Emerson The Literary Pioneer

( Originally Published 1916 )


RALPH WALDO EMERSON deserves the first place in any survey of American literature. Without him, American writers would have continued for another generation the imitation of English models. He pronounced the declaration of American literary independence as Jefferson drafted the declaration of our political independence. Whitman acknowledged his debt to Emerson, and Whitman, whatever his faults, is still our most original man of letters. Emerson also has had a more vital influence on young readers and on college students than any other American writer. The years that have relegated so many of his contemporaries to the top shelf have not lessened his popularity. His books still sell by the thousand and they are read eagerly by young Americans of all classes. To the young man or woman, forced to work for a living and struggling at night to get an education, Emerson is a tower of strength. His words are a stimulus which cannot be measured; he gives spiritual comfort that girds up the loins of the lonely student.

Above all, in this material age, Emerson comes with a message which appeals powerfully to youth, which has not lost its ideals. His has been the duty to keep alive the high, unselfish purposes of the scholar in these days when wealth and power seek to seduce the ablest of young Americans. He is the High Priest of the spiritual who passes along the torch of culture to the hands of the younger generations.

Emerson was one of the few American authors whose mere presence impressed any assembly. Though never given to posing, so great was his personal force and so high the distinction of his face and his manner that all gave him homage. And the wonder of this tribute was that the man himself was absolutely detached from the things of this world. As he himself so well expressed it, he saw even the people in his own household "as across a gulf." He had the detachment of great genius. He had no intimates and he never made any effort to cultivate friendships. His indifference to the work of his contemporaries of genius was profound and disconcerting. Thus he never could read any of Hawthorne's exquisite tales, and he could not even appreciate The Scarlet Letter, which, with some of his own essays. has been given by critics the highest place in the Pantheon of American literary achievement.

To treat Emerson like the ordinary writer of essays is to mistake his vocation. He is a seer and a prophet; but 'above all he is the greatest teacher and inspirer of thought and work this country has ever known. And it is as a teacher that his fame will endure. His essays are merely the elaboration of the lectures and addresses which he delivered before college and lyceum audiences, in an age when the desire for culture was as eager as is now the desire for money and pleasure. The Puritan conscience had not lost its keen edge when Emerson was in his prime, and it was his great distinction that he could appeal to this conscience with a force and a directness possessed by no other writer or lecturer of his day.

Absolutely free from all religious restrictions, Emerson yet laid down the moral law with a power that moves one still, as it once swayed and stimulated New England audiences. The men of today of larger culture and greater literary skill may marvel at Emerson's influence, but it endures, and American school and college youth of our day feel the force of Emerson's vitalizing words, with almost the same kindling power that moved those who sat at his feet and looked upon his face when visions came to him and were revealed to those who had not his outlook upon the Promised Land.

So Emerson is one of the few great authors whose work must be tasted, not eaten. He is like caviare to the great reading public, because he is merely a stimulus to thought. His essays must be taken in small doses, lest one have a surfeit of their richness of condensed thought. To read Emerson continuously, as one reads Macaulay or even Carlyle, is fatal; as well try to digest the intellectual pemmican of Bacon's essays. Emerson's essays, which, with Representative Men, contain all his best work, are to be regarded as stimulants to the intellectual life. They are to be read by single pages, or, better, by single passages. Oftentimes a single sentence will give one food for thought. And the remarkable feature of Emerson is that he seems to have an answer for all one's needs, just as the Bible has; for his was a primitive nature that stripped away all conventions and dared to look on life with the eyes of a pagan, unafraid and unashamed. He is as elemental as the writer of the Book of Job.

Emerson lived an uneventful life, but it is difficult to imagine the New England of sixty years ago without his dominating figure. He came of a family of preachers and he was bred for the church. He gained no distinction in college, which he entered at the early age of fifteen years, save that he won a second prize for English composition in his senior year. He attended a divinity school, but weakness of the eyes excused him from taking notes in class and from entering examinations. As he remarked later in life, with dry humor, "If they had examined me they probably would not have let me preach at all." When twenty-three years old he was authorized to preach, but weak lungs drove him to the milder climate of South Carolina and Florida. In Charleston he preached several times, and on his return he was ordained as colleague of Dr. Ware in the Second Church of Boston.

Three years later Emerson caused a great sensation by preaching a sermon in which he expressed doubts of his right to administer communion and his determination to resign his pastorate. The following year he went to Europe and saw many famous literary men, notably Carlyle, whom he visited for a week at his lonesome Scotch retreat at Craigenputtock. In the following. year he returned to Concord, Massachusetts, and began the career of lecturing and writing which was to continue for fifty years.

Emerson was among the first of the New England lecturers who established the lyceum system that endured for more than half a century and was one of the most important factors in popular education in this country. Emerson's first lectures were on his experiences in Europe. Then he took up the biographies of great men, several of these lecturers appearing afterward in Representative Men, a book that is as vital and suggestive as Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship. Then followed a series of lectures before academies and lyceums on such subjects as English Literature, The Philosophy of History and Human Culture.

His first book, entitled Nature, appeared anonymously in 1836 and was welcomed by all scholars, but it was not until the following year that Emerson gained great vogue and was recognized as a leader of American thought. The American Scholar, his Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard in August, 1837, was really the starting point of his career. It may be read with profit in these days, when the noble ideals for which Emerson pleaded so eloquently are apt to be forgotten in the fierce desire for money and success.

From this period Emerson advanced with strength and confidence. He continued to deliver lectures that stimulated while they puzzled his audiences, and the seed thoughts of these lectures he put into his books. Also he wrote poems full of beautiful thoughts, cast in language which is frequently not poetical. He was a voluminous writer, and by 1850 he was firmly established as the foremost figure in every American movement for free thought and free speech. He preached the doctrine of culture in an age when education was the hobby of most teachers, and he laid down the law that no amount of knowledge will ever bring culture. His voice was always raised for the greatest tolerance in religion and the largest liberty in speech.

Thus Emerson came to be the recognized head of all the New England ethical movements that have fertilized thought in this country and inspired high ideals. What this country owes to him can never be estimated. His statue should be placed in every large American city, so that the younger generation may see that the people recognize Emerson as our greatest apostle of free thought and the intellectual life.

You cannot go amiss in reading his essays. Begin with that immortal address on ne American Scholar, and then take up any of the essays that appeals to you. Read it by single pages, and look up any references that are not clear. Think over the things that Emerson lays down as laws. You will find nearly every page full of meat. But do not commit the folly of attempting to read Emerson as you would read Lowell or Whipple or Stedman. He' is not consecutive, and disgust will be your portion. Take him as you would take a tonic, in small doses, and you will find him an extraordinary stimulant to work and thought, better than any other writer, unless it be Carlyle at his best.

And you will find that this man, who apparently took no count of style, has a style that is unrivaled for terseness, force and beauty. As Lowell so well says, "His eye for a fine, telling phrase that will carry true is like that of a backwoodsman for a rifle, and he will dredge up a choice word from the mud of Cotton Mather himself" Emerson charged every word with meaning. He wrote with the condensed force of the Latin, but he used the simple words, the homespun phrases that go straight to the American heart.

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