The Early American Historians.
Read More Articles About: American Literature
Ralph Waldo Emerson
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The most potent force in New England thought was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) . For more than two centuries his ancestors were Congregational ministers. His father, Rev. William Emerson, died in 1811, and his mother was assisted by relatives in providing for her sons' education. William, the elder, went to Germany, and being unsettled in faith, gave up the intention of entering the ministry, and became a lawyer. Waldo studied divinity with Channing and Andrews Norton, and began to preach in 1827. He became assistant to Rev. Henry Ware in the Second Church of Boston, and soon had entire charge. At the end of 1832, being unwilling to dispense the Lord's Supper, he resigned the pastorate. His wife had died in that year, and he resolved to go to Europe. He went to Italy and France, then to England, and found his way to Carlyle's remote humble home at Craigenputtock. The two great thinkers formed a notable friendship which was maintained by correspondence through their lives. Emerson married Lilian Jackson in 1835 and went to live in Concord. He had inherited a modest competence, but later his chief support was derived from lecturing before lyceums, as he continued to do for forty-six years. His first book, "Nature," published in 1836, set forth his transcendental views of man and the universe, in several chapters with little apparent connection. In 1837 his address on "The American Scholar" proved that thoughtful minds were attracted by the new force. His Divinity School address in 1838 on "The Christian Teacher" deeply stirred the Unitarian body and called forth a warm protest from his teacher, Professor Norton, against its radical views. In the controversy which ensued Emerson declined to take part, though his friends were active. The first series of his "Essays" appeared in 1841, and met with favor, both at home and abroad. They enlarged and extended ideas which had been stated in "Nature." Emerson smiled approval on the Brook Farm experiment, but took little part in it except to contribute to "The Dial." But he did assist with voice and pen in the anti-slavery agitation. In 1847 he went on a second visit to England, which was rich in observation and effect on his mind. After his return his lectures on Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Swedenborg, and others, were published under the title, "Representative Men" (185o). This proved popular, and still more so was his "English Traits" (1856). More readers could appreciate his judgment of great men and nations than could under-stand his sublime philosophy of the universe.
Emerson had but rarely contributed to periodical literature, but in 1857 a group of his friends Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes arranged in his parlor for the publication of "The Atlantic Monthly," Lowell being editor. For some years Emerson contributed to it regularly prose and verse. His essays were collected in "The Conduct of Life" (186o), "Society and Solitude" (1864), and "Letters and Social Aims" (1876) ; his poems in "May-Day" (1867). He edited a collection of poetry by other authors in "Parnassus" (1874), and a selection of his own "Poems" (1876). Thereafter he wrote but little, though he revised and edited his former publications. The projected "Natural History of the Intellect," on which he had labored for many years, was never put into a form suitable for publication. In the latter years of his life his mind and memory failed. After his death his correspondence with Carlyle was edited by Professor Charles Eliot Norton (1883) .
Matthew Arnold shocked his Boston audience when in 1888 he deliberately pronounced Emerson not essentially a poet nor a philosopher, but a seer. Yet in the dozen years which have since elapsed it has been frequently admitted that the critic was substantially right. Emerson himself had said, "I am not a great poet, but whatever there is of me at all is poet." Yet he was aware of his want of facility in metrical expression, and that his poetic faculty was sel-dom under the control of his will. A single small volume contains all his poetic work. Even in his poetry, though there are often charming lines and melodious passages, the utterances are generally oracular and sometimes enigmatic. When he sang of love, for instance, he was not content to celebrate its rapture, but must elevate it into a divine sentiment and make it a world-mystery.
No more in philosophy than in any other department can Emerson be said to have had a system, but he had intuitions of truth. These are shown in his first book, "Nature," and restated, reinforced, applied and sometimes made clearer in his later essays. He held a lofty idealism or poetic pantheism, such as that of Wordsworth, but was more consistent in applying it than the English poet. Nature or the external world corresponds to the human soul. Nature is the embodiment of God's infinite ideas and is the symbol of the soul. When nature and the soul are brought into proper relations to each other, the high-est powers of man will be awakened, and he will behold God. To this rapt state all men are capable of attaining. The idea of nature as a Divine incarnation involved an optimistic view of the universe; it also made natural and spiritual laws identical, and thus gave a religious aspect to everything. To this high ethical conclusion Emerson remained true throughout life and exemplified it in every action. But he did not engage in any strife with others. He avoided all controversy. Having delivered his oracle, he left it to others to interpret and apply it for themselves. He was a teacher rather than a leader. And yet so convincing were his statements that many arose to do as he had said. Dr. Holmes declared that his address on "The American Scholar" was "an intellectual Declaration of Independence," and Lowell said : "We were socially and intellectually moored to English thought till Emerson cut the cable and gave us a chance at the dangers and glories of blue water." "The Conduct of Life" has had wide-reaching effect by giving practical lessons to the young, and directing them to noble aims. Like all his other writings it insisted on self-reliance and intense individualism. His greatest service to his countrymen is to have taught and exemplified a marked American type of thought and feeling, not materialistic, but grandly spiritual.
Horace Bushnell (18o2-1876), influenced by the teaching of Coleridge, introduced liberal views into Puritan theology and rendered important service to Christian thought. He was born at Litchfield, Connecticut, graduated at Yale College, and in 1833 became pastor of a Congregational church in Hartford. After twenty years' service he resigned on account of ill-health, yet lived and worked nearly a quarter of a century longer. His first publication, "Christian Nurture," insisted on a truly natural training of children as inheritors of Christianity. His "Nature and the Supernatural" was an effort to show the harmony in God's relation to the universe. "The Vicarious Sacrifice" was a new explanation of a theological problem, making Christ's sacrifice the measure of God's love and not his wrath. "Work and Play," an oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard in 1848, explained that the highest aim of life is to get free from the constraint of work and rise to that natural action of the faculties which may be called play, and that poetry is the ideal, yet true, state of man's soul. His "Moral Uses of Dark Things" is a vindication of the Divine govern-ment of the world. Bushnell's spiritual interpretation of nature had profound effect upon the orthodox pulpit, setting it free from the rigid bonds which cramped its thought.