.

Whatever his racist tendencies, Emerson could not have been referring here to legal strictures on slaves' ability to testify in court. More probably, he was alluding to his era's demand for ideally inaudible domestic staff. Thoreau was unlikely to have been so unobtrusive while he lived at Bush; more to the point, he had been noticeably chatty after he left. Depending on how Emerson viewed his one-time co-resident, the Etzler piece, and especially “The Landlord,” were either Transcendental roman à clef, like The Blithedale Romance, or that bane of the private household, an airing of backstairs gossip. Either way, Thoreau's decision to broadcast his views of the erstwhile “master” could well have offended and alarmed the notoriously reserved, even standoffish, Waldo Emerson. But what could the outraged homeowner have done to protect his privacy? Because wages had not passed between Thoreau and those he served, there was far less moral ground on which to chastise the one-time “servant” for publicizing domestic relations within the Emersons' “private” home.

Overall, then, whatever the drawbacks of waged attendance, Emerson had learned that wages kept masters masters. He did not advocate the enforced silence slaveholders visited upon their slaves. But he did believe in the maintenance of certain social ranks, such as those between a servant and the people in whose home he served. Emerson, in short, had come to see that payment of wages helped maintain hierarchies pertinent to privacy, mastery, and publication rights; that wages enforced distance, by insisting on the relative power of server and served; and that, at least for a capitalist, wages relieved guilt. Wages therefore offered a more moral, though still “precarious,” foundation for in-house service relations. To say so was to move a long way from the idealism of the 1830s. But it was also to foretell where Americans' thoughts on non-kin domestic service were headed.


  1. Len Gougeon, Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990), 46-57, 75.

  2. These shifts are explained at greater length in my dissertation, “The Uneasy Relation of Domestics: Servants in the Nineteenth-Century American Family.” Briefly, though, I will point out that the split between “productive” and domestic labor is outlined in Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990); servants' mobility is explained in Robert J. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1991). Finally, the best single study of waged domestic service in the American nineteenth century is Faye E. Dudden's Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1983). All have been important in my formulations of antebellum thoughts on domestic service.

  3. Mrs. Clarissa Packard [Caroline Howard Gilman], Recollections of a Housekeeper (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1834), 130.

  4. Fitzhugh's claim appears in Cannibals All! or, Slaves without Masters, ed. C. Vann Woodward (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960), 220.

  5. See The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols. ed. William H. Gilman et al. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960-1982), 7:115. Hereafter, journal citations appear parenthetically as JMN.

  6. “Religion” was delivered in Boston on 22 January, and in Concord on 24 April 1840. See The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume III, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Wallace E. Williams (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), 275. Volume III is hereafter abbreviated as EL.

  7. The Selected Letters of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores Bird Carpenter (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1987), 7. Hereafter abbreviated as SL.

  8. See her letters to William Whiting from February and March of 1848, in the Emerson Family Papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. The first is reprinted in SL, 139-41.

    Because this article treats both the public and the private Ralph Waldo Emerson and includes references to Lidian Emerson and other members of the family, I have used first names when referring to the actions of the Emersons in the private sphere and “Emerson” or “Waldo Emerson” when discussing the lecturer and public figure most familiar to scholars of American literature.

  9. Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores Bird Carpenter (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), 48. Hereafter abbreviated as Life. I have amended an “of of” printed in Carpenter's text.

  10. This point is most apparent in advisors' silence on husbands' household duties. But for a strong statement of the wives' domestic sway, see Charles Butler, The American Lady (Philadelphia: Hogan & Thompson, 1836), 218-19.

  11. American Sunday-School Union, Ann Connover (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1835), 20-21.

  12. To keep social ranks in their proper position, Alcott concludes: “I will not, indeed, say that any thing like as much credit is due to her as to him; but I may say, and with truth, that she was an important auxiliary in producing the results that have been mentioned.” See William Alcott, The Young Woman's Guide to Excellence (Boston: Charles H. Peirce, 1847), 35-37.

    The book, written in 1836, was held back for eleven years; that is, neither Lidian nor Waldo were likely to have read it until after their experiments were concluded. I would argue, though, that its ideas were probably in circulation before Alcott published them, if only through friendly intercourse among the Alcott cousins and the Emersons.

  13. Emerson delivered “Home” in Boston on 12 December 1838, and in Concord on 20 March 1839. See EL, 23, 31.

  14. William Gilmore Simms, “The Morals of Slavery,” as reprinted in The Pro-Slavery Argument; as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the Southern States (Charleston: Walker, Richards & Co., 1852), 214. The essay, an attack on Harriet Martineau's comments about the South, appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1837, and was reprinted as a pamphlet in 1838.

  15. This lecture was delivered in Boston on 15 January 1840 and in Concord on 22 April 1840; see EL, 256. The last cited comment virtually quotes a Notebook “D” entry dated 28 June 1839; see JMN, 7:220.

  16. Annie Russell Marble says that this was Lidian's judgment on the idea of boarding with the Alcotts, a hint that Abba Alcott's discomfort with Emerson's wife could have been returned, or at least perceived. See Thoreau: His Home, Friends and Books (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1902), 112.

  17. Ralph Waldo Emerson to George Ripley, 15 December 1840, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 9 vols., ed. Ralph L. Rusk and Eleanor Tilton (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1939-1994), 7:437. Hereafter abbreviated as Letters.

  18. Eleanor Tilton, editor of volume 7 of Letters, describes the Volume 7 version as an early draft of the letter finally sent, and suggests that Rusk's version, in Letters 2, may be closer to what the Ripleys finally received. I have used passages from both drafts because each provides a slant on Emerson's doubts about joining Brook Farm. Note that the “solidly do” sentence appears in both.

  19. “Domestic Life,” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1870), 7:116-17.

  20. Glenna Matthews comments perceptively on what she calls Emerson's attempt “to combat the application of invidious caste distinctions to domestics.” She points out, for instance, that while there is much to praise in his intentions at this time, it is not at all clear how his “distinctions” are going to be dissolved. See Matthews's critique in “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), 37.

  21. See Waldo's instructions to Lidian that the boy's chores were to be yardwork, carpentry, care of poultry and horses, and childminding (Letters, 7:375). Waldo expected “the girls,” that is the cook and maid, to do in-house chores while a part-time gardener did heavy work in the yard.

    In practice, Waldo's staff management was as uncertain as his wife's had been. One month after McCaffery arrived in Concord, Waldo admitted: “The cold weather until yesterday has given me at least no appetite for gardening & its preliminaries, so that I have still left him to the women, & have not summoned him to my side” (Letters, 2:279).

  22. Works, 2:52-53.

  23. Emerson's sense of ownership, or at least guardianship, was common among benevolent employers. See, for instance, the ways in which the Salem Female Charitable Society ignored its charges' parents as it thought best, in Carol S. Lasser, “A ‘Pleasingly Oppressive’ Burden: The Transformation of Domestic Service and Female Charity in Salem, 1800-1840,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 116 (July 1980): 156-75.

  24. It is tempting to read these two stories as versions of one incident; as far as I could learn, though, there is little evidence either way. In both, the proposed outing has to do with attending church, though in Ellen's tale the boy is left behind and in her father's the boy is being offered a chance to go. Additionally, two different servants are referred to in the incidents. Because Waldo Sr.'s account was written on or near the date of his son's tears, and Ellen's is obviously family legend, the former is probably the more reliable anecdote, but both, of course, are instructive.

  25. An earlier attempt to accomplish the same end was the suggestion, broached just after Emerson wrote Ripley declining to join Brook Farm, that the Bronson Alcott family move in at Bush. It is no accident that this letter repeats phrases he used in writing to the Roxburyites: “I am quite intent on trying the experiment of manual labor to some considerable extent & of abolishing or ameliorating the domestic service in my household. Then I am grown a little impatient of seeing the inequalities all around me, am a little of an agrarian at heart and wish sometimes that I had a smaller house or else that it sheltered more persons. So I think that next April we shall make an attempt to find house room for Mr Alcott & his family under our roof.” Though the Alcotts were not invited to work as domestic servants, their presence was obviously expected to relieve Waldo's guilt about his comfortable living arrangements. For instance, Emerson planned to reduce his home's domestic staff from four or five to one full-time and one part-time worker, plus of course Abba May Alcott and Lidian Emerson. This scheme never got further than the planning stages, because Abba May had a “kink” against non-kin co-residence and perhaps no great liking for Lidian. See Letters, 2:371; and Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1980), 160-61.

  26. Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1986), 103.

  27. See Sherman Paul, The Shores of America: Thoreau's Inward Exploration (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1958), 95. Paul cites Sanborn's comment that Thoreau lived at Bush like a “younger brother or a grown-up son,” a formulation that would probably have pleased Emerson. Thoreau's views, however, come across more clearly in the references to himself as Apollo, and in the texts he produced while living at Bush.

  28. It may be this experiment that led Carl J. Guarneri to state that “Distrust of the cash nexus made [Emerson] forgo house servants.” Although it is clear that Emerson wished to do away with such workers in his home, this paper shows that his attempts to do so were short-lived. See Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), 48.

  29. Annie Russell Marble claims that Thoreau moved to Bush to oblige the Emersons (92), and Walter Harding suggests that access to his mentor's library could have appealed to the voracious reader (The Days of Henry Thoreau [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966], 130). Sherman Paul proposes that it was an experiment in Transcendental friendship, but also a way to devise a freer schedule which gave greater scope to Thoreau's individualist nature (94).

  30. Paul, 18.

  31. See The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, Volume I, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1984), 190. The abbreviation JHDT indicates Volume I.

  32. Paul, 96.

  33. He also liked Menu's caste-minded dictum that menial work could not humble a Brahmin, whose soul was “transcendently divine.” Thoreau's selections from this Asian code, or scripture, were published as “The Laws of Menu,” The Dial (January 1843): 331-40. Sherman Paul believes Thoreau had read Menu by December 1839—that is, as he was formulating “The Service” and before he went to Bush (71).

  34. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1958), 47. Hereafter cited in text and abbreviated Correspondence.

  35. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The American Notebooks, ed. Randall Stewart (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1932), 176. Stewart suggests that Emerson was uncomfortable with Thoreau's brusque manner and points out places in which he lamented the same.

  36. I would note, in passing, that this second stay found Thoreau somewhat bolder, at least in letters to the absent Waldo. Not only did he address his mentor by his first name, but he also essayed a rather pointed humor concerning the absent man's family circle. In one letter he boasts: “Lidian and I make very good housekeepers. … [and Edward, the Emersons' youngest son] very seriously asked me, the other day, ‘Mr. Thoreau, will you be my father?’. … So you must come back soon, or you will be superseded.” Though Waldo would have known, presumably, how to interpret Thoreau's wit, he would probably also have recognized, at some level, the pitfalls of affectionate co-residence.

    The cited letter is dated 14 November 1847; that is, while Waldo was in England, and unable to return “soon.” An earlier and milder jibe at Emerson's absences appears in a letter from Thoreau's first residence, in which the wandering affections are Edith Emerson's. See Correspondence, 189 and 76.

  37. Walter Harding and Carl Bode call the story of Apollo and Admetus “one of Thoreau's favorite symbols,” but do not observe that he used it most frequently during his term as a domestic servant (see, for instance, Correspondence, 47 and 76). Note, too, Emerson's use of the imagery in 1836 (JMN, 5:208-09).

  38. Thoreau was even less at ease in the Staten Island home of William and Susan Emerson. Part of his discomfort there was that he did not believe he aided his host-employers. “I do not feel myself especially serviceable,” he wrote to his mentor, “to the good people with whom I live, except as inflictions are sanctified to the righteous” (Correspondence, 112).

  39. According to Wendell Glick, Thoreau reviewed the book at Emerson's request. The review, intended for the Dial, eventually appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in November 1843. See Glick, “Paradise (To Be) Regained: Textual Introduction,” Reform Papers (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 275. Thoreau's remark about canine service appears on page 23.

  40. Henry David Thoreau, “The Landlord,” The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, 20 vols. (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1906), 5:153. Subsequent quotations from this essay appear on 154-56.

  41. If that traveler were a fellow-boarder, the situation might be different: in 1846, the Emersons turned Bush into a boardinghouse under the management of Mrs. E. C. Goodwin. This final experiment was successful to the extent that relations with the new housekeeper were cordial during and after her co-residence, and that the Emersons shared their private home with assorted non-kin. It was noticeably less successful in relieving Lidian of household cares. Ellen remembered that “keeping the entries & doorsteps and parlour free from litter” somehow became her mother's duty, “for Mrs Goodwin with all her children and the boarders was very busy attending to the providing and the chambers.” See Life, 106-07 and Letters, 3:331, 398, 411, and 456.

  42. Robert Sattelmeyer, “‘When He Became My Enemy’: Emerson and Thoreau, 1848-49,” New England Quarterly 62 (June 1989): 192. Sattelmeyer comments that the early rift simmered for several years, finally bursting into explicit conflict after Thoreau's second residence at Bush.

  43. “Emancipation in the British West Indies,” Works 11:101. All quotations from this address are on page 101 of this edition.

Eric Murphy Selinger (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “‘Too Pathetic, Too Pitiable’: Emerson's Lessons in Love's Philosophy,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance Vol. 40, No. 2, 2nd Quarter, 1994, pp. 139-82.

[In the following essay, Selinger examines Emerson's view on marriage and love, and the friction between earthly love and a more divine love.]

I take my title from “Illusions,” the final essay in The Conduct of Life. Emerson has just named women as “the element and kingdom of illusion,” and defied anyone to “pluck away the … effects and ceremonies, by which they live.” In a moment he will announce with chilling calm that “[w]e are not very much to blame for our bad marriages.” The pivot between these statements comes in a punning interjection that discovers or exposes the illusions of matrimony, not in men's or women's actual faults, but encoded in the letters that name the space between them, the married state: “Too pathetic, too pitiable, is the region of affection, and its atmosphere always liable to mirage.1 In this essay I want to dwell not on “Illusions” per se but on the lines of thought about affection and illusion, marriage and mirage, friendship and love that connect this essay to earlier Emersonian texts. What would it mean to take such observations seriously? What ethic and epistemology of love would it take for Emerson to mean them in the way we now grant he means the more general philosophical investigations of, say, “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” or “Experience”?2 And how do these lessons in love's philosophy respond to Puritan and sentimental strains in nineteenth-century New England culture, especially to its continuing concern with amorous idolatry?

Critics as a rule shy away from Emerson's thoughts on love, dismissing them as the bristlings of a congenitally cold fish or writing them off as mere moralizing expressions of Platonic piety. John McCormick, for example, tugs in embarrassment at the “bland blanket of transcendental uplift” in the “published, public, quasi-philosophical” work. He is relieved to find a “much more human figure” lurking in the journals, one with a “pulsing, emotional and often torn spirit” we pity and understand, if not necessarily admire.3 In a book-length study of love, sex, and marriage in Emerson, Erik Ingvar Thurin feels compelled to reassure us that Emerson “married twice, and some of his best friends were women.”4 Even Emerson himself, rereading “Love,” laments, “I … have much more experience than I have written there, more than I will, more than I can write” (JMN, 7:368).

Some critics take this journal entry as an invitation to psychobiography, to a patient recovery of that unnamed experience.5 It is tempting to account for Emerson's ideas through references to his “one first love” and second marriage or to the hopes and frustrations he found in his friendships with, among others, Margaret Fuller and Caroline Sturgis, and in doing so lose sight of the independent complexity of the ideas themselves. Like David Van Leer, I “find such accounts convincing, [but] I do not feel … that Emerson's meaning is all that clear,” and while I share the impulse to “read through to the why of Emerson's statements,” I too “find myself all too often stuck on the preliminary question of what.”6 We need to read “Love” and “Friendship” more closely as texts, with more attention to structure and wordplay than the essays seem at first to demand, and set them in a context of other works on similar subjects, both earlier and later. Perhaps the “much more experience” Emerson could not record in “Love” finds its way, not just into the journals and letters, but into the essay that he finally called “Experience,” with its hardest of sayings on human relations. In “Love” (1841), two people are “shut up in one house to spend in the nuptial society forty or fifty years” (CW, 2:109); in the later “Experience” (1844), “[m]arriage (in what is called the spiritual world)” is declared “impossible, because of the inequality between every subject with every object”; and even outside the spiritual world, “[t]he great and crescive self … ruins the kingdom of mortal friendship and love” (CW, 2:44). The earlier essay seems a little self-conscious, but here in the mordant, memorable passages of “Experience,” we learn that self-consciousness, “the discovery we have made, that we exist[,] … is called the Fall of Man”; and that since this fall our dearest loves are mere “idolatries,” since love itself can never “make consciousness and ascription equal in force” (CW, 3:43, 44).

These bracing admonitions trust in Kant, not the Bible. The gulf between noumenal subjects and phenomenal objects, and not the second commandment, chastens our desires. But in the same manner that Emerson describes “the subject” as “the receiver of Godhead” (CW, 3:44), so does he powerfully and suggestively infuse other philosophical terms with theology. This conjunction of Puritan love-doctrine, romantic solipsism, and American individualism, which we find, in one way or another, throughout Emerson's published works, marks him as an important and unrecognized theorist of human affections. Spanning the “failure of continuity” Bernard Duffey sees between the colonial and postromantic American imaginations, Emerson restates the Calvinist discrimination between human and divine loves that haunted Anne Bradstreet and other early American writers in terms that have preoccupied American poets ever since. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Adrienne Rich—all respond, directly or indirectly, to what the deeply Emersonian feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton calls “our Protestant idea” of “the Solitude of Self.” All wonder what can and will happen when that sole self falls in love.7


To understand Emerson's lessons in love's philosophy, we must first appreciate the continuing force of certain Puritan notions of love in nineteenth-century America. As historians Karen Lystra, Ellen K. Rothman, and others maintain, the inclination to idolatry troubled lovers and ministers, poets and novelists, long after the colonial period. “I beg you, my dearest Mary,” wrote Samuel Francis Smith in an 1834 love letter, “see that you do not worship any image of clay—and pray that I may be kept from similar idolatry.” “Daily you occupy a portion of my thoughts,” Mary Holyoke Pearson wrote to Ephraim Abbot in 1812, “too large a share, I fear. Could I love my Creator in proportion to the creature, I should be happier.”8 Jonathan Edwards, by then a half-century dead, would have been pleased with her qualms. “The primary object of virtuous love is being, simply considered,” he argues in The Nature of True Virtue. “No exercise of love, or kind affection to any one particular being,” whether one's self or a suitor, a husband, wife, or child, “has anything of the nature of true virtue,” although from a benevolence toward and consent to “being in general,” which will come in the end to mean God, “may arise exercises of love to particular beings, as objects are presented and occasions arise.”9

Popular poet Martin F. Tupper's warning to husbands in 1854, “Take heed lest she love thee before God; that she be not an idolator,” thus uses a familiar discourse. But how serious is he when a few pages earlier in Proverbial Philosophy he defines love as “a sweet idolatry enslaving all the soul, / A mighty spiritual force, warring with the dullness of matter,” with no worry at all about the contradiction.10 Admittedly, Tupper is not much of a poet, and British at that, but his awkward lines illuminate an important development in American romantic culture; as Lystra writes, “[T]he metaphorical distance between God and man … was collapsing” in the nineteenth century. Though human romance once provided a vocabulary to describe the soul's romance with God, that metaphorical relation was reversed, so that Nathaniel Hawthorne tells Sophia in 1839, “I have really thought sometimes, that God gave you to me to be the salvation of my soul.” Stanley Cavell speaks of the “horror” expressed by Hawthorne, as by Poe, that “marriage cannot bear up under its metaphysical burden”: a burden of “ensuring the existence of one's other.”11 In practice, as Lystra shows, this might entail the burden of acting as another's “symbol of ultimate significance,”12 say by forgiving all of another's sins—an absolution that no earlier intercessor in Protestant America had been licensed to give.

“Within the context of the nineteenth-century religion of romantic love,” writes Lystra, “Milton's lines must be changed to reflect a different emotional logic: ‘he for God in her, she for God in him.’”13 Likewise the Puritan strictness that saw an end to marriage at death and death as God's final check on our impulse to idolatry drifts out of focus through the colonial and post-revolutionary periods. For every Gusta Hallock who agonizes over the way love for another person displaces her love for God, so that God takes him away with no hope of reunion, we find many lovers, diarists, and poets who insist on the sanctity of fervent love below and its continuation above.14 Annis Boudinot Stockton damns death in her 1780 “Extempore Ode in a Sleepless Night by a Lady Attending on Her Husband in a Long and Painful Illness”: “[T]hou canker-worm of human joy! / Thou cruel foe to sweet domestic peace!” She ignores the consequent need to wean affections, just as she avoids expressing those “doubts, and gloomy fears” an earlier Puritan poet would have worked through to reach a pious acceptance of loss by the end of the poem.15 In an amatory acrostic “Oh, may propitious Heaven,” published in the mid-eighteenth century, Martha Brewster restates the Puritan distinction between mundane and heavenly pleasures and rewards, although with no apparent conflict between “Injoying ev'ry lawful Sweet below” and “Viewing by Faith, the Fountain whence they Flow.” But Brewster's final prayer for God to “Renew our Love to Thee, and Love us up to Heaven” implies that the couple will be carried up as such, a proposition that the Puritan Bradstreet, while tempted, scrupled to suggest.16 In “To a Lady on the Death of Her Husband” (1773), Phillis Wheatley is still more explicit in her vision of a heavenly reunion:

There fix thy view, where fleeter than the wind
Thy Leonard mounts, and leaves the earth behind.
Thyself prepare to pass the vale of night
To join for ever on the hills of light:
To thine embrace his joyful spirit moves
To thee, the partner of his earthly loves;
He welcomes thee to pleasures more refin'd,
And better suited to th' immortal mind.(17)

There may be no marriage in the hereafter, but in the “new domestic heaven” of these poems, couples are rejoined just as mothers and children meet “beyond” in the elegies for children increasingly common by the early nineteenth century.18

We do not insult these poems by calling them sentimental, for they unabashedly champion the force and value of human sentiment against the chill of strict theology. They anticipate the “feminization of American culture” that Ann Douglas traces in the nineteenth century, a group of related shifts in the political, theological, and literary realms. And though this feminization is evident in the increasing presence and popularity of women authors, we find its effects in the writing of men as well. The heaven Wheatley envisions in 1773 may still distinguish between earthly pleasures and those enjoyed by the “immortal mind,” but in its companionable domesticity, it looks forward to the one detailed by Congregationalist minister George Cheever in 1853: “[N]ot the dim incomprehensible universality of omnipresence merely, but a place for our abode … with as intimate a home circle, as the dearest fireside on this earth can have, nay incomparably more intimate and personal and definitely local in our Father's House.”19

Against this grandly sentimental ground a few figures stand out, startling in their contrast. We find some women—Mary Moody Emerson and Margaret Fuller most memorably—who announce a feminist suspicion of romantic union. They suspect its idealizations, the overvaluation of men by women lovers or the etherealization of women by their men. And they suspect erotic attraction, which leads to the entanglements of marriage and children and to a loss of self, a life lived purely through and for another. “[L]iberty is a better husband than love to many of us,” noted Louisa May Alcott in her diary on Valentine Day, 1868.20 Though Fuller may have longed in private for “a full, a godlike embrace from some sufficient love,” in public she disavowed the constraints of such desire.21 We can “live too much in relations,” she warns, falling into “distraction, or imbecility, from which [we] can only be cured by a time of isolation.” Hence her praise of celibacy, of the “old bachelors and old maids” whose numbers (in percentage of the population) rose throughout the nineteenth century. Hence also her praise for the thought of “a wise contemporary” who observed that “union is only possible to those who are units. To be fit for relations in time, souls, whether of man or woman, must be able to do without them in the spirit.”22

Is this unnamed contemporary Emerson, who called himself “I whose name is Unit” in an 1840 letter to Fuller (L, 2:258)? Certainly he had made similar pronouncements. If religion tells us “‘[i]t is not good for man to be alone,’” he told the Second Church congregation in 1829, “[i]t says also, ‘Go into thy closet and shut thy door.’” “These are not two laws but one,” he continues, for “no man is fit for society who is not fit to stand alone” (CS, 2:84).23 In his later “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,” Emerson looks back on a trend from 1820 to 1840 directly opposed to the rising importance of human love in sentimentalism, one that binds him to Fuller in a common cultural protest. He writes, “It seemed a war between intellect and affection,” a war that intellect won. “Instead of the social existence which all shared, was now separation. … The young men were born with knives in their brain,” ready to cut all social ties through “introversion, self-dissection, anatomizing of motives,” and “driven to find all [their] resources, hopes, rewards, society and deity within the self” (W, 10:325, 329). In 1839 Hawthorne unself-consciously courted Sophia as “Mine own self,” and attests that he felt “as if [his] being were dissolved, and the idea of [Sophia] were diffused throughout it. Am I writing nonsense?” he demands. Yes, one imagines Emerson's young men would reply. As Emerson himself grew up to testify, the truest love has nothing to do with such “maudlin agglutinations.”24 At the heights of affection all forms indeed dissolve into one, but lovers are not mingled:

Plain and cold is their address,
Power have they for tenderness;
They can parley without meeting;
Need is none of forms of greeting;
They can well communicate
In their innermost estate;
When each the other shall avoid,
Shall each by each be most enjoyed.

(W, 9:117)

That last couplet of “Celestial Love,” wonderfully perverse, cuts against the sentimental grain. And it typifies Emerson's pronouncements on love. Too much the skeptic to extol sentimental enthusiasms below, he is equally scathing on the dream of domesticity above. In a journal entry from November 1840, later used in “Swedenborg; or, The Mystic,” he chides the Swedish visionary for his “attempt to fix & eternize the fireside & nuptial chamber[,] to fasten & enlarge these fugitive clouds of circumstance[,] these initial pictures through which our first lessons are prettily conveyed.” A relationship of “one to one, married & chained through the eternity of Ages, is frightful … & is no more conceivable to the soul than the permanence of our little platoon of gossips, Uncles, Aunts, & cousins.” Rather, in heaven “[w]e meet & worship an instant under the temple of one thought & part as though we parted not, to join another thought with other fellowships of joy” (JMN, 7:532).25 This motility applies to earthly loves as well. Cupid, Emerson's figure for “Initial Love,” has a mincing, insinuating approach. “[H]is wish is intimacy, / Intimater intimacy, / And a stricter privacy” in which “The impossible shall yet be done, / And, being two, shall still be one.” But erotic unions do not last, for

As the wave breaks to foam on shelves,
Then runs into a wave again,
So lovers melt their sundered selves,
Yet melted would be twain.

(W, 9:108-9)

Hence the poet's decree in “Give All to Love” that the lover even on earth must

Keep … to-day,
To-morrow, forever,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.

(W, 9:92)

Ideal affections may light on two and even join them into one, but they always flicker elsewhere, onward and upward. A Platonic ladder of affection leads from human loves to a union with what he calls in “The Over-Soul” “the Lonely, Original, and Pure” (CW, 2:174) and elsewhere simply the “gods”:

Though thou loved her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day,
Stealing grace from all alive;
Heartily know,
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.

(W, 9:92)

As a love poet, Emerson is uninspiring. He calls himself “cold because [he is] hot,—cold at the surface only as a sort of guard & compensation for the fluid tenderness of the core,” but he found few ways to embody either that tenderness or the keen brilliance of his colder self in verse (JMN, 7:368). Neoplatonism is hardly a poetically restrictive philosophy—not for the Elizabethans or the Italian poets of the sweet new style, not for his contemporary Poe—and when Emerson expresses his faith that we are all essentially one man, one mind, at best longing to be alone with the alone, as an apology for his erotic attraction to a woman in “To Eva,” we glimpse the compositional potential. Similarity acts across the threatening difference of sexes, granting a license to love:

Ah! let me blameless gaze upon
Features that seem at heart my own;
          Nor fear those watchful sentinels,
Who charm the more their glance forbids,
Chaste-glowing, underneath their lids,
          With fire that draws while it repels.

(W, 9:95)

But this man who calls himself “a photometer” and not “a stove” is unable to get much heat into his measures (L, 4:33). Perhaps even philosophical intensities have too erotic a tone, derived from the loves that nourish them, for Dame Philosophy as much devours as consoles her admirers:

Philosophers are lined with eyes within,
And, being so, the sage unmakes the man.
In love, he cannot therefore cease his trade;
Scarce the first blush has overspread his cheek,
He feels it, introverts his learned eye
To catch the unconscious heart in the very act.
His mother died,—the only friend he had,—
Some tears escaped, but his philosophy
Couched like a cat sat watching close behind
And throttled all his passion. Is't not like
That devil-spider that devours her mate
Scarce freed from her embraces?

(W, 9:374-75)

The most affecting moments in Emerson's love poetry are those in which philosophy has not yet pounced on and throttled or devoured her sage, as in unpublished poems to his first wife, Ellen—those he wrote before her untimely death seventeen months into their marriage, which though clumsy move us in their vain hope for “graybeard years” together,26 and especially the less artful, more anguished lines he wrote in the first weeks after her death:

In yonder ground thy limbs are laid
Under the snow
And earth has no spot so dear above
As that below
And there I know the heart is still
And the eye is shut & the ear is dull
But the spirit that dwelt in mine
The spirit wherein mine dwelt
The soul of Ellen the thought divine
From God, that came—for all that felt
Does it not know me now
Does it not share my thought
Is it prisoned from Waldo's prayer
Is its glowing love forgot

(JMN, 3:228)

The ignorance confessed in the last lines, which keeps their author from too quick a compensation for his loss, holds philosophy at bay. As in “Dirge,” the well-paced and achingly restrained elegy for his brothers, these lines for Ellen do not reject the ascent of souls promised in Plato and Plotinus. But they speak their piece from “the middle of the mount”: not the proud, uncrowded heights of “Celestial Love” but a “lonely field” and wooded valley, a Concord fall's “long sunny afternoon” (W, 9:145).

Emerson would concern us far less if he were more or less maritally unhappy, more or less erotically repressed, more or less consistently a Neoplatonist poet bucking the age's sentimental trend. Mary E. Hewitt has a poem, tediously brief, in which Plato sets aside philosophy to hymn the wrinkles of his “fair friend, Archeanassa.”27 That Emerson reclaims such philosophy for verse marks an interesting nineteenth-century tug-of-war, but little more. But when we turn from the primarily Neoplatonic poems to the more complex fabric of Puritan, romantic, and transcendental ideas in the sermons, lectures, and essays, we find a more interesting struggle underway in which the Hamlet-like self-consciousness mourned in “Philosopher” is found to be an unhandsome and incurable philosophical condition and not a more or less pitiable psychological case, one where the most moving moments come after philosophy, not before it. I do not suggest that these texts form a seamless garment of Emersonian thought. But when we look back with the hard sayings of “Experience” and other late essays in mind, a pattern or development emerges in which an old fear of idolatry is secularized into a skeptical, scrupling epistemology of love.


Emerson's early sermons frequently extol both Platonic and sentimental pieties, with little public worry over the tension between them. In December 1827, shortly before the twenty-four-year-old minister met his first wife-to-be, he preached to her church that “by the strong cords of friendship and love God invested the fireside with its sacred delights”; Rusk notes that a year later in another sermon to her church, Emerson explained a contrasting Platonic progress whereby “the affections … tended to expect perfection in the loved person, and from seeking perfection in the human friend were led to seek it in God.”28 As Joel Porte observes, the sermons also show that Emerson maintained an inordinate attachment to Puritan ideas of sin and innate depravity, to the sublime rhetorical claims of Edwardsian Calvinism, and to the demands of a “great preeminent unpartaken relation” with “his Maker” (CS, 2:84).29 “Our religion takes the individual out of the mass and reminds him of the burden he must bear alone,” Emerson observes in 1829, six weeks after his wedding to Ellen. “It recommends the duties of self-command, of the connexion of the soul with God;—it teaches that to each soul is its own destiny which is stript of all connexions and friendships—the soul hath neither father nor mother nor wife nor sister,” so that “before God we are solitary unrelated men” (CS, 2:82, 84). This isolating Puritan strain will be my first concern.

I will focus on Sermon CIV, preached on 12 January 1831, a month before Ellen's death, for in it the tension between the connection of the soul with God and the interhuman “web of relations” that should “awaken [the] heart and [the] conscience amid the present despondency” is particularly notable (CS, 3:84). Addressing members of a Unitarian philanthropic group, the Howard Benevolent Society, Emerson chose as his text Luke 10:27: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself.” An appropriate passage, no doubt, given the audience, but a thorny one as well: will love for God turn out to be the same as, a model for, a part of, or the actual substance of our love for one another? Reformed theology held that inasmuch as our love is human, it is suspect. “Adam Rent in himselfe from his Creator,” as John Winthrop put it, and thus “rent all his posterity allsoe one from another, whence it comes that every man is borne with this principle in him, to love and seeke himselfe onely.”30 “No one is able to love God from his whole heart, etc., and his neighbor as himself,” writes Luther. This commandment is “an impossible law.”31 Emerson's immediate theological precursor, William Ellery Channing, denied the doctrine of original sin on which such charges are based. Jesus came to “set free our imprisoned energy for love”; and it is our love, in its potential “largeness and liberty,” that both Channing and Jesus, in Channing's view, address.32 According to Robert Lee Patterson, Channing believes that “[t]he affections of the home, … are intended to overflow until they embrace the entire human race.” And yet even for Channing love for God is the only love commensurate with, and able to repay, the soul's true yearnings. “In language which reminds us of Edwards,” Patterson writes, “he warns us that fellow human beings will disappoint us by their imperfections, and sometimes their disloyalty.” But Channing does not take the common orthodox step of Edwards, who moves from this observation to “the conclusion that God is, not the supreme, but the only legitimate object of love.”33 As a founding gesture, proving himself at once more conservative and more radical than Channing, Emerson will so move.

At the start of his sermon Emerson promises to “present the principle on which the great class of social duties depends.” He sifts through a number of possible grounds for neighborly duty, echoing in his progress the via negativa logic of Edwards's Nature of True Virtue. “[S]elf love well calculated,” for example, will not do. “In any common use of the word self,” he argues, “in any sense less than that infinite sense in which self-love loses itself in the love of God and the Universe,” it will not suffice. Nor will our divinely commanded love for our neighbors. “[I]n that degree of strength in which the sentiment is ordinarily found,” he observes, it cannot “be safely trusted as the support of such various and incessantly returning duties as we owe to others” (CS, 3:84, 85, 86). Not that we cannot love anyone properly: the sermon admits, as Luther will not, that “[t]he love of our neighbor is a principle of wonderful force where it really acts.” But our love is “too capricious and discriminating,” he writes, “too selfish” (CS, 3:87, 86). A good decade before “Self-Reliance,” Emerson will not sanction questioning a sense of responsibility for our neighbors.

