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December 1904

by Henry James, Sr.

NOTE.—The paper that follows was composed by the late Henry James in 1868, or thereabouts, and read a few times to private audiences. It forms a sort of pendant to a more elaborate paper on Carlyle, which had been written previously, and which, after Carlyle's death appeared in the Atlantic (May, 1881), and subsequently in Henry James's Literary Remains (Boston, 1885). Whoso wishes to see a more unceremonious view of Emerson than that now printed, will find it in the latter book, pp. 292-302. My father was a theologian of the "twice-born" type, an out-and-out Lutheran, who believed that the moral law existed solely to fill us with loathing for the Idea of our own merits, and to make us turn to God's grace as our only opportunity. But God's grace, in Mr. James's system, was not for the individual in isolation: the sphere of redemption was Society. In a Society organized divinely our natures will not be altered, but our spontaneities, because they then will work harmoniously, will all work innocently, and the Kingdom of Heaven will have come. With these ideas, Mr. James was both fascinated and baffled by his friend Emerson. The personal graces of the man seemed to prefigure the coming millennium, but the resolute individualism of his thought, and the way in which his imagination rested on superior personages, and on heroic anecdotes about them, as if these were creation's ultimates, set my father's philosophy at defiance. For him no man was superior to another in the final plan. Emerson would listen, I fancy, as if charmed, to James's talk of the "divine natural Humanity," but he would never subscribe; and this, from one whose native gifts were so suggestive of that same Humanity, was disappointing. Emerson, in short, was a "once-born" man; he lived in moral distinctions, and recognized no need of a redemptive process. My father worked off his mingled enchantment and irritation in the following pages, in which he pits Emerson's unconscious being against his conscious intellect, and treats the latter as symbolic of the natively innocent Humanity that is to be.

William James

It is now full thirty years ago that I made Mr. Emerson's acquaintance. He had come at the time to New York to read a course of lectures. These I diligently attended, and I saw much of him also in private. He at once captivated my imagination, and I have been ever since his loving bondman. I tried assiduously during the early days of our intimacy to solve intellectually the mystery of his immense fascination; but I did not succeed. I could very well see what the charm was not. It did not the least consist, for example, in any intellectual mastery he exhibited; for what he mainly held to be true I could not help regarding as false, and what he mainly held to be false I regarded as true. Still less did any conventional graces or accomplishments account for the spell he wrought; for no man was more austere than he in manners, or less addicted to the arts of pleasing. He was, in fact, as nude and chaste to my imagination as a statue out of the marble. But what the magic actually was, I could not at all divine, save that it was intensely personal, attaching much more to what he was in himself, or by nature, than to what he was in aspiration, or by culture. I often found myself, in fact, thinking: if this man were only a woman, I should be sure to fall in love with him. For although men marry for all sorts of things, for fortune, for family, for fashion, for accomplishments, for wit, for beauty, for comfort, for convenience, they never really love a woman but for one thing, and that is herself, or what she is in right of her own person, unbacked by any conventional attestations.

This was at least a clue to my riddle's ultimate solution. It did not by any means suffice to solve it, but it fixed my face in the direction whence alone the solution was finally to come. For it was utterly impossible to listen to Mr. Emerson's lectures, without being perpetually haunted as to your intellect by the sublest and most searching aroma of personality. In the first place everything on the spectacular side of the experience suggested it. His demeanour upon the platform, as you all remember, was modesty itself: not the mere absence of display, but the presence of a positive personal grace. His deferential entrance upon the scene, his look of inquiry at the desk and the chair, his resolute rummaging among his embarrassed papers, the air of sudden recollection with which he would plunge into his pockets for what he must have known had never been put there, his uncertainty and irresolution as he rose to speak, his deep, relieved inspiration as he got well from under the burning-glass of his auditors' eyes, and addressed himself at length to their docile ears instead: no maiden ever appealed more potently to your enamoured and admiring sympathy. And then when he looked over the heads of his audience into the dim mysterious distance, and his weird monotone began to reverberate in your bosom's depths, and his words flowed on, now with a river's volume, grand, majestic, free, and anon diminished themselves to the fitful cadence of a brook, impeded in its course, and returning in melodious coquetry upon itself, and you saw the clear eye eloquent with nature's purity, and beheld the musing countenance turned within, as it were, and hearkening to the rumour of a far-off but oncoming world: how intensely personal, how exquisitely characteristic, it all was! And how infinitely less it reminded us of our old and gross and rustic Adam, than of that refined and mystic "seed of the woman," who will yet make beautiful the sterile places of our nature!

