Emerson Re-Read


EXCEPT in tales of romance it is not given to us to be able to pass through postern doors or forest glades and find ourselves in lands of leisure where it is always afternoon. If one seeks the King of Elfland’s Daughter it must be between the pages of a book. Nevertheless, one can change one’s stage and ways of life and amplify one’s day’s. Some months ago by a simple shift in space I so wrought a change in time that, for a while at least, I have been able without sense of haste or pressure to browse again among the books I read and marked as a boy, books which for more years than I like to count had stood untouched upon my shelves, open apparently to the reaching hand, but in reality, owing to lack of time, as remote as boyhood’s days themselves.

A week ago, I picked up one of the oldest of these, oldest in possession, not in imprint — the Essays of Emerson. In an unformed hand there was the inscription on the flyleaf, ‘James Truslow Adams, 1896.’ I was then seventeen, and had evidently read him earlier, for at the beginning of a number of the essays, notably ‘Self-Reliance,’ are marked the dates of reading, ‘ 1895, ’96, ’96, ’96.’ The volume, one of that excellent, well-printed series which in those halcyon days the National Book Company used to sell for fifty cents, is underlined and marked with marginal notes all through. The passages are not all those I should mark to-day, but at sixteen and seventeen it is clear I was reading Emerson with great enthusiasm, and again and again.

In the past few days I have gone through five volumes of his work and found the task no light one. What, I ask myself, is the trouble? It is obviously not that Emerson is not ‘modern,’ for the other evening I read aloud, to the mutual enjoyment of my wife and myself, the Prometheus Chained of Æschylus, which antedates Emerson by some twenty-five hundred years. I turn to Paul More’s Shelburne Essays, Volume XI, and read the statement, that ‘it becomes more and more apparent that Emerson, judged by an international or even by a true national standard, is the outstanding figure of American letters.’

I pause and ponder. ‘International,’ even ‘true national,’ standards are high. Whom have we? Lowell as a critic? One thinks of, say, SainteBeuve, and a shoulder shrug for Lowell. Lowell as poet, Whittier, Longfellow, Bryant? Exeunt omnes, except as second-rate by world standards. The troop of current novelists and poets are much the same here as in a half-dozen other countries. Hawthorne? A very distinctive, and yet a minor voice, in the international choir. Poe? Again a minor, and scarcely distinguishable as a ‘national.’ Whitman? One thinks of Whitman five hundred years hence in world terms, and shakes one’s head. The choice is narrowing fast. Is Mr. More right? Yet the Emerson who evidently so stirred me at sixteen leaves me cold to-day at fifty. It is something to be looked into. I try, at fifty, to reappraise my Emerson. I take up the volumes again to see wherein the trouble lies.

First of all it occurs to me to test him by his own appraisals of others, and I turn to his volume on Representative Men. The list of names is itself of considerable significance — Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Goethe. Four of these are evidently so obvious as to tell us nothing of the mind choosing them. The case is a good deal like that of the Pulitzer Jury in biography, which is forbidden to award prizes for lives of Lincoln or Washington. The essential point is, what has Emerson to say of these men ?

I confess that, when after these thirty years or more I turn from reading about Emerson to reading him himself, I am rather amazed by what seems to me the shallowness of these essays. In fact, I believe that even Mr. More considers the Plato a very unsatisfactory performance. Emerson babbles of ‘the Franklin-like wisdom’ of Socrates, and, indeed, I think we could look for as sound an essay from an intelligent undergraduate. The Shakespeare is almost equally naïve and unsatisfying, and Emerson’s final judgment is that the dramatist was merely a ‘ master of the revels to mankind,’ the purveyor of ‘very superior pyrotechny this evening,’ and that the end of the record must be that with all his ability he ‘ led an obscure and a profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.’ This essay throws much light on Emerson if little on Shakespeare. Nor does he show more real understanding of his other great men. He can say that Napoleon left no trace whatever on Europe, that ‘all passed away like the smoke of his artillery.’ Of Goethe’s greatest poem, the Faust, Emerson notes mainly its ‘superior intelligence.’ One suspects that he chose these four names unconsciously because they were high in the world’s record of the great, not because he understood the men or their work.