At this point in the sermon we might expect a turn to Christ as the teacher of benevolence, since his command to “love … thy neighbor” prompts a lawyer to demand to know who his neighbors are, and the parable of the Good Samaritan is Christ's answer. Yet instead of a Unitarian Jesus who sets our love-energy free, Emerson offers a vision of men glorified in their dependence on deity, and he does so in such terms that we can hardly recall his earlier admission of some partial value in the love for neighbors we muster on our own. The neighbor's claim is “through God,” Emerson declares, and he expands by shifting into a sublime rhetorical register that owes more, once again, to Edwards than to Channing. “The Scriptures teach us that nothing is more intimate than our relation to Him,” he explains. “They teach that we are God's children, not by any metaphor but in a far stricter sense than we are the children of men. We are made of him—we live but in him, as the leaf lives in the tree” (CS, 3:87; emphasis added).34 All love collapses into love of God; indeed, for the next four paragraphs we hear nothing of neighbors at all.

But who in love actually acts? Who loves? When we keep divine commandments we “all but identify” with God, says Emerson—an unsteady distinction, and the effort to maintain it forces him into a revealing syntactical strain. “We shall be parts of God,” he writes, “as the hand is part of the body, if only the hand had a will.” That “if only” reads at once as plaintive (if only it could, or did) and as mocking the very possibility. Emerson remains Unitarian enough to cling to some notion of will. But “free agency” does no good. “We are made of God as the urn is made of clay,” he explains, “but separated from our great Parent by our free agency. … Whenever we act from self, we separate ourselves from God; when we do right, we consent to his action by our hands” (CS, 3:88). For Edwards, true virtue consists of a “consent, propensity and union of heart” with “being in general,” rather than lying in any partial or personal affection;35 likewise here love for a neighbor consists of allowing “a full consent between God in him and God in [us]” (CS, 3:89). Commandments to be holy, merciful, and perfect as our father in Heaven are otherwise not merely “impossible,” as Luther said. They are incomprehensible. As for self-love, “[t]here is not an inch of ground in the Creation left” for it to stand on. “We are not,” Emerson preaches, “our own” (CS, 3:88, 90).36

The sermon backs down from these rhetorical heights, chatting of fathers and brethren and even (in a cancelled passage) of an angel's voice that tells the human race, “Little Children[,] love one another.” This nervous and infantilizing return to the interpersonal, to speaking of love of each other “for God's sake” and “for our own sake” (CS, 3:311, 91), as though the second were not just a limited vision of the first, seems required not just by the expectations of Emerson's audience, but by an internal logic as well. Though Scriptures “teach us that we are God's children … in a far stricter sense than we are the children of men,” such strictness would seem unbearable after a while—a perspective that we cannot deny, yet which denies us the power to love of our own volition, even to love each other in any ordinary sense of the phrase (CW, 3:87). Without the paternal metaphor's support, after all, impartial benevolence “for God's sake” is hard to recognize as human love.37 The love of God's children for each other is a divinely sanctioned version of the love of parents and spouses Emerson admits might occasionally work (such love as he clearly felt for his young wife). By contrast, God's love for himself through us leaves us part of the circuit but finally out of the picture.

Throughout Emerson's career he proposes that “the ardors of piety agree at last with the coldest skepticism,” shunting us away from merely social affections (CW, 3:40). Yet his texts vary as to precisely when these ardors or doubts will be acknowledged and how (or how closely) we may be reunited with one another. In Sermon CIV we start with the social, and when God returns as a person, a father, we fall into place as his children, our lives together restored and reassured. We find a new, less certain structure in the “Human Culture” lecture called “The Heart,” written in 1838, seven years after the sermon. The period between witnessed Ellen's death, Emerson's resignation from the Second Church, his travels in Europe and return to Concord, his marriage to Lidian Jackson, the deaths of Edward and Charles, the birth of Waldo, and the start of friendships with Fuller, Thoreau, and Carlyle. In the lecture Emerson struggles to make cold ardors and human warmth meet on adult grounds: grounds called “the impersonal” (EL, 2:279), a Platonic goal that stands opposed to any sentimental vision of domestic, fireside bliss.38 One thinks of Emerson's unnerving journal entry, five years into his second marriage: “I marry you for better but not for worse. I marry impersonally” (JMN, 7:336). If by the 1830s, as Lystra observes, the “worst fears of early American religious leaders” were coming to pass, as “the personhood of the loved one … had become a powerful rival to God as the individual's central symbol of ultimate significance,”39 Emerson does his best to undo that rivalry, and not simply by reasserting a personal God's first claim on our affections. “Personhood” turns out to be a questionable term in any context, social or religious: well before Emerson resigned his ministry he had stopped thinking of God in personal terms, and this loss of personality somehow also applies to us and to those neighbors we are admonished to love.40

When the loss appears in “The Heart” and later texts, it is flagged by the phrase “in strict science” or “in strictness.” Echoing the words “far stricter sense” of Sermon CIV, these phrases hint that this impersonality comes at some cost—we must be strict, enforce it on ourselves—and that the cost is associated with a language whose tone is ungraceful, merciless, philosophical, and pure. Examining “the social relation, the powers of affection” in “The Heart,” Emerson is first obliged to outline a doctrine that sounds quite asocial, hardly affectionate:

In strictness we ought to say, the soul seems to be insulated. With persons pure soul has nothing to do. … In strictness the soul does not respect men as it respects itself. It looks at a continual unfolding of the impersonal, at a total infusion, impenetration of its own essence by the nature of justice, of truth; it postpones persons, all persons, to this contemplation of the impersonal, the One.

(EL, 2:278-79)

Faced with such a blur of assertions, it helps to imagine Emerson's concerns. What would the photographic negative of these strict assertions resemble? The soul would respect others as much, perhaps more, than it respects itself; it would be tangled up in persons. And in the religious more than the philosophical sense, God's disrespect of the personal would be true. We would in fact have to love our neighbors, and ourselves, as a condition of loving a personal God; and such affection would stem at most from a partial infusion of our souls by the divine. This mixture of our own and God's efforts, of eros and agape, is characteristic of the sentimental synthesis of love and religion that developed in the early nineteenth century, recalling Thomas Aquinas, who maintains “that charity proceeds from an intrinsic principle while still being ‘added to human nature[,] … perfecting the will.’”41 This vision of caritas, rejected by the Reformation, is not the essential sameness of human and divine affections in Channing or its symmetrical opposite, the “full consent between God in him and God in me” of the Edwardsian moments in Sermon CIV (CS, 3:89).

Emerson thus implicitly recasts the argument of Sermon CIV in Platonic or Plotinian terms. But “strict and stern science” teaches us a lonelier lesson than the “strict sense” of the sermon. Our neighbors now “must” appear as embodiments of our thoughts, repetitions of self: a solipsistic, narcissistic threat we did not face when we were images of God. And strict science requires us to confess something new, “that all persons, the very nearest and dearest, underlie the same condition of an infinite remoteness.” Before our neighbors crowded in too close; now they flee from us, fall away, vanish.42 “[L]over and enemy,” Emerson now contends, “can never enter by infinity the precincts of selfhood.” This lack of access, and not our inability to love properly en masse, makes our relations “partial,” a situation our lecturer calls “pathetic” (EL, 2:279).

The word “pathetic” seems to me carefully chosen against an alternative designation of our relations as tragic, the vision, according to Cavell, of King Lear and Othello. “[S]kepticism's ‘doubt,’” he explains, “is motivated not by (not even where it is expressed as) a (misguided) intellectual scrupulousness but by a (displaced) denial, by a self-consuming disappointment that seeks world-consuming revenge.”43 The sources of Emerson's disappointment are not hard to find: the loss of Ellen (“[S]he never disappointed me except in her death” [L, 1:376]); the quotidian losses of his marriage to Lidian (“The husband loses his wife in the cares of the household”) and a consequent sense of “incongruities[,] defects … [,] surprise, regret, strife” coming between them; and perhaps the insufficiency he felt in the “affections & consuetudes that gr[e]w near [him]” and in his inability to respond to them (JMN, 5:297, 322). In his 19 May 1837 journal entry, used in “The Heart,” Emerson utilized a phrase that reappears in “Experience.” He laments the disappointments of his connection to any ideal friend, in this case Carlyle. “We never touch but at points,” he complains.

I am led on from month to month with an expectation of some total embrace & oneness with a noble mind, & learn at last that it is only so feeble & remote & hiant action as reading a Mirabeau or a Diderot paper, & a few the like. This is all that can be looked for. … Baulked soul! It is not that the sea & poverty & pursuit separate us. Here is Alcott by my door,—yet is the union more profound? No, the Sea, vocation, poverty, are seeming fences, but Man is insular, and cannot be touched. Every man is an infinitely repellent orb, & holds his individual being on that condition.

(JMN, 5:328-29)

The “innavigable sea” and fast-held “poverty” that isolate in the later essay “Experience” (CW, 3:29, 46) are metaphorical restatements of the literal “seeming fences” that Emerson dismisses here, and the later loss of Waldo might have reminded him that while “[t]here is nothing so easy as to form friendships & connexions,” “a Tragedy” will inevitably come to give “protection” to the “helpless” gulf between us (JMN, 5:17).44

Emerson's losses, failures, and frustrations, however, hardly prompt the revenge Cavell describes. It is as if to avoid such an impulse that Emerson quickly contrasts the “absolute condition” he describes at the start of “The Heart” with “the relative and actual” condition of “our position in nature.” In the latter, having to do with acts and relations, we are “tenderly alive to love and hatred,” “woven all over” with a vital “net” of emotions that recalls the “web of relations” (reminiscent of George Eliot) named early in Sermon CIV (EL, 2:280; CS, 3:84). And these loves, fears, hopes, and regrets “respect other men” as the soul, we have read, does not (EL, 2:280; emphasis added). If there are sacred “precincts of selfhood,” there are equally sacred “precincts of actual life” where “we know ourselves as partial and social creatures.” And this partiality now opens the way to connection. “We see that our being is shared by thousands,” Emerson explains, “who live in us and we in them.” Or is it, as once was claimed in theological terms, that something common lives in us all? “[O]ver all men and through all men is diffused an affection”; “[i]t is an element they all breathe,” which “informs each of the presence, of the brotherhood, of the wants of the other” (EL, 2:279, 281).45 While Sermon CIV has a three-step trajectory (from comfort to strictness to home), “The Heart” alternates between these absolute and relative claims. We might call them moods of strictness and kindness, as when Emerson drops the aside that “in general there is a great deal [of kindness] that makes the earth habitable,” while by implication strictness, which is never “in general,” would make the world uninhabitable, unlivable, deathly. (Indeed, “[t]he moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed,” bringing it back to life.) Theology calls these moods justice and mercy. We cannot simply choose one, nor can we blithely unite them—how live in two moods at once? And yet the desire persists.46 As when the syntax of Emerson's sermon reveals the tension between the individual and the divine will, so here we find a too-insistent phrase, an overstated case: “The Heart is as I have said a community of nature which really does bind all men into a consciousness of one brotherhood” (EL, 2:282, 290, 283; emphasis added).

Perhaps uncertain of this assertion of brotherhood—especially since earlier in the lecture conversation proves too unsatisfying, too evanescent a relation to prove its existence—Emerson tries a second and equally unsatisfying proof. He looks to glances, which intertwist like Donne's “eye-beames” to unite self and other.47 When our gazes intersect, he writes, we realize “that all men have one soul,” thus proving “the radical unity” of our nature. “We look into the eyes to know if this other form is another self; and the eyes will not lie, but they give a faithful confession what inhabitant is there” (EL, 2:283; cf. JMN, 5:8). This knowledge of the other as “another self” sits poorly, though, with what we have already heard. “[A]ll persons that surround you,” Emerson says early in the lecture, “must seem to you as the thoughts, opinions, emotions, affections which have taken body and on which … the student soul reads … its own nature and law” (EL, 2:279). Is it “the rounding mind's eye” then, as he later puts it (CW, 3:44), that looks in and fills out the eyes of another? I find such concerns, attributed to the later, openly skeptical essays, implicit in two comments from “The Heart.” “Every man meets glances,” Emerson writes, “which shall illustrate for him all that he hath heard of the terrors and beauty of the Cherubim”—cherubim, linked with knowledge and perception, strictness and solitude, and not seraphim, who figure abandonment to love. And “the unity, the community of men,” he insists, is grounded in “perception and acknowledgment of a strictly identical nature of which all the individuals are organs”; but that key term “strictly” reminds us of solitary, solipsistic heights, not of heavenly agape (EL, 2:284). Identical, he means, to me: moral education does not consist of discerning an equivalent center in you, but in finding that center is the same as my own.48

Acknowledging the one soul between us thus seems the first effort to name an adult version of “Little Children[,] love one another.” But in practice, as in the poem “To Eva,” it seems prompted primarily by the fear that someone's “sweet dominion” over the will might be caused by something other than “[a] sympathy divine” (W, 9:95). Questions of narcissism, subjectivism, even idolatry arise. Am I recognizing the god in you, or just treating you like the god in me? These are difficult, unhappy questions, since the intersection of strictness and indulgence, where the soul seeks “to domesticate these rare and lofty satisfactions,” has the “two societies of Marriage and Friendship” for its social site.49 There we may be entirely satisfied by “the indulgence of affection toward one soul,” Emerson assures us, because of the “infinite nature of one soul.” But are those two single souls the same? And if they are distinct, which proves the infinite nature: that of the object, or that of the indulger? “In the highest friendship,” he explains, “we form a league with the Idea of the man who stands to us in that relation, not with the actual person. We deal with him as with a just, true, pure, and universal soul and make him therefore a representative to us of the entire Humanity.” Such statements mark the Neoplatonist Emerson we suspect, more comfortable with ideas than with other people. And they imply, as the author himself seems discomfited to find, that our relations are not reciprocal but ascriptive, not my acknowledgment of something within you, but a deal struck, within me, with the universal soul. The lecture moves on to praise “conversation … the first office of friendship” and “heartiness” as “inspiration,” but the cheerfulness rings a little hollow. The last word, we sense, has already been spoken: “We walk alone in the world” (EL, 2:288, 292, 294).


Less than a year after first delivering “The Heart,” Emerson lectured on “Love.” In this lecture too we find allusions to “strict philosophy,” according to which “there is a quite infinite distance between our knowledge of our own existence and the evidence we have for the existence of nature including that of persons”; and here too we find that since “[p]ersons are love's world,” we must “descend from the high ground of absolute science and converse with things as they appear” in order to “treat of Human Life,” the subject of this new lecture series (EL, 3:56). I will pass over this lecture, however, in favor of Emerson's revision as it appears in Essays: First Series. For in this version of “Love,” implicitly paired with “Friendship,” Emerson once again considers the question of love's ascriptive impulse—the “illusion” that “attributes to the beloved person all which that person shares with his or her family, sex, age or condition, … with the human mind itself,” so that while it is “these which the lover loves, … Anna Matilda gets the credit of them” (W, 6:319). He also explores the scandal of succession, the losses and alterations that chasten our idolatries and, as he will say in “Experience,” make us all idealists. Recall the Puritan admonishment: “[L]et this caution be minded, that they don't love inordinately, because death will soon part them.”50 The object of my affections may vanish, but I remain, and the guilt of outlasting the one-to-one relation of love casts what the essay calls a “certain stain of error” (in the lecture it is “a certain slime” [EL, 3:54]) over every autobiography. “Every thing is beautiful seen from the point of the intellect, or as truth,” he explains. “But all is sour, if seen as experience. … With thought, with the ideal, is immortal hilarity, the rose of joy. Round it all the muses sing. But grief cleaves to names, and persons, and the partial interests of to-day and yesterday” (CW, 2:100).

We can give the names Ellen, Edward, and Charles to those mournful “partial interests.” Indeed, in the journal source for this passage, the “remembering & remembering talk with Lidian” recalled on 4 March 1838, Emerson does just that (JMN, 5:456). Likewise he seems to take his own sad experience—an initial and short-lived ideal love followed by a long-lasting and pragmatic “modulated” affection in which “the trick of solitariness” remains uneased—to be the human norm (L, 1:434, 4:33). As David Leverenz charges, Emerson “universalizes his self-pity and his inability to love Lidian,” although he does so in the faith that his audience can summon up their own sad names and interests and errors, just as Whitman assumes we all have a “secret silent loathing and despair” that we long to confess.51 Emerson may be correct, at least in a general sense, and part of the critical resistance to “Love” comes from a certain sentimentalism, a continuing “erotic faith” that love is aroused by the qualities of a particular beloved and that a passionate and inextricable merger of two into one can be accomplished in this life and will survive, somehow, after the grave.52 Emerson tells us that love is prior to and superior to its objects, that we confuse the occasion of our happiness (call it Charles, Edward, Ellen, Lidian) with its efficient cause, which can be found elsewhere, within; and he holds to the line that the true union to be desired—indeed, the only one possible—is the union of the soul with the good and the beautiful, and that to attribute those ultimate virtues to any person is a snare and a delusion, a brilliant and painful mistake.53 But Emerson has his reservations about stepping “on this ladder of created souls” up to divinity (CW, 2:106). We find them expressed in the essay on “Intellect,” a little later in the same collection, where the intellect, “void of affection,” leaves each truth “eviscerated of care” (CW, 2:193, 194). We find the same reservations in the structure of the essay on “Love,” where Emerson relates a love story in three veins: sentimental, Platonic, and only finally Emersonian, this last a view that encompasses the others, but only if we read the following essay, “Friendship,” as the conclusion to “Love.”

Since love begins, according to Emerson, with “a private and tender relation of one to one” (CW, 2:99), let us begin by examining that phrase. “Tender” has been Emerson's word for a stance toward other persons that permits or even produces connection.54 In “Love,” for the first time, the word is associated with youth as well as connection, and stands contrasted with “mature philosophy.” The “palpitations of joy and sorrow” that mark “the meaning of the Heart” at any age in “The Heart” (EL, 2:281) are here the “throbbing experience” of “every youth and maid,” which Emerson the philosopher begs leave not to portray in “vivid tints” (CW, 2:99). More than memories of Ellen are encoded in that phrase. Although Emerson writes of tenderness earlier, “private” has no long history in the same works, and its appearance here signals a new insistence, not on love as a violation of public mores, but on its interiority, as though it occurs entirely within an isolated subject. Love, writes Emerson, “is a fire that, kindling its first embers in the narrow nook of a private bosom, caught from a wandering spark out of another private heart, glows and enlarges until it warms and beams upon multitudes of men and women, upon the universal heart of all, and so lights up the whole world and all nature with its generous flames” (CW, 2:100). “How high that highest candle lights the dark”—until one remembers that the fire beams out, as in Wallace Stevens's poem, from the interior of a private bosom still.55

With that tenderness and privacy in mind, Emerson now begins the love story. The “rude village boy” and the “school girls who … talk half an hour about nothing, with the broad-faced, good-natured shop-boy” are characters in his quick comic sketch of a “novel of passion” replete with puns and rhetorical extravagance. But as the boy sees one particular girl and “instantly” feels “as if she remove[s] herself from him infinitely, and [is] a sacred precinct,” Emerson's tone grows more serious. We read of the precinct of selfhood in “The Heart,” into which no other could enter, but here a distance inserts itself at the first moment of affection, as though it were a precondition for relationship. “[O]ne alone distances him,” he writes; “and these two little neighbors that were so close just now, have learned to respect each other's personality” (CW, 2:100, 101). That respect so distances them that the beloved hardly appears, or seems needed, when Emerson describes

the visitations of that power to [the youth's] heart and brain, which created all things new; which was the dawn in him of music, poetry and art; which made the face of nature radiant with purple light …; when a single tone of one voice could make the heart bound[;] when he became all eye when one was present, and all memory when one was gone; when the youth becomes a watcher of windows, and studious of a glove …; when no place is too solitary, and none too silent for him who has richer company and sweeter conversation in his new thoughts, than any old friends, though best and purest, can give him.

(CW, 2:102)

The youth seems most enraptured when alone with ever-available nature, confessing his affection to a sympathetic cloud or a tree. Then a sudden shift of perspective leaves the boy a “fine madman” who merely “soliloquizes” (CW, 2:103). Like one of Freud's “ancient” theorists of love (like Freud himself, for that matter), Emerson cares less about the qualities of the beloved than about the character of “that power” itself.56 Love in this essay, unlike the affections in “The Heart,” seems fundamentally antisocial: for all that it gives the lover to another, “it still more gives him to himself.” No longer does the lover belong to family or society; rather “he is somewhat; he is a person; he is a soul” (CW, 2:104).

With this declaration Emerson closes the first part of the essay, turning from sentimental to Platonic reflections to consider “the nature of that influence” so potent over youth, naming it “Beauty” (“the flowering of virtue”). “The ancient writers,” “Plato, Plutarch, and Apuleius[,] … Petrarch, Angelo, and Milton,” are his avowed source (CW, 2:104, 106), those who believed that “the Deity sends the glory of youth before the soul, that it may avail itself of beautiful bodies as aids to its recollection of the celestial good and fair” (CW, 2:105-6). But how seriously does Emerson believe, for example, that “[i]n the particular society of his mate” the lover “attains a clearer sight of any spot, any taint, which her beauty has contracted from this world, and is able to point it out, and this with mutual joy that they are now able without offence to indicate blemishes and hindrances in each other, and give to each all help and comfort in curing the same” (CW, 2:106)? Perhaps Hawthorne thought Emerson was serious, since a counter to those lines seems to underlie the plot of “The Birth-mark.” But in fact, while Emerson says this “dream of love” will serve to counteract the “subterranean prudence” of most marriages, he does not endorse the idea entirely and proves as bothered as Hawthorne by this unbelievable process of mutual improvement (CW, 2:107, 106).

Now that the ancient writers have had their say, Emerson supplies the final position that both supplements and corrects the sentimental and Platonic stances. He first disposes of the bulk of the “novel of passion.” The lovers glance at one another, a moment of radical connection and unity both in “The Heart” and in Emerson's journals (cf. JMN, 5:8), little knowing “the precious fruit” to come of “this new, quite external stimulus.” The plot quickens: “From exchanging glances, they advance to acts of courtesy, of gallantry, then to fiery passion, to plighting troth and marriage.” Even the wedding night appears in the account, albeit obliquely: “Passion beholds its object as a perfect unit. The soul is wholly embodied, and the body is wholly ensouled.” This unity encompasses the lovers as well. “Does that other see the same star, … read the same book, feel the same emotion, that now delight me?” the lovers wonder, but only when they are physically apart, the distance between them quite different from the ontological unseen gulf that intellect and strict science finds between every self and other, lover and beloved. They are, by Emerson's account, quite happy, “discovering that willingly, joyfully, they would give all as a ransom for the beautiful, the beloved head, not one hair of which shall be harmed” (CW, 2:107, 108). A companionable ideal that may have been Emerson's model was an instance of “recorded loneliness … during his absence from Ellen.”57

“But the lot of humanity is on these children,” the next sentence grimly announces; and while we are hardly surprised—they seem “tender” in both senses of the word—we must wonder which lot? Mutability? Isolation? Considering both the text and Emerson's biography, the first seems the obvious answer. “Danger, sorrow, and pain arrive to them, as to all”; and in a phrase that sounds to me as sad as “Jesus wept,” we learn the inevitable result: “Love prays.” But these prayers make “covenants with Eternal Power in behalf of [a] dear mate” (CW, 2:108). As “means to effect a private end,” these prayers are not the “contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view” that Emerson commends in “Self-Reliance” (1841), where they are rather seen as “vicious” expressions of “meanness and theft” (CW, 2:44). The union such prayer brings in this essay (whether it is with God or the beloved we cannot be sure) is “yet a temporary state,” because the lover's soul will soon learn that neither God nor the beloved is as personal as once thought. “[A]rous[ing] itself … from these endearments, as toys,” the soul “aspires to vast and universal aims”—a “mature philosophy” (CW, 2:108, 99). This recapitulates the earlier and absurdly easy progress toward divinity, where lovers could point out one another's blemishes “without offence” (CW, 2:106), but now the results turn sour. “The soul which is in the soul of each,” Emerson writes, “craving a perfect beatitude, detects incongruities, defects, and disproportion in the behavior of the other.” Hence arise, not “mutual joy,” but “surprise, expostulation, and pain” (CW, 2:108; cf. JMN, 5:297).

The couple has reached the limits of both sentimental love, with its vision of fireside union, and Platonic love. One imagines them retreating to the verse of Hewitt or a cold draft of Plotinus for relief. We have returned to the moment in Emerson's lecture where “the heart” is “repelled” by the multitude as such and by each individual as “an infinitely repellent orb” (EL, 2:288, 279)—the moment when it finds itself “betrayed” and rallied in marriage or friendship, “concentrating its desire … on one.” But in “Love” the painful surprise comes from within the private and tender relation, and it brings back with renewed force the questions that plagued us earlier. Is “[t]he drawing of the entire satisfactions of the heart from the indulgence of affection toward one soul” allowed by “the infinite nature” of the indulger or of the soul beheld? Are these souls in fact the same? Does forming a “league with the Idea … not with the actual person” in order to “make him a representative to us of the entire Humanity” mean we never truly deal with him at all (EL, 2:288)? Emerson must somehow allow for the mundane experience of being, in his brutally unsentimental phrase, “shut up in one house to spend in the nuptial society forty or fifty years,” despite the soul's new maturity and aspiration to universals (CW, 2:109).

As if in response to these questions, Emerson distinguishes the “signs of loveliness, signs of virtue” that drew the lovers together (and that appear and reappear through time) from “the substance” of virtues. “[T]he regard changes,” he writes—we are meant to think both of the physical glance and of the new estimation of these lovers for one another's virtues—and this new regard “repairs the wounded affection.” And “as life wears on, … a game of permutation and combination of all possible positions” enables the pair “to employ all the resources of each, and acquaint each with the strength and weakness of the other” in a distinct, but complementary, process (CW, 2:108). Not “the infinite nature of one soul” as in “The Heart,” but the nature of this relationship, which in its temporal duration makes a virtue of mutability's wear, can provide the employment and acquaintance that “Love” endorses in place of mere “satisfactions” (EL, 2:288). The two “resign each other, without complaint, to the good offices which men and women are severally appointed to discharge in time” (CW, 2:109; emphasis added). Furthermore, Emerson suggests that we can know nothing but our idea of the other: “All that is in the world which is or ought to be known, is cunningly wrought into the texture of man, of woman.” He abandons metaphors of politics and commerce in favor of a little couplet on taste, Locke's and Edwards's favorite trope for the incorrigibility of sense. “The person love does to us fit,” he quotes Abraham Cowley, “Like manna, has the taste of all in it” (CW, 2:108-9).

There is something unsatisfying about this resolution, for it fails to resolve the tension between nuptial society and the solitary love of virtue, the moods of indulgence and strictness, of experience and intellect, that Emerson has tried to reconcile in structure and in substance since Sermon CIV. “The Heart” offers one vision of balance—“[t]he highest conversation,” which “seems to be a marriage of the intellect and the affections” (EL, 2:292). But in this essay, conversation is undercut by misunderstandings and subjectiveness, and such a marriage seems forced as a best-case scenario.

What Emerson suggests as an alternative, or at least as a firmer foundation for conversations to come, is something called “the real marriage.” After surprise and expostulation, after the wounded affections' repair, after a certain chastening, as the couple's “once flaming regard is sobered by time in either breast, and … becomes a thorough good understanding,” the lovers “exchange the passion which once could not lose sight of its object, for a cheerful, disengaged furtherance, whether present or absent, of each other's designs.” The pun on “disengaged” seems to me one of Emerson's finest. Only after leaving off “engagement,” after all, can we be truly married. Year by year, he writes, this exchange of passion for loving disengagement involves a “purification of the intellect and the heart” (CW, 2:109). This twofold purification comes as the lovers of “Love,” if not Ralph Waldo and Lidian Jackson Emerson, turn into friends.58 And “celestial” friendship, not romantic or prudential or “natural” marriage, will turn out to be the ground for their progress toward divinity as well (EL, 2:288).


In her extensive treatment of the “Love” and “Friendship” essays, Mary Kupiec Cayton describes what she calls Emerson's third “stage” of love, the stage that involves these purifications, as “thin and unconvincing.” Following Carl F. Strauch, and for solid biographical reasons, she reads the essay on friendship as exploring a social alternative to Emerson's unsatisfying marriage to Lidian, one based on his “Concord Experiments” (as Cayton's punning chapter title puts it) with a community of friends centered on Fuller and Sturgis. “If marriage did not completely fulfill his need for relation,” Cayton observes, “friendship—at least in 1839 and 1840—seemed to.” Yet even friendship proved to have its crises and limits, provoked in part by the difference between Victorian men's and women's expectations of what friendship would involve; and, she concludes, “[t]he fear that like everything else in life, friendship will prove ‘phenomenal’ forces him to ascend to a spiritual plane,” where in some ideal state, “the feeling that ‘the not mine is mine’” might last, and friendship “overcome the gap between ‘the ME and the NOT ME’ (as Emerson had put it in Nature).”59 I cannot quarrel with Cayton's overall sense of the essay and its context. Yet her glancing reference to the “phenomenal” nature of friendship touches on what is to me the heart of the essay, its epistemological claims.

Unlike Sermon CIV, the lecture, or the essay on “Love,” “Friendship” gives an overt philosophical framework for its assertions, one in which words like “phenomenal” must be read as terms of art. Emerson is not only a Neoplatonic but also a romantic philosopher, and when he writes in “Love” that the lovers must “exchange the passion that once could not lose sight of its object” he means the word “object” in its full post-Kantian force (CW, 2:109). Not only does passion, with its eye on an “object” or end, use the other as a means, it must treat the other as an object inasmuch as he or she remains in the phenomenal and not the noumenal realm, an object of perceiving subjectivity. Emerson repeats what he wrote in “The Heart”: “In strictness, the soul does not respect men as it respects itself.” But in “Friendship,” he also provides a metaphysical foundation for this lesser respect:

I cannot choose but rely on my own poverty, more than on your wealth. I cannot make your consciousness tantamount to mine. … I cannot deny it, O friend, that the vast shadow of the Phenomenal includes thee, also, in its pied and painted immensity,—thee, also, compared with whom all else is shadow. Thou art not Being, as Truth is, as Justice is,—thou art not my soul, but a picture and effigy of that.

(CW, 2:116)

My assurance of your substantial identity, in the philosophical sense, has fallen away. “I who alone am” know only phenomena, not things (let alone persons) in themselves, and I “see nothing in nature whose existence I can affirm with equal evidence to my own.” Indeed here, “the Deity in me … usually connives” to raise “thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance” between us—that is to say (as “The Heart” does not) that the condition of insularity by which we hold our individual being is in general a function of the God in me, and not something that he serves to counteract (CW, 2:120, 115).

The purification of the heart thus involves exchanging a passion for objects for the knowledge of the other's phenomenality.60 We must leave off clutching, wean our affections, grow out of our proprietary interests in one another, and learn to “hold [this relation] by simple affinity” of “virtue with itself,” which allows the interior deity to negate the walls it helped raise (CW, 2:115). This connection can yield the “higher self-possession” that, Emerson claims in “The Over-Soul,” we attain through “common nature” and “unity of thought”; and it anticipates the alluring independence that he describes in “Swedenborg,” where “it is only when you leave and lose me by casting yourself on a sentiment which is higher than both of us, that I draw near” (CW, 2:165, 4:72). Yet Emerson knows full well that in practice our virtues will not often coincide: like the “high freedom of great conversation,” where two souls become as one, this coincidence is “an evanescent relation,—no more.” In strictness, in the world of intellect, we will always be reminded of the concern that arises in “The Heart,” namely, that a friend's or beloved's virtues are in the eye of the beholder. “We overestimate the conscience of our friend,” he writes; we feel “a property in his virtues,” as if they were our own, and in time we realize that they are in some sense our own, since we “bestow” virtues and “afterwards worship the form to which we have ascribed this divine inhabitation” (CW, 2:122, 115, 116).

On these epistemological grounds, Emerson revives the lingering Puritan fear of loving creation more than its creator, of “idolatry” with its “adulterate passion” and “perpetual disappointment” in the other (CW, 2:126, 117). We need no theology to warn us of these dangers, he seems to say, but theology gives us the precise, prophetic term for mistaking our own creative power, bestowals, and amorous imagination for another's intrinsic virtues. And we cannot easily evade Emerson's argument, even through appeals to his own biographical frustrations. At stake, after all, is the danger that love will make us proclaim another's sovereign selfhood as real to us as our own, only to find ourselves ignored or undermined, ready for a fall. If “idolatrous love attributes an absolute value to the loved one,” this “first falsity” inevitably leads to “searing disappointment” and “bitter solitude,” so observes not Emerson but Simone de Beauvoir, a century later and a continent away.61

As we realize that we have forgotten our own strength, that we have slipped from bestowing virtues to worshipping our creation, our hearts may be purified, albeit painfully. Yet this purification might well prompt the intellect to retreat from the social realm altogether, to rally elsewhere and alone in the solipsistic heights of virtue and “strict science.” To ward off this retreat the intellect too must be purified. Musing on this second purification, Emerson names “two elements that go to the composition of friendship,” each of them equally “sovereign.” The second he names “Tenderness,” a word that reminds us of the couple in “Love.” The first, “Truth,” which receives more attention, involves the moral sense, as it appears in the “municipal virtues of justice, punctuality, fidelity and pity.” Solipsism necessarily betrays these social virtues, and by insisting on their continued claim Emerson restrains the intellect, both in its enthusiasms and its potential disappointment (CW, 2:119, 121).

At the close of “Friendship,” Emerson turns to a third modulating force, one that we have not seen before: the power of seeming, of the heart's imagination. “True love transcends the unworthy object,” he writes in the final paragraph, because all objects as such are unworthy of the way we must treat them for true friendship to take place, which is “as a god,” or as a “receiver of Godhead” as he puts it in “Experience” (CW, 2:127, 3:44). But such love is not necessarily delusional: it may be a self-consciously fictive gift, one that does not infantilize us and that is too well aware of the powerful and performative nature of its praise to be idolatrous. Intellect demands that we sacrifice the passionate love-object on the altar of strict science, that we confess it is in some sense sinful, a lie. To bring the love-object back, as the heart desires, we impute selfhood, virtue, divinity to the other. “Friendship demands a religious treatment,” Emerson writes, and in this essay it receives one. Through an erotic economy of love and disappointment we have returned to a gracious economics of salvation, where both strictness and indulgence, justice and mercy, can be satisfied (CW, 2:123).

