150 Years Of The Atlantic December 2006

American Icons

This is the eleventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent.
Emerson
December 1904

By Henry James Sr.

In a piece originally written in the late 1860s, but published in The Atlantic many years later, Henry James Sr.—the father of Henry James the novelist and William James the philosopher-psychologist—sought to explain just what it was about Emerson’s unassuming personality that carried such magnetism.

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 … 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 …

It was utterly impossible to listen to Mr. Emerson’s lectures, without being perpetually haunted as to your intellect by the subtlest and most searching aroma of personality … His demeanour upon the platform … 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! …

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 … 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.

Vol. 94, No. 566, pp. 740–745

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