When he turns from these names, almost imposed upon him, to another of his independent choosing, it is illuminating that the one he dwells on with greatest admiration is Swedenborg. This fact is significant. For him, the Swedish mystic is ‘a colossal soul,’ the ‘last Father in the Church,’ ‘not likely to have a successor,’ compared with whom Plato is a ‘gownsman,’ whereas Lycurgus and Cæsar would have to bow before the Swede. Emerson quotes from him as ‘golden sayings’ such sentences as ‘in heaven the angels are advancing continually to the spring-time of their youth, so that the oldest angel appears the youngest,’ or ‘it is never permitted to any one in heaven, to stand behind another and look at the back of his head: for then the influx which is from the Lord is disturbed.’ Nor should we forget that entry in Emerson’s Journals in which he noted that ‘for pure intellect’ he had never known the equal of — Bronson Alcott!

It is true that these essays are not Emerson’s best, but they were written when he was over forty years old and at the height of his fame and mental maturity, and they help us to understand our problem. They are typical products of the American mind. Conventional praise is given to the great names of Europe, with comment that indicates lack of understanding of the great currents of thought and action, while Mrs. Eddy and Brigham Young peer over the writer’s shoulders. We begin to see how deeply Emerson was an American.

His national limitation is noteworthy in another important source of influence in a mature culture, that of art. Music appears to have been outside his life and consideration. Of painting he could write that, having once really seen a great picture, there was nothing for one to gain by looking at it again. In sculpture he finds a ‘paltriness, as of toys and the trumpery of a theater.’ It ‘is the game of a rude and youthful people, and not the manly labor of a wise and spiritual nation,’ and he quotes with approval Isaac Newton’s remark about ‘stone dolls.’ Art is not mature unless it is ‘ practical and moral,’and addresses the uncultivated with a ‘voice of lofty cheer.’ All art should be extempore, and he utters a genuine American note in his belief that it will somehow come to us in a new form, the religious heart raising ‘to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock company, our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist’s retort.’ ‘America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.’ A century later, and we realize that something more is needful for the imagination than an ample geography.

His doctrine that art should be extempore stems from his general belief that knowledge comes from intuition rather than from thought, and that wisdom and goodness are implanted in us — a fatally easy philosophy which has always appealed to the democratic masses, and which is highly flattering to their self-esteem. Wordsworth had led the romantic reaction by making us see the beauty and value in the common things of everyday life, but the philosophy of Emerson has a different ancestry. The two when joined are a perfect soil for democratic belief, and democratic laxity in mind and spirit, far as that might be from Emerson’s intention and occasional statements. The more obvious inferences are dangerous, for although a cobbler’s flash of insight may be as great as the philosopher’s lifetime of thought, such is of the rarest occurrence, and preached as a universal doctrine it is a more leveling one by far than universal suffrage.


As the ordinary unimportant man, such as most of us are, reads Emerson, his self-esteem begins to grow and glow. ‘The sweetest music is not in the oratorio, but in the human voice when it speaks from its instant tones of tenderness, truth, or courage.’ Culture, with us, he says, ‘ends in headache.’ ‘Do not craze yourself with thinking, but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy.’ ‘Why all this deference to Alfred and Scanderbeg and Gustavus? As great a stake depends on your private act to-day as followed their public and renowned steps.’ ‘We are all wise. The difference between persons is not in wisdom but in art.’ ‘Our spontaneous action is always the best. 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.’

There is a kernel of noble thought in all this, but it is heady doctrine that may easily make men drunk and driveling, and I think we are coming near to the heart of our problem. The preaching that we do not have to think, the doctrine of what I may term, in Emerson’s phrase, ‘the spontaneous glance,’ is at the bottom of that appalling refusal to criticize, analyze, ponder, which is one of the chief characteristics of the American people today in all its social, political, and international affairs. Many influences have united to bring about the condition, and Emerson cannot escape responsibility for being one of them.