In the “Love” and “Friendship” essays Emerson seems confident that such imaginative satisfactions will suffice, in part because they imitate God. “It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space,” Emerson writes, revising Matthew 5:45 (CW, 2:127). As gratuitous bestowers of value, we are likewise enlarged by so shining.62 Later in his career the dicta are more bitter. “Never can love make consciousness and ascription equal in force,” he asserts in “Experience,” since “[t]he soul is not twin-born, but the only begotten, … admitting no co-life” (CW, 3:44, 45). While I am tempted to explain this shift in tone by referring to a biographical event (the death of Waldo is an obvious candidate), I suspect that it stems from the ambivalence inherent in Emerson's philosophy of love. The self-enlarging bestowals at the end of “Friendship” are only one of Emerson's proposed solutions to our epistemological solitude. “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves,” he writes at the end of “Circles”—that is, among other things, to forget the stateliness, deference, and poise incumbent on our separateness (the heart of his later essay on “Manners”) and be “surprised out of our propriety” by the “flames and generosities of the heart” (CW, 2:190). On the other hand, if the “evanescence and lubricity of all objects” turns out to be “the most unhandsome part of our condition,” perhaps with more of Emerson's restraint we might find our condition “handsome” indeed, which is to say attractive, drawing objects and persons to us without the need to clutch at them and hold them fast (CW, 3:29).63 Finally, Emerson's theory of bestowal is unavoidably complicated by his continuing assumption that love must be deserved, a mathematically proportionate response to the worth of the beloved: a bestowal of virtues that is then valued, rather than, as in Whitman, a bestowal of value itself.64 When M. Wynn Thomas speaks of the “cold emotional logic” of the end of “Friendship,”65 he has this underlying structure of appraisal in mind—the essayist's solar expansiveness so different, in tone if not in metaphor, from Whitman's appreciative “[l]ove like the light silently wrapping all.”66 In bestowing virtues, doesn't Emerson simply make a gift and then marry for the money? Both shame the beloved, and the telling makes it worse.

If I risk distorting the tone of the record, however, I do so for two reasons. First, while Emerson is unable to maintain the poise of, or write a love poetry commensurate with, his theory of bestowal, I believe Whitman does, extolling its pleasures and its therapeutic value. And despite my reservations, there seem to be strong grounds for admiring not only the logic of Emerson's doctrine but its ethic as well. I will close with these grounds, since they involve a summary of Emerson's progress from the theology of love where we began to the “too pathetic, too pitiable” world of affection and illusion that “Love,” “Friendship,” and the later essays confront.

In Sermon CIV Emerson retreats from his strongest assertions, based on a God that dwells in the human heart, to a comforting rhetoric of father and child. Behind this segregation and hierarchy of the human and divine lies a need to keep God, who mediates between us, both above us and distinct from us. For if love for neighbors is “through God,” then something of the machinery of the “‘triangular’ desire” René Girard describes in the opening sentence of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel must come into play: “Don Quixote has surrendered to Amadis the individual's fundamental prerogative: he no longer chooses the objects of his own desire—Amadis must choose for him.” Emerson's sermon suggests that Christians cannot choose their poor: God chooses for them. And yet, as Girard also points out, “[t]he impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the mediator,” so much so that “the desiring subject wants to become his mediator; he wants to steal from the mediator his very being of ‘perfect knight’ or ‘irresistible seducer.’” As long as the mediator, in this case God, stays fundamentally distinct from the desiring subject, or the man who wants to love his neighbor, no rivalry can ensue. But in “internal mediation,” where the distinction dissolves (say, when God takes up his seat within the soul), “the subject is torn between two opposite feelings toward his model, the most submissive reverence and the most intense malice. This is the passion we call hatred.”67

Girard's description illuminates Miles Standish's feelings toward John Alden, or Dickinson's (on occasion) toward Christ, perhaps better than any specific moment of ambivalence in Emerson. Yet he names a threat that Emerson must check: that as God becomes less a father above than an internalized god, one's access to the other or even to the god in the other will be thwarted, paling by comparison to the access granted to that god, or to put it philosophically, the access to one's own existence. This is the threat we left behind many pages ago, when we touched on the potential for tragedy in Emerson's epistemological isolation. The skeptic may end up like Othello, who (in Gerald L. Bruns's commentary on Cavell's reading of the play) “wants to possess, and can never have … Desdemona's own self-certainty of her fidelity. … [H]e wants to not-doubt Desdemona as she not-doubts herself, as Descartes could not-doubt his own existence.”68 Skepticism in Othello leads to murder: a tragic case Emerson is at pains to avoid. (As we have seen, he anticipates and counters, before Hawthorne, the deathly trajectory of “The Birth-mark”). I would love to say that the “true marriage” of “Love” and “Friendship” presents us with a comic alternative, perhaps something like the screwball comedy of remarriage that Cavell describes in Pursuits of Happiness and elsewhere.69 But while points of similarity emerge—the importance of conversation, of being “alert and inventive,” to “add rhyme and reason” to the drudgery and “daily needs” of life together (CW, 2:121)—Emerson's vision seems never so shared, so reciprocal as Cavell's. He makes his student the philosopher seem unabashedly sentimental, for when “the air clears and the cloud lifts” as at the end of “Illusions,” the scene contains only one mortal and “the gods”: “they alone with him alone” (W, 6:325).

Between tragedy and comedy, though, comes pathos, the “too pathetic, too pitiable” world. For Emerson never gives up his faith in the moral sense and returns again and again to those “municipal virtues of justice, punctuality, fidelity and pity” (CW, 2:121) where the heart finds its mature, philosophical home.70 Since effusions of affection (as in Whitman) are rather less common than tales of submission or revenge or the “metaphysically desperate degree of private bonding” in tragic romance (to which Cavell refers), the return to and revision of Calvinist theology in Emerson may be no more radical than it is admirable.71 If never two were one, then surely the “municipal virtues” need to have their say. And is there nothing noble in the scene as Emerson's lovers, “really” married through friendship, by ascription deified, through Concord take their solitary way?


  1. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-4), 6:315-16. Quotations from “Illusions” and other essays in The Conduct of Life, from “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,” and from Emerson's poems are taken from this edition and are cited in the text as W, with volume and page number. Other Emerson texts quoted in this essay, cited parenthetically by volume (when appropriate) and page number, are as follows:

    CS The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Albert J. von Frank, 4 vols. (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1989-92).

    CW The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson and Joseph Slater et al., 4 vols. to date (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1971-).

    EL The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1959-72).

    JMN The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman and Ralph H. Orth et al., 16 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1960-82); deletions Emerson made in the process of writing have been ignored in the interest of readability.

    L The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk, 6 vols. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1939).

  2. The major figure in a twentieth-century reevaluation of Emerson as an American philosopher, or as one who calls for an American philosophy, is Stanley Cavell. See “Thinking of Emerson” and “An Emerson Mood,” in The Senses of Walden (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 121-60; “Emerson, Coleridge, Kant (Terms as Conditions),” chap. 2 of In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), 27-49; and the lectures collected in This New Yet Unapproachable America (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1989).

  3. John McCormick, “‘The Heyday of the Blood’: Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in American Declarations of Love, ed. Ann Massa (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 35.

  4. Erik Ingvar Thurin, Emerson as Priest of Pan: A Study in the Metaphysics of Sex (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981), 21. Only outside the literary world, it seems, has this side of Emerson been approached with due consideration. Philosopher Irving Singer finds a place for him in his three-volume history of The Nature of Love as a transitional thinker between romantic and modern notions. The essay “Love,” Singer argues, “combines Hegelian, Neoplatonic, and Christian elements in a way that reveals why each of these is so unsatisfactory from our contemporary perspective” (The Nature of Love, 3 vols. [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984], 2:484). But even Singer gives Emerson only a paragraph and a half of explication, hardly time to explore the subtleties of this one essay, let alone the several that make up his ars amatoria. For the sort of attention these issues deserve (taking Emerson at his words), we would turn to Cavell, but though he has written about Emerson and about love and skepticism, he has not yet done both at the same time.

  5. See, for example, the efforts of biographers like Ralph L. Rusk (The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949]); Henry F. Pommer (Emerson's First Marriage [Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1967]); Gay Wilson Allen (Waldo Emerson: A Biography [New York: Viking Press, 1981]); and John McAleer (Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter [Boston: Little, Brown, 1984]). See also the work of Carl F. Strauch (“Hatred's Swift Repulsions: Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Others,” Studies in Romanticism 7 [1968]: 65-103); and the more recent critical work of Mary Kupiec Cayton (Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845 [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1989]).

  6. David Van Leer, Emerson's Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), xiii. I suspect that my agreement with Van Leer stems from our common debt to Michael Colacurcio.

  7. Bernard Duffey, Poetry in America: Expression and Its Values in the Times of Bryant, Whitman, and Pound (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1978), xiii; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The Solitude of Self,” in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches, ed. Ellen Carol Du Bois (New York: Schocken, 1981), 247.

    American love poets continue to display the influence, direct or indirect, of Emersonian ideas on love. Gertrude Reif Hughes notes that “there is something deeply Emersonian about Rich's severe renunciation of her lovers' union” in the poem “Origins and History of Consciousness” (“‘Imagining the Existence of Something Uncreated’: Elements of Emerson in Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language,” in Reading Adrienne Rich, ed. Jane Roberta Cooper [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1984], 152-53). Virginia M. Kouidis sees Marianne Moore and Mina Loy as quarreling, in love poems and other poems, with the claims of “Experience.” See her “Prism into Prison: Emerson's ‘Many-Colored Lenses’ and the Woman Writer of Early Modernism,” in The Green American Tradition: Essays and Poems for Sherman Paul, ed. H. Daniel Peck (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1989), 115-34. I have traced this tradition of response in readings of Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, and John Ashbery in “When I'm Calling You: Reading, Romance, and Rhetoric in and around Hart Crane's ‘Voyages,’” Arizona Quarterly 47 (winter 1991): 85-118, and I have recently finished a larger study, What Is It Then Between Us? Traditions of Love in American Poetry, in which it plays an important role.

  8. Quotes are taken from Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 243; and Ellen K. Rothman, Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 19.

  9. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989), 544, 541; emphasis added.

  10. Martin F. Tupper, Proverbial Philosophy (London: Thomas Hatchard, Picadilly, 1854), 162, 159.

  11. Lystra, Searching the Heart, 240; Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Letters, 1813-1843, ed. Thomas Woodson, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson, vol. 15 of the Centenary Edition of The Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1984), 330; Stanley Cavell, “Two Cheers for Romance,” in Passionate Attachments, ed. Williard Gaylin and Ethel Person (London: Macmillan, 1988), 91.

  12. Lystra, Searching the Heart, 252.

  13. Lystra, Searching the Heart, 258.

  14. See Lystra, Searching the Heart, 252-57.

  15. Annis Boudinot Stockton's poem was published in Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith's Funeral Sermon on the Death of the Hon. Richard Stockton (1780). It has been brought back to print in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, ed. Paul Lauter et al. (New York: Heath, 1990), 1:658.

  16. Martha Brewster, “An Acrostick for My Husband,” in Poems on Divers Subjects (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1757), 33; Anne Bradstreet, “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” in The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. John Harvard Ellis (New York: Peter Smith, 1932), 394.

  17. The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, ed. John C. Shields (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 30 (spelling modernized).

  18. The phrase “new domestic heaven” is from Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), 214; see also 204.

  19. George Cheever, The Powers of the World to Come (New York, 1853), 221.

  20. Quoted in Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, Liberty, a Better Husband: Single Women in America, The Generations of 1780-1840 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1984), xi.

  21. Quoted by Emerson in JMN, 11:500.

  22. Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, in The Essential Margaret Fuller, ed. Jeffrey Steele (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1992), 312, 298. For more on celibacy, see Chambers-Schiller, Liberty, 3, 29-45. In Summer on the Lakes, Fuller mourns the wasted love and energy of a young alter-ego, Mariana, whose “large impulses are disproportioned to the persons and occasions she meets, and which carry her beyond those reserves which mark the appointed lot of woman.” “Such women as Mariana are often lost,” she writes, “unless they meet some man of sufficiently great soul to prize them,” a man “man enough to be a lover!” But since men like Philip Van Artevelde, her example from Summer on the Lakes, (or like Giovanni Angelo Ossoli) “come not so often as once an age, their presence should not be absolutely needed to sustain life” (Essential Margaret Fuller, 131, 132).

  23. Emerson echoes these comments on love in “Friendship”: “The condition which high friendship demands, is, ability to do without it. … There must be two, before there can be very one” (CW, 2:123).

  24. Hawthorne, Letters, 316. The phrase “maudlin agglutinations” is Emerson's, from “The Uses of Great Men” (CW, 4:15).

  25. This vision of the hereafter proposes as spiritual counsel the whimsical independence Emerson's first wife, Ellen Tucker, declares in a poem that begins “When we're angels in heaven”:

    I shan't keep a carriage
    My wings will be strong
    And our earthly marriage
    Will be vain as a song.
    I therefore shall use them
    As I may see fit
    And tea out and dine out
    Nor mind you a bit.

    (One First Love: The Letters of Ellen Louisa Tucker to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edith W. Gregg [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1962], 157.)

  26. Tucker, One First Love, 14.

  27. Mary E. Hewitt, Poems: Sacred, Passionate, and Legendary (New York: Lamport, Blakeman, 1854), 196.

  28. Young Emerson Speaks: Unpublished Discourses on Many Subjects by Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Arthur Cushman McGiffert Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938), 19; Rusk, Life, 134. Although Emerson “was doubtless abashed” at preaching this Platonic sermon to Ellen's church, Rusk asserts that the sermon “served to restore the dignity of his philosophy, which had proved so unreliable in her presence” (133).

  29. See Joel Porte, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), 169-71.

  30. John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” in Winthrop Papers, vol. 2, 1623-1630, ed. Stewart Mitchell (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968), 290.

  31. Martin Luther, Weimar Auflage, quoted in Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 695.

  32. Quoted in Robert Lee Patterson, The Philosophy of William Ellery Channing (New York: Bookman Associates, 1952), 169. “Love,” Channing observes, “may prove our chief woe, if bestowed unwisely, disproportionately, and on unworthy objects; if confined to beings of imperfect virtue, with whose feelings we cannot always innocently sympathize, whose interests we cannot always righteously promote, who narrow us to themselves instead of breathing universal charity, who are frail, mutable, exposed to suffering, pain, and death” (quoted in Patterson, Philosophy, 236).

  33. Patterson, Philosophy, 169, 236, 237. “The difficulty,” Patterson goes on, “can be solved, if at all, only by showing not only that human love leads on to the love of God, but also that the love of God augments and fosters human love. Such a solution, however, we do not find in the thought of Channing” (238). We can find it in Aquinas, in what Nygren calls his “caritas-synthesis” (Agape and Eros, 476-558, 613-58). A different solution is worked through by Emerson.

  34. Cf. Edwards: “The whole is of God, and in God, and to God; and God is the beginning, middle, and end in this affair. And though it be true that God has respect to the creature in these things; yet his respect to himself, and to the creature in this matter, are not properly to be looked upon as a double and divided respect of God's heart” (“Concerning the End for Which God Created the World,” in Ethical Writings, 531).

  35. Edwards, Ethical Writings, 540.

  36. Cf. John Calvin: “We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972], 2:7).

  37. The phrase “human love” bears for me an overtone of imperfection, of faithlessness and tender disappointment, as in W. H. Auden's “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm” (“Lullaby,” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson [New York: Random House, 1976], 131). I draw it here, though, from Patterson's discussion of love and benevolence. “It has been urged by the atheistic idealist, McTaggart,” he writes,

    that the fundamental defect of theism is that it sets, and must set, a low value upon human love. The point of this criticism will not be duly appreciated until the distinction be grasped between love and benevolence. Benevolence is basically volitional in character; it does not, indeed, exclude emotion, but that emotion is of an impersonal variety. Theists of all faiths and in all ages have concurred in emphasizing the value of benevolence. When it comes, however, to personal affection and devotion, such as engages the whole personality, theists have habitually told us that this in its purest and intensest form belongs to God alone, that the creatures are to be loved “for God's sake” rather than for themselves. In no Christian thinker is this characteristic more pronounced than in Channing's predecessor, Edwards. Love, Edwards maintains, should be proportionate to its object. God, the Supreme Good, alone deserves the fullness of one's love; to bestow this upon any finite being would be idolatry.

    (Philosophy, 268)

  38. While the years between Sermon CIV and “The Heart” are extraordinarily eventful, even before Emerson's marriage to Ellen he imagined an effort at self-culture that would lead one from interhuman affections to the “sublime” world of love for God. See JMN, 3:146.

  39. Lystra, Searching the Heart, 241-42.

  40. Emerson's push toward “the impersonal” will thus force a few revisions on Cavell's history of skepticism, in which “the philosophical problem of the other” appears “as the trace or scar of the departure of God.” For Emerson, God (“the god,” “the gods,” the “Over-soul,” or “Spirit”) can never be said to depart, but as at the close of “Give All To Love,” functions mainly to drive off lesser lovers. The simultaneous loss of personality in God and man gives new resonance to Cavell's question, “[C]ouldn't the other suffer the fate of God?” (The Claim of Reason [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979], 470). I find this linkage as compelling as the sociopolitical explanation offered by David Leverenz, where “solitary male freedom,” which presumes the “depersonalized servitude” of others, vitiates the self (Manhood and the American Renaissance [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989], 44).

  41. Singer, Nature of Love, 1:320-21, quoting Thomas Aquinas, On Charity (De Caritate), trans. Lottie H. Kendzierski (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ. Press, 1960), 21.

  42. According to Michael Fischer, Cavell's work suggests that “the sense of a gap between us and others originates in our wishing to give up responsibility for maintaining those shared forms of life linking us” to them (Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989], 64). Given the constricting social web in America between 1820 and 1840 and Emerson's depiction of the contemporary “war between intellect and affection,” there may be this sort of wish-fulfillment in his skeptical and individualistic claims. The importance of gender in this drive to separation is easily overstated. Compare, for example, Mary Moody Emerson's exultation in “the advantage of loneliness,” quoted in Phyllis Cole, “The Advantage of Loneliness: Mary Moody Emerson's Almanacks, 1802-1855,” in Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), 10.

  43. Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), 6.

  44. “Many of the questions [of ‘Experience’] seem familiar,” Van Leer explains, “and offer recognizable (if not entirely predictable) reformulations of earlier problems. … If psychologically Emerson shows an unsuspected willingness to treat the authentic facts of experience, philosophically he merely develops the next stage of his epistemological argument,” including, I would add, his argument over the epistemology of love (Emerson's Epistemology, 143).

  45. Emerson calls this “common soul” a sort of ether, “an element” of love, and his litany of its attributes surely echoes Paul's Corinthian hymn to agape. “This common soul plunges into water to save the drowning man; seizes the bridle of the rearing horse; runs over the burning rafters of the flaming house to rescue the child,” Emerson writes. “It takes counsel only of itself; sneers never; imputes never a low motive. … No King was ever yet able to kill or root it out” (EL, 2:281).

  46. We might compare this to the Puritan desire to “live in the world but not of the world,” one of the goals of weaning one's affections (Douglas Anderson, A House Undivided: Domesticity and Community in American Literature [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990], 3).

  47. John Donne, “The Exstasie,” in John Donne: The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 59.

  48. For more on the difference between the cherubim and seraphim, that “old politics of the skies,” see “Intellect” (CW, 2:204). In a letter to Fuller (25 September 1840), Emerson tries to finesse their differences by claiming that they “are not inhabitants of one thought of the Divine Mind, but of two thoughts, that [they] meet & treat like foreign states, one maritime, one inland, whose trade & laws are essentially unlike” (L, 2:336). I find this “two thought” system rather unconvincing; yet when Emerson explains in the lecture how, other than etymologically, “Courage is of the Heart,” he dares us to deny that we, too, do not act on a similar faith. “If we believed in the existence of strict individuals,” he writes, “natures, that is, not radically identical but unknown, unmeasurable we should never dare to fight” (EL, 2:285). The same perhaps might be confessed of our “daring” to love.

  49. Why are marriage and friendship the issue, and not general social duty? “The Heart,” Emerson insists, “truly regards all men as its neighbor” because, we may assume, it sees itself, or the god in it, in them. Still, “in the actual state of society it presently finds abundant obstacle to the indulgence of sympathy. It is chilled and sneered at and betrayed” (EL, 2:288). Our affections, repelled by the multitude as such, and from each individual as “an infinitely repellent orb,” will “rally in some one object,” Emerson writes; and the heart accommodates itself “by concentrating its desire of helping and comforting upon one” (EL, 2:279, 288).

  50. Benjamin Wadsworth, The Well-Ordered Family (Boston, 1712), 26; quoted in Edmund S. Morgan, The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 49.

  51. Leverenz, Manhood, 69; Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems, ed. Sculley Bradley et al., 3 vols., in The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1980), 1:236. It is worth noting that Emerson's journals often work on the same level of abstraction, so that his observations about a husband who “loses the wife in the cares of the household” and who “cannot rejoice with her in the babe for by becoming a mother she ceases yet more to be a wife” are drawn only loosely (or in the second case, not at all) from his own experience (JMN, 5:297).

  52. See Robert M. Polhemus, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), esp. 1-27.

  53. “Marriage unites the severed halves and joins characters which are complements to each other,” Emerson writes in the lecture on “Love” (EL, 3:62), sounding a bit like Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium; but this vision of union disappears when he revises the lecture into an essay.

  54. In Sermon CIV a “tender reverence for our mutual nature, divine in its origin,” properly grounds “all our dealings with mankind” (CS, 3:89). In “our position in nature,” Emerson writes in “The Heart,” “[w]e are tenderly alive to love and hatred”; shortly thereafter we are warned not to “wrong the truth and [our] own experience by too stiffly standing on the cold and proud doctrine of self-sufficiency” (EL, 2:280). In “Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,” Emerson puns on the word “tender” again, though with a different set of senses. “There grew a certain tenderness on the people,” he writes in the second sentence of the piece; a few pages later the notion that “the individual is the world” gives people “a neck of unspeakable tenderness; it winces at a hair” (W, 10:325, 326, 327).

  55. Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” in The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1982), 524.

  56. According to a footnote Freud added in 1910 to his “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” “[t]he ancients laid the stress upon the [sexual] instinct itself, whereas we … emphasize its object” (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 7, 1901-1905, ed. James Strachey [London: Hogarth Press, 1953], 149). I am grateful to Deborah Garfield for pointing out this connection.

  57. Pommer, Emerson's First Marriage, 82.

  58. Emerson sounds quite stoutly Victorian in his emphasis on exchanging passionate marital relations for companionable ones. But unlike the advice writers cited by Steven Seidman, he will not propose marriage as a site of both self-realization and perfect emotional union. See Seidman's Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830-1980 (New York: Routledge, 1991), 30-32. Whether his purifications are sublimations of sexuality seems to me an arguable and not very interesting point. Lest I seem merely soft-hearted here, let me adduce textual evidence that friendship is what “true marriage” means. A “cheerful, disengaged furtherance,” Emerson calls it in “Love” (CW, 2:109); and in “The Heart,” a “manly furtherance” appears as one of the “stern conditions … of friendship” (EL, 2:289). While love begins as a “private and tender relation of one to one,” friendship appears in “Friendship” as “a just and firm encounter of two” in which we “dignify to each other the daily needs and offices of man's life”—the same sort of “offices” to which the married couple resigned one another a moment ago (CW, 2:99, 114, 121). Finally, the tale of friendship with a “commended stranger” in the opening pages of “Friendship” recapitulates all the crucial stages of “Love,” as though to suggest, in fact, that the lovers were at best strangers to each other from the start (CW, 2:114).

  59. Cayton, Emerson's Emergence, 200, 208, 209, 210.

  60. Unlike Sartre, Emerson is never bothered by the fact that he is just as phenomenal, just as much an object and not a subject, to the perceiving other as the other is to him.

  61. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 687.

  62. Singer also speaks of the way bestowing value will “augment one's own being as well as the beloved's” (Nature of Love, 1:7).

  63. For a discussion of this pun on handsomeness and attraction, see Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 87.

  64. See Walt Whitman, “A Song for Occupations,” in Leaves of Grass, 1:83-98.

  65. See M. Wynn Thomas, “A Comparative Study of Emerson's ‘Friendship’ and Whitman's ‘Calamus,’” ATQ 55 (1985): 57.

  66. Whitman, “Song of the Universal,” in Leaves of Grass, 3:681.

  67. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1985), 1, 10, 54, 10. “We shall speak of external mediation,” Girard explains, “when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers. We shall speak of internal mediation when this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly” (9).

  68. I quote Gerald L. Bruns, “Stanley Cavell's Shakespeare,” Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 614. For Cavell's reading of Othello, see “Othello and the Stake of Other,” chap. 3 of Disowning Knowledge, 125-42.

  69. Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981); see esp. the chapters “Knowledge as Transgression: It Happened One Night” (71-109) and “The Importance of Importance: The Philadelphia Story” (133-60).

  70. The “simple and childish virtues of veracity and honesty,” Emerson puts it in “Illusions,” are still “the root of all that is sublime in character” (CW, 6:322).

  71. Cavell, Disowning Knowledge, 10.

James M. Albrecht (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “‘Living Property’: Emerson's Ethics,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 41, No. 3, 1995, pp. 177-247.

[In the following essay, Albrecht examines Emerson's ethical philosophy in the context of such essays as “Self-Reliance” and “Experience.”]

[T]hat which a man is, does always by necessity acquire, and what the man acquires is living property.

—Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

What a man does, that he has. What has he to do with hope or fear? In himself is his might. Let him regard no good as solid but that which is in his nature, and which must grow out of him as long as he exists. The goods of fortune may come and go like summer leaves; let him scatter them on every wind as the momentary signs of his infinite productiveness.

—Emerson, “Spiritual Laws”

“When will you mend Montaigne?” Emerson challenged himself in 1835: “Where are your Essays? Can you not express your one conviction that moral laws hold?”1 Ironically, his philosophy, intended to affirm “moral laws,” has often been criticized as an amoral ethics of individualized activity. Emerson typically is accused of a “transcendentalist” fascination with the absolute that ignores or subsumes the tragic limitations of our material existence; curiously, this supposed absolutism has been described as taking two nearly contradictory forms. As the title of Stephen E. Whicher's influential study Freedom and Fate indicates,2 critics have charted in Emerson's thought a shift from a naïve affirmation of individual power, in his early works, to a more sober focus, in his later works, on the forces that limit the autonomy and power of human acts. The “early” Emerson posited in this widely accepted narrative celebrates absolute power as a goal to which individuals should aspire—thereby blaming tragic inequities on individual failings instead of on social or political forces. The “late” Emerson, in contrast, celebrates the absolute forces that determine our human identities and acts—thereby linking individualism with a fatalistic acceptance of limitation and a renunciation of political action. Much recent criticism has set out to describe Emerson's amorality in historical, ideological terms, often arguing that his individualism endorses the amoral logic of laissez-faire capitalism and discourages collective political action. However, most assessments of his politics reinforce, even as they reformulate, the major contours of Whicher's reading. For example, Sacvan Bercovitch's argument that Emerson shifted from a “utopian” critique of capitalism to an “ideological” apology for capitalism updates Whicher's opposition of an early and a late Emerson. Myra Jehlen also emerges from Whicher's opposition, arguing that Emerson's assertion of absolute individual power paradoxically implies a negation of individual will.3

Emerson's ethics, I want to maintain, do not reflect these absolutist extremes of autonomy and determinism; rather, they extend his balanced, proto-pragmatic analysis of the power and limitation of individual acts.4 For Emerson, creative change is a process of limited transcendence—in which people turn inherited cultural tools to new uses, exceeding their previous reality only by facilitating the emergence of another, also limited, reality. Insisting that creative acts are constrained by both the cultural media with which they must be articulated and the environment they strive to reshape, Emerson views individuals as alienated from both the sources and the products of their acts. He therefore locates value in the act of doing: “The one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul,” he provocatively asserts in “The American Scholar” (CW, 1:56). Emerson's transcendentalism thus anticipates two fundamental attitudes of William James's pragmatism, namely, that ideas are limited human tools and that their “truth” lies in their ability to facilitate human acts.5 This emphasis on activity or work that lies at the heart of Emerson's ethics cannot easily be reconciled with traditional capitalist ideology, which locates value in accumulated (and alienated) wealth and profit. To reassert the pragmatic basis of Emerson's ethics is to gain a renewed understanding of the writer who inspired Thoreau in Walden and “Civil Disobedience” by articulating an “economy” of living measured in terms of creative experience and activity. However, in thus distinguishing Emerson's ethics from traditional capitalist ideology, it is crucial to address other recalcitrant ethical dilemmas posed by his thought, primarily the anti-communicative and anti-communitarian implications of his emphasis on action. Indeed, these dilemmas are hardly avoidable, for Emerson not only confronts them frankly but exploits them as central issues in such essays as “Self-Reliance” and “Experience.”

Emerson's pragmatic focus on action reflects his complex analysis of how culture both enables individual acts that may result in creative change and limits the degree to which any creative result expresses individuality. Invention—truly new perception or utility—occurs when the tools inherited from the past are used to transcend the horizon of perception and utility defined by those tools:

The useful arts are but reproductions or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favoring gales, but by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus's bag, and carries the two and thirty winds in the boiler of his boat. To diminish friction, he paves the road with iron bars, and, mounting a coach with a ship-load of men, animals, and merchandise behind him, he darts through the country, from town to town, like an eagle or a swallow through the air.

(CW, 1:11-12)

This passage, from the “Commodity” chapter of Nature, describes all new creations as quotations of nature's forms and forces and of previous human works.6 Yet invention is not mere reproduction; it is a kind of metaphoric translation or turning that Emerson frequently calls troping:7 the railroad tropes a sailing ship by using iron rails to re-create the fluidity of water, carrying a “ship-load” on land. The steam engine retropes the sail, and both engine and sail retrope the fable of Aeolus's bag—the idea of catching and harnessing the wind.

However, though an individual's acts may facilitate invention, any true invention is by definition different from previous utility and perception, and thus beyond merely individual intention:8

I pursue my speculations with confidence & tho' I can discern no remoter conclusion I doubt not the train I commence extends farther than I see as the first artificer of glass did not know he was instructing men in astronomy & restoring sight to those from whom nature had taken it. There is no thought which is not seed as well as fruit. It spawns like fish.

(JMN, 2:387)

Invention here consists in making something the full use of which you cannot know, in disrupting or transcending utility. This nonintentional aspect of action, which Emerson often describes in such terms as “reception,” “whim,” and “abandonment,”9 can literally reinvent our reality: the “first artificer of glass” could not foresee how the telescope would change how we see the universe, nor could the inventor of the steam engine intend all the changes in the “realities” of space and time brought by the railroad.

Inherited culture is thus a collection of tools that enables individual creative acts and at the same time requires a surrender of individuality. Emerson expresses this duality in “Shakespeare; or, The Poet”: Culture provides tremendous power—“The world has brought him thus far on his way. … Men, nations, poets, artisans, women, all have worked for him.” However, this power also determines and constrains the direction of an individual's acts:

Choose any other thing, out of the line of tendency, out of the national feeling and history, and he would have all to do for himself: his powers would be expended in the first preparations. Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive; in letting the world do all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind.

(CW, 4:110)

Similarly, culture is both a rich mine for invention and a medium that makes true invention extremely difficult. Creative acts depend on inherited tools; they escape the utility defined by those tools only to have any new result reappropriated as a new utility. Invention is a disruption of utility, an act of “abandonment” or “whim,” that occurs as a liminal moment between old and new utility. Emerson distinguishes invention from utility in “The Method of Nature”: “I look on trade and every mechanical craft as education also. But let me discriminate what is precious herein. There is in each of these works one act of invention, one intellectual step, or short series of steps taken; that act or step is the spiritual act: all the rest is mere repetition of the same a thousand times” (CW, 1:120-21). True invention here is strikingly restricted. It is only “one intellectual step,” an “act” within the “work.” The railroad, once repeated and used, is no longer invention but only “mere repetition” and “routine” (CW, 1:121). Extending this logic, even the first prototype model steam engine is not wholly invention; the “work” is not the same as the “spiritual act.” Returning to the “Aeolus's bag” passage, the act of invention might be no more than the mental act of troping, the thought of a new application that “realizes the fable.” Invention thus described is a kind of synonym for genius as Richard Poirier defines it in Emerson: a potential or energy for change that ceases to be itself as soon as it begins to take form in a medium.10

Two central, and related, facets of this theory of invention are crucial for understanding the aims and priorities of Emerson's ethics: first, his acute awareness that individuals are inescapably limited by the media with which and on which they must act, and second, his consequent portrayal of originality or creativity as extremely tenuous and elusive. These aspects of Emerson's pragmatism challenge the persistent idea that he naïvely affirms the sufficiency and power of individual action, thus ignoring its tragic limits. Indeed, his ethics are essentially a response to limitation: his pragmatic stress on individual action is an attempt to locate value that is not subject to alienation. However, though this emphasis on action distinguishes Emerson's pragmatism from the amorality of laissez-faire capitalism, it leads him into another type of amorality. By locating value in the individual's activity, Emerson problematizes the communication of value and, by extension, the fulfillment of communal responsibility. Similarly, his complex and conflicted attitudes toward political reform do not correspond neatly to laissez-faire capitalism but, rather, logically extend his pragmatic valorization of activity over established or codified cultural forms.


In town I also talked with Sampson Reed, of Swedenborg & the rest. “It is not so in your experience, but is so in the other world.”—“Other world?” I reply, “there is no other world; here or nowhere is the whole fact; all the Universe over, there is but one thing,—this old double, Creator-creature, mind-matter, right-wrong.”

