Ralph Waldo Emerson always went his good friend Margaret Fuller one better: she stood ready to “accept the universe.” To Emerson mere acceptance seemed paltry. He didn’t just accept the universe, he congratulated it. He bestowed approbation on the rivers and mountain ranges. He tipped his hat to the bright-faced flowers of the field. He gazed on the judicious modulations of the seasons with a congratulatory eye. He applauded the firmament on high. Everything in nature upon which his shrewd assessing glance alighted he found to be not just good but lavishly, indeed sumptuously, ordered and appointed for a single and momentous end. As he put it in a very early journal entry, “The human soul, the world, the universe are labouring on to their magnificent consummation.” To this he appended the Byronic apostrophe, “Roll on then thou stupendous Universe in sublime incomprehensible solitude, in an unbeheld but sure path.”
Given the adolescent Emerson’s billowing self-regard, we might be forgiven for suspecting that the ultimate end of the universe could be summed up in his favorite formula: My Genius (emphasis his). Throughout his published writings, as well as in his vast, posthumously published journals, Emerson often stops to bequeath firm pats of approval on the head of a deserving cosmos. These flurries of approval usually presage a rush of self-aggrandizement. At such moments—and there are many in the journals—Emerson’s cosmic complacency puffs him aloft and there he basks, calling on awesome and unseen powers. “Wander after moon-beams, fairies!” he exclaims in one.
On October 3, 1820, he notes further that “to forget for a season the world & its concerns, & to separate the soul for sublime contemplation till it has lost the sense of circumstances & is decking itself in plumage drawn out from the gay wardrobe of Fancy is a recreation & a rapture of which few men can avail themselves.” Ah yes, few indeed! True, Emerson was only seventeen when he wrote these lines but, except for the deep purple of the prose, the mature Emerson remains pretty much the same. He was ever on the outlook for “magnificent masses of vapour.” They “awakened exhilaration.” As for “sublime contemplation,” that remained his native element from first to last.
Emerson’s voluminous journals form the record of that contemplation—not all of it sublime—as well as of much, much else, over a long and productive life. He began keeping them as a Harvard undergraduate in January 1820, and he continued for almost sixty years, breaking off some five years before his death on April 27, 1882. In that span of time, Emerson filled no fewer than 182 separate notebooks, all of which remained unpublished for almost a century after his death. At long last in 1982, Harvard University Press brought out the sixteenth and final volume of the magnificent Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the result of twenty-two years of meticulous editorial labor.
Lawrence Rosenwald’s Library of America selection—the first since Joel Porte’s wonderful Emerson in His Journals of 1982—offers us a privileged glimpse of the Sage of Concord much as he saw himself, though not perhaps as he might have wished to be seen. The ineffable Emersonian pomposity, the serene self-satisfaction, and the orotund pronouncements are very much in evidence, but so too are peevish outbursts, malicious sallies, grumbles and gripes, as well as profound and quite stunning aperçus—with several of these discordant elements occasionally congregating uneasily on the same page. As with all Library of America editions, there is a detailed chronology, biographical and textual notes, and in each volume, a “gallery” of portraits, including facsimiles of journal pages, as well as reproductions of drawings, paintings, and silhouettes of Emerson, his family, and his friends. From this selection it is clear that there’s really nothing to compare with this extraordinary work in American literature; even its defects somehow add to its cumulative grandeur. You might call it a “Song of Myself” in prose—unforgettable, magical prose—but that encomium hardly does it justice.
In Emerson’s published essays and in some of his poems, for all their polished aplomb, a faint saccharine sheen is often discernible; there’s a suspect showiness, an over-ripeness of phrase. Those traits occur in the Journals too, yet the pleasures they offer are more various and less predictable. They don’t make smooth reading, and that’s to their credit. If they’re never boring, that may simply be because Emerson really wasn’t a very likeable man; to his honor, he knew this and acknowledged it. Despite his apparent bonhomie, he emerges all too often from these pages as aloof and distinctly chilly. Even he refers to his “cold pedantic self.” Of his friends Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, he can say, “Cold as I am, they are almost dear.” That “almost” speaks volumes.
Emerson regarded his journals not as the chronicle of “a soul laid bare,” but as a kind of workshop, an atelier; he called them his “savings bank” from which he withdrew what he called “hints, fragments, scintillations,” snippets of aphorism and slivers of argument, for his hugely popular essays. Even so, Emerson’s colossal self-confidence, the glossy carapace of his self-importance, looms large on every page: his egotism is Jovian and unignorable. How he would have taken to the internet! He would have been splendidly at home today, a blogger extraordinaire, oracle to the nation if not to humankind at large, nay, to the universe itself—a hortatory, haranguing, hectoring presence, seductive and repellent in well-nigh equal measure.
Self-centered as he was, Emerson could, nevertheless, be a sharp-eyed observer of persons. His cameos of Coleridge and Wordsworth in English Traits are astute and slyly humorous. That delightful book, one of Emerson’s best, was published in 1856, but the notes on which it is based date back to 1833, when he first met Coleridge, Carlyle, Wordsworth, and other English luminaries. It is amusing to find the thirty-year-old Emerson noting in his journal for that year that “not one of these is a mind of the very first class.” The journals confirm what the published work, with its faintly patronizing tone, merely hints at. They confirm, too, that no matter how vivid his portraits, Emerson preferred types to individuals; individuals had an unruly way of disrupting the transcendental mood. Mere persons obtruded upon him in all their slovenly particularity.
