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On another, which deals with Friendship, comes this fragment of an imaginary letter:
"I am not very wise; my moods are quite attainable, and I respect thy genius; it is to me as yet unfathomed; yet dare I not presume in thee a perfect intelligence of me, and so thou art to me a delicious torment.”
And there are hundreds of such felicitous passages. Often, however, as in that little verse which preludes the essay on “Spiritual Laws,” Emerson was face to face with perceptions for which language was never framed; and then comes his half-inspired jargon. Yet, through it all, you grow more and more to feel that with true creative energy he was always striving to make verbal images of what to him were true perceptions; and more deeply still you grow aware that in his eager contemplation of truth he suffered astonishingly little of himself to intervene between perception and expression. So long as what he said seemed for the moment true, he cared for little else.
Again, one grows to feel more and more in Emerson a trait surprising in any man so saturated with ideal philosophy. As the story of Brook Farm indicated, the Transcendental movement generally expressed itself in ways which, whatever their purity, beauty, or sincerity, had not the grace of common sense. In the slang of our day, the Transcendentalists were cranks. With Emerson the case was different; in the daily conduct of his private life, as well as in the articulate utterances which pervade even his most eccentric writings, you will always find him, despite the vagaries of his ideal philosophy, a shrewd, sensible Yankee, full of a quiet, repressed, but ever present sense of humour which prevented him from overestimating himself, and compelled him when dealing with phenomena to recognise their relative practical value. He was aware of the Over-Soul, in whose presence Orion is no better than a team which should plod before a Concord baycart. He was equally aware that a dollar is a dollar, and a cent a cent, and that dollars and cents are convenient things to have in pocket. When you think of him as a lecturer or as a writer of books, then, you find all the old contradiction in a new form. You go to him as a prophet; you find a kindly gentleman with a good-natured smile lurking in the corners of his lips, who seems to tell you : “ Dear me, I am no more of a prophet than you are. We are all prophets. If you like, I will look into the eternities with great pleasure, and tell you what I see there; but at the end of the business I shall present you with a little bill. If you will pay it, I shall receipt it, and dine a trifle better in consequence.”
He was the prophet of Transcendentalism, if you like; but, after all, his general manner and temper were less prophetic than those of conventional parsons who thunder forth divine authority. He was farther still from the authoritative prophets of antiquity. He did not passionately seek God and phrase his discoveries in the sacred mysteries of dogma. He was rather a canny, honest Yankee gentleman, who mingled with his countrymen, and taught them as well as he could; who felt a kindly humour when other people agreed with him, and troubled himself little when they disagreed; who hitched his waggon to star after star, but never really confused the stars with the waggon.
And so descending to Concord earth, we find in him a trait very characteristic of the period when he happened to live, and one at which he himself would have been the first goodhumouredly to smile. He was born just when the Renaissance of New England was at hand, when at last the old tripod of theology, classics, and law was seen not to be the only basis of the human intellect, when all philosophy and letters were finally opening to New England knowledge. With all his contemporaries he revelled in this new world of human record and expression. To the very end he never lost his consequent, exuberantly boyish trick of dragging in allusions to all sorts of personages and matters which he knew only by name.
Take that sentence at which we glanced from his essay on Self-Reliance : “ Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton.” These great names he mentions with all the easy assurance of intimacy; he could hardly speak more familiarly of seven Concord farmers idling in a row on some sunny bench. Turn to him anywhere, and in any dozen pages you will find allusions as complacent as these, and about as accidental, to the bewilderingly various names at which his encyclopedia chanced to open. He had, in short, all the juvenile pedantry of renascent New England at a moment when Yankees had begun to know the whole range of literature by name, and when they did not yet distinguish between such knowledge and the unpretentious mastery of scholarship.
It is now nearly twenty years since Emerson's life gently faded away, and it is a full sixty since his eager preaching or prophecy of individualistic idealism stirred renascent New England to its depths. We have been trying to guess what Emerson may mean in permanent literature. To understand what he means historically, we must remind ourselves again of the conditions which surrounded his maturity. When he came to the pulpit of the Second Church of Boston, the tyranny of custom, at least in theoretical matters, was little crushed. Heretical though Unitarianism was, it remained in outward form a dominant religion. Statesmanship and scholarship, too, were equally fixed and rigid ; and so, to a degree hardly conceivable to-day, was the structure of society. Even today untrammelled freedom of thought, unrestrained assertion of individual belief, sometimes demands grave self-sacrifice. In Emerson's day it demanded heroic spirit.
To say that Emerson's lifelong heroism won us what moral and intellectual freedom we now possess would be to confuse the man with the movement of which he is the great exemplar. As the years pass, however, we begin to understand that no
other American writings record that movement half so vitally as his. As our individual freedom becomes more and more surely established, we may delight in Emerson more or less. According as our individuality responds or not to the idealism which touched him, we may find him repellent or sympathetic; and although it may hardly be asserted, it may fairly be surmised, that even in Emerson's most memorable utterances the future may find no considerable truth not better phrased by others. For in his effort to express truth, just as in his whole knowledge of life, he was limited by the national inexperience which throughout his time still protected New England. Yet whether or no, in generations to come, Emerson shall prove to have made lasting contributions to human wisdom, one thing which will remain true of him should commend him to the regard of all his countrymen who love spiritual freedom. We may not care for the things he said, we may not find sympathetic the temper in which he uttered them, but we cannot deny that when, for two hundred years, intellectual tyranny had kept the native American mind cramped within the limits of tradition, Emerson fearlessly stood forth as the chief representative of that movement which asserted the right of every individual to think, to feel, to speak, to act for himself, confident that so far as each acts in sincerity good shall ensue.
Whoever believes in individualism, then, must always respect in Emerson a living prophet; and, just as surely, those who find prospect of salvation only in obedience to authority must lament the defection from their ranks of a spirit which, whatever its errors, even they must admit to have been brave, honest, serene, and essentially pure with all that purity which is the deepest grace of ancestral New England.
THE LESSER MEN OF CONCORD
CONCORD, Massachusetts, until Emerson's time celebrated as the place where the embattled farmers made their stand against the British regulars in 1775, is now even better known as the Yankee village where for half a century Emerson lived, and gathered about him a little group of the intellectually and spiritually enlightened. Until very lately, indeed, something of this atmosphere lingered in Concord air. Among the humours of New England for some fifteen years has been a Concord School of Philosophy, where of a summer fantastic people have collected to hear and to give lectures. And everybody has been happy, and no human being is known to have been harmed. When the Concord School of Philosophy began its blameless existence, however, what makes Concord memorable was no longer there : Emerson had passed away. Whatever Concord retained, it had lost that saving grace of sound good sense which is among Emerson's most certain claims to distinction.
This trait of his appears most clearly when we compare him with one or two of his fellow-townsmen. Of the men who Aourished in Emerson's Concord, to be sure, the most eminent was Hawthorne, whose work belongs not to philosophy, but to pure letters, and whom we shall consider later. He would hardly have expected a place among the prophets of the eternities. At least two other men would have been disposed to call themselves philosophers, and, with artless lack of humour, to expect immortality in company with Emerson and Plato, and the rest. These were Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.