—Emerson's journal, June-July 1842

Emerson's “transcendentalism” has often been equated with a desire to transcend the material world and its tragic limits. The charge that he lacks a sense of tragedy is a familiar one, running from Herman Melville through influential twentieth-century critics like F. O. Matthiessen, Stephen Whicher, and Myra Jehlen.11 This indictment is typically based on the following assumptions: first, that Emerson defines nature as the perfect embodiment of an ideal truth existing beyond it; second, that he believes human action can potentially exert unbounded control over nature; and third, that his fascination with unlimited individual power at best leads him to disregard the material consequences of particular actions (valuing, instead, intuitive apprehensions of the “absolute”), and at worst leads him to insist that our failure to achieve total control over nature reflects our own vice. Jehlen offers a powerful reformulation of this traditional reading. She suggests that Emerson defines truth as wholly independent of human actions: we have access to truth only through our preexisting harmony with or intuition of nature; our actions merely express or replicate nature's absolute truth. This severe proscription of human creativity provides, according to Jehlen, a powerful metaphysical support for the amorality of capitalism: it simultaneously removes any responsibility for political action (since nature does not need human reforms or revolutions) and authorizes economic and nationalist expansion (since nature comprehends all such activity).12

Jehlen cogently traces possible ideological implications of the way Emerson traditionally has been read, but Emerson's ethics need to be reassessed, I think, on the basis of alternative readings. Ultimately, Emerson's pragmatic theory of invention cannot be made to fit conventional views of transcendentalism. His ruminations on Shakespeare and on the “first artificer of glass” demonstrate that Emersonian intuition or “reception” is not incompatible with creative action. Rather, intuition is only one aspect or phase of invention; it is the new perception that cannot be intended by the human actor but that depends upon his or her acts. Jehlen's contention that Emersonian action cannot create anything original is true only in the broadest possible terms: for example, that God created humans, their faculties, and the world, and thus created all potential human acts; or in secular terms, that people are part of nature, which thus comprehends all changes wrought by human arts. Emerson himself makes this latter argument in his 1844 essay “Nature.”13 But this does not mean, as Jehlen concludes, that Emerson defines human acts and truths as predetermined, confined to replicating an already absolute perfection. He insists that truth and reality are limited human constructs, products of culturally mediated perceptions of our environment and thus contingent upon human acts. Emerson's entire theory of invention stands on the premise that human action does matter, that people can and must re-create their reality: “[H]istory and the state of the world at any one time,” he asserts in “Circles,” is “directly dependent on the intellectual classification then existing in the minds of men. … A new degree of culture would instantly revolutionize the entire system of human pursuits.” However, as that essay insists, each limited reality is exceeded only by the emergence of yet another limited reality: “[E]ach thought[,] having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance,” begins to “solidify, and hem in the life” (CW, 2:184, 180-81). Thus Emerson approvingly notes one woman's definition of transcendentalism as “[a] little beyond” (JMN, 5:218; my emphasis).

In claiming that Emerson's universe is “infinitely benevolent,”14 Jehlen is insufficiently attentive to this crucial distinction of scope—that is, to the difference between, on the one hand, God or nature as the ground of possibility for all human action and, on the other, human reality as defined by particular acts. When Emerson insists that the universe is benevolent, that there is an immutable justice or balance in nature, he is describing a systemic balance that transcends any merely individual or even human measure of fairness or justice. When he affirms that the results of human action are moral, he is not asserting that the world is wholly answerable to human will and that failures and suffering thus reflect human vices. Instead, he is asserting that our limited ability to transform the world around us is an accurate reflection of our limited position in a nature that is not organized according to human concepts of justice.

This ethic of accepting the limited control human beings have over their environment is implicit in Emerson's theory of invention. Creative acts that transcend or disrupt our current horizon of utility can yield unintended new perceptions and utilities. Thus, in “Self-Reliance,” Emerson expresses his desire to “write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim,” in the hope it will be “somewhat better than whim at last.” But creative acts at best allow us to re-create our otherwise determining surroundings: “[P]erception is not whimsical, but fatal,” Emerson insists a few pages later (CW, 2:30, 38). Disruptive acts of “whim” can facilitate new perception, yet such perception is “fatal,” a term that for Emerson specifically refers to the external circumstances that determine us.15 Already implicit in Nature's claim that “[e]very spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house, a world; and beyond its world, a heaven” (CW, 1:44) is the corollary Emerson voices in “Fate”: “Every spirit makes its house; but afterwards the house confines the spirit” (W, 6:9).16 Even while our acts may change our environment, they then become part of a new environment or “circle,” a new context that re-acts upon us. As Kenneth Burke argues, tragedy expresses exactly this kind of relation between self and environment:

The act, in being an assertion, has called forth a counter-assertion in the elements that compose its context. And when the agent is enabled to see in terms of this counter-assertion, he has transcended the state that characterized him at the start. In this final state of tragic vision, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are merged. That is, although purely circumstantial factors participate in his tragic destiny, these are not felt as exclusively external, or scenic; for they bring about a representative kind of accident, the kind of accident that belongs with the agent's particular kind of character.17

Instead of ignoring the tragedy of existence, Emerson's ethics express a tragic logic of human action in the material world. He is able to affirm the justice of nature only through a tragic transcendence of scope, through accepting nature's nonhuman balance. And he affirms the morality of human acts by accepting the imperfect results of those acts as accurate representations of people's circumscribed position in nature.

“Compensation” articulates the tragic ethics implicit in Emerson's theory of invention. And yet, along with the “Discipline” chapter of Nature, it is often interpreted to mean that Emerson affirms the benevolence of the universe by asserting that people deserve the suffering they receive.18 Consider Jehlen's discussion of “Discipline”:

I do not suggest that in writing Nature Emerson schemed to co-opt dissent. But effective defenses are seldom consciously invented, arising rather from conviction of more or less global rectitude. Emerson's assumption of his world's rectitude was absolutely global. So although he was not coldly calculating how to control opposition, he was thinking politically in this section, as seems clear from his making here the most directly political statement of the essay, the assertion that “Property and its filial systems of debt and credit,” along with space, time, climate, and the animals, are nature's benevolent guides to intellectual truths. … In “Discipline” Emerson brings up the two strongest objections to the notion of a transcendentally benevolent world: poverty and death. … [T]hese are the classical reasons for rebellion—one the oldest justification to rise against the human order, the other to rail at the divine.

The function of “Discipline” is to disarm these reasons. … After this section come “Idealism,” “Spirit,” and “Prospects,” in which Emerson can assert the possibility of transcendence—of freedom and omnipotence—because “Discipline” has co-opted the material reality of limits and powerlessness. The facts that some are indebted to others and that all owe the final debt of mortality have been made to testify to the primacy and infinite power of the individual in an infinitely benevolent universe.19

If “Compensation” is read as an extension of Emerson's theory of invention, this so-called “global rectitude” becomes more complex than Jehlen seems to allow. “Compensation” does not “co-opt … the material reality of limits” so as to “assert the possibility of transcendence” to a state in which the individual enjoys “infinite power”; instead, it opens by explicitly rejecting the notion of any justice beyond the material world. Emerson criticizes a sermon he has heard on the Last Judgment:

Yet what was the import of this teaching? What did the preacher mean by saying that the good are miserable in the present life? Was it that houses and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress, luxury, are had by unprincipled men, whilst the saints are poor and despised; and that a compensation is to be made to these last hereafter, by giving them the like gratifications another day,—bank-stock and doubloons, venison and champagne? This must be the compensation intended; for, what else? Is it that they are to have leave to pray and praise? to love and serve men? Why, that they can do now. The legitimate inference the disciple would draw was,—‘We are to have such a good time as the sinners have now;’—or, to push it to its extreme import,—‘You sin now; we shall sin by and by; we would sin now, if we could; not being successful, we expect our revenge tomorrow.’

The “fallacy” of this sermon's logic, Emerson concludes, lies “in the immense concession that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now” (CW, 2:56). This is hardly an assertion that the material world perfectly rewards individual merit. Rather, in rejecting the notion of a transcendent justice, Emerson by extension rejects the notion that our material world should perfectly reward us, for the latter idea is implicit in the former: the very concept of a heavenly compensation implies the need to overcome the imperfections of worldly rewards and suffering. Emerson's satire on heaven suggests that banishing justice to an ideal realm does not transcend the moral limits of our world; it implicitly reproduces them. Far from desiring transcendence and infinite individual power, “Compensation” insists we must accept our material world and the tragic limits of our control over it.

Crucially, Emerson portrays this acceptance as a gain of meaning, not a loss. The denial of any transcendent truth invests the material world with all the meaning we shall ever have.20 “Thus is the universe alive. All things are moral” (CW, 2:60). This “morality” expresses the full significance of all the facts and forces that determine our existence, not just those that fit our human concepts of merit and desert. As Emerson describes it in the journal account of his exchange with Sampson Reed, the “whole fact” of our world exceeds the terms of human morals—it is “right-wrong.” Whether just or not, the circumstances of our environment, both by responding to and resisting our control, reflect our limited position within nature. Thus an individual “comes at last to be faithfully represented by every view you take of his circumstances” (“Spiritual Laws,” in CW, 2:86). It is this very limitation that gives us our individuality: “We must have an antagonism in the tough world for all the variety of our spiritual faculties, or they will not be born” (“Man the Reformer,” in CW, 1:150). It is only against the resistance and limitation of material media that we know, express, and develop our creative power. The circumstances of the world that restrict, thwart, and eventually kill us are also what prompt Emerson's expressions of gratitude, notably in “Experience.” His ethics value limitations, presenting them as occasions for the circumscribed acts and performances that define us as humans, not “co-opting” them, as Jehlen contends, in an affirmation of total transcendence.

Having insisted that morality must be found in the material world, “Compensation” then affirms that this morality, though imperfect, is ensured by the way media both respond to and resist human acts: “The league between virtue and nature engages all things to assume a hostile front to vice. The beautiful laws and substances of the world persecute and whip the traitor” (CW, 2:67). Emerson's theory of invention assumes our alienation from the tools and products of our own labor. For him, invention is a process of turning inherited tools to new uses not fully intended or controlled, a process in which each creative result in turn becomes part of a new if still confining environment. Thus true property, or inalienable value, exists only in the exercise and development of human faculties: “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. These signs, like paper money, may be counterfeited or stolen, but that which they represent, namely, knowledge and virtue, cannot be counterfeited or stolen” (CW, 2:66-67). It is important to note the limits of Emerson's claim. People, he allows, can be unjustly deprived of the material products of their labor, but the person who so deprives others achieves a merely material gain at the cost of a much higher good, the development and exercise of his or her own self: “[H]e has resisted his life, and fled from himself, and the retribution is so much death” (CW, 2:61-62). The alien and resistant status of material media, often viewed as the sign of the world's injustice, actually guarantees a certain degree of justice, for it ensures that the value of action must be earned and cannot be stolen. That Emerson clearly turns necessity into virtue only underscores the way in which “Compensation” is frequently misread. He does not affirm the perfect justice of material fortunes and thereby support the capitalist status quo. His definition of value, as the experience of action that cannot be stolen, explicitly discourages faith in capitalism's goal of accumulated property. “Compensation” warns that fulfillment should be sought neither in heaven nor in the material products of labor, but in activities that express human will and develop human talents.


The common experience is, that the man fits himself as well as he can to the customary details of that work or trade he falls into, and tends it as a dog turns a spit. Then is he a part of the machine he moves; the man is lost. Until he can manage to communicate himself to others in his full stature and proportion, he does not yet find his vocation.

—Emerson, “Spiritual Laws”

Because capitalism and Marxism have been the two dominating social models from Emerson's time to our own, the task of assessing Emerson's ethics has often entailed deciding how his philosophy supports one camp against the other, eliding his difference from both.21 Emerson's ethics reflect his pragmatic analysis of how individual acts utilize cultural resources and facilitate cultural processes of change. The ethical implications of his analysis cannot easily be subsumed under either side of the capitalist/Marxist dichotomy of political economy: Both systems focus on the accumulation of wealth, capitalism maintaining that trade is a process of comparative advantage that enriches all, and Marxism that it is a process of class exploitation. In contrast, Emerson's acute sense of our fundamental alienation from the tools and products of action leads him to locate value in the experience of action and to measure value in terms of the quality of experience.

Like his near-contemporary Marx, Emerson is obsessed with the alienation of value.22 In the passage from “Spiritual Laws,” he warns of how easily “the man is lost” in the “machine” of culture, work, and wealth; in “Self-Reliance,” he criticizes people for having “looked away from themselves and at things so long” (CW, 2:83, 49). But Emerson is primarily a writer, not an economist, and his economic ideas derive largely from his sense of the affinities between language, money, and material property as cultural media for creative action.23 For him, alienation does not begin with any particular mode of economic production; it is fundamental to our cultural, linguistic intelligence, to the fact that we live our lives with and against words, tools, ideas, and values that we inherit.24 Since Emerson focuses on how individual acts facilitate cultural processes of change, his pragmatism has unquestionable affinities to capitalist arguments about market efficiencies. But he pragmatically insists that the only true “property” people have in material media is in the experience of using them, which leads him to reject accumulated wealth as the standard for judging economic efficiencies. He supports such institutions as private property and the division of labor only to the extent that these allow people to exercise and develop their particular talents.

The ethical implications of Emersonian individualism follow directly from the central tenets of the pragmatic theory of invention announced in the opening paragraphs of Nature: namely, that the present must be created out of the materials inherited from the past, that any original action must utilize cultural media that are by definition un-original. Inherited concepts threaten not only to obstruct our imagination of new relations to the world but also to deprive us of the action that is our only inalienable property. As Emerson asserts in “History,” “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself”: “What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good of verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself” (CW, 2:6-7). This explains why Emerson in “Self-Reliance” claims that “[s]ociety everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (CW, 2:29); culture is a threat because it provides such powerful benefits, because it offers to do so much for us. There is an ethical imperative to resist conventional ideas, values, and lifestyles, not because they have no enduring value (Emerson insists they do),25 but because the utility and power they provide deprive us of the more valuable experience of forging our own active relation to the world.

Here it becomes evident that Emerson's pragmatism differs radically from both Marxism and capitalism. Consider the description from “Spiritual Laws,” where the man becomes “a part of the machine he moves.” Emerson and Marx share a concern with the dehumanizing effects of the alienation of value. Marx stresses how private property and commodity exchange transform relations between people into market relations between products, and how wage laborers become mere parts of a production “machine” designed to accumulate capital for someone else.26 To prevent this alienation of value, Marx endorses a revolution in the ownership of the means of production.27 In contrast, Emerson focuses not on the alienation of economic production and exchange but on the alienation inherent in all culture (beginning with language itself). Thus he is concerned less with the potential loss of wealth than with the loss of active self-development and expression. Far from desiring to secure alienable value, he argues that culture everywhere makes us too secure: he calls for a radical reform in the location of value, exhorting us to seek an active expression of self that can be achieved only by rejecting the security of accumulated value:

If our young men miscarry in their first enterprizes, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. … A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already.

(“Self-Reliance,” in CW, 2:43)

This passage demonstrates how Emerson's support for a division of labor rejects a capitalist motive of accumulated wealth: he insists that value must not be alienated from self-expression and development, that instead of postponing life, we must live. This is a direct consequence of his assertion that self-expression lies in the way we use the material and cultural tools that never really belong to us. Providing a sociological model of Emerson's assertion in “Self-Reliance” that “[p]ower ceases in the instant of repose” but “resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state” (CW, 2:40), his “sturdy lad” exemplifies success not as accumulated wealth but as succession, as the expression of self achieved in exploring different activities “in turn” over “successive years.” Emerson insists that the cultural resources for specialized activity must be turned to noncapitalist ends.

Emerson's statements on the economic issues of his day consistently express this pragmatic logic, complicating attempts to define him against the ideological poles of capitalism and Marxism. Consider the issue of division of labor. In Capital, Marx insists that any division of labor is a social division that establishes social relations and creates a social product. Under a system of private property, such social interdependence is expressed only in the alienated form of commodity exchange, which obscures the social basis of value. Market value is viewed as inherent in the product itself, not as an expression of the social labor costs of different products. Socially created value is falsely attributed to the individual producer, and social obligation is limited to payment of this false standard of individual desert.28 In the 1844 lecture “New England Reformers,” Emerson expresses a surprisingly similar view, while also indicating his radical difference from Marxist political economy:

Who gave me the money with which I bought my coat? Why should professional labor and that of the counting-house be paid so disproportionately to the labor of the porter, and woodsawyer? This whole business of Trade gives me to pause and think, as it constitutes false relations between men; inasmuch as I am prone to count myself relieved of any responsibility to behave well and nobly to that person whom I pay with money, whereas if I had not that commodity, I should be put on my good behavior in all companies, and man would be a benefactor to man, as being himself his only certificate that he had a right to those aids and services which each asked of the other. Am I not too protected a person? is there not a wide disparity between the lot of me and the lot of thee, my poor brother, my poor sister? Am I not defrauded of my best culture in the loss of those gymnastics which manual labor and the emergencies of poverty constitute?

(CW, 3:151-52)

Recall that in “Compensation” Emerson fully acknowledges that the material products of wealth can be exploited; here he concedes that division of labor and commodity exchange facilitate such exploitation: “Why should professional labor … be paid so disproportionately to the labor of the porter, and woodsawyer?” Yet Emerson attacks this alienation by stressing the value of action, a value that cannot be stolen. Instead of emphasizing how cultural specialization leaves us vulnerable to being exploited by others, he argues that culture leaves us “too protected.” His main concern with the division of labor is that, if we defraud others, we defraud ourselves of our “best culture,” the activity and work that is our primary property in life. He attacks the capitalist logic of comparative advantage by articulating an economy, not of profits or wealth, but of life lived as action: if the division of labor merely serves to extract or exploit wealth from others, the supposed beneficiary has “resisted his life, and fled from himself, and the retribution is so much death” (“Compensation,” in CW, 2:61-62).

Yet Emerson celebrates individuals who can utilize cultural resources supplied by others, as indicated by his description in Nature of the “private poor man” and in “Shakespeare; or, The Poet” of the “greatest genius” as “the most indebted man” (CW, 4:109).29 Indeed, he suggests that division of labor is inherent in the cultural constitution of human intelligence: no person can perform all the actions culture makes available; each must choose a specialized scope of activity. If a genius like Shakespeare did not utilize cultural resources and facilitate cultural tendencies, “his powers would be expended in the first preparations” (CW, 4:110). Similarly, in “Man the Reformer,” Emerson argues that “[i]f we suddenly plant our foot” in a principled “isolation from the advantages of civil society” that we “do not know to be innocent, … we shall stand still” (CW, 1:155). Thus he endorses a division of labor for its efficiency—because it facilitates creative individual acts by allowing each person to concentrate on particular areas of aptitude: the true “advantages which arise from the division of labor” are that “a man may select the fittest employment for his peculiar talent” (“Man the Reformer,” in CW, 1:149).

Though Emerson's focus on the problem of alienation differs from Marx's, he shares the conviction that any division of labor implies social relations and responsibilities; indeed, Emerson argues that the social interdependence inherent in culture makes all actions socially indebted. In focusing our energies, we must engage in some meaningful activity, “stand in primary relations with the work of the world” (“Man the Reformer,” in CW, 1:152): “No, it is not the part & merit of a man to make his stove with his own hands, or cook & bake his own dinner: Another can do it better & cheaper; but it is his essential virtue to carry out into action his own dearest ends, to dare to do what he believes and loves” (JMN, 9:189). By utilizing cultural resources provided by specialized labor, you can “multiply your presence,” but “in labor as in life there can be no cheating” (“Compensation,” in CW, 2:66). Ethically, a person may take advantage of cultural resources only if he or she uses this advantage to focus on meaningful work: “This were all very well if I were necessarily absent, being detained by work of my own, like theirs,—work of the same faculties” (“Man the Reformer,” in CW, 1:150). For Emerson, the choices of vocation that culture offers are essentially moral choices: the division of labor inherent in culture must not be used to exploit and live off others, but to enable each of us to work more vitally.

Believing that cultural specialization carries ethical responsibilities and that such specialization is inescapable, Emerson argues that individualized activity must and can be turned to moral purposes:

You may fulfil your round of duties by clearing yourself in the direct, or, in the reflex way. Consider whether you have satisfied your relations to father, mother, cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog; whether any of these can upbraid you. But I may also neglect this reflex standard, and absolve me to myself. I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts, it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandments one day.

(“Self-Reliance,” in CW, 2:42)

This strident assertion of the morality of individual acts, even those that seem to disregard social obligations, reflects economic calculations of both efficient means and valuable ends. The sheer variety of social relatedness that makes every act socially indebted also, somewhat paradoxically, frees individuals to appropriate the resources of cultural specialization: it would be far too inefficient, if not impossible, to consider all the responsibilities incurred in the most basic human acts. Emerson makes this point humorously by running his list of household and civic duties to “cousin, neighbor, town, cat, and dog.” However, if it is impossible to measure all the moral responsibilities implied in the cultural sources of our acts, Emerson insists that we can and must measure the use to which those resources are put, the aim of our individual pursuits. His claim “I may … absolve me to myself” does not reject moral accountability but asserts that people must pay their social debt in this “direct” way.

Yet Emerson's defense of specialized labor on the grounds of its efficiency is secondary to his belief that diversified, individualized activity is a moral end in itself. When he claims “I may … absolve me to myself,” he is also endorsing a radical shift in our location of value: as in “Compensation,” he insists that we seek “salvation” neither in heaven nor in the alienable products of our labor but in the experience of action—experience that is radically subjective. While Emerson asserts that action must be moral, his definition of value as the active expression and development of self means that “moral” activity comprehends a potentially unlimited spectrum of human pursuits. His economics thus are based on a logic of maximizing vital experience: he asserts the value of people exercising different talents, enjoying different aspects of life, keeping different possibilities of experience alive. His writings are full of exhortations to expand human consciousness by exploring through our actions new relations to the world: “The American Scholar,” for example, declares, “So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess” (CW, 1:55); and “Self-Reliance” avers, “The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray” (CW, 2:28). Emerson asserts the morality of allowing people the freedom to pursue their own interests, even in extravagant, luxurious ways. “Man” is “by constitution expensive”: “He is born to be rich. He is thoroughly related” (“Wealth,” in W, 6:85, 88). This redefinition of morality is undeniably an “amoral” consequence of Emerson's pragmatism. Yet this “amorality” is itself a moral and economic calculation—the decision that since life is never safe or secure, moral activity should mean not merely preserving life but living it: “I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle” (“Self-Reliance,” in CW, 2:31).

It is critical to see how this Emersonian “amorality” differs radically from the amoral logic of capitalism, in which the self-interested pursuit of profit facilitates market efficiencies that allegedly increase wealth for all. Emerson exhorts us to harness the efficiencies of culture so as to maximize creative opportunities, but he is willing to see a reform of capitalist institutions whenever these thwart our creative faculties: “I would not have the laborer sacrificed to the splendid result,—I would not have the laborer sacrificed to my convenience and pride, nor to that of a great class of such as me. Let there be worse cotton and better men” (“The Method of Nature,” in CW, 1:121).


The claim “I may … absolve me to myself” marks another ethical dilemma posed by Emerson's pragmatism. By locating value in the experience of action, he problematizes the communication of value and thus the concept of a communitarian standard of morality.30 Inherited culture both threatens and enables the active expression of self that, for Emerson, is our primary property in life. “[C]onforming to usages that have become dead to you … scatters your force,” he writes in “Self-Reliance”: “[U]nder all these screens, I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are.” But in the next breath he claims, “[D]o your work, and I shall know you” (CW, 2:31-32). Since all human acts must be articulated in cultural media, this “work” that communicates a true “knowledge” of self to others can only be the new use to which we put inherited ideas. Any original self-expression requires retroping, disrupting, or rejecting conventional meanings and morality; hence “Self-Reliance” calls on us to “speak the rude truth,” preach the “doctrine of hatred,” and “write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim” (CW, 2:30).

It would seem, then, that the active expression of self that Emerson defines as our primary moral value and responsibility opposes any concept of community based on conventional communication, on the sharing of codified values. The opening paragraph of “Self-Reliance,” for example, describes expression in strange terms of assertion and domination. Emerson begins by sounding a confident, and often-quoted, definition of genius: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,—that is genius.” Despite this image of accord, it soon appears that truth, for Emerson, is less a knowledge to be shared than an occasion for action that cannot be shared. “Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense,” he exhorts, implying that one cannot really have a conviction until it is spoken, that an inward belief is merely “latent” until realized in action. To have another person give voice to and confirm “precisely what we have thought and felt all the time” does not create an encouraging solidarity of conviction; rather, it deprives us of the act of speaking that latent conviction, forcing us “to take with shame our own opinion from another” (CW, 2:27). Emerson thus arrives at the peculiar position that expressive acts are necessary, not to communicate with others, but to prevent them from communicating with you, since if they did they might deprive you of, or distract you from, your own expressive acts: “A preoccupied attention is the only answer to the importunate frivolity of other people” (“Experience,” in CW, 3:47); “church and old book mumble and ritualize to an unheeding, preöccupied and advancing mind” (“The Transcendentalist,” in CW, 1:215).

The self-expression that Emerson values most highly is limited to a performative presence: the “act” within the “work” that he describes in “The Method of Nature,” a shaping energy or tendency of mind. Thus he claims that the “real value” of great works of art “is as signs of power” (“Art,” in CW, 2:215). Original works need not dominate us or deprive us of our own action; instead, they can apprise us of our own capacity to re-create our relation to the world: “Therefore we love the poet, the inventor, who in any form … has yielded us a new thought. He unlocks our chains, and admits us to a new scene” (“The Poet,” in CW, 3:19). But because the primary value of activity lies in the experience of the actor, that value can be “communicated” only if an action provokes others to emulative or antagonistic acts of their own:

There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice: for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature.

(“Self-Reliance,” in CW, 2:47)

This is perhaps the most optimistic image of communication and community compatible with Emerson's location of value in the experience of action. However, his tropes of conversation here also acknowledge limits: to respond in the same “pitch” of voice is not necessarily to share the same meanings or values, perhaps not even to have a common language. Rather, it is to emulate the spirit or energy of other people's creative acts by doing something decidedly “different from all these.”

This anti-communicative aspect of Emerson's pragmatism leads to an ethical conclusion that many readers find repugnant—an individualism that seems to scorn the needs and infirmities of others:

And we cannot say too little of our constitutional necessity of seeing things under private aspects, or saturated with our humors. And yet is the God the native of these bleak rocks. That need makes in morals the capital virtue of self-trust. We must hold hard to this poverty, however scandalous, and by more vigorous self-recoveries, after the sallies of action, possess our axis more firmly. The life of truth is cold, and so far mournful; but it is not the slave of tears, contritions, and perturbations. It does not attempt another's work, nor adopt another's facts. It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another's. I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people's facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs. A sympathetic person is placed in the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men, who all catch at him, and if he give so much as a leg or finger, they will drown him. They wish to be saved from the mischiefs of their vices, but not from their vices. Charity would be wasted on this poor waiting on the symptoms. A wise and hardy physician will say, Come out of that, as the first condition of advice.

(“Experience,” in CW, 3:46-47)

Faced with a passage of such troubling (and troubled) eloquence, readers often are tempted to conflate Emerson's argument with a capitalist blame-the-victim ideology (the type often applied to welfare recipients), which presumes that individuals have opportunities not, in fact, provided by society. But Emerson's logic here is explicitly non-capitalist: he is again articulating a critical response to the alienation of value, an alienation on which capitalism depends.

Emerson in this passage honestly assesses the costs and benefits of his location of value in the experience of action; for if it allows him to focus on value that cannot be alienated, it also forces him to acknowledge that such value cannot be given to others. This is the central message of “Compensation”: true value cannot be stolen, but it also must be earned. Emerson insists, without apology, that each person must earn his or her own value in life, for he believes that “seeing things under private aspects” is a “constitutional necessity”: our alienation from all media is the basis of our self-conscious, symbol-making intelligence.31 He acknowledges that alienation and the radical subjectivity of value can be “mournful,” but he also attests that this “poverty” brings into play the mitigating “virtue of self-trust.” “Compensation” argues that accepting the limits of worldly action makes the universe “alive” with meaning; similarly, accepting our own lives and actions as the only value we will ever have encourages us to see our actions as sufficient. Even if Emerson seems to be scorning others, the underlying logic is one of empowerment. To insist that others must help themselves is also to insist that they can: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people's facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs.”

This statement provides another description of the limits and possibilities of Emersonian community: though we cannot directly communicate or share value, we can know that every person has his or her own life and work, different from ours, yet equally valuable. Thus, the anti-communicative implications of Emerson's philosophy imply a communitarian ethos of pluralism. Far from being scornful toward others, Emerson's individualism affirms that each person possesses the talents sufficient to lead a morally significant life. This is a positive moral consequence of Emerson's “amoral” defense of the full spectrum of specialized, individual activity. Emerson's thought encourages not simply a tolerance but a celebration of diversity.


I now want to address the issues of political action and reform and to consider the familiar charge, renewed most recently by Sacvan Bercovitch and Cornel West, that Emerson's individualism precludes collective political action.32 There is no question that the anti-communitarian aspects of his pragmatism imply a deep distrust of political institutions. However, I want to complicate the conclusion that this distrust makes his philosophy politically impotent. Emerson's critique of political institutions must be seen in the context of his pragmatic attitude toward culture: just as he locates value in activity and not in products, so he locates morality in behavior and not in codes, laws, or institutions. If this view extends to a utopian, anarchist critique of political institutions, it also translates into a practical political mandate to examine human behavior critically and reform it.

By rejecting an emphasis on accumulated wealth, Emerson's pragmatism offers an important alternative to both capitalist and Marxist attitudes toward culture. The mixture of practical and utopian strains in his views on political action reflects his pragmatic analysis of culture:

It is handsomer to remain in the establishment better than the establishment, and conduct that in the best manner, than to make a sally against evil by some single improvement, without supporting it by a total regeneration. Do not be so vain of your one objection. Do you think there is only one? Alas! my good friend, there is no part of society or of life better than any other part. All our things are right and wrong together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike. Do you complain of our Marriage? Our marriage is no worse than our education, our diet, our trade, our social customs. Do you complain of the laws of Property? It is a pedantry to give such importance to them. Can we not play the game of life with these counters, as well as with those; in the institution of property, as well as out of it.

(“New England Reformers,” in CW, 3:154-55)

Somewhat paradoxically, this perspective portrays culture as simultaneously more and less alienated than Marxism does. Emerson laments not only the alienation of property or wealth but also the alienation of all cultural media. For Emerson, every word, statement, or idea is an alien and constricting tool: “Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison,” he claims in “The Poet” (CW, 3:19). Yet this assumption of a universal alienation leads Emerson to portray culture as more responsive to human action than does Marxism. By focusing on the alienation of wealth, Marxism develops its traditional view of culture as ideology, as a totalizing system of domination that serves to perpetuate existing inequalities of wealth. In contrast, Emerson implies it is pedantic to assume that culture could ever not be alienated, or to locate the alienation of culture in any particular institution. Assuming alienation as the norm, Emerson views culture not as a totalizing system of control but as a medium that allows for and requires performance: though we are alienated from all cultural media, they can be turned to our purposes. It is crucial to see that this perspective rejects not only a traditional Marxist view of culture as ideology but also the capitalist doctrine that the efficiencies of cultural specialization can transform the self-interested pursuit of profit into the moral result of increased wealth for all. Instead, Emerson stresses how culture both limits and enables our action: it neither guarantees morality nor prevents it. This duality is expressed in his question “Can we not play the game of life with these counters, as well as with those …?” Culture allows for moral action, but morality is achieved only through our acts, through the way we “play the game of life” with the cultural tools we inherit.

A related dualism lies at the core of Emerson's attitude toward politics, government, and reform. On the one hand, he insists that political change is desirable and inevitable; on the other, he shows an indifference to and even cynicism about the reform of legal codes and institutions. An understanding of this dualism again depends on seeing Emerson's ethics as an outgrowth of his theory of invention. In the opening lines of Nature, he articulates a central axiom of this theory: the inexorability of change. These famous lines, often read as a complaint against history, actually portray history as a process of inevitable and revitalizing change. Emerson does complain that he and his contemporaries “buil[d] the sepulchres of the fathers,” “grope among the dry bones of the past,” and “put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe”; however, he then asserts: “The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields” (CW, 1:7). Emerson's tropes insist that the burdensome obsolescence of inherited culture is inseparable from the vital process of change: the passage of time that kills the fathers brings us life today; the same sun that dries their bones and fades their wardrobes creates new flax for us to weave our own garments. We continually turn the cultural tools we inherit to new uses, thereby reinventing the present and rendering obsolete those same inherited systems of ideas.

Using language that echoes the beginning lines of Nature, Emerson in “Man the Reformer” describes political change as an inevitable result of this creative change wrought by human activity: “[T]he world not only fitted the former men, but fits us. … What is man born for but to be a Reformer, a Re-maker of what man has made” (CW, 1:156).33 Political change is inevitable because people are constantly re-forming society by changing the quality and focus of their pursuits:

[T]he old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it, as every man of strong will, like Pisistratus, or Cromwell, does for a time, and every man of truth, like Plato, or Paul, does forever. But politics rest on necessary foundations, and cannot be treated with levity. Republics abound in young civilians, who believe that the laws make the city, that grave modifications of the policy and modes of living, and employments of the population, that commerce, education, and religion, may be voted in or out; and that any measure, though it were absurd, may be imposed on a people, if only you can get sufficient voices to make it a law. But the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand, which perishes in the twisting; that the State must follow, and not lead the character and progress of the citizen; the strongest usurper is quickly got rid of; and they only who build on Ideas, build for eternity; and that the form of government which prevails, is the expression of what cultivation exists in the population which permits it. The law is only a memorandum. We are superstitious, and esteem the statute somewhat: so much life as it has in the character of living men, is its force. The statute stands there to say, yesterday we agreed so and so, but how feel ye this article today? Our statute is a currency, which we stamp with our own portrait: it soon becomes unrecognizable, and in process of time will return to the mint. Nature is not democratic, nor limited-monarchical, but despotic, and will not be fooled or abated of any jot of her authority, by the pertest of her sons: and as fast as the public mind is opened to more intelligence, the code is seen to be brute and stammering. It speaks not articulately and must be made to. Meantime the education of the general mind never stops.

(“Politics,” in CW, 3:117-18)

This passage illustrates Emerson's dual attitude toward reform. On the one hand, political change is inevitable: laws, like coins, are “stamped” “with our own portrait”; they reflect “man” as defined by the system of human pursuits in the period from which they emerge. As human activity continually changes, along with the range of pursuits that shape “man” and society, laws grow obsolete; the coin grows “unrecognizable” and must “return to the mint.” However, the corollary of Emerson's belief that human activity guarantees political change is his assertion that it also imposes limits: real political change must be based in the behavior of a society's citizens. Thus, he combines an affirmation of the inevitability of reform with a skepticism toward it.

Crucially, Emerson's insistence that reform must accompany social and behavioral change does not translate into a renunciation of political action. The idea that individuals can facilitate and even impel broad forces of creative change obtains in the realm of politics as well as invention: persons who understand the tendencies of an era can articulate those tendencies and galvanize others behind new moral purposes. Indeed, a new idea can “revolutionize the entire system of human pursuits” (“Circles,” in CW, 2:184); poets utter ideas that “become the songs of the nations” (“The Poet,” in CW, 3:6), and each institution appears as “the lengthened shadow of one man” (“Self-Reliance,” in CW, 2:35). Again, however, this assertion that people can change society through the power of ideas carries a reverse assertion: in order to compel meaningful political change, ideas must effect a real change in people's habits. Thus, in the passage from “Politics,” the “old statesman,” the actor whose creative medium is government, “knows that society is fluid” and that a new idea may “compel the system to gyrate round it.” However, he also knows that “politics rest on necessary foundations”: policies must be based in the “modes of living, and employments of the population”; and thus reform must “follow, and not lead the character and progress of the citizen.”