On the other hand, a new nation, a common man with a fleeting vision of the possibility of an uncommon life, above all the youth just starting out with ambition and hope but little knowledge or influence as yet, all need the stimulation of a belief that somehow they are important and that not only may their private acts and lives be as high and noble as any, but that the way is open for them to make them so. This is the one fundamental American doctrine. It is the one unique contribution America has made to the common fund of civilization. Our mines and wheat fields do not differ in kind from others. With Yankee ingenuity we have seized on the ideas of others and in many cases improved their practical applications. The ideas, however, have largely come from abroad. The use of coal as fuel, the harnessing of steam and electricity for man’s use, — the foundations of our era, — originated in Europe. Even the invention of the electric light was only in part American. But the doctrine of the importance of the common man is uniquely an American doctrine. It is something different, on the one hand, from the mere awarding to him of legal rights and, on the other, from the mere career open to the talents.

It is a doctrine to which the heart of humanity has responded with religious enthusiasm. It, and not science, has been the real religion of our time, and, essentially, the doctrine is a religious and not a philosophical or scientific one, equally made up as it is of a colossal hope and a colossal illusion. This does not invalidate it. Like all religions it will have its course to run and its part to play in the moulding of man to something finer. It is one more step up, and we need not deny it merely because of the inherent falsity of that gorgeous preamble which proclaims to the world, ‘All men are created equal.’ In spite of the self-assertion of the socalled masses, that is a statement which, deep in their hearts, it is as difficult for the inferior as the superior genuinely to believe. It is an ideal, which, like every religious ideal, will be of far-reaching influence, but which must be made believable emotionally. Emerson’s greatness lies in his having been the greatest prophet of this new religion, an influence that might well continue to be felt on the two classes that need the doctrine most — the common man striving to rise above the mediocre, and the youth striving to attain a courageous and independent maturity.

Another strain in Emerson, that of the poet and mystic, has also to be reckoned with in making up the man’s account. His insistence upon values in life, culminating in the spiritual, is one sorely needed in the America of our day as of his. We are, perhaps, further from the ideal he drew in his ‘American Scholar’ than were the men of his own time. His large hope has not been fulfilled. There is a delicate beauty in his spiritual outlook on life, a beauty akin to that of many an old fresco in Umbria or Tuscany. Unfortunately, there were fundamental flaws in the work of the Italian artists, flaws not of spiritual insight or of artistic craftsmanship, but of wet plaster or of wrong chemical combinations in materials, so that little by little their painting has crumbled and faded. If Emerson’s mysticism led him too easily toward Swedenborg rather than toward Plato, and if the beauty of his spiritual interpretation of the universe does not carry that conviction or mould his readers as it should, may we not wonder whether there were not some fundamental flaws in the mind of the man that may explain his decreasing influence, just as in examining a wall where a few patches of dim color are all that remain of a Giotto we have to consider, not the artist’s love of the Madonna, but his lack of knowledge of the mechanics of his art? Of this we shall speak presently.

The quintessence of Emersonianism is to be found in the first and second series of Essays, and it may be noted that it was these, as my pencilings show, which I myself read most as a boy, and of them, it was such essays as ‘Self-Reliance,’ in which the word is found in its purest form, that I read over and over. What do I find marked as I turn the old pages? ‘Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.’ ‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.’ ‘Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.’ ‘I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle.’ ‘What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.’ ‘The great man is he who in the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’ ‘Always scorn appearances and you always may. The force of character is cumulative.’ ‘Life only avails and not the having lived.’ ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate.’ ‘Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.’

This is high and worthy doctrine, the practice of which will tax a man’s strength and courage to the utmost, and such sentences as the above have proved the strongest influences in the making of literally countless adolescent Americans, stimulating their ambition in the noblest fashion. Unfortunately this part of Emerson’s teaching has had less influence than the other. The average American soon slips into preferring ‘we are all wise’ to ‘scorn appearances.’ Insisting on being one’s self is strenuous and difficult work anywhere, more so in America than any other country I know, thanks to social opinion, mass ideals, and psychologized advertising of national products. Emerson deserves full meed of praise for preaching the value of individualism, but it may be asked, granting that nearly all intelligent, high-minded American youths for nearly a century have, at their most idealistic stage, come under the influence of Emerson’s doctrine, why has the effect of his teaching been so slight upon their later manhood? Does the fault lie in them or in the great teacher, for, in such sentences as we have quoted above, I gladly allow that, the sage of Concord was a great teacher.

