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The Anonymous Sage

In 1857, when several of America's most respected intellectuals gathered in Boston's Parker House Hotel to talk about creating a new magazine, Emerson was secure in his reputation as the Sage of Concord, and was one of the most famous writers of his day—on both sides of the Atlantic. His youthful desire to develop an American high culture persisted in his goals for the new magazine. In his view, The Atlantic would play a crucial role in promoting serious thought and learning in the United States. After attending several meetings about the project, he noted to himself,

A journal is an assuming to guide the age—very propre and necessary to be done, and good news that it shall be so...

The best the Editor can do, is, to see that nothing goes into the Book but important pieces. Every piece must have something sterling, some record of real experiences. It suffices that it be weighty.... Great scope and illumination ought to be in the Editor, to draw from the best in the land, & to defy the public, if he is only sure himself that the piece has worth and is right. Publics are very placable and will soon find out when they have a Master. The value of [raising sufficient funds for the magazine] is to be able to hold out for a few months, and go on printing, until the discerning minority of the public have found that the Book is right, and must be humbly and thankfully accepted, and abandon themselves to this direction, too happy that they have got something good and wise to admire and to obey.

When the magazine began publication a few months later, Emerson became a regular contributor. As one of the magazine's star writers he was paid ten dollars per page, instead of the usual six. However, in keeping with the standard practice of the 1850s, The Atlantic withheld the names of its writers, and thus, famous as he was, Emerson disseminated his observations under a cloak of anonymity. Emerson himself had insisted, "The names of contributors will be given out when the names are worth more than the articles."

The Atlantic's inaugural issue featured four of Emerson's poems. The issue also included an essay, "Illusions," in which Emerson argued that human experience is created through internal perceptions and desires, which both obscure external reality and produce pleasure from it.

The senses interfere everywhere, and mix their own structure with all they report of....

Our first mistake is the belief that the circumstance gives the joy which we give to the circumstance. Life is an ecstasy. Life is sweet as nitrous oxide; and the fisherman dripping all day over a cold pond, the switchman at the railway intersection, the farmer in the field, the Irishman in the ditch, the fop in the street, the hunter in the woods, the barrister with the jury, the belle at the ball, all ascribe a certain pleasure to their employment, which they themselves give it.

In its early years, The Atlantic Monthly was often a political forum for abolitionist writers, and it strongly supported the Union when the Civil War broke out. In 1862, Emerson availed himself of the platform the magazine afforded to exhort his countrymen to call for a federal law abolishing slavery. In his essay "American Civilization," Emerson argued that slavery was a degenerate tradition, and an affront to American morality:

Well, now here comes this conspiracy of slavery, — they call it an institution, I call it a destitution, — this stealing of men and setting them to work, — stealing their labor, and the thief sitting idle himself; and for two or three ages it has lasted, and has yielded a certain quantity of rice, cotton, and sugar. And standing on this doleful experience, these people have endeavored to reverse the natural sentiments of mankind....

In this national crisis, it is not argument that we want, but that rare courage which dares commit itself to a principle....

We want men of original perception and original action, who can open their eyes wider than to a nationality, namely, to considerations of benefit to the human race, can act in the interest of civilization.

In short, he argued, "Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue."

In the same year, when he was fifty-eight, Emerson contributed the essay "Old Age" to The Atlantic, perhaps in acknowledgment of his own accumulating years. Emerson is direct about the physical effects of aging: "From the point of sensuous experience, the estimate of age is low, melancholy, and skeptical. Frankly face the facts, and see the result. Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time." But he argues that as the body grows old, the intellect often gains strength.

Skill to do comes of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open, and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power....

When life has been well spent, age is a loss of what it can well spare,—muscular strength, organic instincts, gross bulk, and works that belong to these. But the central wisdom, which was old in infancy, is young in fourscore years, and, dropping off obstructions, leaves in happy subjects the mind purified and wise.