This dualism at the center of Emerson's attitude toward politics undoubtedly has a utopian element. As the unabashedly utopian flight in the closing pages of “Politics” shows, Emerson's insistence that reforms be based in the behavior of citizens, if carried to its logical conclusion, results in anarchism. However, if his theory of reform admits of anarchist extensions, it also has practical political applications. He found only too much confirmation of his political theories in the central political event of his lifetime: the sectional struggle over slavery that came to a head for him in the Compromise of 1850.34 In the willingness of Massachusetts legislators and judges to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, he found embittering evidence that morality cannot be codified or legislated but must exist in the actions of citizens:

I wish that Webster & Everett & also the young political aspirants of Massachusetts should hear Wendell Phillips speak, were it only for the capital lesson in eloquence they might learn of him. This, namely, that the first & the second & the third part of the art is to keep your feet always firm on a fact. They talk about the Whig party. There is no such thing in nature. They talk about the Constitution. It is a scorned piece of paper. He feels after a fact & finds it in the money-making, in the commerce of New England, and in the devotion of the Slave states to their interest, which enforces them to the crimes which they avow or disavow, but do & will do.

(JMN, 9:136-37)

Cotten thread holds the union together, unites John C. Calhoun & Abbott Lawrence. Patriotism for holidays & summer evenings with music & rockets, but cotten thread is the union.

(JMN, 9:425)

The sectional crisis forced Emerson to apply his political theories to American democracy. The level of liberty in America could not be guaranteed by the rights asserted in the Constitution or by the form of government established there. Political freedom was determined by the actions of Americans—by the will of legislators and judges to preserve the liberty promised in the law, and by the will of citizens to pay the price of true reform. The crisis of 1850 showed that this political will did not exist in Massachusetts: the primary political reality was revealed as the “cotten thread” uniting the manufacturing and commercial economy of New England to Southern planters. Emerson was compelled to abandon the notion of combining a principled opposition to slavery with support for union with the slave states. The political reality of the union was complicity with slavery: “Here is a measure of pacification & union. What is its effect? that it has made one subject, one only subject for conversation, & painful thought, throughout the Union, Slavery. We eat it, we drink it, we breathe it, we trade, we study, we wear it” (JMN, 11:361).

It is the context of these attitudes toward political reform that the basis for and extent of Emerson's rejection of collective politics must be assessed. Emerson does not oppose collective interests or action per se; rather, he distrusts the institutional vehicles of collective will. This distrust stems from a central tenet of his thought, that inherited culture threatens to obstruct the creative change that is crucial to the vitality of our individual and social lives:

Parties are also founded on instincts, and have better guides to their own humble aims than the sagacity of their leaders. They have nothing perverse in their origin, but rudely mark some real and lasting relation. We might as wisely reprove the east wind, or the frost, as a political party, whose members, for the most part, could give no account of their position, but stand for the defence of those interests in which they find themselves. Our quarrel with them begins, when they quit this deep natural ground at the bidding of some leader, and, obeying personal considerations, throw themselves into the maintenance and defence of points, nowise belonging to their system. A party is perpetually corrupted by personality. Whilst we absolve the association from dishonesty, we cannot extend the same charity to their leaders. They reap the rewards of the docility and zeal of the masses which they direct. Ordinarily, our parties are parties of circumstance, and not of principle; as, the planting interest in conflict with the commercial; the party of capitalists, and that of operatives; parties which are identical in their moral character, and which can easily change ground with each other, in the support of many of their measures. Parties of principle, as, religious sects, or the party of free-trade, of universal suffrage, of abolition of slavery, of abolition of capital punishment, degenerate into personalities, or would inspire enthusiasm. The vice of our leading parties in this country (which may be cited as a fair specimen of the societies of opinion) is, that they do not plant themselves on the deep and necessary grounds to which they are respectively entitled, but lash themselves to fury in the carrying of some local and momentary measure, nowise useful to the commonwealth.

(“Politics,” in CW, 3:122)

It is crucial that Emerson affirms the concept of political association, not only for parties of “principle,” but even for those based on the frankly material grounds of “the defence of those interests in which [people] find themselves,” for such association reflects “some real and lasting relation.”35 Indeed, somewhat surprisingly, he argues that collective interests form the valid basis for parties, and that the threat of political corruption comes from mere individualism or “personality.” Yet if Emerson asserts the fundamental legitimacy of collective interests, he fears that collective political institutions (like all cultural institutions) threaten to become distorting and stifling. Parties, he declares, are too susceptible to the ambitions and interests of their leaders; they become focused on goals that have more to do with the perpetuation of institutional power than with any thoughtful application of principle. Emerson's theory of invention asserts that vital change is maximized when individuals exercising their own particular talents utilize and facilitate cultural resources and processes. Thus, he finds the remedy for the monolithic and inflexible aims of political institutions in individualized activity.

This pragmatic critique of collective institutions undeniably problematizes political action. When Emerson attempts to imagine collective interests defined not through distorting institutional channels but by the vital interests of individual activity, his utopian formula betrays the impossibility of completely realizing this goal: “The union is only perfect, when all the uniters are isolated. … The union must be ideal in actual individualism” (“New England Reformers,” in CW, 3:157).36 Yet, as I have suggested, the practical possibilities of his political philosophy do not reduce to its utopian limits. His critique of collective politics is only one aspect of his belief that morality cannot be guaranteed in forms or codes but exists only in practice—a belief that provides a practical mandate to transform our behavior.


Emerson's ethics reject the standard of accumulated wealth that defines the capitalist/Marxist axis of traditional economics, articulating instead an economics of maximizing vital, self-expressive activity. Seeing alienation as a problem common to all media of human action, Emerson endorses a radical reform in ethical standards, locating value in the experience of action, in the active expression and development of self. Since his pragmatism stresses the cultural sources of individual acts, he insists that all action carries a social responsibility that can be fulfilled by using those resources for a moral end. However, his redefinition of value also expands the definition of “moral” activity to include the full spectrum of possible creative activities. Though these ethics imply a rejection of communitarian standards of morality, they simultaneously imply a pluralist basis for community.

These priorities place Emerson's philosophy firmly within the broad tradition of “liberalism.” Of course, scholars take differing views on the value or limitations of Emerson's liberalism. One influential judgment, by Bercovitch, is that Emerson exemplifies how American “dissent” holds a fundamentally ambiguous status between subversion and co-optation. Liberal democracy socializes individuals, Bercovitch contends, “not by repressing radical energies but by redirecting them, in all their radical potential, into a constant conflict between self and society.” As a theory of this conflict, Bercovitch concludes, Emerson's individualism is “not … a form of co-optation [but] a form of utopia developed within the premises of liberal culture and therefore especially susceptible to co-optation by liberal strategies of socialization.” He claims that Emerson failed to challenge the premises of liberal culture because his inability to endorse the collective methods of socialism forced him to halt his early utopian critique at “the edge of class analysis.”37 It is worth remembering, however, that in any form of consensual government dissent has a similar “ambiguity”: people must decide what degree and kind of freedom they demand in return for submitting to society's laws. Like any social or political theory, Emerson's ethics confront conflicts and trade-offs between the goals of individual freedom and social responsibility. I have tried to show why assessments of Emerson's ethics must address the pragmatic analyses and priorities behind his positions on these conflicts. An understanding of how his ethics differ from traditional political economy allows us to reconsider how “susceptible” his thought is to “co-optation” by capitalist ideology.


  1. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman and Ralph H. Orth et al., 16 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1960-82), 5:40; hereafter cited parenthetically as JMN, with volume and page number. In the interest of readability, deletions Emerson made in the process of writing have been ignored, and minor punctuation marks added by the JMN editors have been included. Other Emerson editions quoted in this essay, cited parenthetically by volume and page number, are as follows:

    CW The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Alfred R. Ferguson and Joseph Slater et al., 5 vols. to date (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, Belknap Press, 1971-).

    W The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-4).

  2. Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1953).

  3. See Sacvan Bercovitch, “Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (1990): 623-62. In an argument of impressive breadth, Bercovitch places Emerson in a transatlantic debate between “individualism” as an “ideological” apology for capitalism and “individuality” as a locus of “utopian” dissent. Bercovitch argues that because Emerson was unable to endorse the socialist experiments of the 1840s, he shifted increasingly to an ideological affirmation of capitalism. Also see Myra Jehlen, American Incarnation: The Individual, the Nation, and the Continent (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), especially pages 82 and 84, where she discusses how her reading builds on Whicher's.

  4. My interpretation extends the important revisionary work that has already been done on Emerson and pragmatism. See, in particular, Kenneth Burke, “I, Eye, Ay—Emerson's Early Essay ‘Nature’: Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence,” in Emerson's “Nature”—Origin, Growth, Meaning, ed. Merton M. Sealts Jr. and Alfred R. Ferguson, 2nd ed. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1979), 150-63, and “William James, Emerson, Whitman,” in Attitudes toward History (Los Altos, CA: Hermes, 1959), 3-33; Harold Bloom, “Emerson: The American Religion,” in Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), 145-78; Stanley Cavell, “Thinking of Emerson” and “An Emerson Mood,” chaps. 2 and 3 in The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 123-38, 141-60; and Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (New York: Random House, 1987), and A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966; Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), esp. 50-70, 90-91.

  5. Ideas, James insists, “become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience” (“What Pragmatism Means,” in The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition, ed. John J. McDermott [New York: Random House, 1967; Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977], 382). This definition of truth leads James, like Emerson, to place a primary value on activity: “[A word] appears less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work” (380).

  6. As Emerson writes in “Quotation and Originality,” “We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation” (W, 8:178-79).

  7. See Poirier on this connection between troping and “turning” (Renewal of Literature, 13).

  8. James observes that “concepts are abstracted from experiences already seen or given, and he who uses them to divine the new can never do so but in ready-made and ancient terms. Whatever actual novelty the future may contain … escapes conceptual treatment altogether” (“Percept and Concept—Some Corollaries,” in Writings of William James, 253).

  9. See, for example, the following usages: “All I know is reception” (“Experience,” in CW, 3:48). “Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all; in being altogether receptive” (“Shakspeare; or, The Poet,” in CW, 4:110). “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation” (“Self-Reliance,” in CW, 2:30). “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment” (“Circles,” in CW, 2:190).

  10. Poirier characterizes Emersonian genius as an energy that becomes distorted as soon as it must take form in the medium of language (Renewal of Literature, 79-82).

  11. Melville's marginal comments in his copy of Essays: Second Series accuse Emerson of blithely dismissing the existence of evil (The Portable Melville [New York: Viking, 1952], 600-601). F. O. Matthiessen set the direction for most subsequent twentieth-century criticism by arguing that Emerson rejected tragedy, while Hawthorne and especially Melville made it central to their art (American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1941], esp. 634, 180-86, 337-51, 435-59, 467-84, and 500-514. The central theme of Whicher's study is that “[a]lthough Emerson refused to conceive of life as tragedy,” he nonetheless developed an increasing “recognition of the limits of mortal condition [that] meant a defeat of his first romance of self-union and greatness” (Freedom and Fate, 109). Matthiessen's distinction survives in different forms today. For example, Jehlen contends that Emerson believed in “a transcendentally benevolent world” (American Incarnation, 109), while she titles her chapter on Melville's Pierre “The Rebirth of Tragedy.” For an opposing view, one that is largely in accord with the reading I offer here, see Michael Lopez, “Transcendental Failure: ‘The Palace of Spiritual Power,’” in Emerson: Prospect and Retrospect, ed. Joel Porte (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), 121-53. Lopez argues that Emerson, far from lacking a sense of tragedy or evil, portrays “failure” as a central and indispensable fact of life, for it provides the necessary “antagonist” or resistance against which human will expresses itself.

  12. See Jehlen, American Incarnation, esp. chap. 3, “Necessary and Sufficient Acts,” 76-122. Jehlen asserts that for Emerson, “willful intervention either to hasten the future's advent or, worse still, to redefine it, can only distort the perfect order that already exists implicitly, and thus delay its explicit realization. Not only are deeds and revolutions not needed, they are forbidden, doomed to failure and worse.” Yet this conviction paradoxically “frees the builders for pure activity”: “By believing that his acts enact the universal purpose, the Emersonian actor feels free, not only from the tax of ethical or political considerations, but free to invoke all the powers that be, to his and nature's end” (85, 84).

  13. In “Nature,” Emerson undercuts the dichotomy of nature versus art: “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural. … If we consider how much we are nature's, we need not be superstitious about towns, as if that terrific or benefit force did not find us there also, and fashion cities. Nature who made the mason, made the house” (CW, 3:106).

  14. Jehlen, American Incarnation, 110.

  15. “Whatever limits us we call Fate” (“Fate,” in W, 6:20).

  16. Similarly, Nature's claim that every spirit builds its own heaven is best understood in light of Emerson's provocative axiom from “The Poet”: “Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison” (CW, 3:19).

  17. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (New York: George Braziller, 1945; Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1969), 38-39.

  18. “Discipline” is an incipient version of the argument Emerson makes in “Compensation.” It is in “Discipline” that he first claims “[a]ll things are moral” (CW, 1:25), a claim repeated with much greater detail and clarity in “Compensation.” For a representative reading of the later work, see Whicher, who argues that “Compensation” posits a naïve or extreme model of “automatic moral compensation” which “is without question the most unacceptable of Emerson's truths,” for it confronts “two classic human problems—the relation of virtue to happiness, and the problem of evil, and seemingly proceeds to deny that they are problems” (Freedom and Fate, 36). Also see Michael Gilmore's contention that “‘Compensation’ reveals an Emerson already well on his way to becoming an apologist for commercial and industrial capitalism,” who perversely applies “economic categories” to “the operations of the Soul” (American Romanticism and the Marketplace [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985], 31, 30).

  19. Jehlen, American Incarnation, 108-10.

  20. My phrasing here echoes Wallace Stevens's poem “Sunday Morning”: “And shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?” (The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens [1954; New York: Vintage, 1982], 68). This parallel reveals a major line of influence reaching back from Emerson to Stevens, in whose poems the loss of a belief in any God behind nature can make earthly reality explode with human significance.

  21. Consider, for example, Bercovitch's view that Emerson's skepticism toward socialism led him to embrace capitalism, to renounce “utopian” social critique in favor of “ideological” apology. Also see Gilmore's American Romanticism and the Marketplace, 18-34. Gilmore argues that early works like “The Transcendentalist” and “Self-Reliance” contain strong criticisms of the marketplace's pervasive and constricting effects, while works like “Compensation” and “Wealth” signal Emerson's shift into the stance of an “apologist” for capitalism (31).

  22. Emerson lived from 1803 to 1882, Marx from 1818 to 1883.

  23. Much recent criticism has considered how the “economic” logics and metaphors in Emerson's philosophy relate to the realities and ideologies of America's capitalist economy. Perhaps the most influential work is Gilmore's American Romanticism and the Marketplace, which locates the familiar Whicherian pattern of “early” radicalism and “late” conservatism in Emerson's attitudes toward capitalism. Christopher Newfield (“Emerson's Corporate Individualism,” ALH 3 [1991]: 657-84) suggests that the affinities between Emersonian individualism and the corporation illustrate the “[b]enevolent despotism” of American democracy (657), which, Newfield argues, substitutes oligarchy and consumerism in place of any meaningful collective control. Howard Horwitz (“The Standard Oil Trust as Emersonian Hero,” Raritan 6 [spring 1987]: 97-119) also explores the connections between Emersonian self-transcendence and the corporate trust, but warns against conflating the possibilities of Emerson's philosophy with the actualities of American society. The establishment of the trusts as oligarchies, Horwitz reminds us, was a historical event, the result of a specific power struggle, and as such does not “disclose the implied and total political agenda of [Emerson's] thought”: “[N]or should we think that because the trust was formally a transcendentalist institution [Emerson's] ideal of selfhood can only serve monopolistic interests” (118). Also see Richard A. Grusin, “‘Put God in Your Debt’: Emerson's Economy of Expenditure,” PMLA 103 (1988): 35-44; and William Charvat, “American Romanticism and the Depression of 1837,” in The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870: The Papers of William Charvat, ed. Matthew Bruccoli (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1968; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1992), 49-67.

  24. For Kenneth Burke's explanation of this view (one that demonstrates the pragmatic roots of his own thought), see “Priority of the ‘Idea,’” in A Rhetoric of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950; Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1969), 132-37.

  25. Emerson asserts the value of inherited cultural conventions in “The Conservative”: “Reform converses with possibilities, perchance with impossibilities; but here is sacred fact. This also was true, or it could not be: it had life in it, or it could not have existed; it has life in it, or it could not continue. … This will stand until a better cast of the dice is made” (CW, 1:188).

  26. “Division of labour within the workshop implies the undisputed authority of the capitalist over men, that are but parts of a mechanism that belongs to him” (Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling [New York: Random House, Modern Library, 1906], 391).

  27. Marx envisions a society in which “the means of production” are owned “in common” and the “total product of [the] community” is acknowledged as a “social product,” with each individual's “share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption” “determined by his labour-time” (Capital, 90-91).

  28. See Marx, Capital, 82-84, 83-87, 94-96. According to Marx, a “definite social relation between men … assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Capital, 83). He insists that the value of a product is a function of the amount of human labor required to produce it: “[I]n the midst of all the accidental and ever fluctuating exchange-relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary for their production forcibly asserts itself like an over-riding law of nature.” Thus the value of the product of any individual producer is a socially produced value—a function of the society's division of labor—and the fluctuations of market value should be viewed as reflecting the “quantitative proportions in which society requires” “all the different kinds of private labour” (Capital, 86). The most just way to distribute wealth is on the basis of the individual's share in the total labor-time of society (Capital, 90-91).

    The capitalist form of commodity exchange portrays this social value as the private property of the individual—as the private product of his or her labor: “It is, however, just this ultimate money form of the world of commodities that actually conceals, instead of disclosing, the social character of private labour, and the social relations between the individual producers” (Capital, 87). Marx argues that this alienation of social value is further exacerbated by wage labor and capitalist production. Unlike an independent producer who owns the means of production and sells a commodity, a wage laborer owns only his or her own labor-power, and the capitalist who owns the means of production sells the commodity produced by the worker's labor (Capital, 389-91). In this capitalist mode of production, the value of a worker's labor is not measured by the market value of a commodity sold by that worker, but specifically by the ability to produce surplus labor (capital) for an employer: hence, “to be a productive labourer is … not a piece of luck, but a misfortune” (Capital, 558).

  29. In the “Commodity” chapter of Nature, Emerson describes the “private poor man” as able, like Shakespeare, to utilize a wealth of cultural benefits (CW, 1:12).

  30. Donald E. Pease's Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings in Cultural Context (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987) argues that Emerson, like other antebellum writers, did not (as is commonly assumed) envision freedom in the exclusively negative terms of rejecting social conventions and traditions, but sought visions of communal involvement consistent with the principles and ideals of “America.” George Kateb offers Emerson as a prime example of an American strain of “democratic individualism” that opposes only certain aspects of communitarian thought (The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture [Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992], esp. 222-29). Kateb contends that Emerson's brand of democratic individualism does not reject social relations; rather, it scrutinizes and reformulates those relations. Such scrutiny is consistent with a democratic notion of community, which stresses the explicitly conventional and consensual status of human bonds (226).

  31. At the opening of this section on “subjectiveness,” several pages earlier, Emerson declares: “It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors” (CW, 3:43).

  32. Bercovitch, for example, argues that Emerson rejects the collectivist methods of socialism, although he admires its reformist and utopian goals (“Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,” esp. 641-52). And Cornel West, in The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1989), concludes that Emerson's commitment to the “moral transgression” of individual nonconformity, his mystical celebration of “individual intuition over against collective action,” and his fatalistic or “organic conception of history” doom him to the politically impotent position of a “petit bourgeois libertarian, with at times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments” (17, 18, 34, 40).

  33. Emerson's phrasing in “Man the Reformer” also recalls two other sentences from the first paragraph of Nature: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” and “There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship” (CW, 1:7).

  34. Emerson's political opposition to slavery grew over time, yet he never became a radical abolitionist. As West argues, Emerson's journals show that he was by no means free from racist prejudices against African Americans (American Evasion of Philosophy, 28-35). However, his journals also show that slavery always was deeply abhorrent to him (see, for example, JMN, 5:15, 2:57-58). Emerson opposed the Annexation of Texas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both of which extended slavery into new regions beyond the boundaries set in the Compromise of 1820 (see Len Gougeon, Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform [Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990], 20, 191). His support for the abolitionist movement strengthened throughout the 1840s; yet like many Northerners, he only slowly came to consider that citizens of free states might morally be required to take direct political action to abolish slavery where it already existed. The crisis over the Fugitive Slave Law forced Emerson to acknowledge how both commercial and Constitutional ties made the free states complicit with Southern slavery. In his first speech on that law, in 1851, he insisted that Northerners were morally obligated to break it, and further suggested that they follow the example of the British and buy the freedom of the slaves from Southern slaveholders (“The Fugitive Slave Law,” in W, 11:186-98, 208-10). Elsewhere, he argued that preserving the union was not worth participating in slavery (JMN, 11:348-49). In 1859-60, Emerson proclaimed insurrectionist John Brown a hero (see his two public speeches on Brown in W, 11:265-81), and he eventually came to see the war as an inevitable struggle between free and slave societies, a struggle whose goal had to be the complete abolition of slavery (JMN, 15:299-302). In 1862, he hailed the Emancipation Proclamation, which for the first time made emancipation the direct object of the war (see his speech on the proclamation in W, 11:313-26).

  35. For example, Emerson's theory of invention led him to believe that all people are served by principles of both conservatism and reform—by acknowledging the value of existing conventions and the necessity of change. See the companion lectures “The Conservative” and “The Transcendentalist,” in CW, 1:184-216.

  36. Bercovitch offers a detailed reading of this statement as it first appears in Emerson's journals (“Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,” esp. 628-30).

  37. Bercovitch, “Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,” 655, 656, 650-51, 641. In contrast to Bercovitch, see Kateb's Inner Ocean, which presents Emerson as a theorist of rights-based individualism, a democratic philosophy that Kateb considers “the best way of honoring … the equal dignity of every individual” (1).

Michael Lopez (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Anti-Emerson Tradition,” in Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century, Northern Illinois University Press, 1996, pp. 19-52.

[In the following essay, Lopez traces the critical reception of Emerson's philosophical writings through the decades in an attempt to define his place in American critical thinking.]

Melville and Whitman persuasively strive to give us the substance promised by their titles: grass and a whale, earth and the sea are delivered. … But Emerson? Is there not something cloudy at the center of his reputation, something fatally faded about the works he has left us? When, I ask myself, did I last read one of his celebrated essays? How much, indeed, are Emerson's works even assigned in literary courses where the emphasis is not firmly historical?

John Updike, “Emersonianism” (1984)

In 1982 Alfred Kazin worried that criticism had for too long underestimated or overlooked entirely Ralph Waldo Emerson's “central concern with power”: “There is no book that truly does justice to Emerson's sense of power”; “[T]here is no satisfactory book on Emerson's mind itself and his relation to the romantic, bourgeois, ‘progressive’ sense of individual power that became the stock gospel of the nineteenth century.” A scant five years later, in a reinterpretation of Emerson, Richard Poirier complained that the study of “power”—indeed, the word itself—had become a cliché: “Thanks mostly to Foucault and his followers, the word ‘power’ has become tiresomely recurrent in discussions of cultural forms or the order of things.” But, Poirier hastened to add—and his own “Emersonian reflections” are cogent testimony—power is “nonetheless unavoidable in any consideration of Emerson.”1

Such diverse progress reports indicate how much has been happening inside the “Emerson industry” in the past decade and a half. The 1980s mark a definite turning point for Emerson criticism. The changes that have taken place in our understanding and valuation of his work might well, as Lawrence Buell has noted, astonish even those who would once have considered themselves Emerson's defenders.


The revived emphasis on “Emerson's stature as a pivotal American cultural hero” is one manifestation of that transformation. For Kazin, Emerson is “the father of us all”—the “teacher of the American tribe.” For Harold Bloom, Emerson is “the mind of our climate; he is the principal source of the American difference in poetry and criticism and in pragmatic post-philosophy. … [He] is the inescapable theorist of virtually all subsequent American writing. From his moment to ours, American authors either are in his tradition, or else in a countertradition originating in opposition to him.” Emerson's influence has been so extensive, Poirier argues, “that his works now constitute a compendium of iconographies that have gotten into American writers who may never have liked or even read him.” For Denis Donoghue and Joel Porte, Emerson remains “the founding father of nearly everything we think of as American in the modern world”: “To the extent to which the sentiments of power, self-reliance, subjectivity, and independence attract to themselves a distinctly American nuance, its source is Emerson.” For Stanley Cavell, Emerson is, along with Thoreau, the (“repressed”) “founder” of American thinking. “When we trace the history of American literature or of American ideas,” John Michael writes, “we retrace the influence of Emerson.” He was, David Bromwich suggests, simply one of history's great men who irrevocably altered American culture.2

Such testimonials may sound, Buell writes, “pushed to an extreme.” But they are not new. Emerson was only thirty-five years old and the author of one slim book when Harriet Martineau reported back to her English and European readers that it was not “too much to say that the United States cannot be fully known” without knowing Emerson. In 1850 Theodore Parker dubbed him “the most American of our writers” and the one with the greatest reputation. Walt Whitman called him “the actual beginner of the whole procession,” the writer who would always be “nearest” to his country. “Mr. Emerson always draws,” James Russell Lowell remarked of his popularity as a lecturer; “Few men have been so much to so many.” In the 1880s Matthew Arnold surveyed the century that was drawing to a close and pronounced Wordsworth's “the most important work done in verse” and Emerson's Essays “the most important work done in prose.”3

Emerson is, John Dewey said at the turn of the century, “the prophet and herald of any system which democracy may henceforth construct … when democracy has articulated itself, it will have no difficulty in finding itself already proposed in Emerson.” To John Jay Chapman, Emerson seemed “the first modern man,” looming “above his age like a colossus … towering like Atlas over the culture of the United States.” Henry James would speak of him as “the first, and the one really rare, American spirit in letters.” He is, George Woodberry claimed in 1907, “the only great mind that America has produced in literature.” Even during the Modernist decades, when T. S. Eliot proposed that Emerson be “carved joint from joint,” it was still not difficult to argue that he had “obtained a recognition such as no other of his countrymen can claim.” “It becomes more and more apparent,” Paul Elmer More wrote in 1921, “that Emerson, judged by an international or even by a true national standard, is the outstanding figure of American literature.” “The leader of these minds,” Lewis Mumford said five years later—referring to the writers of that epoch that F. O. Matthiessen would call “the American Renaissance”—“the central figure of them all, was Ralph Waldo Emerson.”4

From the late 1830s on, Emerson has always been perceived as an American cultural hero, although our willingness to accept such putative heroes has varied dramatically. (Heroes, Emerson was well aware, are destined to become bores.) But there seems never to have been a time when Emerson's critics have questioned for very long his historical importance or have forgotten his significance as either a benign or a destructive influence on other American writers. (“America produced him,” Barrett Wendell wrote in 1900, “and whether you like him or not, he is bound to live.” “We must take Emerson into the bargain,” Charles Feidelson conceded in 1953, “whether we like it or not.”) Emerson has always been accorded what D. H. Lawrence called “museum-interest.”5

What has changed over the years is, quite simply, the complexity that critics have been willing to ascribe to Emerson's writing and ideas. If, a quarter-century ago, the contours of Emerson scholarship were “reassuringly clear” (even, as Buell puts it, “cozy,” like a Brahmin parlor), then those contours have been and continue to be radically stretched and refashioned or abandoned altogether. The boundaries that seemed, in the mid-1960s, firmly to prescribe both the value accorded his work and the historical context in which he was to be comprehended have been so expanded that it is now possible to say, as Emerson scholars do increasingly, that there appears to be much in Emerson that has been blunted, much that has still to surface, much that we have not been able or willing to see. Emerson is, Cavell writes, still far from “settled.” Or, as David Marr puts it, “it is at least possible that much of Emerson's significance has eluded us, that there is [still] a literary-philosophical narrative of Emersonianism to be written.” We need, Peter Carafiol writes, to find “other terms” and “a new place for Transcendentalism, or a new notion of Transcendentalism to go in the old place.”6

The transformations that have occurred in Emerson criticism can all be described, it seems to me, as playing some part in that broad movement that Buell has christened the “de-Transcendentalizing” of Emerson. That Emerson's detranscendentalizing has gone hand in hand with an increasing respect for his work is no accident, for the perception of Emerson as essentially “Transcendentalist”—always the predominant public image of him, an image still stubbornly embedded in much Emerson scholarship—has always been what Porte calls “a positive hindrance” to the appreciation of his writing. Porte put it this way, in a remarkable admission, in 1973:

What I am prepared to state categorically is that the familiar rubrics of Emersonian thought, the stock in trade of most Emerson criticism, though undeniably there, are a positive hindrance to the enjoyment of Emerson's writing. Though some Emersonians will undoubtedly continue until the end of time to chew over such concepts as Compensation, the Over-Soul, Correspondence, Self-Reliance, Spiritual Laws, et id genus omne, the trouble with such things is that they are not very interesting. They make Emerson seem awfully remote, abstract, and—yes—academic. My experience has been that when these topics are mentioned the mind closes, one's attention wanders.7

That one of Transcendentalism's preeminent scholars never doubted, some twenty years ago, that such dullness does indeed lie at the heart of Emerson's thought says much about our main tradition of Emerson scholarship. Even more telling is the failure of Porte's critique to elicit, as far as I am aware, even a single direct response or rejoinder from Emerson scholars. It could still simply be taken for granted, in 1973, that much of Emerson's thought was a closed book—essentially “transcendental” (easily classifiable under the familiar Transcendentalist catchwords) and too tedious to merit any serious reflection (though continuing to supply the material for an endless succession of scholarship).

“As any candid teacher of American literature can report,” Porte concluded, “[Emerson] has manifestly not made his way ‘on the strength of his message.’ He has become the least appreciated, least enjoyed, least understood—indeed, least read—of America's unarguably major writers.” (Emerson is, William Dean Howells concluded in 1900, “the most misunderstood man in America.”) In other words, a great deal is still to be done in arguing for Emerson's inherent worth. In these “new historical” days such “recanonizing,” as Cavell speaks of it, may appear distinctly old-fashioned, but the ambivalent way in which Emerson has been canonized makes it necessary.8

My point is not that Porte was imperceptive or even wrong, for he actually records a valuable perception about the way our major tradition of Emerson criticism has dehistoricized, simplified, and devalued Emerson and has made him seem dull, much more parochial, and much less complicated than he is. The same tradition that has ensured Emerson's continuing canonization, while never failing to uphold his historical importance, has, when it turned to his work itself, generally found little reason for any longer taking Emerson seriously as a writer or a thinker. There exists, David Robinson notes, “the uneasy feeling among historians of American thought and literature that Emerson's influence outdistances his achievement.” Porte puts succinctly the value most critics have accorded Emerson “the Transcendentalist”: worthy of preservation as the source of historical attention, but inherently objectionable or uninteresting. This attitude underlies most Emerson criticism, whether it is the outright condemnation by his enemies or the patronizing or vague disapproval of his friends. (“We turn to him,” one Emerson scholar writes, “as to an amiable lunatic who seems to tell us whatever it is we think we want to hear.”)9

In his canonization, as in so many things, Emerson presents a productive test case for the various theory and culture wars now being waged. Emerson is indeed a well-canonized American writer. But what does that mean? Is there a difference between canonization in one's own lifetime (early in it) and canonization after one's death? What are the ramifications of a canonization that is also, as it undoubtedly has been in Emerson's case, a “sanctification” as “the unshakably serene and satisfied,” the “bloodless or nebulous” Sage of Concord?10 Is there a difference between literary reputation in America and canonization in, say, England or France? Does canonization imply appreciation or condescension, or both? Does it impede or quicken public and academic understanding?