Much more, however, than his outward demeanour even, is the very form of Mr. Emerson's mind fertile in these elevated suggestions. What strikes you above all things, when you look at the substance of Mr. Emerson's thought, is his cordial appreciation of the intellect, or the masculine force in nature, and the generous homage he pays it ever in its most tyrannous and exaggerated forms. No man of half his renown was ever half so gracious as he to the most wilful or insolent of intellectual upstarts. A feeling of envy, a suggestion of rivalry, is unknown to his breast. He is frankness itself to every one that demands his recognition, and if any claimant goes away with his egotism rebuked, it is never because he has not been treated with cordial hospitality, but simply because he has enjoyed his first opportunity of measuring himself with a style of manhood more sincere than his own.

What a worship he has also, not only for men of thought, but for men of observation, or knowledge! It has often appeared to me almost a plaintive sight to witness the sweetness and delicacy of his reverence for any burly and boisterous son of science, who yet knows more than other men. Science embalms all her votaries to his respectful regard; and if you can only tell him some new fact of knowledge, especially some fact that lends a picturesque attestation or illustration to human life, he will never forget you. Who loves Plutarch or any similar annalist of heroic names, as Mr. Emerson does? He would, I dare say, have discovered Plutarch, if his fame had never travelled beyond his native Bœotia. And how he revels in the proverbial philosophy of the East, that paradise of the sage or wise man whose living word is absolute over the imagination of his followers, and dyes all their thought to its own hue.

And then, again, how intensely practical is Mr. Emerson's influence! It is impossible to read him when you are young and as yet undismayed by the experience of life, without instantly speculating how you shall begin forthwith to live; nay, to live the manliest possible life. No writer so quickens the pulse of generous youth; so makes his brain throb and reel with the vision of the world that is yet to be. It is as if the spotless feminine heart of the race had suddenly shot its ruby tide into your veins, and made you feel as never before the dignity of clean living. Undoubtedly your first necessity always was to report yourself personally to this mystic shrine without delay, to know what the hierophant might have been commissioned to say to you specifically. I do not say that you were ever likely to find what you sought. I do not say, in fact, that you were not pretty sure in the long run to come away disheartened rather than encouraged. I think, indeed, that you were rather an exceptional person if you returned with feet as assured and hopeful as those which bore you on. For Mr. Emerson was never the least of a pedagogue, addressing your scientific intelligence, but an every way unconscious prophet, appealing exclusively to the regenerate heart of mankind, and announcing the speedy fulfilment of the hope with which it had always been pregnant. He was an American John the Baptist, proclaiming tidings of great joy to the American Israel; but, like John the Baptist, he could so little foretell the form in which the predicted good was to appear, that when you went to him he was always uncertain whether you were he who should come, or another. And naturally enough, you were liable—unless, as I have already said, you were uncommonly free from personal vanity—to return disconcerted. It is very significant, this, that every man who was so happy as to open a new poetic vein, or invent a more spiritual gospel than the old, or devise an urgent material reform in the line of dietetics, must needs betake himself forthwith to Mr. Emerson, to get his adventurous banner blest.

Now why do I thus linger upon these pesonal traits of Mr. Emerson? It is because they at least indicate, however little they supply, the solution I shall venture to give you of the problem of his rare genius. They indicate one thing very clearly, and this is that the influence exerted by Mr. Emerson over the minds of his contemporaries is not in the least of a dogmatic or intellectual, but of a purely personal quality. And personality—character—as it seems to me, is the distinctive badge of Mr. Emerson's genius. That is to say, his genius is strictly mystical or living, consisting altogether in his own vivid personal lustre or significance. Not what he thinks has ever interpreted Mr. Emerson's genius to me, although his thought is always grand, majestic, manly; nor yet what he says, although his speech is colour and melody and fragrance itself to my senses; nor even what he does, although his action is always free, spontaneous, fearless: but all simply what he personally stands for or represents—what his peculiar genius symbolizes—in the divine drama of the Incarnation. There is no technical man of letters in the land who will not cordially bow to Mr. Emerson's literary sceptre; yet this is what those who value Mr. Emerson most value in him the least. I think it has never once occurred to me in my long intercourse with Mr. Emerson to prize his literary friendship, or covet any advantage which might accrue from it to myself. No, what alone I have sought in Mr. Emerson is not the conscious scholar, but always the unconscious prophet, whose genius, and not by any means his intellect, announces, with unprecedented emphasis, spontaneity as the supreme law of human life.