The answer, I think, is that the fault lies to a great extent in Emerson himself. His doctrine contains two great flaws, one positive, the other negative, and both as typically American as he himself was in everything. That he had no logically articulated system of thought is not his weakest point. He once said that he could not give an account of himself if challenged. Attempts have been made to prove that his thought was unified and coherent. One may accept these or not. It matters little, for it is not, and never has been, as a consistent philosopher that Emerson has influenced his readers. It has been by his trenchant aphorisms which stir the soul of the young and the not loo thoughtful, and set the blood to dancing like sudden strains of martial music. It is in these, and not in any metaphysical system about which philosophers might argue, that we find the fatal flaws and influences I have mentioned.

The first, the positive one, in spite of his high doctrine of self-reliance and individualism, is that Emerson makes life too easy by his insistence on intuition and spontaneity. The style and construction of his writings deliberately emphasize the import of the aphorisms. The occasionally qualifying context sinks into insignificance and out of memory as does the stick of a rocket in the darkness of night. We see and recall only the dazzling shower of stars. If this is now and then unfair to Emerson’s thought, he has himself to blame. He took no pains to bind his thought together and loved the brilliancy of his rocket-stars of ‘sayings.’ We have already quoted some of these on the point we are now discussing. All teaching is ‘Intuition.’ In ‘Spontaneity or Instinct’ he finds ‘the essence of genius, the essence of virtue, and the essence of life.’ ‘It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak.’ ‘All good conversation, manners, and action, come from a spontaneity which forgets usages, and makes the moment great.’ ‘No man need be perplexed by his speculations. . . . These are the soul’s mumps and measles and whoopingcoughs.’ ‘Our moral nature is vitiated by any interference of our will. . . . There is no merit in the matter. Either God is there or he is not there. We love characters in proportion as they are impulsive and spontaneous. The less a man thinks or knows about his virtues the better we like him.’ A page or two back we noted his theory of spontaneity in art and intellect.


This, as we have said, unless the occasional qualifications are as greatly emphasized as the sayings themselves, is extremely dangerous doctrine. Of all the youths who have read Emerson in their impressionable years, a certain proportion have subsequently retrograded in the spiritual and intellectual scale, and a certain proportion have advanced. Of the difficulty with the master felt by the latter we shall speak presently, but for the first group this doctrine of spontaneity, so emphasized by Emerson, offers all too soft a cushion upon which to recline. Act and do not think. Culture is headache. Perplexities are the soul’s mumps and measles. Radiant sentence after sentence, graven with clear precision on the cameo of the mind. It has been said that, of all the sages, Emerson requires the least intellectual preparation to read. He is, indeed, in some respects, and those in which he exerts most influence, fatally easy. Fatally easy and alluring to the busy hundred-per-cent American is this doctrine of intuition and spontaneity. It is a siren voice, a soft Lydian air blown across the blue water of the mind’s tropical sea. For a century the American has left the plain hard work of life to his foreign serfs. The backbreaking toil of digging trenches, laying rails, puddling iron in the furnaces, has been delegated successively to the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs. But thinking is intellectually, willing is spiritually, as backbreaking as these. The ordinary American prefers also to abandon them and to take for himself the easier task of solving the economic problems and puzzles in which he delightsIntuition and spontaneity — fatal words for a civilization which is more and more coming to depend for its very existence on clear, hard, and long-sustained ‘thinking-through.’ It is this positive flaw in Emerson’s teaching that has made the effect of his really noble doctrines of so little influence upon the boys who have worshiped him this side idolatry at sixteen and then gone into the world and found every invitation to retreat from the high ground rather than to advance.

What now of those others, those who also worshiped Emerson in youth, who have fought the world, and who find him declining in influence over their lives the more they advance? With them we reach Emerson’s negative flaw.