Emerson is, O. W. Firkins concluded in 1915, “at the same time honored and forsaken.” Or, as he dryly restated it in 1933: “[Emerson] is certain of the due toll of inscriptions, invocations, appraisements, and obeisances—of that form of greeting from posterity which combines salutation with dismissal.” Peter Carafiol reaches the same conclusion in a more recent backward glance at Emerson scholarship. The ambivalent terms in which Emerson's so-called Transcendentalism has been received may, Carafiol goes on to suggest, lie more “in the peculiarities of scholarship about Transcendentalism … than in Transcendentalism itself.”11

Assertions of Emerson's centrality and discomfort with it have gone hand in hand in Transcendentalist scholarship from the start. In 1876, O. B. Frothingham argued that “by sheer force of genius Emerson anticipated the results of the transcendental philosophy, defined its axioms and ran out their inferences to the end.” But he complained that “Mr. Emerson's place is among poetic, not among philosophic minds.” In one of the first “academic” studies, H. C. Goddard found Emerson's writing marred by absurd and unpoetic figures, and subsequent scholars have seen him as too abstract, too detached, or lacking in philosophical rigor. Even the most respected of Transcendentalism's modern commentators sometimes seem to hold the subject in something not far short of contempt. Lawrence Buell, for example, chastises the Transcendentalists for their “awkward and inchoate style” and “half-baked content,” and the editors of Emerson's Works seem uncertain about how to evaluate him. They praise his earlier writing for its “absolute literary merit” but seem uncomfortable with the “excesses” of its “irrational eloquence.” They apparently prefer the “dispassionate depth and balance” of the later work.12

According him equal parts reverence and contempt was a well-established convention in Emerson's own time, and it has continued, through a long line of distinguished scholars, to the present. “Almost everyone,” as Cavell remarks, “gets around to condescending to Emerson.” Orestes Brownson's 1838 defense of Emerson's controversial “Divinity School Address” is a notable, early example of that traditional condescension: Brownson defended Emerson's good intentions and benevolent influence but apologized for “the puerility of his concepts,” “the affectations of his style,” and “the unphilosophical character of his speculations.” Such backhanded compliments continued in John Morley's conclusion, in 1881, that “Emersonian transcendentalism” must be regarded as “gospel” rather than “philosophy proper” and in W. C. Brownell's concession that Emerson had no artistry, “no sense of composition.”13

T. S. Eliot launched a forthright attack on Transcendentalist foolishness, but there was no less disdain in Perry Miller's remark, in 1940, that Emerson's ideas were “too utterly fantastic to be any longer taken seriously.” In the 1950s, Leslie Fiedler characterized Emerson as a writer of considerable historical “though not often sympathetic interest, who erected a notable monument to an insufficient view of life.” More recently, Lawrence Buell has concluded that “Emerson and his circle are more important for historical reasons than for the quality of their achievements in art, philosophy, and theology.” “It is hard to suppose,” Irving Howe remarked in 1986, “that anyone could now take Emerson as a sufficient moral or philosophical guide—and impossible to suppose that anyone could find him very helpful in understanding the span of Western history between the time of his death and the present.”14

Emerson's canonization has been, then, double-edged. Always granted museum-interest, he has in the same ambivalent motion been raised to the pedestal as a Transcendentalist-idealist saint and put down as, in William Dean Howells's phrase, “a national joke” (“all that was most hopelessly impossible, … the type of the incomprehensible, the byword of the poor paragrapher”). This is not only, as Howells saw it, Emerson's image in “the popular mind” but also the foundation for most Emerson criticism. It has resulted in what Cavell justly identifies as that still “fixated critical gesture toward Emerson both on the part of his friends and of his enemies.”15

That gesture is twofold. It consists of “denying to Emerson the title of philosopher” (even, in most cases, the title of serious or morally complex thinker) and of describing Emerson's prose as, on the whole, a second- or third-rate failure, “a kind of mist or fog.” In 1903 Dewey was already impatient with this “old story” that “puts away” Emerson as neither an artist nor a philosopher. That fixated critical gesture has been repeated so often by so many of Emerson's “friends” that it is not too much to say that Emerson's canonization has been a curse as well as a blessing and not an exaggeration to characterize the dominant tradition of Emerson criticism as also an anti-Emerson tradition. It is as if Emerson scholarship has thoroughly internalized, consciously or unconsciously, T. S. Eliot's caveat that Emerson was not “individually,” or intrinsically, “very important” and “ought to be made to look very foolish.”16

A long, venerable, and continuing critical tradition has decided that Emerson is primarily not a philosopher, thinker, or writer but the preacher of a New England gospel (a semimystical figure steeped in the atmosphere of religion). This idealizing, moralizing, transcendentalizing Emerson is the patron saint of those who seek to retire upward to a life of the spirit—to a “spiritual transcendence,” as Philip Gura puts it, that takes us away from our “surroundings,” away from “the things of this world.” (“Transcendentalism” has, of course, always been a highly problematic description. In chapter 6 I shall have more to say about it and about the “Transcendentalist Image” of Emerson to which I refer here.) It is important to demarcate clearly and keep in mind this interpretation of Emerson, for it would seem, as Cavell notes, that “[i]f you insist on this view you will seem to find a world of evidence to support it.” (And if you have settled on this definition of Emerson, then it is no longer necessary, or even very interesting, to ask again what Emerson thought. More important, then, are biographical questions, questions of textual history, questions about the immediate theological or social history that surrounds him.)17

But a crucial question needs to be raised. Can we say that a scholarly tradition has given an author a fair hearing, a hearing fair enough to establish what can be called a standard or canonical evaluation, if the interpretation it offers habitually denies the intrinsic value of his work? Does a critical tradition that has, for more than a century and a half, relegated “the quality of [Emerson's] achievement in art, philosophy, or theology” to secondary importance deserve to remain the dominant approach? Did it ever?

For there have been important counterstrains in the history of Emerson's reception, responses to what Porte calls “the problem of Emerson” that represent major alternatives. These approaches have judged Emerson's writing to have the highest intrinsic value aesthetically, philosophically, culturally, even politically, and have stressed an Emerson far different from the idealist-organicist-Transcendentalist preacher. The past quarter-century of the Emerson “revival” has witnessed the rapid expansion of those countertraditions, and it is now clear that a new canonization of Emerson is under way, that a new narrative of his importance as an artist and thinker is being written. The goal is still to answer the prolix, Emerson sphinx: Emerson as ungraspable (Henry James Sr.), as “elusive, irreducible” (Henry James Jr.), as a writer “who retains so much secrecy” (Cavell). The goal is still, as Jonathan Bishop phrased it in 1964, to identify “a central core of imaginative activity that will throw into intelligible relief the multitudinous details of doctrine and rhetoric” among “the broken sequences of essays, the scattered poems, the large numbers of letters and journals, the overlapping continuities of published and manuscript material.”18

What has changed is what criticism has taken as that central core. Emerson the Transcendentalist prophet of the (young, history-evading, American) soul increasingly gives way to Emerson the redoubtable writer, Emerson the mainstream nineteenth-century (and pre-twentieth-century) thinker, Emerson the philosopher, Emerson the theorist of power, Emerson the pragmatist (an allusion often made but infrequently explored), Emerson the “cultural critic,” Emerson the (still-timely) literary theorist (“essentially a philosopher of language and literature”), Emerson the still-vital defender of the “theory of free being” (an achievement that is still underestimated, overshadowed as it has been by the perception of Emerson as an idealizing escapist), Emerson the vitally historical thinker who views experience not in terms of the individual's “transcendent relation to his surroundings” (Gura) but “in terms of [the] relations and interactions” of this world (Cornel West).19

Porte, for example, helped to redirect that major tradition of Emerson criticism that finds insufficient artistic sense in his work by emphasizing Emerson's brilliant “manipulations of language and figure.” Emerson's “interest and appeal,” Porte argued, “reside in the imaginative materials and structure of his writing—in his tropes and topoi, his metaphors and verbal wit, in the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand.”20 Porte's Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (1979) was followed closely by Barbara Packer's Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays (1982) and by the works of a number of critics who have returned successfully to the intricacies of Emerson's writing with the kind of sensitivity to metaphor and language that would once have been considered irrelevant in the face of Emerson's allegedly inartistic style.

“Why has America never expressed itself philosophically? Or has it—in the metaphysical riot of its greatest literature?” That was the groundbreaking question first posed by Stanley Cavell in The Senses of Walden (originally published in 1972). Thoreau's masterpiece was, Cavell suggested, “a book of sufficient intellectual scope and consistency to have established or inspired a tradition of thinking.” At first put off by Emerson in the way most twentieth-century critics have been (“[Emerson] kept sounding to me like a second-hand Thoreau”), Cavell soon renounced his original bias and turned his attention to recovering Emerson as a “founding” American thinker and a central nineteenth-century mind. Cavell's commitment to putting Emerson into the company of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Spengler, Freud, Descartes, Kant, or Nietzsche represents a notable breakthrough—not because Emerson has never been paired with most of these writers but because Cavell's powerful essays have none of the condescension toward Emerson that heretofore characterized such comparisons.21

Generally, the dominant (and anti-Emerson) critical tradition, as I have characterized it, has felt comfortable chiding Emerson for misinterpreting Kant or for temperamentally lacking the profundity of a Coleridge or Nietzsche. Even more predictable is the still almost inevitable comparison that finds Emerson incapable of the moral complexity of a Melville, Hawthorne, or Henry James. Emerson scholarship has traditionally looked skeptically on the importation of foreign names onto New England soil. (It still comes as a surprise to many Americanists that Nietzsche ever admired or even read Emerson.) But, as Cavell reminds us, Nietzsche's lifelong engagement with Emerson's essays may well be considered a conduit for Emerson's influence on later European intellectual tradition (Heidegger especially), just as Coleridge's or Carlyle's engagement with German writing was originally a conduit for Kant or Fichte into England and America.22 Since his first essay on Emerson in 1978, Cavell has made it possible to approach the question, “What did Emerson think?” with a seriousness never before maintained. He has pushed the issue of Emerson as a philosopher (and the requestioning of what philosophy is or can be) to the forefront of Emerson criticism, and he has argued that the tone and terms of the discussion will need to be more sophisticated than ever before.

In the wake of Cavell's work there have appeared several studies, most notably by Poirier, that, if not directly indebted to Cavell, have avoided the patronizing tone of most previous criticism and, without apology, have taken Emerson as a central resource in what Giles Gunn calls our current “culture of criticism.” Several complex social, literary, and academic factors have contributed to this revival. If the reediting of Emerson's journals, essays, lectures, letters, and sermons that began in 1959 constitutes its foundation, then the widespread revaluation of Romantic thought and writing (exemplified in the work of Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams, Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and, most recently, Cavell) has provided an atmosphere in which Emerson can be reaffirmed (in what Hartman calls a counter-“emigration of ideas from within”) as a key American answer to the massive influence of Continental and post-Modernist theory. European and deconstructive theorists, situated within the context of an American, Emersonian tradition, can appear as “belatedly catching up with the illuminating discoveries of our great creative writers.”23

The most vulnerable side to the dominant tradition of Emerson criticism has always been its provincialism. “Emerson scholarship,” Kazin writes, “is fiercely local. … [It] is intense and minuscule.” Emerson's stolid Transcendentalist image and our underestimation of American culture generally have made us reluctant to count him among those “North Atlantic cultural critics who set the agenda and terms for understanding the modern world.” The commitment to recovering Emerson's place in American tradition has too often merged confusedly with the misperception of Emerson as a timeless “mystagogue” (James Russell Lowell's word) and has denied his work a place in the mainstream of nineteenth-century thought. That denial has exerted such a tenacious hold that even some of our most formidable critics continue to see Emerson as at heart a displaced, first-century Christian or as a New England anachronism with little or nothing to tell us about the larger course of post-Enlightenment thought or history.24 Cornel West puts well the point I wish to make. Those approaches, he writes, that have stressed Emerson's American context (and have emphasized Emerson's “flight from history, his rejection of the past, his refusal of authority”) have, however valuable in themselves, helped to blind us to Emerson's broader significance.

Unfortunately, these influential … readings of Emerson hide the degree to which Emerson's perspective is infused with historical consciousness; they also conceal his seminal reflections on power. These interpretive blindnesses result, in part, from situating Emerson in the age of the American literary renaissance (along with Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman) rather than relating him to the European explosions (both intellectual and social) that produced Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, and Friedrich Nietzsche. We can no longer afford or justify confining Emerson to the American terrain. He belongs to that highbrow cast of North Atlantic cultural critics who set the agenda and the terms for understanding the modern world.25

At the same time that Emerson the “representative American” comes to seem “acutely marginal” from the polemical perspective of the new historicism, he is being recanonized as an inexpendable participant in that mid- and late-nineteenth-century debate over power, culture, and history waged by writers like Carlyle, Marx, Nietzsche, or Henry Adams. It is a detranscendentalizing, a redemption from an insular Transcendentalist image that has for too long postponed our appreciation of Emerson's significance and artistry. West postulates an Emerson important for his “seminal reflections on power,” an Emerson important for his preoccupation with determining “the scope of human powers and the contingency of human societies,” an Emerson who struggled (exactly as Carlyle had) to find his vocation as a new kind of “cultural critic” or “theorist of power” (an intellectual vocation unprecedented before the nineteenth century) and then attempted to formulate “a conception of power” that could enable “himself and others to respond to the crises of his day.”26

Emerson is significant, West argues, for his influential, pragmatic evasion of a transcendental/epistemology-centered philosophy as “antiquated, anachronistic, and outdated” in a century that needed a new kind of “philosopher of power.”27 West is thus the latest in a series of critics who have de-emphasized Emerson as a seeker of a transcendent truth or cosmic unity and stressed instead the essentially agonistic nature of his thought. Emerson was committed, Carolyn Porter writes, “not [to] a soaring transcendence, but a perpetual resistance.” “The Emersonian quest,” Gertrude Hughes concludes, is “after power, not after truth”; “Emerson's essays are designed to empower rather than to instruct.” Charles Feidelson believed that Emerson's “characteristic form” was “an autonomous series of visionary events.” But the Emersonian “self,” as Poirier contends, does not come about in an autonomous or visionary act of “reflection” or transcendence. It is pressured into existence as a reaction to something else: “The self can … be located here and now, not by reflection but, so far as Emerson and William James are concerned, by virtue of ‘acts.’ These acts are variously named—‘resistance,’ ‘antagonism,’ ‘transition,’ ‘abandonment.’ None has to do with compliance. They are reactive.” Or, as Donoghue puts it, writing of Nature: “Not knowledge but power is its aim; not truth but command.” Emerson is, Eric Cheyfitz observes, our “devout psychologist of power”: “throughout his work the term [‘power’] is as omnipresent as the Deity itself.” “Power,” Bloom writes, is “Emerson's key term.”28

This mid-nineteenth-century “theoretician of power” (as Bloom calls him) is my subject. Clearly the time has been right for several years now for the collective reinterpretation of Emerson committed to clarifying that synthesis of disparate, often warring, elements that accounts for what Edmund Wilson called the “dynamic” nature of Emerson's thought. The time is propitious for a rereading of Emerson's work in light of his unchanging conviction that “Power is the first good” (W, 8:272)—and for a recovery of what Richard Grusin calls “the structure of Emersonian action.”29

The poststructuralist obsession with demystification and deidealizing has, to be sure, helped to make possible Emerson's detranscendentalization. The post-Foucauldian obsession with the study of history and texts as scenes of power struggles has made power the latest (“tiresomely recurrent”) catchword. The present moment might, in fact, be defined by its “disenchantment with transcendental conceptions of philosophy”—a skepticism that “has led to a preoccupation with the relation of knowledge and power” and a “small-scale intellectual renascence … under the broad banner of pragmatism.”30 Because such transformations have done much to generate a renewed concern for Emerson the pragmatic philosopher of power, it is important to make clear—without denying the influence of poststructuralist thought—that I believe the detranscendentalizing of Emerson I advocate is an act of historical recovery. I do not regard it as merely a social construction of the late twentieth century, as the product of the latest-model deidealizing in order to squeeze out one more in an infinite number of possible Emersons. My approach, in short, though it will explore central strains in Emerson's thought that may be called antitranscendental or deconstructive or antifoundationalist, is in itself quite foundationalist. I believe, in other words, that there really exists a primary and definitive aspect of Emerson's thought that has been, as Cavell and Poirier put it, “repressed” by the critical-philosophical establishment.

Equally foundationalist is my assumption that there was such a thing as “Romanticism” and that there is a family of intellectual problems and tendencies which define a distinctively nineteenth-century (more accurately, a post-Kantian) tradition. It is a presupposition of this study that “there arose significantly new forms of thought and standards for evaluation in the post-Enlightenment period, and that these not only marked a radically new epoch in intellectual history but came to dominate almost all schools of European thought for something over one hundred years.”31 It is necessary to insist on such a context because Emerson has so often been left out of it.


Interpretations of Emerson as most vitally a theorist of action or power have existed since the nineteenth century, though they have always been kept in check as critical countertraditions by the weight of the Transcendentalist image or that Modernist/New Critical, anti-Romantic prejudice that has only given way, as far as Emerson is concerned, in the last twenty-five years. Surely there is some significance in the ability of Nietzsche, William James, and Dewey (major proponents or inheritors of that nineteenth-century transnational tradition that produced philosophies of will) to place a far greater value on both Emerson's art and thought than has that line of scholars who have accepted Emerson as a Transcendentalist.

Nietzsche saluted Emerson as one of the century's “masters of prose” (GS, 92) and regretted that America lacked an academic culture capable of providing “some strict discipline, a really scientific education” in philosophy. Nietzsche's lament—“As it is, in Emerson, we have lost a philosopher”—is quite the opposite of the common scholarly conclusion that finds Emerson temperamentally or intellectually incapable of philosophical thought. Indeed, for Nietzsche, Emerson was a “brother soul,” an intellectual twin. “Never have I felt so much at home in a book,” he wrote of Emerson's essays, “and in my home, as—I may not praise it, it is too close to me.” Emerson was, he declared, “the author who has been richest in ideas in this century so far.”32

For Matthew Arnold, Emerson's prose was, as it has been for so many critics since, an embarrassment: “Unsound it is, indeed, and in a style almost impossible to a born man of letters.” Henry James returned a similar verdict: Emerson never found his proper “form”; his writings “were not composed at all.” But for William James, Emerson was, above all, a consummate writer: “[I]f we must define him in one word, we have to call him Artist”—“[his] mission culminated in his style.” “No previous literary artist,” James claimed, had achieved “such penetratingly persuasive tones.” Even the essence of Emerson's message (that “the point of any pen can be an epitome of reality”) was best captured, for James, in a writer's metaphor.33

Dewey, too, championed Emerson's “concentration of form and effect.” Dewey's brief, but astute, 1903 defense of Emerson has remained, until Emerson's recent revival, the most serious argument for Emerson's continuing importance.34 It is today remembered primarily for its description of Emerson as “the Philosopher of Democracy” (the whole phrase is “not only a philosopher, but … the Philosopher of Democracy”), but it merits far closer attention than it has received. It is particularly relevant for my own argument because Dewey begins in the recognition that Emerson is, first of all, in need of defense from both literary critics and philosophers. Any appreciation of Emerson, Dewey insists, must begin with a clear sense of the false limitations imposed by Emerson's reception-history. Anticipating Cavell's hypothesis of a twofold “fixated critical gesture toward Emerson,” Dewey suggests that we must first avoid “the condescending patronage by literary critics”—the usual, easy accusations of incoherence—as well as the habitual rejection of the possibility that Emerson's writing could constitute philosophy. The problem, Dewey argues, lies not in any “lack of method” or artistry on Emerson's part but in the stupidity of critics and professors of philosophy.35

Dewey continues his defense by dissociating Emerson from the “remotenesses” of “the transcendentalists.” Emerson only borrows from them, Dewey says, certain idioms, “certain pigments and delineations.” Emerson was not a “Platonist” or “idealist” but achieved a new kind of synthesis that “reduced” the names and ideas associated with those movements to a new philosophy—he put them to use in the service of his own experiential, pragmatic interests, put them to “the test of trial by the service rendered the present and immediate experience.” Plato and Platonism may appear as elements in Emerson's writing, but it would be wrong to take Emerson's thought as, therefore, immaculately or chiefly Platonic or transcendental: Emerson was not interested in “the immanence of absolute ideas in the world,” in “any Reality that is beyond or behind or in any way apart,” or in “the reputed transcendental worth of an overweening Beyond and Away.”36

To claim him for the Transcendentalist-Idealist party amounts, in Dewey's eyes, to Emerson's unjustified appropriation by a conservative, Brahmin class: it means “embezzling” him away from the democratic and pragmatic tradition (“the common man” and “the common store”) to which he properly belongs. The misrepresentation of Emerson's thought as transcendentalism not only robs his work of sustaining interest and artistic credibility but also leaves him vulnerable to unfair moral and political attack. Emerson, Dewey insists, “drew the line which marks him off from transcendentalism—which is the idealism of a Class.”37

Dewey's vision of an ongoing battle between a democratic and an elite, “embezzling” class—with Emerson's reputation at stake—undoubtedly reflects his own commitment to civic activism. Dewey opposed any philosophy or intellectual tradition that could deteriorate into “an esthetic appreciation carried on by a refined class or a capitalistic possession of a few learned specialists.”38 Clearly much could be gained if Dewey, still early in his career, could demonstrate that Emerson was not the fastidious idealist—as Emerson's critics were painting him—but Dewey's true pragmatic and “instrumentalist” precursor. It would be wrong, however, to construe his essay as merely “a creative misreading of Emerson,” an attempt to dress Emerson “in Deweyan garb.”39 For Dewey's portrait of Emerson (first delivered in the same month as William James's speech at Concord and as Santayana's Harvard address on “Emerson the Poet”) needs to be set in the context of that pivotal, still influential, reassessment of Emerson's legacy that was being waged throughout the three or four decades after his death. That “second stage” of Emerson studies, which began in 1882, had already witnessed an even more intense apotheosization of an otherworldly Emerson than had occurred in his own lifetime; it would culminate in 1911, when Santayana eloquently banished Emerson's memory to the pale regions of “the genteel tradition”—an association that has stuck securely to the Emerson image.40

Dewey was, in 1903, waging a rear-guard but necessary battle. He was attempting to counter the burgeoning mystical-transcendental image of Emerson, attempting to rescue and articulate for the twentieth century an Emerson who was disappearing behind the relentless characterizations of him as provincial, clerical, Brahminical, the declaimer of a fragile or empty idealism.

Empty, vacant—the image is invoked repeatedly in Henry James's and Santayana's portrayals of Emerson. For James, Emerson's memory evoked an unforgettable series of “impressions” of New England's cultural barrenness. “Emerson's personal history,” he recalled, could be “condensed into the single word Concord, and all the condensation in the world will not make it look rich.” He continued, in his 1888 essay, to associate Emerson with the “terrible paucity of alternatives,” the “achromatic picture” his environment presented him. As far as James was concerned, the whole “Concord school” had, as Matthiessen notes, “enacted a series of experiments in the void.” Emerson's “special capacity for moral experience”—which for James meant Emerson's “ripe unconsciousness of evil,” his inability “to look at anything but the soul”—was the result of his coming to maturity in a community that “had to seek its entertainment, its rewards and consolations, almost exclusively in the moral world.” The “decidedly lean Boston.” of Emerson's day was self-enclosed, an island above the extremes of common human experience.41

Emerson's limited moral world was, like the “New England [of] fifty years ago,” sealed off, perpetually untested by the “beguilements and prizes” of experience. Boston existed serenely, James writes (and he means Boston to stand for Emerson), “like a ministry without an opposition.” It was no surprise, then, that his eyes were “thickly bandaged” to all “sense of the dark, the foul, the base,” no surprise that there was “a certain inadequacy and thinness in [Emerson's] enumerations” and “quaint animad-version[s].” “We get the impression,” James concludes, “of a conscience gasping in the void, panting for sensations, with something of the movement of the gills of a landed fish.”42

Santayana was even more explicit about the hermetic nature of Emerson's life and thought. He had “a certain starved and abstract quality …; [he] fed on books. … And to feed on books, for a philosopher or poet, is … to starve. … [Emerson] was employed in a sort of inner play, or digestion of vacancy.” Once again Emerson was depicted as a mind weakened and starved by its narrow circumstances. (T. S. Eliot would use the same imagery a few years later, associating Emerson's outdated volumes with gentility, Boston aunts, and “the barren New England hills” in his early satire, “Cousin Nancy.”) By the end of the nineteenth century Emersonian Transcendentalism had indeed come to seem, as Irving Howe puts it, “toothless, a genteel evasion.” The document that best expressed and further propagated that version of Emerson was Santayana's hugely influential critique of “the genteel tradition.” Santayana reintroduced Emerson to the twentieth century as the “detached, unworldly, contemplative” spokesman for a moribund nonphilosophy that subsisted in the modern world as a “sacred mystery only.”43

Santayana hoped that America's “genteel tradition” would one day give way to a new, more “naturalistic” morality. “Only a morality frankly relative to man's nature,” he warned, “is worthy of man, being at once vital and rational, martial and generous; whereas absolutism smells of fustiness.” Its debilitating “moral absolutism”—the same untested “conception of the moral life” James had cited as Emerson's (dubious) “great distinction”—was, Santayana charged, the very “essence” of the genteel tradition. (The year after Santayana's famous address, Irving Babbitt would again employ Emerson as the great “absolutist” counterweight to the relativism of Sainte-Beuve. Emerson had “lost himself,” Babbitt would later conclude, “in a mystical-transcendental mist, where it was impossible to follow him.” That Emerson embodied a misty absolutism, as opposed to the naturalist-experiential thought of a Melville or a Twain, would remain, until recent years, one of the axioms of Emerson scholarship.)44

Santayana's conception of Emerson may well have evolved as he considered and reconsidered him in his 1886 essay on “The Optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” the chapter on Emerson in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900); his 1903 address on “Emerson the Poet;” and the extended meditation on Emerson's legacy offered in his 1936 novel, The Last Puritan. But in each work Emerson is once again invoked as a genteel, distant cleric, a mystic rather than a philosopher, a chilly pantheist whose beloved nature was a convenient escape from “human life.” “He is never a philosopher,” Santayana contended in 1886, “but always Emerson philosophizing.” He preached “the lesson of indifference to circumstances.” He “walked this earth with a bland and persistent smile.” He was “in no sense a prophet or herald for his age or country,” Santayana wrote in 1900 (in an essay with which Dewey must surely have been familiar)—he “was not primarily a philosopher, but a Puritan mystic.” (And even in this, as Santayana noted in 1886, he was often “the mystic turned dilettante.”) “Reality eluded him.” Unequivocally an “idealist,” Emerson stood “aside from the life of the world” in the quasi-Platonic, quasi-Oriental, “abstract sphere” of mysticism. His “single theme” was “imagination.” He was “a poet whose only pleasure was thought,” and “he showed in his life and personality the meagerness, the constraint, the frigid and conscious consecration which belonged to his clerical ancestors.”45

“He's simply a distinguished-looking old cleric with a sweet smile and a white tie,” Jim Darnley remarks in The Last Puritan, “he's just honourable and bland and as cold as ice.” As one minor character states it earlier in the novel: “Emerson served up Goethe's philosophy in ice-water.” Santayana's later, no less sardonic description of Oliver Alden and Mario Van de Weyer's pilgrimage to Concord comes as no surprise: “They looked at the dreadful little house in which Emerson lived, and at his cold little sitting-room; and then they looked at each other. Could such great things leave such mean traces?” (Emerson appears to have permanently lowered the temperature everywhere he went. Oliver remembers his room at the Harvard Divinity School—the room once occupied by Emerson—as “a beastly hole: impossibly far from everywhere, and impossibly cold.”)46

In 1903 Santayana spoke of the “political thinker” (“a moralist interested in institutions and manners, a democrat and Puritan”) that lay behind the pantheist. But, Santayana continued, “chiefly what lay there was a mystic, a moralist athirst for some superhuman and absolute good.” Emerson's glance “sometimes … rested on human life, but more often and far more lovingly on Nature. … The love of nature was Emerson's strongest passion.”47

Now Santayana was keenly aware that “transcendentalism”—in either its German or American variety—was but an outgrowth of the Protestant spirit and that however mystical or Neoplatonic its rhetoric, it fundamentally shunned “the endless battle of metaphysics” (what Dewey called the “overweening Beyond and Away”) for a more pragmatic “philosophy of enterprise.” Santayana was well aware that Emerson had at least one foot in this tradition—well aware that Emerson was, like William James, like Dewey, radically concerned with “the Here and Now” of common experience and committed to the use and testing of the life one confronts “on the highway.” In a review of Dewey's Experience and Nature (1925), Santayana suggested that Emerson, William James, and Dewey all asked the same pragmatic question. “In order to get to the bottom and to the substance of anything,” Santayana phrased it, describing Dewey's pragmatism, “we must still ask with Emerson, What is this to me? or with William James, What is this experienced as?” Pragmatism shared with transcendentalism and empiricism the conceit that the universe exists “to subserve the interests of mankind,” the conviction that mankind has “a right to treat the world as its field of action.” American pragmatism was, Santayana said, “the most close-reefed of philosophical craft[s], most tightly hugging appearance, use, and relevance to practice today and here.”48 But it is precisely the pragmatic, experiential thinker—the Emerson who proposed “the great doctrine of Use” (CW, 1:26), defined “wisdom” as the “return” for “fit actions” (CW, 1:60), spurned “inaction” as “cowardice,” and condemned “every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power” (CW, 1:59)—it is this confrontational theoretician of human power who all but vanishes in James's or Santayana's accounts.

There are, finally, scattered through Santayana's books and essays, two quite distinct Emersons (and two Transcendentalisms); their coexistence he never adequately explained. The dominant Emerson—the figure depicted in those essays in which Santayana considered Emerson specifically—is the genteel Transcendentalist, disincarnate and naive, removed from the real forces at work in nineteenth-century America. But in Santayana's asides on Emerson, in his perceptive comments on the Promethean/Faustian nature of Romantic literature as a whole, a different figure emerges. When Santayana turned his attention to the Romantic movement in general, he had no difficulty situating Emerson in a German-Anglo-American, Protestant tradition that enshrined the exercise of the human will and perpetually ached for new trials of its strength. Transcendence in the context of this tradition meant not Buddhistic withdrawal but what Emerson—and, later, Nietzsche—called the “incorporation” or “assimilation” of the world. This Protestant “appetite for action” (Hegel called it the “appetitive relation to the external world”) devoted its energies not to pantheism or the life of the spirit but to “world-building.”49 It was mystical only in its “faith in will and action.” Ironically, it was in his appraisal of European tradition, in the introductory comments to Three Philosophical Poets, that Santayana offered his most astute summation of Emerson's thought. His remarks, though brief, cover a great deal of territory in capturing what Kazin calls the neglected “romantic, bourgeois, ‘progressive,’ sense of individual power” underlying Emerson's work. The “Teutonic races,” Santayana wrote in 1910,

turn successively to the Bible, to learning, to patriotism, to industry, for new objects to love and fresh worlds to conquer; but they have too much vitality, or too little maturity, to rest in any of these things. A demon drives them on; and this demon, divine and immortal in its apparent waywardness, is their inmost self. It is their insatiable will, their radical courage. Nay, though this be a hard saying to the uninitiated, their will is the creator of all those objects by which it is sometimes amused, and sometimes baffled, but never tamed. Their will summons all opportunities and dangers out of nothing to feed its appetite for action; and in that ideal function lies their sole reality. Once attained, things are transcended. Like the episodes of a spent dream, they are to be smiled at and forgotten; the spirit that feigned and discarded them remains always strong and undefiled; it aches for new conquests over new fictions. This is romanticism. … It was adapted by Emerson and ought to be sympathetic to Americans; for it expresses the self-trust of the world-building youth, and mystical faith in will and action.50


In his earliest essay on Emerson, Santayana had raised the specter of this Faustian thinker, an Emerson who hardly sounded “detached, unworldly, contemplative,” when he quoted one of Emerson's many passages welcoming war, temptation, and antagonism as heroic forms of self-overcoming—as the very foundation of nature, the cosmos, culture, art, religion, and history.51 Santayana quotes three sentences from the following paragraph in “Considerations By the Way,” one of the many meditations on power that make up The Conduct of Life (1860). But the paragraph is worth citing in its entirety. It is surely one of the many Emersonian precursors of Nietzsche's doctrine that culture and selfhood are born not in the escape from time and history but in “creative tension and fruitful struggle.”52 It makes conspicuous the Emerson suppressed in James's and Santayana's rendering of a ministerial mystic, quaintly unconscious of evil or conflict. (This is an objection that would be repeated endlessly in the twentieth century and still stands as one of the clichés of Emerson criticism.)

In front of these sinister facts, the first lesson of history is the good of evil. Good is a good doctor but Bad is sometimes a better. The oppressions of William the Norman, savage forest laws and crushing despotism made possible the inspirations of Magna Charta under John. Edward I. wanted money, armies, castles, and as much as he could get. It was necessary to call the people together by shorter, swifter ways,—and the House of Commons arose. To obtain subsidies, he paid in privileges. In the twenty-fourth year of his reign he decreed “that no tax should be levied without consent of Lords and Commons;”—which is the basis of the English Constitution. Plutarch affirms that the cruel wars which followed the march of Alexander introduced the civility, language and arts of Greece into the savage East; introduced marriage; built seventy cities, and united hostile nations under one government. The barbarians who broke up the Roman Empire did not arrive a day too soon. Schiller says the Thirty Years' War made Germany a nation. Rough, selfish despots serve men immensely, as Henry VIII. in the contest with the Pope; as the infatuations no less than the wisdom of Cromwell; as the ferocity of the Russian czars; as the fanaticism of the French regicides of 1789. The frost which kills the harvest of a year saves the harvests of a century, by destroying the weevil or the locust. Wars, fires, plagues, break up immovable routine, clear the ground of rotten races and dens of distemper, and open a fair field to new men. There is a tendency in things to right themselves, and the war or revolution or bankruptcy that shatters a rotten system, allows things to take a new and natural order. The sharpest evils are bent into that periodicity which makes the errors of planets and the fevers and distempers of men, self-limiting. Nature is upheld by antagonism. Passions, resistance, danger, are educators. We acquire the strength we have overcome. Without war, no soldiers; without enemies, no hero. The sun were insipid if the universe were not opaque. And the glory of character is in affronting the horrors of depravity to draw thence new nobilities of power; as Art lives and thrills in new use and combining of contrasts, and mining into the dark evermore for blacker pits of night. What would painter do, or what would poet or saint, but for crucifixions and hells? And evermore in the world is this marvellous balance of beauty and disgust, magnificence and rats. Not Antoninus, but a poor washer-woman said, “The more trouble, the more lion; that's my principle.”

(W, 6:253-55)

It is difficult not to remain silent in the face of such an astonishing passage—especially astonishing if one comes to it after James's and Santayana's judgment that Emerson, either through provincialism or through mystic withdrawal, managed to avoid the nineteenth century. It is even more difficult to hold off citing all those equivalent passages in Emerson that deserve to be placed beside it. (The conception of culture Emerson presents here is—to cite just one example—condensed into one extraordinary line, a line worthy of Nietzsche at his best, in the aphoristic theory of Christianity's evolution Emerson advances in English Traits. “The violence of the northern savages,” he writes, “exasperated Christianity into power” [ET, 139].) Santayana, however, passed quickly over such characteristically Emersonian thinking about the place of evil and the power of blackness, about the origin of culture and morality, about the physical laws of polarity. He dismissed such moments as digressions, unrepresentative of Emerson's main concerns: “The title under which these remarks appear [“Considerations By the Way”] is for once appropriate. … To give these views a fundamental importance would be to misunderstand Emerson.”53

Yet there is sufficient evidence in this paragraph alone to suggest the extreme partiality and inadequacy of the James/Santayana image of Emerson. There is, for one thing, nothing provincial about it. The thick package of allusions—to Greece, Rome, and “the Savage East”; to English law and history; to the Cromwellian and French Revolutions; to the Thirty Years' War; to contemporary Russia—suggests that Emerson did not stand outside time and that he had not left history behind him. Nor is there anything to suggest that Emerson ignores evil. One can hear the relish with which he plunges into the dark, foul, and base; the prose is as tautly balanced as Nietzsche's aphoristic “dynamite.”