I have diligently cultivated Mr. Emerson's acquaintance, as I used diligently to cultivate Mr. Carlyle's. But Mr. Carlyle is an egregiously secular person, and you go to Chelsea, as you go to the theatre, for entertainment or diversion. Mr. Emerson, on the other hand, is an eminently sacred person, and you frequent Concord as you frequent the Cathedral—for self-recoil, self-examination, and reproof. Mr. Carlyle is a gross human reality, suggesting absolutely nothing to your devout imagination, but appealing with unexampled vivacity to your sensuous wonder and love of fun. Emerson is a tender, divine personality, making a most modest appeal to your senses, but brimful of significance to your imagination. Carlyle is an abject realist. He willingly confounds what is of temperament with what is of character,what is of nature with what is of culture, what is thing with what is person. His men are all heroes, not to be estimated for their representative, but for their absolute worth, not to be honoured for the light they reflect upon human nature, but for their incontestable private superiority to all other men. Emerson is an idealist. He indeed honours great men, but only for their human substance. They are not heroes, but strictly representative men. They do not, indeed, represent a divine or infinite substance, but a human or finite one; and this is already much. His Platos, Swedenborgs, Shakespeares, Montaignes, Napoleons, and Goethes, are truly representative men, as he calls them, but they always represent the human mind, always its native ideas, aspirations, and resources. They each of them embody some characteristic greatness of the mind, some subtlety of genius, some immense sincerity of belief, some ineffable grace, some creative imagination, some comprehensive energy, belonging to human nature itself, and fit to make us glory in that nature supremely. They do not reveal or represent anything essentially above human nature, anything essentially spiritual or supernatural, anything infinite, in short, or divine; but still they do represent something more than they individually constitute, and this is a great gain. Carlyle loathes to conceive of nature and history as a divine drama merely, intended solely to educate the human mind, or make it at last receptive of divine order and power. On the contrary, he conceives of them as absolute realities, and hence does not hesitate to regard the good and the evil, the true and the false, the strong and the feeble that he discerns in men's persons, as finalities, clothing the universe of the divine administration in impenetrable gloom. Emerson has a deep instinct, at least, of the opposite truth, if not a large intellection of it; and you always feel accordingly the divine hopefulness which breathes from out all his dealings with nature and man.

In truth, Carlyle is a sheer devotee to will or moral force, as the permanent measure of God's creative power in our nature; and hence he unaffectedly abhors the evangelic philosophy, which sets moral force aside, or reduces all men—good and evil, wise and foolish, great and small—to an indiscriminate spiritual pulp before God, to be moulded by him afresh in unitary immortal form. Now I shall not pretend to say what Emerson's conscious relation to the evangelic philosophy is, but at all events his unconscious genius relates him to it in a much more favourable way than this. For by his genius he is vowed only to Art or the spontaneous force, whose organ is always delight, not duty, and his veins so throb with this new wine of nature, that although he totally renounces every theologic tradition, and disuses every theologic dialect, confessing only the new-found spiritual Bacchus, you are yet sure that he is far nearer the spirit of the truth than any votary of its letter in the land. Unlike Carlyle indeed, Emerson has never tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, never caught a glimpse of the cherubin and the flaming sword that turns every way to baffle the guilty conscience; but puts forth his white, unshrinking hand direct to the tree of life. His movement is so strictly involuntary, indeed, that he cannot imagine why people of a different genius, of a more complex temperament, recoil with dismay from his serene, unconscious temerity. He has not the least vital apprehension of that fierce warfare of good and evil which has desolated so many profounder bosoms, which has maddened so many stouter brains. He acknowledges good alone, but evidently he recognizes it, not as a purchase or contingency of men's spiritual culture, but as an obvious law of their natural experience; having vastly more to say of it as an open manifestation of beauty to the senses, than as a revelation of hidden truth to the soul.