What a gulf between the man of fifty and the boy of sixteen! As one has in those intervening years studied the history of the past, watched the daily life of the people of a score of nations, seen wars and famines take their toll of millions, and, nearer one’s own heart, watched the physical pain of those closest to one’s self, stood at grave after grave, found, too, perhaps, that one has wrought evil when most striving to do good, one has come to feel the whole mystery of that problem of Evil — of sin, of suffering, of death. One may yet carry a brave heart and hold one’s self erect, but one is no longer content with a philosophy of shallow optimism, a ‘God’s in his heaven —all’s right with the world.’

I think that here is where Emerson fails us as we grow older and wiser. The trumpet blasts of self-reliance which so thrilled us at sixteen sound a little thin and far-off now. We needed them when they first smote our ear and we are deeply grateful, but we have fought the fight, we have tried to be ourselves, we have tried to live our life for itself and not for a spectacle, and now we are older. We have lived, loved, suffered, enjoyed, fought, and to some extent won. The world has been rich in interest — and in suffering. There are hopeful signs on every side. There is sunlight as well as darkness, but there is darkness. One has been close to failure and looked it in the eye. There have been the brows we could not soothe through years of suffering, the waxen faces we kissed for the last time before we laid them away, the mysterious darkness coming toward ourselves like the shadow of a cloud on a summer landscape, but inevitably to overtake us. When we turn again to the great teacher of our youth, what does he say to help or hearten us? Nothing.

Owing largely to material circumstance and a vast and uninhabited continent, the prevailing mood of the American people came to be one of shallow and unlimited optimism, the waves of which flowed over even the sectional Calvinism of New England. Nature ceased to be the evil enemy of man’s spirit and gave him her fairest gifts, as Mephistopheles bestowed his Helen on the tortured Faust. With material abundance, spiritual evil ceased to appear important and a golden age seemed dawning, as youth came to Faust in that most un-American legend.

For its hundred and fifty years America has been scarcely touched by suffering. Pestilence? None. Think of the Black Death and other great plagues that have swept over Europe. Famine? None. Think of India and China. War? Scarcely more than one. In the Revolution only an infinitesimal part of the population was in the army for any length of time. The War of 1812 was a ripple, almost all at sea, and the deaths were negligible to the population. The Indian Wars? Skirmishes by paid troops. The Mexican War? A junket which never came home to the people. The Civil War? Yes, but even that did not come home to the whole civilian population, except in the South, as have the wars which have flowed in torrents over Europe. Compare it with the Thirty Years’ War, in which, to say nothing of the rest of Europe, the population of Germany, from the ravages of the sword, famine, disease, and emigration, sank from 16,000,000 to 6,000,000, and in which of 35,000 villages in Bohemia less than 6000 were standing at the end, and in which nine tenths of the entire population of the Palatinate disappeared. The Spanish War was a holiday affair except for a few homes. In the last Great War we lost by death a mere 126,000 as compared with 8,500,000 in the Old World. In civil life our history has been one long business boom, punctuated by an occasional panic, like a fit of indigestion for a man who continually overeats. We have never suffered like the rest of humanity, and have waxed fat without, as yet, having to consider the problems forced upon others, until we have ceased to believe in their reality. The dominant American note has thus been one of a buoyant and unthinking optimism. America is a child who has never gazed on the face of death.

Emerson somewhere speaks of ‘the nonchalance of boys sure of a dinner.’ Can any words better express the American attitude toward the universe, and, in spite of his spirituality and the somewhat faded fresco of his mysticism, does Emerson himself really give us anything deeper? Man, according to him, ‘is born to be rich.’ Economic evils trouble our sage not at all. The universe, for him, is good through and through, and ‘success consists in close application to the laws of the world, and, since those laws are intellectual and moral, an intellectual and moral obedience.’ One thinks of Jay Gould and the career of many a magnate of to-day! ‘In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile, to the industrious, brave, and persevering.’ As I am certainly not idle (I am working on a holiday to write this), and as Americans would not admit that theirs is not a just and free commonwealth, imbecility is the only third horn of the trilemma on which to impale myself if property has not rushed toward me. ‘Do not skulk,’ the sage tells every man in ‘a world which exists for him.’ At fifty, we have found, simply, that the world does not exist for us. ‘Love and you shall be loved. All love is mathematically just, as much as the two sides of an algebraic problem.’ One rubs one’s eyes. ‘There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.’ Man may, he says, ‘easily dismiss all particular uncertainties and fears, and adjourn to the sure revelation of time the solution of his private riddles. He is sure his welfare is dear to the heart of being.’ Is he so sure? Alas, no longer.