It was Emerson's verse Santayana had in mind when he concluded that Emerson's passion for nature “was sincere adoration, self-surrendering devotion … not qualified or taken back by any subsumption of nature under human categories”; but there are no grounds in this passage, in all of The Conduct of Life, and in most of Emerson's prose, for ascribing to him so self-effacing a form of pantheism.54 The “subsumption of nature under human categories” is precisely what Nature, what The Conduct of Life, champions. It was not nature's “inhuman perfection” Emerson adored (as Santayana claims) but nature's ultimate usefulness as a “tool chest,” a “field of action,” for human “appetites” (W, 6:88-90, 246). The “deferential,” “universal passive hospitality” that James found in Emerson's personality (and that, James seems to imply, is also the hallmark of his thought) is manifestly not the point in this exhortation to self-strengthening.55

The question of whether Emerson was a mystic hinges, of course, on the definition of mysticism one accepts. But clearly the ascetic withdrawal Santayana imputes to Emerson fails to account for so fervent an invocation of “resistance.” And it is at least an open question whether this vision of the terrible process by which “things right themselves” is merely another instance of that blandly optimistic and familiar Emersonian rubric, “Compensation,” or something more akin to Nietzsche's definition of “the sublime” as “the artistic taming of the horrible” (BT, 7) or to the Nietzschean conception of civilization as the beautiful balance of brutally warring oppositions. Is such a passage evidence of Emerson's naïveté, his “cheerful Monism” (as Robert Frost called it)?56 Or does it suggest an “optimism” closer to Nietzsche's ideal: the Hellenic capacity for looking “boldly right into the terrible destructiveness of … world history as well as the cruelty of nature” and, in the face of such suffering, for overcoming the mystic's “longing for a Buddhistic negation of the will” in order to achieve the “blissful affirmation of existence that seeks to discharge itself in actions” (BT, 7, 15). “The blossom of the Apollonian culture,” Nietzsche writes, sprang “from a dark abyss, as the victory which the Hellenic will … obtains over suffering” (BT, 17). “What terrible questions are we learning to ask!” (W, 6:318) Emerson says: “Let us replace sentimentalism by realism, and dare to uncover those simple and terrible laws which, be they seen or unseen, pervade and govern” (W, 6:215). However one chooses to approach this passage, it is no longer possible to ignore or dismiss it in the way James or Santayana did.

Nor is it possible to argue that such moments are atypical of Emerson. It is baffling and, finally, testament to the pernicious way in which Emerson's ministerial image has blinded us to his words themselves, that Santayana could ever have thought so. Santayana's equation of transcendentalism and idealism with Emersonianism—and those chestnuts that have been taken as the too familiar rubrics of Emersonian thought (Compensation, the Over-Soul, Organicism, Pantheism, Absolutism, Monism, Passivity)—need to be balanced, ultimately reconceived, and redefined, in light of the tendencies (call them Nietzschean) that are so overt in the above paragraph.

We might label these, using only Emerson's own language, “the good of evil,” the good of war, antagonism, resistance, education, the search for strength, overcoming, affronting, the search for power (the “combining of contrasts” in the search for new power), the use of darkness. We might expand this list, still confining our terminology to the language of The Conduct of Life, to include the command to “know the realities of human life” (p. 261), to “taste the real quality of existence” (p. 323), and to “try the rough water” (p. 162). “Nature,” Emerson writes, “forever puts a premium on reality” (p. 189). And we might continue this list with the addition of the Emersonian terms and concepts emphasized in the following passages from the same book (further evidence that the Nietzschean strain beneath Emersonian “optimism” is anything but a digressive anomaly). These concepts are the ever-present imperatives of power, use (using what is near), resistance, testing, and overcoming (and confronting temptation—like the possibility of suicide), the perpetual friction (“perpetual tilt and balance”) between man and nature, giving “form and actuality” to thought (p. 93), execution, instrumentation (tools), knowing, command (“command of nature” [p. 95]), “taking things up” into one's self/conversion/absorption/incorporation/transmutation (“the assimilating power” [p. 142]), conquest, vigor, action, will, “working up,” “the extension of man” (p. 284), building, taking advantage, the charm and power of practicality (p. 317).

[Man's] instincts must be met, and he has predisposing power that bends and fits what is near him to his use. … As soon as there is life, there is self-direction and absorbing and using of material.

(p. 38)

Everything is pusher or pushed; and matter and mind are in perpetual tilt and balance.

(p. 43)

The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do.

(p. 79)

[Man] is tempted out by his appetites and fancies to the conquest of this and that piece of nature, until he finds his well-being in the use of his planet, and of more planets than his own. … [T]he elements offer their service to him. … The world is his tool-chest, and he is successful, or his education is carried on just so far, as is the marriage of his faculties with nature, or the degree in which he takes up things into himself.

(pp. 88-90)

Kings are said to have long arms, but every man should have long arms, and should pluck his living, his instruments, his power and his knowing, from the sun, moon and stars.

(p. 95)

Man was born to be rich, or inevitably grows rich by the use of his faculties.

(p. 99)

[T]he student we speak to must have a mother-wit invincible by his culture,—which uses all books, arts, facilities, and elegancies of intercourse, but is never subdued or lost in them. … And the end of culture is not to destroy this, God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture and leave nothing but pure power.

(p. 134)

Man's culture can spare nothing, wants all the material. He is to convert all impediments into instruments, all enemies into power. The formidable mischief will only make the more useful slave. … [W]e shall dare affirm that there is nothing he will not overcome and convert, until at last culture shall absorb the chaos and gehenna. He will convert the Furies into Muses, and the hells into benefit.

(p. 166)

I have no sympathy with a poor man I knew, who, when suicides abounded, told me he dare not look at his razor.

(p. 201)

Yet vigor is contagious, and whatever makes us either think or feel strongly, adds to our power and enlarges our field of action.

(p. 246)

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake. … In our life everything is worked up and comes in use,—passion, war, revolt, bankruptcy, and not less, folly and blunders, insult, ennui and bad company.

(p. 262)

Alchemy, which sought to transmute one element into another, to prolong life, to arm with power,—that was in the right direction. … [A] man is a fagot of thunderbolts. All the elements pour through his system; he is the flood of the flood and fire of the fire; he feels the antipodes and the pole as drops of his blood; they are the extension of his personality. His duties are measured by that instrument he is.

(pp. 282-83)

[I]f a man can build a plain cottage with such symmetry as to make all the fine palaces look cheap and vulgar; can take such advantages of nature that all her powers serve him; making use of geometry, instead of expense; tapping a mountain for his water-jet; causing the sun and moon to seem only the decorations of his estate;—this is still the legitimate dominion of beauty.

(p. 302)

The Conduct of Life, Emerson's last great book, may well be the work in which his speculations on the search for power, the antagonism of fate, the service of culture, the force of behavior, worship, and wealth are most explicit. The Conduct of Life is, as Porte suggests, obsessed with power.57 It is obsessed with “the sovereignty of power” (p. 63), with “coarse energy” (p. 64), with “the excess of virility” (p. 69) and the “man of force” (p. 58), “the charm of practical men” (p. 317) and men of superior will (p. 248), with health, “recuperative force” (p. 61), and “the advantage of a strong pulse” (p. 56), with “personal power” and “the enormous elements of strength which … make our politics unimportant” (p. 61), with “aboriginal might,” “hairy Pelasgic strength,” “plus or positive power” (pp. 71-73) and “beast-force” (p. 252). But it must be emphasized (because the common perception of distinct early and late periods in Emerson's thought would seem to deny it) that the concern for power, for use and command, and the predominance of the Emersonian pattern of overcoming are not at all new.

Although The Conduct of Life was not published until 1860, the lectures that form its basis were first delivered in 1851. The anxiety over the ebb of vital force, the compensating obsession with power, the “underlying psycho-physiological anxiety” over the proper expending and conservation of energy, and the attendant “fantasies of size, power, violence, debauchery, and fertility”—all, as Porte argues, can be traced back to the journal entries of the 1840s.58 But one needs only to return to Emerson's first book, in 1836, to find exactly the same founding patterns reexpressed so vehemently in The Conduct of Life. There is, in Nature, the same call for “the kingdom” (or “dominion”) of “man over nature” (CW, 1:45), the same stress on the “endless exercise” of all human “faculties” (CW, 1:37), the same affirmation of “new activity” (CW, 1:41), “new creation” (CW, 1:16) (as opposed to “barren contemplation”), the same “doctrine of Use” (CW, 1:26), the same concern for “self-command” and “the varying phenomenon of Health” (CW, 1:27), the same push to grasp “the keys of power” (CW, 1:21), to transmute “unconscious truth” into “the domain of knowledge” where it may become “a new weapon in the magazine of power” (CW, 1:23). There is the same emphasis on “heroic action,” “the energy of [man's] thought and will” (CW, 1:15), and the necessity of work (CW, 1:12).

“At present,” Emerson complains, “man applies to nature but half his force” (CW, 1:42). Nature is the prophecy of man's “resumption of power,” his taking advantage of nature “with his entire force” and building his world (CW, 1:43). “By the time he composed Nature,” Leo Marx notes, “Emerson had adapted the rhetoric of the technological sublime to his purposes.” The “submerged metaphor” in Nature, Marx suggests, was technology; it is submerged—rendered obscure or ambiguous—in the heavy counterpresence of traditional idealist terminology and Christian imagery:59

The exercise of the Will or the lesson of power is taught in every event. From the child's successive possession of his several senses up to the hour when he saith, “thy will be done!” he is learning the secret, that he can reduce under his will, not only particular events, but great classes, nay the whole series of events, and so conform all facts to his character. Nature is thoroughly mediate. It is made to serve. It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful. Man is never weary of working it up. He forges the subtile and delicate air into wise and melodious words, and gives them wing as angels of persuasion and command. More and more, with every thought, does his kingdom stretch over things, until the world becomes, at last, only a realized will,—the double of the man.

(CW, 1:25)

This is the vision of the world as tool chest and field of action for the extension of man that would inform all of Emerson's subsequent work. (This passage, like many of those I have cited from The Conduct of Life, is also a good example of a point I shall stress in chapter 2. Emerson is, for all the emphasis that has been placed on his faith in intuition, a philosopher of tuition. He generally defines man in precisely the same terms he uses in the above passage—as a perpetual student in a universal school of power.) Marx is undoubtedly correct in noting the allusion to technological power in this passage, but it might be more accurate to include technology as part of a broader Emersonian project that anticipates Dewey's rejection of “the spectator theory of knowledge.” That project is the attempt to approach the world not as a spectator who knows things at a distance but as a worker or user for whom nature and materials are known only as they become “tools and instruments, with which we can do things and satisfy our desires.”60

Maurice Mandelbaum identifies such an approach as the “pragmatic-economical view of the human mind” that first became prominent in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.61 But that pragmatic perspective is certainly apparent, in greater and lesser degrees, throughout the post-Kantian era: in Fichte and the German tradition; in Carlyle; and, most centrally, in Emerson.62 “Our nineteenth century,” Emerson said—summing up his fundamental point of view as aptly as any single sentence could—”is the age of tools” (W, 7:157). “Without tools,” Carlyle had earlier insisted, in Sartor Resartus, “[man] is nothing, with Tools he is all.”63

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the German philosopher who may well have had an important, if indirect, hand in shaping Emerson's thought, proposed, in 1800, that man's vocation was “Not merely to know but … to do.” “Not for idle contemplation of thyself,” Fichte argued, “not for brooding over devout sensations;—no, for action art thou here; thine action, and thine action alone, determines thy worth.”64 In his own Fichtean defense of the scholar class, Emerson upheld a similar ideal: “The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. … [H]e who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom” (CW, 1:59-60). The problem of the times, as he diagnosed it in 1841, was that men were inclined not “to a deed, but to a beholding. … [They] are paralyzed by the uncertainty what they should do” (CW, 1:179). “Metaphysics,” as he later restated it, “is dangerous as a single pursuit. … The inward analysis must be corrected by rough experience. Metaphysics must be perpetually reinforced by life; must be the observations of a working man on working men … the record of some law whose working was surprised by the observer in natural action” (W, 12:13).

The remarkable image in that last phrase, difficult to forget once it has been noticed, suggests that metaphysical truth, or knowledge, can only be grasped at, captured, or surprised—like an animal observed or hunted—in the midst of some active pursuit, an action that must be natural. Emerson's ambiguous syntax suggests that both the observer and the law or truth that is surprised are in states of action. Knowledge, in other words, begins in reciprocal action or what Emerson elsewhere calls friction. “By how much we know, so much we are,” Emerson says a few pages earlier (W, 12:10): and what we know, what we are, comes about only in antagonism or reaction. Our knowledge, our identity, must be “corrected” and “perpetually reinforced” by a life and experience that are rough—that push back. “Intelligence,” as Dewey put it, “must throw its fund out again into the stress of life; it must venture its savings against the pressure of facts.”65

We are now better prepared to appreciate Dewey's crucial, turn-of-the-century defense of Emerson. Dewey was, as I have said, endeavoring to refute those interpretations that relegated Emerson to the transcendentalist-genteel camp. Upholding Emerson as the prophet and herald of modern democracy appears to be a direct rebuttal of Santayana's belief that Emerson was “in no sense a prophet for his age or country”; Dewey's insistence that Emerson's philosophy not be misunderstood as the nostalgic “idealism of a Class” even anticipates Santayana's charge that Emerson was anachronistically “genteel.” But Dewey was trying to suggest something even more significant than this. His famous praise for Emerson as “the philosopher of Democracy,” the philosopher of “any system which democracy may henceforth construct” (my italics), was the attempt to recover Emerson (at a time when he was entering the twentieth century in the white smile and tie of the New England saint) as a distinctively modern mind—a mind whose strikingly original contribution (clouded as it was behind its surface, absolutist pigments) was still not fully apparent, was “just now dawning” and still difficult to classify. Its validity as a “new type of literary art” and “method of knowledge,” its relevance to the modern world, would, Dewey argued, become clearer—like the significance of Platonic thought for the Old World—in retrospect.66

Cornel West suggests that it is precisely Emerson's swerve away from metaphysical idealism to a new kind of “cultural criticism” that defines Emerson's modernity; it was precisely this pragmatic and pioneering “evasion of philosophy” that Dewey inherited from Emerson—and it was this central, still underappreciated Emersonian legacy that Dewey was attempting to pull from beneath Emerson's confusing, Platonic language and his Transcendentalist image. Emerson's claim that “philosophy is still rude and elementary … [and] will one day be taught by poets” (generally taken by scholars as further evidence of Emerson's desire to escape into poetry's idealisms) was welcomed by Dewey as a path-breaking “more-than-philosophy,” commendable precisely because it preferred to work “by art, not by metaphysics.” As West puts it: “Dewey understands Emerson's evasion of modern [metaphysical, epistemology-centered] philosophy … as a situating of philosophical reflection and poetic creation in the midst of quotidian human struggles for meaning, status, power, wealth, and selfhood.”67 Emerson, “the philosopher of democracy,” was—to put it another way—not transcendental “man in the open air” (that “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” Nietzsche hoped to abolish [GM, 3:12]) but a mind committed above all to reaction—committed to finding ways of coping with those natural and cultural forces that made life in mid-nineteenth-century America (and in any future democratic society) a “quotidian struggle.”

West is, I think, right. Emerson is “like Friedrich Nietzsche …, first and foremost a cultural critic obsessed with ways to generate forms of power.” “Cultural critic,” however (and Stanley Cavell has recently made a similar claim), is, like power, problematic. Its meaning and nineteenth-century context can be further clarified. We can note, first of all, that Emerson anticipated Dewey's pragmatic insistence that philosophical debate (the discourse, as Emerson portrayed it, of “four or five noted men”) resolve itself “into a practical question of the conduct of life. How shall I live?” (W, 6:3). Dewey reinstated Emerson's priorities in 1917 in his key essay, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy”; he condemned any philosophical tradition that existed as “an ingenious dialectic exercised in professorial corners by a few who have retained ancient premises, while rejecting their application to the conduct of life.” Dewey wanted philosophy to be the democratic medium for “releas[ing] the powers of individuals for cultural expression”—a philosophy premised on the necessity of “an active coping with conditions,” committed to “the possibilities of action.”68

He was not the only one to feel that the modern mind required a new kind of education in the possibilities of human power. In his popular 1917 essay, “The Energies of Men,” William James called for a new theory of human power as a basis for reconstructing the system of “individual and national education” in the twentieth century:

The two questions, first, that of the possible extent of our powers; and, second, that of the various avenues of approach to them, the various keys for unlocking them in diverse individuals, dominate the whole problem of individual and national education. We need a topography of the limits of human power. … We need also a study of the various types of human being with reference to the different ways in which their energy-reserves may be appealed to and set loose.69

The history of Henry Adams's struggle to measure “man as a force” would finally be published a year later. Modern education, Adams theorized, “should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world.” Adams claimed that his vocation had been the attempt of the mind “to invent scales of force” for all those nonhuman powers that surround and threaten it. “A new avalanche of unknown forces,” he warned, had fallen upon the mind and “required new mental powers to control.”70 But Adams's vocation as a “student of force” was not new—though his example as a mind lost in the attempt to find new scales for new forces and viable scales for old ones may stand as a paradigm by which we can measure the aims and achievements of minds like Emerson, Nietzsche, or Carlyle (or for that matter, Marx, Darwin, and Freud, who were similarly committed to finding the “scale of force” that could best explain to an energy-obsessed age the fundamental forces that set individuals and societies in motion).

Adams may not have sensed it in the way Dewey, William James, or Nietzsche did. But the nineteenth-century penchant for seeing the world sub specie vis had already found its first American spokesman in Emerson. It was Emerson who first spoke of himself as the “geometer of [human] forces” (EJ, 507). “There is not yet,” he announced in the opening sentence of his essay on “Power,” “any inventory of a man's faculties” (W, 6:53). We lack, as he put it in his lecture, “Aristocracy,” an “anthropometer”—a quintessentially Emersonian coinage to describe his vision of a machine that would improve society by providing every man with a true appraisal of the degree of power he could be trusted to “carry and use” (W, 10:49). It was Emerson who first saw himself (as Nietzsche would later see himself) as a source of cultural strength—the hero who could restore the balance of power between man and his environment, the modern prophet who could “enumerate the resources we can command,” “reinforce [man's] self-respect, show him his means, his arsenal of forces, physical, metaphysical, immortal” (W, 10:69).

Emerson was, as West puts it, one of the century's first “grand valorizer[s] of human power.”71 Culture, Emerson said, must replenish that “pure power” and “mother-wit” that allows the student to use “all books, arts, facilities, and elegancies of intercourse” without becoming “subdued” by them or “lost in them” (W, 6:134). Our current “habit of thought” is “poor and squalid”; our “common experience” a (genteel) “egg-shell existence” (W, 6:271). What was needed “to add somewhat to the well-being of men” (and give us “the courage to be what we are”) (W, 6:278) was a teacher who could remind his readers of their “magical powers over nature and man” and inspire “new ways of living, new books, new men” (W, 6:271).

Emerson's last important book ends, like his first, with the prophecy that man will one day liberate himself from those illusions that blind him to his “elemental power” (CW, 1:42). Emerson's vision of a teacher who can awaken in his audience new energies, energies capable of “renovat[ing] life and our social state” (CW, 2:43), capable of rising to the resistances and impediments offered by nature and history, stakes out a new kind of intellectual or cultural vocation. It is one of many similar self-portraits.

We may call this new vocation a kind of “cultural criticism” concerned with securing the balance of human and nonhuman powers. Or we may define it as pragmatism—devoted to “the Here and Now,” to the testing of truth by immediate experience, to promoting (in Alexander Bain's phrase) “an attitude or disposition of preparedness to act.”72 Or we may feel that pragmatism is too limiting a label (for it localizes Emerson within American tradition) and stress its broader connections to concurrent European philosophies of will. Whatever we may decide to call this new way of thinking, this new vocation, it was largely neglected by Emerson scholarship until the middle of this century.

Not that Emerson's devotion to will and action went unnoticed. It was noted repeatedly: in a series of articles on Emerson and pragmatism, or Emerson and Nietzsche, in Kenneth Burke's perception that “Emerson's brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of out-and-out pragmatism,” in Eduard Baumgarten's prescient linking of Emerson, James, Dewey, and Nietzsche as founders of a pragmatic “Philosophie der Macht,” in Matthiessen's comparison of Emerson's ideal individual and “the hard-willed [Nietzschean] Übermensch,” in Perry Miller's remarks on the Napoleonic propensities beneath Emerson's worship of genius, in Daniel Aaron's discussion of Emerson as “the seer of laisser-faire capitalism and the rampant individual.”73

But “theoretician of power” was always seen as one of Emerson's “lesser roles.”74 Emerson remained chiefly what he had been in Santayana's portrait of “the Genteel Tradition”: fundamentally a literary anachronism, whose ideas were for the most part sufficiently distant that they could be easily classified as Platonic or Neoplatonic, as transcendental organicism or pantheism, as Puritan (or Oriental) mysticism. In the works of Matthiessen, Hopkins, Paul, Miller, Feidelson, and others, Emerson remained primarily the influential expounder of a transcendental (often mystical) aesthetic. If that aesthetic seemed anachronous, it was because Emerson continued to be perceived as awkwardly attempting “to describe an ancient way of seeing [a nonrational, organic vision] by means of a modern vocabulary which had been designed to repress it.”75

That aspect of Emerson's thought that seemed more intrinsically (and troublesomely) modern—his “attraction … toward every form of power”76—the critical establishment of the time could only begin to identify as the most drastic form of Nietzscheanism. Emerson's “Nietzschean strain” existed, when it surfaced, as the disturbing underside of the Transcendentalist image—and almost always it was defused by that very image. Emerson's fascination with power was treated as anomalous, a temporary extravagance amid his overall moral mildness, the exception that proved the Transcendentalist rule. Thus Matthiessen noted the connection between Emerson's “ideal man of self-reliant energy” and “the brutal man of Fascism.” “It is no long step,” Matthiessen wrote, “from [Emerson's] indiscriminate glorification of power to the predatory career of Henry Ford.” But Emerson's temperate monistic image could finally not be reconciled with what appeared to be a Nietzschean vision of Machtpolitik; the potential link had to be acknowledged but defined as simply the denaturing or degradation of true (“unworldly”) Emersonianism. “The sentiments of such essays as those on ‘Wealth’ and ‘Power,’” Matthiessen said, “working on temperaments less unworldly than their author's, have provided a vicious reinforcement to the most ruthless elements in our economic life.”77

What was lost between the extremes of these two perspectives—Emerson as upholder of an ancient holism, Emerson as harbinger of an all-too-modern fascism—was the much more prominent middle ground recent criticism has sought to recover: Emerson as Nietzschean (and quintessentially of his time) in his omnipresent rhetoric of “power” (one of the central, ambiguous tropes or “master signs” of the nineteenth century generally);78 Emerson as Nietzschean in his persistent patterns of resistance, overcoming, and incorporation; Emerson as pragmatic in his commitment to testing and use; Emerson as Nietzschean “geometer of force,” committed to the generation and extension of human energies.


Stephen Whicher's Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, first published in 1953 and still considered by many the single most important and revolutionary critical work on Emerson, changed the course of scholarship in several ways. For one thing, it redirected critical attention to Emerson's startlingly original reflections on power; that emphasis would have important consequences for the criticism of the next forty years. Unfortunately, Whicher also did much to keep alive many of the central tenets of the anti-Emerson tradition. Because his ideas and, even more significantly, his methodology have exerted so controlling an influence on later scholarship, they are worth considering here.

Freedom and Fate is a masterful job of summary and synthesis. It remains one of the most sensitive studies of an American writer ever written. Out of what had always been “a distressingly sprawling topic,” Whicher presented, more forcefully than had any previous critic, the portrait of a dramatic evolution: Emerson moved from an early, apocalyptic rebellion in the name of an emancipated individualism to a chastened acquiescence before fate and experience.79 But Whicher's evolutionary paradigm—his very insistence that Emerson had a dramatic development—though intended to rescue Emerson from an even shallower, hagiographic image, has resulted in an overly schematic and still pejorative perception of his thought. That perception has made it possible to continue speaking of Emerson in simplistic either-or terms: Emerson as either optimistic or pessimistic, revolutionary or acquiescent, idealistic or skeptical, nonconformist or conservative, and so forth.

Such overschematizing is the major difficulty inherent in any attempt to impose on Emerson anything like the usual evolutionary thesis that finds distinct early and late periods in a writer's career. It is all too likely that the standard biographical rubrics of youth and age (and the built-in value judgments they impose) will only perpetuate the traditional prejudices against Emerson as intellectually and artistically naive and underdeveloped. An evolutionary paradigm that posits an artist's growth from youthful illusion to mature disillusionment is implicitly anti-Romantic; the earlier idealistic, revolutionary, or Romantic period will, in the framework of such a scheme, always be associated with immaturity. Such an approach, in other words, seems predisposed to repeat, consciously or not, the Arnoldian or Eliotic bias that finds Romantic literature inherently immature, blind to experience or evil, and in need of some further growth or knowledge before it can be, morally and artistically, of the highest seriousness. Whicher's thesis of a drastic development in Emerson's thought has thus, as Poirier remarks, “helped perpetuate the view that when [Emerson] is not naively wide-eyed he is only reluctantly sensible.” It has helped preserve, Hughes notes, “the chiding solicitousness with which readers [have] regarded the unfolding of Emerson's work.” Julie Ellison justly speaks of it as “the hypothetical divide in Emerson's career that has plagued us for decades.”80

The temptation to simplify Emerson's thought in this way remains a potential obstacle for any chronological interpretation of his work; and until recently criticism has been reluctant to consider Emerson's ideas in any context but a chronological one. No one, of course, can or would want to argue with a biographical approach to a writer's thought. But Emerson's case is more complicated than it might appear. When the critical tradition has been largely antipathetic to a writer's work, as I have tried to suggest it has been in Emerson's case, one has reason to be suspicious of criticism that seems ever anxious to balance (or shore up) one strain (or phase) of thought with another, as if the ideas or style of a single essay or book were somehow not enough in themselves or were intellectually embarrassing taken on their own. At what point does an insistently chronological perspective on Emerson become something other than just respectable scholarship—become, rather, another reflex action in that fixated, critical need to highlight, apologize, and account for Emerson's failings? At what point does chronology become yet another aspect of Emerson scholarship to act as a positive hindrance to appreciation?

Whicher's method—the employment of a broad, biographical framework for assessing not just Emerson's life but his ideas—has been repeated so often now, over several decades, that it has become virtually de rigueur. This method—committed to getting at Emerson through the identification of phases and periods—has been the explicit or implicit foundation for most criticism of the last forty years. It has dictated, in large measure, the shape of most book-length studies, which generally move from early to late stages, mapping out transitions and crisis points, identifying the various degrees of Emersonian “optimism.” Even books like Bishop's, which have tried to focus on a single topic and have attempted to abstract “the essence of the Emersonian achievement … from the whole body of his work,” have based their interpretations on some version of development, and have defined Emerson in terms of immature or mature degrees of idealism.81

The Whicherian method is, as Ellison has argued, disposed to finding growth (or surrender) and attempts at resolution rather than repetition or complex, persisting tensions. Its origin, as a method, lies in a perception of Emerson that is basically impatient with his actual work; it therefore lends itself most readily to overviews, to biography, not to thorough explorations of ideas or to the kind of intensive pressing or leaning on lines and passages that recent critics have practiced. Whicher's method does not encourage attempts to recover or argue for, in any extensive or systematic way, an Emersonian philosophy. It depends on the assumption that “optimism” (loaded term that it is) and “idealism”—or the lack of them—are adequate parameters for fixing and defining Emerson's thought. Whicher, Bishop, and Emerson's readers generally have assumed that they were; but recent scholarship has not.82 These limitations are part of the general and, finally, crippling weakness underlying Whicher's entire approach—that is, the basically deprecatory or apologetic attitude that Whicher, in 1953, was obliged to take toward his subject or, more specifically, to his subject's ideas.

“It is only,” Whicher claimed, “as we see [Emerson] sub specie temporis that we can justly estimate his quality as a writer.” That central statement of method may sound unobjectionable. Who would not wish to understand an author sub specie temporis? But the operative word (as the context of Whicher's argument makes clear) is that qualifying only. So we need to ask, “Why won't ‘Self-Reliance’ or ‘Experience’ in and of itself vouch for Emerson's ‘quality as a writer’?” Or, to push the point, what negative presumptions are at work if we insist that the only way for estimating, say, Nietzsche's or Shakespeare's quality is in the context of comprehensive appraisals of evolution over a lifetime of work? Can't the examination of a single play or, say, Nietzsche's publications in 1886 and 1887 provide sufficient evidence of the intrinsic merit of their author's achievement? Whicher assumes that in any other approach Emerson will not come off well, that his ideas are intrinsically moribund, and that only a procedure that can bring to life again the large, chronological outline of Emerson the man can make his readers overcome their aversion to his work itself. “Increasing numbers of critics and readers,” Whicher remarks, “conclude that [Emerson] is, in Eliot's phrase, ‘already an encumbrance.’”83

The conclusion of Freedom and Fate, while upholding Emerson's “craftsman's skill,” reasserts the traditional charges. Emerson's optimistic faith is irritating in a modern age; his ideas are irrevocably anachronistic (“the story of his thought seems an episode from a vanished past”); and—the central charge leveled by Santayana, John Morley, and so many others—they are essentially a form of gospel thinly disguised as “modern philosophy.”84

One could garner several such disparaging remarks from Whicher, from Bishop's Emerson on the Soul (1964), and especially from Feidelson's Symbolism and American Literature (published in the same year as Freedom and Fate). (Feidelson's influential study is, like others that followed it, a sustained use of Emerson as a bad example, a foil to the more complex modernity of Melville.) These books have routinely been considered key contributions to a midcentury resurrection of Emerson. They might, with equal reason, be described as central works in the last important generation of criticism to replicate, in various degrees, the negative presuppositions of the James/Santayana version of Emerson.

But if Freedom and Fate retained much that was characteristic of the anti-Emerson tradition, it also broke new ground. Most significant, at least in terms of the influence Whicher would have on Emerson's current revival, is the renewed emphasis placed on the centrality of power in Emerson's thought. No topic receives greater space in Whicher's index than power, and there is an additional lengthy entry under “vital force.” (It should be noted, for purposes of comparison, that the subject is not even indexed in Feidelson, in Vivian Hopkins's Spires of Form [1951], Sherman Paul's Emerson's Angle of Vision [1952], Ralph Rusk's The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson [1949], or F. I. Carpenter's Emerson Handbook [1953].) What is most striking, however, about Freedom and Fate's discussion of Emerson's “radically anarchic” devotion “not [to] virtue, but freedom and mastery” is that it reasserts not the James or Santayana version of Emerson but a response that recalls Dewey's.85

Whicher does, in closing, characterize the Nietzschean strain in Emerson as merely the obsolescent, “final eruption of protestant perfectionism.” But his main discussion of Emerson's philosophy of power or action otherwise resembles Dewey's. The way Whicher presents this genuinely revolutionary aspect of Emerson's thought—and the same thing can be said of Dewey's essay—recalls Ezra Pound's remark that “Artists are the antennae of the race.” For this new and surprising commitment to an agonistic vision of human power and the total “emancipation of man” seems to emerge in Emerson's thinking semiconsciously, obliquely, in response to pressures of which Emerson is himself only half aware. Like Dewey, Whicher sees this concern for action, for mastery or use as the source of Emerson's true originality.86

It is, Whicher writes, “one of the most startlingly new notes … ever to be struck in American literature.” Whicher finds traces of this new strain in Emerson in an inherited, Edwardsean vitalism, in an even older tradition of Antinomianism (the “discovery of the God within”), in the Ideal theories of Platonic tradition as well as “the Locke-Berkeley-Hume tradition.” But he associates it most closely with what was still the major philosophical tradition of its time: the German conception of philosophy (or the Romantic union of philosophy and poetry) as the revolutionary medium for Selbsttätigkeit (self-activity) and freedom (“the liberation of humanity,” as Matthew Arnold called it). And it is his commitment to this tradition—not his conventional ethical thought or moralistic language, not the vestiges of mysticism or Platonic idealism—that makes Emerson, Whicher suggests, still significant, still impressive.87

Whicher's discussion of this radical, still half-emergent core of Emerson's thought has had a central and continuing influence on Emerson scholarship. His emphasis on Emerson's concern with mastery and power was reapplied, repeatedly and variously, through the 1970s: in Bloom's essays on Emerson's assertions of “the autonomy of the imagination” (1971), in Quentin Anderson's attack on Emerson's “pseudopodial” self (1971), in Lewis Simpson's analysis of Emerson's discovery of “the Archimedean Self” (1971), in Laurence Holland's suggestion that Emerson's writings constitute “a hymn to power” (1978), in Porte's examination of the broad significance of vital force in Emerson's thought (1979).88 By the end of the decade, the ground had been securely laid for Emerson's “detranscendentalizing,” for that renewed emphasis on a pragmatic, agonistic (not a monistic, organicist) Emerson that would mark the criticism of the 1980s.

Like Dewey, Whicher is certain that there is something new and unique in Emerson's emphasis on power but is uncertain what to call it. We are faced with the same problem. Whicher speaks of Emerson's Nietzschean side; yet—although the Emerson-Nietzsche connection is undoubtedly more significant than criticism has generally recognized—Nietzschean is an unsatisfactory description (though I shall continue to use it), if only because Emerson came first. Dewey identifies this side of Emerson as the precursor of an American “new individualism,” the preeminent herald of pragmatism and Deweyan “instrumentalism.” Whicher associates it with a Germanic “transcendental egoism” or “self-centeredness” that is part of Romantic philosophy's longing for “the emancipation of man.”89

But Whicher also speaks of Emersonian power as “the Power present and agent in the soul”—a description that leaves open another, very different possibility. It suggests that such power may ultimately be divine in origin, that Emerson is really only giving fresh expression to a God-intoxication older than Christendom. Firkins long ago summed up this theocentric view of Emersonian power when he proposed that Emerson's claim on posterity, his “whole secret,” could be defined as the ubiquitous “experience of God”—“the successful practice,” as Firkins phrased it, “of unbroken commerce with omnipresent deity.” The essentially anachronistic nature of such conviction Firkins made clear in a memorable image. “Emerson in the history of religion,” he concluded, “was a guest of honor who reached a party at the moment when its members were dispersing. His arrival evoked a brief sensation—on the doorstep, as it were—but did not finally reconstitute the party.”90

If this view of Emerson is correct—and it is certainly part of Emerson's commonly accepted Transcendentalist image—then there is, in substance, really little that is new about Emerson's adoration of a power that is essentially divine or spiritual. Firkins finds “the notion of unbroken spiritual commerce” an audacious and “a novel thing”; but such fundamentally pantheistic and mystical God-intoxication (Firkins hails Emerson as “the first of mystics”) can be traced back to, among others, Spinoza, Plotinus, and the English Christian Platonists. Thus Henry Bamford Parks reasoned that Emerson was a “pseudo-mystic,” a throwback to the middle ages without “any unusually deep insight into reality.”91

We have arrived, however, at a fundamental paradox: Emerson provides, apparently, sufficient evidence for reading him as both a late-arriving Plotinus and an early Nietzsche or William James. It is a paradox familiar to students of Emerson, one of which Dewey and Whicher were keenly aware. “Emerson was,” Denis Donoghue remarks, “just as readily available to Pragmatism as to Transcendentalism.” Or, as Gay Wilson Allen observes: “One of the paradoxes in Emerson's Idealism is that he grounds it on empiricism.” “What is puzzling about Emerson's writing,” Anthony Cascardi notes, “is his simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from idealism.” We shall return to this paradox again. What I wish to emphasize here is that it is Emerson's startlingly new, not easily identifiable ruminations on power and action in “the Here and the Now” that draws both Dewey and Whicher. Emerson's “voluntarism” and “vocabulary of Will,” as Donoghue has more recently concluded, founded “a pragmatics of the future.”92


  1. Alfred Kazin, “The Father of Us All,” New York Review of Books, 21 January 1982, 3; Richard Poirier, Renewal of Literature, 141. The epigraph is from “Emersonianism,” originally published in The New Yorker, 4 June 1984, and reprinted in John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1991), 148-68.