Carlyle utterly ignores this virgin freshness which our nature puts on in Emerson: these tender remains, as Swedenborg calls them, of Divine peace and innocence which have escaped the wreck of our moral manhood, and are now coming forth in every form of regenerate aesthetic activity to renew and beautify the common earth into a garden of the Lord. Carlyle has no suspicion of these fragrant unconscious deeps of the soul, wherein God's restorative virtue or redeeming power has always lain concealed from a profane or premature recognition, until it was ready to go forth in a renovated race consciousness of mankind, replete with all social equity, armed with all social energy. Emerson—I will not say intellectually allows, for he livingly avouches and exemplifies this virgin soul in humanity; but he has no suspicion that that it is not natural and of his own essence; no suspicion that it is a fruit exclusively of that race discipline and culture which were announced in Christianity, and have been slowly struggling to our surface consciousness in all subsequent history. Emerson conceives the soul to be chaste and sweet of its own momentum, in its own absolute right, and without any need of that stupendous Divine manipulation which some men call Providence, and others History, to make it so: as infallibly chaste and sweet when it abandons itself to secular gain, or the allurements of pleasure, as when it aims in secrecy to reproduce God's stainless probity. Thus, while Carlyle is an essential schoolmaster, the harsh edge of his pedagogy being blunted by his practical good-nature, Emerson is essentially a prophet: only prophecy with him puts on a strictly modern form, and shows God no longer concerned with the affairs of specific persons and peoples, but intent exclusively upon the vindication of his equal and intimate presence in every soul of man.

Carlyle—all unwittingly, I grant—rings out the old world of misrule which was inaugurated by the first Adam: that world in which man's foolish wit and wisdom have borne sovereign sway, and human nature accordingly shows itself at best a mere battle ground of heaven and hell. Emerson, on the contrary,—but in like utter unconsciousness of his mission, I admit,—rings in that better world inaugurated by the second Adam, in which at last the divine spirit is supreme, and our nature, consequently touched by that inspiration, brings forth immaculate fruit; that is, all those spontaneous graces of heart and mind and manners which alone have power to redeem us to eternal innocence, peace, and self-oblivion. In short Carlyle is the last gasp of a world in dissolution; the death-rattle of an ancient but always merely provisional and now utterly exhausted life of God in man; and there is consequently no outlook of hope, but only of despair in his filmy eyes for man's earthly future. Emerson, on the contrary, is the child of an altogether nascent, or rather resurgent, era; the comely, closepacked, perhaps untimely, bud of a redeemed life of God in our nature; no longer a stinted, voluntary, ascetic life, confining itself to the solitudes and desert-places of the private bosom, but a rich, spontaneous public life, pervading the lowest places of our nature, animating, sanctifying every humblest possibility of our actual flesh and blood consciousness; and he sings us songs accordingly of such immortal cheer that the owls and bats of our drowsy degenerate Christian night are fain to drop lifeless and blind in the luminous ether of his fresh regenerate Pagan morning.

But it is time to conclude. I shall have ill succeeded in my task, if I fail to convince you that Mr. Emerson's authority to the imagination consists, not in his ideas, not in his intellect, not in his culture, not in his science, but all simply in himself, in the form of his natural personality. There are scores of men of more advanced ideas than Mr. Emerson, of subtler apprehension, of broader knowledge, of deeper culture; but I know of none who is half so interesting in himself, none whose nature exhibits half so clear and sheer a reconciliation of infinite and finite. I know of no man in whose nature the gross masculine or material force has become so spiritualized as in his; in whose nature thing has become so glorified into person. Here is a man who seems to me almost void of will, void of that tyrannous moral power which incessantly drives its subject to subjugate all men to his dominion. I find in Mr. Emerson no trace of this invasive, diabolic temper. I find in no man, especially no man equally famous, anything like the exquisite, unaffected, perfectly unconscious deference he pays to every other man's freedom. Of course, if it were at all conscious on his part, I should have nothing to say of it. He seems to me absolutely void of covetousness; entertains no clandestine designs upon any one; would not if he could impose his sway upon you; is destitute of all persuasive arts; has no resources either of flattery or command; is so ignorant, indeed, of all our accustomed devices in this sort, and so estranged from our ordinary corrupt manners in general, as to appear to most people utterly inexpansive; and yet he draws all men unto him, is sure of their spontaneous homage. And the philosophy of this fact, to my conception, is simply this; that the masculine or moral force, force of will, presents itself in his natural personality so refined, so sublimated into feminine or æsthetic force, force of spontaneity, that men instinctively do him homage, as a manifest token of divine power in our nature. We are things, you know, and we are persons, both. We are born things, and we become persons. Now what strikes you in Mr. Emerson is that he seems to have been born person instead of thing; that is to say, thing in him seems to be so completely absorbed in person that we cannot help regarding his peculiar genius as a purely providential fact, as an unexpected development of our natural history, and welcoming it therefore as a new divine augury for the race. It is a fact of his nativity, anticipating, superseding all that is spiritual cultivation or character in him; and as nature is universal, while culture alone is individual, we reasonably argue from the creative power patent in him to the same power latent in us, and hope that what is here the dawning divine radiance will go on to mid-day glory in all other men.

Vol. 249, No. 4, pp. 34-89