As I think over my most recent visit to Rome, where two thousand years of human history, happiness, and suffering have left their monuments, and Heaven knows how many thousand unmarked before, I contrast it with a visit to Emerson’s house at Concord on an October day many years ago. It is a charming, roomy old house, and in it Emerson was able to live with a large library and three servants on two thousand a year. In the ineffable light of an American autumn, as I saw it, it was a place of infinite peace. Concord in 1840 was an idyllic moment in the history of the race. That moment came and passed, like a baby’s smile. Emerson lived in it. ‘In the morning,’ he wrote, ‘I awake, and find the old world, wife, babes, and mother, Concord and Boston, the dear old spiritual world, and even the dear old devil not far off.’

It is true that he has very occasional qualms and doubts. He even wonders in one essay whether we must presuppose some ‘slight treachery and derision’ in the universe. As we turn the pages, we ask ourselves with some impatience, ‘Did this man never really suffer?’ and read that ‘the only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers.’

One ends. Perhaps Mr. More is right. Perhaps Emerson is the outstanding figure in American letters. Who else has expressed so magnificently the hope, and so tragically illustrated the illusion, of our unique contribution to the world? My own debt to the sage is unpayable. He was one of the great influences in my early life, as, in his highest teaching, he should be in that of every boy. It seems almost the basest of treason to write this essay, and I would still have every youth read his Emerson. But what of America? What of the hope and the illusion? A century has passed. Is no one to arise who will fuse them both in some larger synthesis, and who, inspiring youth, will not be a broken reed in maturity? Are our letters and philosophy to remain the child until the Gorgon faces of evil, disaster, and death freeze our own unlined ones into eternal stone? Is it Well that the outstanding figure in American letters should be one whose influence diminishes in proportion as the minds of his readers grow in strength, breadth, and maturity? And, speaking generally, is this not true of Emerson? Does any man of steadily growing character, wealth of experience, and strength of mind find the significance and influence of Emerson for him growing as the years pass? Does he turn to him more and more for counsel, help, or solace?

There is but one answer, I think, and that is negative. Unlike the truly great, the influence of Emerson shrinks for most of us as we ourselves develop. May the cause not lie in the two flaws I have pointed out, flaws in the man as in his doctrine in spite of the serene nobility of so much of his life? If with all his wide and infinitely varied reading, noted in his Journals, we find his culture a bit thin and puerile, is it not because he himself trusted too much to that theory of spontaneity, of the ‘spontaneous glance,’ rather than to the harder processes of scholarship and thinking-through coherently; and if we find him lacking in depth and virility, is it not because he allowed himself to become a victim to that vast American optimism with its refusal to recognize and wrestle with the problem of evil? One turns to Æschylus and reads: —

. . . affliction knows no rest,
But rolls from breast to breast its vagrant tide.

One does not need to be a pessimist, merely human, to find here the deeper and more authentic note.

If Emerson is still the outstanding figure in American letters, is that not the equivalent of saying that America a century after the Essays appeared has not yet grown to mental maturity, and that the gospel it preaches is inspiring only for unformed adolescence, — of whatever age, — without having risen to a comprehension of the problems of maturity? In Europe, the past has bequeathed not only a wealth of art, but a legacy of evil borne and sorrow felt. Perhaps American letters, like American men, will not grow beyond the simple optimism and, in one aspect, the shallow doctrine of Emerson until they too shall have suffered and sorrowed. Emerson, in his weakness as in his strength, is American through and through. He could have been the product, in his entirety, of no other land, and that land will not outgrow him until it has some day passed through the fires of a suffering unfelt by him and as yet escaped by it.