  2. Lawrence Buell, “The Emerson Industry in the 1980s: A Survey of Trends and Achievements,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 30 (1984):118; Kazin, “Father of Us All,” 3; Harold Bloom, “Mr. America,” New York Review of Books, 22 November 1984, 19; Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 56; Joel Porte, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time, 2d ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), x; Denis Donoghue, Reading America: Essays on American Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 37; Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 27-28; John Michael, Emerson and Skepticism: The Cipher of the World (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), ix; David Bromwich, A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 148.

  3. Buell, “Emerson Industry,” 118; Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (1838; rpt. Haskell House, 1969), vol. 2, 203; Theodore Parker, in The Transcendentalists: An Anthology, ed. Perry Miller (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950), 415-16; Walt Whitman, in The Shock of Recognition, ed. Edmund Wilson (1943; rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1975), vol. 1, 272; James Russell Lowell, in Literary Criticism of James Russell Lowell, ed. Herbert Smith (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), 206, 213; Matthew Arnold, in The Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Milton R. Konvitz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 73.

  4. John Dewey, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Milton Konvitz and Stephen Whicher (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962), 29; John Jay Chapman, “Emerson,” in Shock of Recognition, vol. 1, 596, 657; Henry James, The American Scene (1907; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 264; George Woodberry, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1907; rpt. New York: Haskell House, 1968), 176; T. S. Eliot, in Shock of Recognition, vol. 2, 855; Paul Elmer More, Shelburne Essays in American Literature, ed. Daniel Aaron (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963), 173; Lewis Mumford, The Golden Day: A Study in American Literature and Culture (1926; New York: Dover, 1968), 45.

  5. Barrett Wendell, in Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 118; Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 120; D. H. Lawrence, in Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 169.

  6. Buell, “Emerson Industry,” 117; Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Living Batch Press, 1989), 107; David Marr, American Worlds Since Emerson (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 9; Peter Carafiol, “Reading Emerson: Writing History,” Centennial Review 30 (Fall 1986), 450.

  7. Joel Porte, “The Problem of Emerson,” in The Uses of Literature, ed. Monroe Engel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 94.

  8. Ibid., 92-93; William Dean Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintances, ed. David F. Hiatt and Edwin H. Cady (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 56; Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 3.

  9. David Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson As Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 1; Kenneth Marc Harris, Carlyle and Emerson: Their Long Debate (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 170. Lawrence Buell, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973) remains an important attempt “to find better ways of measuring the qualities of [Transcendentalist] works” (2)—though its opening page alone provides ample evidence of the usual condescension. See also, as particularly telling examples of the broad, negative presuppositions that underlie Emerson scholarship, Paul K. Conkin, Puritans and Pragmatists: Eight Eminent American Thinkers (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968), 151-90, and Alfred S. Reid, “Emerson's Prose Style: An Edge to Goodness,” in Style in the American Renaissance: A Symposium, ed. Carl Strauch (Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1970), 37-42. Important direct denunciations of Emerson include James Truslow Adams, “Emerson Re-Read,” in Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 182-93; Yvor Winters, “Jones Very and R. W. Emerson: Aspects of New England Mysticism” and “The Significance of The Bridge by Hart Crane, or What Are We to Think of Professor X?” in In Defense of Reason (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1937); Quentin Anderson, The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (New York: Knopf, 1971); Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953), 209-13; A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Power, Politics and a Sense of History,” in The University and the Public Interest (New York: Atheneum, 1981), 166-79; and John Updike, “Emersonianism.”

  10. Maurice Gonnaud, An Uneasy Solitude: Individual and Society in the Work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987), 262, 116.

  11. O. W. Firkins, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1915; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), 373; O. W. Firkins, “Has Emerson a Future?” in Selected Essays (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1933), 80-81; Carafiol, “Reading Emerson: Writing History,” 432.

  12. Carafiol, “Reading Emerson: Writing History,” 432.

  13. Cavell, “Emerson's Aversive Thinking,” in Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory, ed. Kenneth Johnston et al. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 243; Brownson's essay is reprinted in Transcendentalists: An Anthology, 198-200; John Morley, in Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 76; W. C. Brownell, American Prose Masters, ed. Howard Mumford Jones (1909; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963), 126-27.

  14. T. S. Eliot, in Shock of Recognition, vol. 2, 859; Perry Miller, “From Edwards to Emerson,” in Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956), 186; Leslie Fiedler, “American Literature,” in Contemporary Literary Scholarship: A Critical Review, ed. Lewis Leary (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958), 174; Buell, Literary Transcendentalism, 1-2; Irving Howe, The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 14.

  15. Howells, Literary Friends and Acquaintances, 56; Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 78.

  16. Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 78; Dewey, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 24; T. S. Eliot, in Shock of Recognition, vol. 2, 859.

  17. Philip F. Gura, The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the New England Renaissance (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981), 103-4; Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 79. See, as an example of this approach, Ellen Kappy Suckiel's recent conclusion that Emerson remains “first and foremost … a preacher” (“Emerson and the Virtues,” in American Philosophy: Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture Series: 19, ed. Marcus Singer [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985], 152). Bruce Kuklick recommends, in the same volume, that further attempts to interpret Emerson's thought be replaced by the study of its local contexts (“Does American Philosophy Rest On a Mistake?” in American Philosophy, 187).

  18. For Henry James Sr.'s famous response to Emerson—“Oh you man without a handle!” see F. O. Matthiessen, The James Family (New York: Knopf, 1961), 43; Henry James, “Emerson,” in Partial Portraits (1888; rpt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), 25; Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 107; Bishop, Emerson on the Soul, 1.

  19. See Poirier, Renewal of Literature, 33; George Kateb, “Thinking About Human Extinction (I) Nietzsche and Heidegger,” Raritan 6 (Fall 1986):1-28, and “Thinking About Human Extinction (II) Emerson and Whitman,” Raritan 6 (Winter 1987):1-22; Gura, Wisdom of Words, 104; Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 74.

  20. Porte, “Problem of Emerson,” 94.

  21. Cavell, The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981), 33, 124. Joel Porte likewise apologized for an earlier anti-Emerson bias in his preface to the first edition of Representative Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), xxi.

  22. Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America, 80.

  23. Giles Gunn, The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: The Study of Literature Today (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), 9; William Cain, The Crisis in Criticism: Theory, Literature, and Reform in English Studies (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 240.

  24. Kazin, “Father of Us All,” 3; James Russell Lowell, “A Fable For Critics,” in Shock of Recognition, vol. 1, 46. Emerson is, Kazin concluded in 1984, essentially “a revenant from early ages of faith—a primordial, ‘aboriginal’ kind of early Christian” (An American Procession [New York: Knopf, 1984], 39).

  25. West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 11. Two other recent arguments for resituating Emerson in the mainstream of European thought, not simply within the confines of New England tradition, are Russell B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); and Lawrence Buell, “Emerson in His Cultural Context,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Lawrence Buell (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1993), 48-60.

  26. See Eric Cheyfitz's foreword to Gonnaud, Uneasy Solitude, xviii; and West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 10-11. Philip Rosenberg points out that Carlyle's role as cultural critic was largely unprecedented in the English tradition (The Seventh Hero: Thomas Carlyle and the Theory of Radical Activism [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974], vii, 33, 52-53).

  27. West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 36. Harold Bloom makes a similar point: “The relation of Emerson to both Nietzsche and William James suggests that Emersonian Transcendentalism was already much closer to pragmatism than to Kant's metaphysical idealism” (Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism [New York: Oxford University Press, 1982], 20).

  28. Carolyn Porter, Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1981), 94; Gertrude Reif Hughes, Emerson's Demanding Optimism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 162, 18; Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature, 135; Poirier, Renewal of Literature, 171; Eric Cheyfitz, The Trans-Parent: Sexual Politics in the Language of Emerson (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), xi, 15; Donoghue, Reading America, 36; Harold Bloom, Figures of Capable Imagination (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 60.

  29. Bloom, “Mr. America,” 20; Wilson, Shock of Recognition, vol. 1, 596; Richard Grusin, “Revisionism and the Structure of Emersonian Action,” American Literary History 1 (Summer 1989), 404-31.

  30. West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 3.

  31. Maurice Mandelbaum, History, Man, and Reason, 5.

  32. See Walter Kaufmann's discussion of the Emerson-Nietzsche relationship in his introduction to Nietzsche, Gay Science, 7-13; see also Frederic Ives Carpenter, Emerson Handbook (New York: Hendricks House, 1953), 244-49.

  33. Arnold, in Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 70; Henry James, Partial Portraits, 32; William James, “Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord,” in Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 19, 23.

  34. Dewey's essay is, F. O. Matthiessen noted in 1941, “in strong opposition to the usual academic dismissal of Emerson's thought” (American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman [New York: Oxford University Press, 1941], 4).

  35. Dewey, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 24.

  36. Ibid., 27-28.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Dewey, cited in West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 97.

  39. West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 74, 85.

  40. The “second phase of Emerson studies” is Bliss Perry's description, in Emerson Today (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1931), 5.

  41. Henry James, Partial Portraits, 2, 7-10; the Matthiessen quotation is from James Family, 429.

  42. Henry James, Partial Portraits, 8, 31, 15.

  43. The Santayana quotations are from “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” in Santayana on America, ed. Richard Lyon (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1968), 40, 45, 54; Irving Howe, “The American Voice—It Begins on a Note of Wonder,” New York Times Book Review, 4 July 1976, 2.

  44. Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition at Bay,” in Santayana on America, 158, 138; Babbitt and Warner G. Rice, cited in René Wellek, “Irving Babbitt, Paul More, and Transcendentalism,” in Transcendentalism and Its Legacy, ed. Myron Simon and Thornton H. Parsons (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), 192-193, 197.

  45. Santayana, “Emerson the Poet,” in Santayana on America, 271; Santayana, “The Optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in George Santayana's America, 83, 73, 81; Santayana, “Emerson,” in Santayana on America, 267, 266, 259, 260. For the evolution of Santayana's opinion of Emerson, see Porte, Representative Man (1979), 16-31.

  46. Santayana, The Last Puritan: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel (New York: Scribner's, 1936), 201, 126, 404, 445.

  47. Santayana, “Emerson the Poet,” 275, 271.

  48. Santayana, “Dewey's Naturalistic Metaphysics,” in Santayana on America, 111-12, 121, 116, 125.

  49. Hegel, German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Hegel, 211. See Eugene Goodheart, The Cult of the Ego: The Self in Modern Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 118-19, for a discussion of Nietzsche and this German, Protestant tradition of the “I” as appropriator and consumer.

  50. Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (1910; rpt. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1970), 7-8.

  51. Santayana, “Optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 73.

  52. John Burt Foster, Heirs to Dionysus: A Nietzschean Current in Literary Modernism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), 51.

  53. Santayana, “Optimism of Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 73.

  54. Santayana, “Emerson the Poet,” 273.

  55. Henry James, Partial Portraits, 17.

  56. “Cheerful Monist” is Frost's description in Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 12.

  57. Porte, Representative Man (1979), 229.

  58. Ibid., 258-59, 234.

  59. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 230.

  60. I quote Robert Solomon's description of Heidegger's philosophy in In the Spirit of Hegel, 389. The traditional description of Emerson as “a philosopher of intuition,” Cavell notes, “uniformly fails to add that he is simultaneously the teacher of tuition” (In Quest of the Ordinary, 115).

  61. Mandelbaum characterizes the “pragmatic-economical view of the human mind” as the theory that defines intelligence “in terms of its usefulness in satisfying needs.” According to this view, all that we consider knowledge or truth or regard “as an order fixed by nature itself” may be defined, instead, as “a product of our own tendencies to arrange and summarize experience in a manner useful to us.” See Mandelbaum, History, Man, and Reason, 16-17.

  62. Robert Solomon suggests the shared emphasis on “action as knowledge” that links Fichte and Hegel to the pragmatism of William James and Dewey (In the Spirit of Hegel, 10-11).

  63. Carlyle, Carlyle Reader, 152.

  64. Johann Fichte, The Vocation of Man, trans. William Smith (1931; rpt. Chicago: Open Court, 1940), 94.

  65. Dewey, cited in West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 82.

  66. Dewey, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 29.

  67. West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 73.

  68. Ibid., 211; Dewey quotations from ibid., 100-101, 104, 92, 91. Cavell approaches Wittgenstein and Emerson as “philosophers of culture” in This New Yet Unapproachable America.

  69. William James, The Energies of Men (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1917), 38.

  70. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, ed. Ernest Samuels (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), 314, 463, 461.

  71. West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 25.

  72. Poirier, Renewal of Literature, 59.

  73. Kenneth Burke, “I, Eye, Ay—Emerson's Early Essay ‘Nature’: Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence,” in Transcendentalism and Its Legacy, 9; Eduard Baumgarten, Der Pragmatismus: R. W. Emerson, W. James, J. Dewey (Frankfurt, 1938); Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 368; Perry Miller, Nature's Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), 171; Daniel Aaron, Men of Good Hope: A Story of American Progressives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 8. Emerson, Hermann Hummel concluded in 1946, “must be regarded as the teacher and master rather than as a ‘précurseur’ of Nietzsche” (“Emerson and Nietzsche,” New England Quarterly, 19 [March 1946]:84). But scholarship on the Emerson-Nietzsche connection has been sparse. The handful of articles in English, as well as European studies, are catalogued in Carpenter, Emerson Handbook, 254-58. See also William Salter, Nietzsche the Thinker (New York: Holt, 1917).

  74. Aaron, Men of Good Hope, 8.

  75. Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature, 126.

  76. Gonnaud, Uneasy Solitude, 355.

  77. Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 367-68, 4.

  78. Jon Klancher defines “master sign” as a single, totalizing concept that takes on, in the hands of a critic-seer like Carlyle, sufficient heuristic power to explain a diverse array of social, philosophical, political, and cultural problems (Making of English Reading Audiences, 71-73).

  79. See Gonnaud's introduction to Stephen Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2d ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), x.

  80. Poirier, Renewal of Literature, 33; Hughes, Emerson's Demanding Optimism, 70; Julie Ellison, “The Edge of Urbanity: Emerson's English Traits,ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 32 (1986):104.

  81. Bishop, Emerson on the Soul, 165.

  82. See, for example, Cheyfitz, foreword to Gonnaud, Uneasy Solitude, xv; Marr, American Worlds Since Emerson, 70-71; and Harold Bloom's introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Henry James's ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 6.

  83. Whicher, Freedom and Fate, 172-73.

  84. Ibid.; see also 179.

  85. This central passage from Freedom and Fate is on pp. 55-56.

  86. Ibid., 172.

  87. See Freedom and Fate, 56, 53, 44; Arnold described Heinrich Heine as a “soldier in the war of liberation of humanity” (cited in Peter Allan Dale, The Victorian Critic and the Idea of History: Carlyle, Arnold, and Pater [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977], 63).

  88. Harold Bloom, The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 224; Anderson, Imperial Self, 130; Lewis P. Simpson, The Man of Letters in New England and the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 81, 65; Laurence Holland, cited in Eric Cheyfitz, The Trans-Parent, 15; Porte, Representative Man (1979), 209-82 and passim. Leo Marx's analysis (in Machine in the Garden) of the complex relationship between Transcendentalism and technological power should not be left out as an important example of this trend.

  89. Dewey, cited in West, American Evasion of Philosophy, 103; Whicher, Freedom and Fate, 55-56.

  90. Whicher, Freedom and Fate, 56; Firkins, “Has Emerson a Future?,” 79.

  91. Firkins, “Has Emerson a Future?” 79-81; Henry Bamford Parks, in Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 126, 124.

  92. Dewey called Emerson's ideas “versions of the Here and the Now” (“Ralph Waldo Emerson,” 28); Donoghue, Reading America, 23, 37; Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson (New York: Viking, 1981), 642; Anthony J. Cascardi, “Emerson on Nature: Philosophy beyond Kant,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 30 (1984):202. Emerson and those in his tradition are, Russell Goodman writes, “as much ‘transcendentalist’ as ‘pragmatic’” (American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, 33).


CW The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Robert Spiller et al. 4 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971-.

EJ Emerson in His Journals, edited by Joel Porte. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

ET English Traits, edited by Howard Mumford Jones. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.

GM On the Genealogy of Morals. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

GS The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

JMN The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman et al. 16 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-1982.

W The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Anthony P. Petruzzi (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Emerson, Disclosure, and the Experiencing Self,” in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 29, No. 1, 1996, pp. 51-64.

[In the following essay, Petruzzi contends that the disclosive theory of truth allows for a more complete description of Emerson's rhetorical theory than either Enlightenment rhetoric or Romantic rhetoric.]


Emerson was educated at Harvard at a time when composition and rhetorical theory were dominated by Hugh Blair's “commonsense” rhetoric. The nature of Emerson's rhetorical theory has most often been positioned somewhere between the two poles of Scottish “commonsense” and Romantic rhetorics. I will argue that the disclosive theory of truth presents a more complete and richer way to describe Emerson's rhetorical theory than either the Enlightenment rhetoric of “commonsense” or the Romantic rhetoric of “self-expression.” For Emerson, the experiencing-self functions to organize discourse and construct reality through the continual effort to deconstruct the discourse of public interpretations, what Heidegger calls the “they-self.” As the discourse of public interpretations is deconstructed, there is a concomitant action to reconstruct a more authentic, yet always partial and temporary “experiencing-self.” The experiencing-self lives “in a system of approximations. Every end is prospective of some other end, which is temporary; a round and final success nowhere” (1940, “Nature,” 417). For Emerson, like Heidegger, the nature of truth is “thrown projection”; that is, the experiencing-self discloses both the truth and the untruth.

Glen M. Johnson (1993) argues that Emerson's romanticism was mitigated by the qualities of style that Blair's “commonsense” rhetoric emphasizes: perspicuity, or clarity and economy, as well as ornamentation, or diction and eloquence. Johnson examines the way Emerson revised his manuscripts; he finds that Emerson's writing was neither spontaneous nor automatic. Rather, Emerson's written texts were crafted not only by “selection and arrangement,” but also by a “final stage of revision” that was “strictly rhetorical, designed to serve the communication of meaning” (171; emphasis in original). Johnson's main point is that Emerson's essays are not “inspired overflow,” but rather “the product of exhaustive revision” and “painstaking work” (189). Emerson “often depersonalize[s] or generalize[s] his experience,” but equally often he “individualize[s]” and “personalize[s]” his experience as he feels the need to increase the “rhetorical impact” (174). For Johnson, Emerson's writing is not spontaneous self-expression and his rhetoric is not essentially Romantic.

Sheldon W. Liebman (1969) argues that, although the “early” Emerson is a follower of Hugh Blair's “commonsense” school of rhetoric, beginning in 1821 “Emerson's ideas underwent a radical change” (178) because of the influence of “the romantic school.” For Liebman, Emerson's “latter” rhetoric is essentially Romantic and it includes the following tenets: “man's principal endeavor is to express himself” (193); “common speech” is elevated to “a position of virtue” while “eloquent” or ornate style is seen as merely “bookish” language (194); automatic writing will break through the acculturated and conventional modes of thought and privileges spontaneity over “conscious deliberation” (196); spontaneity removes “planning and premeditation” (196) as the two major “hindrances to effective writing”; and by removing premeditation and deliberation from the writing process, the writer achieves a “will-lessness” that facilitates a “true” expression of the self.

We can see that Emerson's rhetoric is being defined by the Romantic notion that truth is the “self-expression” of a private and personal vision. According to James Berlin (1984), Emerson is not a Platonist: “Despite his admiration for Plato, Emerson's philosophical idealism is not Platonic. His position is indeed closer to such moderns as Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer” (46). Berlin's view is that Emerson is a Social Constructionist: “Reality is a human construction, joining the world of ideas to the material object in the act of creative perception” (46). Berlin aptly points out the relational nature of Emerson's view of truth: “Truth is a product of a relationship; its source is neither subject nor object, but is located at the point of intersection of the two”; the relation is defined for Emerson by “the interaction of the perceiver and that which is perceived” (47). Although Berlin notes both the relational quality of Emerson's view of truth and the important role truth plays in the social and public world, he also insists that “for Emerson the ground of reality is the ideal” (46). Consequently, Berlin argues that for Emerson “[t]ruth remains always and everywhere the same, but new metaphors must be continually generated in order to express it” (53).

Ultimately, I would suggest that none of these theories provide an accurate description of Emerson's rhetoric because they fail to take into consideration Emerson's disclosive notion of truth. Emerson is not a systematic thinker; his interest in Plato as a “representative man” revolves around his identification with Socrates, “that central figure” (1940, “Plato,” 487) who typifies the endless search for truth, and also with Plato's notion of philosophy as an unending process.


Although Emerson, like Plato, flirts with a correspondence theory of truth, the most pervasive and important aspect of his thought on the nature of truth is the process of disclosure, what Heidegger calls the process of revealment and concealment. Emerson sees Plato's writing as the work of an active intellect who demonstrates that knowledge is a correspondence: “Things correspond. There is a scale; and the correspondence of heaven to earth, of matter to mind, of the part to the whole, is our guide” (1940, 483). Although Emerson describes a type of correspondence theory, the important thing to note is that here correspondence does not imply a mode of static correctness between the absolute and the contingent. Emerson describes truth in terms of relationality; a human being “studies relations in all objects” because he is in the midst of the world: “He is placed in the centre of beings, and a ray of relation passes from every other being to him. And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man” (1940, “Nature,” 15-16). Understanding exists as a relation between Dasein and the world. For Emerson, the theory of correspondence does not imply that truth is a mode of correctness of representation; rather, it implies a field of relations. The fundamentally interpretative nature of understanding and the expansive or dynamic nature of truth is both revealed and concealed through the difference between understanding the part and projecting a whole: “On seeing the arc we complete the curve, and when the curtain is lifted from the diagram which it seemed to veil, we are vexed to find that no more was drawn than just that fragment of an arc which we first beheld” (1940, “Nominalist,” 435). As Emerson notes, the correspondence highlights the difference between the part and the whole; recognition of correspondence is a “guide” for understanding, not an absolute standard to be mirrored.

The kind of intellectual activity about which Emerson is speaking occurs from within a framework of rhetorical action: “The world shall be to us an open book,” says Emerson, and because every object in the world has a “hidden” life, like a book the world needs to be interpreted. The “hidden” or “unconscious truth” is made manifest “when interpreted and defined in an object” (1940, “Nature,” 20). Interpretation makes an object manifest; it uncovers the object's hidden aspects so that the object stands phenomenologically revealed. The uncovering or revealing of the object itself is the process of truth; the object then enters into or becomes “a part of the domain of knowledge” (20). Interpretation includes both the critical awareness of the forestructure of understanding—“Each truth that a writer acquires is a lantern which he turns full on what facts and thoughts lay already in his mind” (1940, “Intellect,” 296)—and the projection of new possibilities and new definitions of the world:

This defining is philosophy. Philosophy is the account which the human mind gives to itself of the constitution of the world. Two cardinal facts lie forever at the base; the one, and the two. 1. Unity, or Identity; and 2. Variety. We unite all things by perceiving the law which pervades them; by perceiving the superficial differences and the profound resemblances. But every mental act—this very perception of identity or oneness, recognizes the difference of things. Oneness and otherness. It is impossible to speak or to think without embracing both.

(1940, “Plato,” 475)

As Berlin correctly notes, Emerson views the world as constructed by the intellect; “all things” are united through perception. Perception is a twofold movement recognizing interaction of resemblances and differences. The discursive process operates from the difference of things; for both speaking and thinking it necessarily embraces the “oneness and otherness” of identity and difference.

Emerson understands Plato's interest in the problem of the one and the many as being central to cognition: “The mind returns from the one to that which is not one, but other and many; from cause to effect; and affirms the necessary existence of variety, the self-existence of both, as each is involved in the other” (1940, “Plato,” 476). For Emerson, speculation or thinking is a movement toward or a search for unity while action in the world is a movement “backwards to diversity” (477). While the activity of Man Thinking “melts,” “reduces,” and “absorbs” the diversity of experience in a search for the One, the search for the One is never successful: “No sentence will hold the whole truth, and the only way in which we can be just, is by giving ourselves the lie. … All things are in contact; every atom has a sphere of repulsion; Things are and are not, at the same time … therefore I assert that every man is a partialist” (1940, “Nominalist,” 446). The search for understanding one human being can be attempted only by understanding the whole: “You must take the whole society to find the whole man” (1940, “American Scholar,” 46). For Emerson, the circular pattern of understanding revolves around the one and the many, identity and difference: “These two principles reappear and interpenetrate all things, all thought; the one, the many” (1940, “Plato,” 477), and, because of the interpenetration of these two principles, understanding can never be complete. This is why Emerson argues that “thinking is a partial act” (1940, “American Scholar,” 54).

Emerson's self-conscious exposition of the fragmented nature of the self and concomitant fragmentary nature of discourse results in a qualification that affects all discursive claims or assertions. For Emerson, this qualification in discourse unsettles the nature of knowledge to the degree that it cannot be corrected, even through an attempt to create systematic knowledge. Although Plato recognizes this limitation, Emerson sees that the Platonists have not. The power of Plato's thought does not lie in a systematic construct that “explains” complete or self-evident truth: “[Plato] has not a system. The dearest defenders and disciples are at fault. He attempted a theory of the universe, and his theory is not complete or self-evident. One man thinks he means this, another that; he has said one thing in one place, and the reverse of it in another place … but the theory of the world is a thing of shreds and patches” (1940, 491). Emerson sees the problem of understanding Plato as intimately involved with the problem of the interpretative acts of his “dearest defenders and disciples.” The real intention of Plato's thought has been obscured by the interpretative acts that have created Platonism. Rather than being led by Plato's example to think of the world as “a thing of shreds and patches,” Platonists look for systematic order; rather than attending to the process of the mind that Plato describes, Platonists actually conceal the way the texts of Plato operate; rather than participate in the disclosure of the truth, Platonists participate in the covering up of the truth in Plato's texts.

Emerson recognizes that Plato's “beautiful definitions of ideas, of time, of form, of figure, of the line, [are] sometimes hypothetically given” (1940, “Plato,” 494),1 but from out of the method of hypothesis emerges meanings that are disclosive in nature: “Whatever [Plato] looks upon discloses a second sense, and ulterior senses” (494). Plato's texts actually embody the projective nature of understanding, and they lead to further interpretative acts that uncover new “ulterior senses” of meaning. Emerson chooses Plato as a “representative man,” not because he devised a logically irrefutable system, but rather because he represents a “great average man” whose dynamic nature reveals the disclosive approach to truth:

Plato's thinking does not stand on syllogism, or any masterpieces of the Socratic reasoning, or on any thesis, as for example the immortality of the soul. He is more than … the prophet of a peculiar message. He represents the privilege of the intellect, the power, namely, of carrying up every fact to successive platforms and so disclosing in every fact a germ of expansion. The expansions are in the essence of thought.

(493; emphasis added)

Plato's thinking stands on its power to reveal the world, and each new revelation contains possibilities that in turn disclose new expansions. Emerson recognizes that Plato's notion of truth is processual; his constant effort to overturn old truths and to create new truths is a series of interpretative “expansions” that carries “every fact to successive platforms.” For Emerson, the impulse to generalize or to be a “universalist” is what creates an individual point of view, but thinking entails the ability to resist generalizing in order to “shift the platform on which we stand” (1940, “Nominalist,” 447) so that the “million fresh particulars” (441) of experience can provide new expanded platforms for “all [that] is yet unsaid” (447).


Emerson's essay “Experience” describes the partiality or fragmented nature of knowledge as a condition of human experience. The opening image of this essay creates a vivid image of what Heidegger calls Dasein's “throwness.” Understanding our relation to others, the fact that we are “thrown” into the middle of life, is what Heidegger calls “being-in-the-world.” For Emerson, the experience of being-in-the-world is the starting point of his 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” (1940, 342). We are always already in the midst of existence, and this means we are in the midst of “old belief,” which “gives us lethe to drink” (342). Emerson states the problem again in “Intellect”: “All that mass of mental and moral phenomena which we do not make objects of voluntary thought, come within the power of fortune; they constitute the circumstance of daily life” (293). Consequently, Dasein, who is “immersed” in the concerns of everyday life, “cannot see the problem of existence” (1940, “Intellect,” 293). For both Emerson and Heidegger, forgetfulness, lethargy, indolence, and sleepiness all threaten our perception of reality and our understanding of self and are the “problems” of existence.

For Emerson, cultural habits, customs, and old beliefs construct a system of illusions that must be deconstructed by thoughtful critical analysis. The analysis consists of conceptual expansions that utilize both “the understanding and the reason” to discover and explore the horizons of thought. Leonard Neufeldt (1971) describes how for Emerson, “Every opinion or knowledge is essentially a new creation, a new understanding or interpretation of the world” (258). The interpretative nature of understanding means two things to Emerson. First, conceptual expansions are an organic process of intellectual development. He uses two images to describe this process: Emerson's first image is exfoliation or unfolding, “All our progress [of the intellect] is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud” (1940, “Intellect,” 294); the second image is a constantly expanding circle that “bursts over the boundary on all sides and expands another orbit on the great deep” (1940, “Circles,” 281). Emerson's description of the thought process is remarkably close to Gadamer's description of the hermeneutic circle of understanding: “To expand in concentric circles the unity of the understood meaning” (1988, 68). The second aspect of the expansive nature of thought is, as Neufeldt states, that it “reorders what we know” (1971, 259). Because thinking constantly reorders knowledge, Emerson sees himself as “an endless seeker” (1940, “Circles,” 288); all thinking is experienced as a process that equally unifies and disrupts the life of the thinker.

Those who see Emerson's rhetoric as an expression of “literary self-reliance” reduce Emerson to a proponent of American individualism. However, a reading such as this fails to understand the ontological concerns of Emerson's thought. Imitation, drills of school education, rules and regulations all operate as existential structures that disguise or, in Heidegger's terms, cover up authentic Being. For Emerson, the fundamental relation of human beings (the being of beings or the Many) with Being (the One) is always of primary importance. Emerson recognizes that the covering up of this relationship is co-original with the revelation of truth. The dynamic of the authentic-self, the self that experiences the covering up as covering up, seeks to make manifest “the system of illusions” that “shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see” (1940, “Experience,” 346). The reason Emerson constantly emphasizes individual “voice” and “expression” is because he uses experience as the primordial rhetorical model. The expression of an individual's voice both asserts and highlights the difference between the covering up typified by the “they-self” and the discovering of the “authentic-self.” In other words, for Emerson, experience is not “self-expression” of some inner and private meaning; rather, what is expressed is the experience, is the being of a voice as it manifests itself in relation to the “prison of glass which we cannot see.”

For Emerson, Nature is a philosophical concept: “All that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE” (1940, “Nature,” 4; emphasis in original). For Emerson, the self is both plural, a dispersed “us,” and individual or separate from “all other men.” Nature, or all that is “not me,” in and of itself operates to disguise or “fool” the authentic-self: “Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates” (1940, “Experience,” 345). The human experience of Nature is evanescent and has a “lubricity” that lets it “slip through our fingers” (344). Yet, the harder we clutch at an experience of Nature, says Emerson, the more it dodges us and the more we reveal “the most unhandsome part of our condition” (345). The exact nature of our “unhandsome” condition is that, in the attempt to grasp, observe, and control the objects of the everyday world, through moods we deliver ourselves over to our own systems of illusion or dreams. While temperament, the “iron wire on which the beads [of emotion] are strung” (345), provides the structure for the “system of illusions,”

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.

(345, emphasis added)

For Emerson, moods control the way that the self experiences and understands the everyday world. This means that all perception is colored by moods; moods are the “hues” that focus vision and also determine how we “animate” or bring the world into existence. For Emerson, an individual's state of mind can either “counterfeit” experience or it can disclose the authentic-self or being of the individual: “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture” (1940, “Nature,” 15; emphasis added). For Emerson, the only way to describe the ontological state of a mind is to interpret the way that mind constructs the world, but the activity of reception and construction of the world through the intellect is always anterior to the expression of our experience of state-of-mind.

In “Thinking of Emerson” (1993), Stanley Cavell notes that Emerson clearly distinguishes between an analysis of the way sense experience reveals objects and an analysis of the way mood reveals the world. Cavell aptly notes the similarity between Heidegger's and Emerson's “effort[s] to formulate a kind of epistemology of moods” (191). Heidegger describes the way that mood or “state-of-mind” discloses or reveals a kind of “submission to the world”; and in that submission to the “throwness” of the world the authentic-self is fragmented and overtaken by the world: “Dasein constantly surrenders itself to the ‘world’ and lets the ‘world’ matter to it in such a way that somehow Dasein evades its very self” (1962, 178). According to Heidegger, Aristotle was the first to recognize that the function of rhetoric was to interpret these moods (178). It is in the second book of Aristotle's Rhetoric that Heidegger sees a systematic attempt to understand the public nature of discourse. The public is the way the “they” reveals itself. All discourse speaks both into and out of the moods or states of mind of “they.” It is only through an interpretation of state-of-mind that rhetoric can “understand the possibilities of moods in order to rouse them and guide them aright” (178).

Cavell states that he is “startled by the similarities” (1993, 194-95) between Heidegger and Emerson. It seems to me that Cavell is quite right; the connection between these two thinkers runs very deep. Emerson and Heidegger are deeply connected by the way they describe both the nature of experience itself and the important way that the experiencing-self is in a constant struggle to make visible the “prison of glass which we cannot see” (1940, “Experience,” 346). For Heidegger, Dasein is in a constant struggle to overcome its contextual constraints: “The Self of everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the authentic Self”. (1962, 167). Individual human beings are “Self” only in relation to the social world; the self is “dispersed into the they, and must first find itself” (167). In everyday life a human being operates within an internalized mode of understanding that determines how an individual interprets the world. These social