He might gloss over unexpected visitors as “ambassadors of the infinite,” a typical Emersonian dodge, but they introduced an unwelcome grittiness into his well-oiled and smoothly purring cosmos. This was especially true of Thoreau—“erect, calm, self-subsistent,” as he describes him in 1862—for Thoreau’s sense of self was as absolute and stubbornly undeflectable as his own. He could not be reduced to a category, not only because he was unclassifiable but also because Emerson loved and admired him so.
But when Emerson praises Shakespeare, in his Representative Men (1850), it is as “the Poet” that he praises him; so, too, Goethe is “the Writer,” Montaigne “the Skeptic,” Napoleon “the Man of the World,” and so forth. In the journals we keep running into the Woman, the Labourer, the Scholar, the Farmer, not forgetting, of course, the ever-present Genius (to whom, as he notes more than once, “everything is permitted”). They are collectivities, constellations, conduits, not beings of flesh and blood. Emerson was, of course, aware of this; it was part and parcel of his transcendental, Platonizing perspective; he cherished eidolons more than persons; he was a Realist for whom universals are palpable; he mistrusted individual identity—at least, that of others—even as he extolled Self as the ultimate, unanswerable authority.
As the Journals make plain, on page after page, the disparity, indeed, the clash, between Emerson’s compulsion to abstract experience and experience itself, with all its specific and sorry minutiae, remains the hidden leitmotif of his long intellectual career. In the journals, this collision—between life as Emerson wished to see it and life as it is—occasions quite sparkling outbursts of peevishness. It leads him to acknowledge his “porcupine impossibility of contact with men,” and we appreciate his wry candor.
Again, in a splendid entry for June 23, 1838, he revels in his loathing of goody-goodies:
I hate goodies. I hate goodness that preaches. Goodness that preaches undoes itself. A little electricity of virtue lurks here & there in kitchens & among the obscure—chiefly women, that flashes out occasional light & makes the existence of the thing still credible. But one had as lief curse & swear as be guilty of this odious religion that watches the beef & watches the cider in the pitcher at table, that shuts the mouth hard at any remark it cannot twist nor wrench into a sermon. . . . Goodies make us very bad. We should, if the race should increase, be scarce restrained from calling for bowl & dagger. We will almost sin to spite them.
Such passages, and there are quite a few, give us not the polished speaker of the New England lecture circuit but the Sage in rumpled shirtsleeves, growling and cantankerous. The brilliance is as conspicuous as ever—a little electricity of virtue indeed!—but the public pomposity has been set aside. And the point he makes remains as valid in these days of niggling and mean-spirited correctness as it did in his own. The private Emerson could be refreshingly caustic too, as when he writes: “When I read the North American Review, or the London Quarterly, I seem to hear the snore of the muses, not their waking voices.” Plus ça change . . . ! And sometimes he startles us with observations as bizarre as they are brutal: “What is so beautiful as the sobbing of a child, the face all liquid grief as he tries to swallow his vexation?”
Emerson’s moral seriousness is always much in evidence, of course, but here, in these private pages, it is stripped of smugness and close to the bone, as in this entry, from 1845, in the midst of his contentious wrangles with the Abolitionists (whose goals he supported, if not their methods): “What argument, what eloquence can avail against the power of that one word niggers? The man of the world annihilates the whole combined force of all the antislavery societies of the world by pronouncing it.”
Over the years Emerson’s character reveals a few stray fissures; his “genius” isn’t always in harmony with the World Soul. Against the strident demands of socialism he remarks in 1843:
My Genius loudly calls me to stay where I am, even with the degradation of owning bankstock and seeing poor men suffer whilst the Universal Genius apprises me of this disgrace & beckons me to the martyr’s & redeemer’s office.
Emerson’s private skirmishes with the Universal Genius recur throughout the Journals and we can’t help cheering when yet again he outwits or eludes that sublime but censorious overlord. These little episodes impart some inadvertent humor to these otherwise rather solemn pages. It’s not that Emerson lacked a sense of humor; he was amused by the unseemly, the preposterous. When he comes upon a monstrous mushroom in the forest, he imagines it proclaiming, “Well I am something! Burst, ye beholders! Thou lucky beholder! With wonder.” (Emerson could recognize an ego on the upswing even in a mushroom.) But the moral he draws is dubious: “Certainly there is Comedy in the Divine Mind when these little Vegetable Selfconceits front the day as well as Newton or Goethe, with such impressive emptiness.” The humor of this is unwitting; it lies in Emerson’s pomposity, not in the mushroom. Even the most self-satisfied mushroom deserves better than bluff condescension.
There are other comical moments in the Journals, all equally inadvertent. The funniest incidents tend to occur when Emerson engages with others. He is dimly aware that his presence can be oppressive. As he observes, “I am in the habit of surrendering myself to my companion, so that it may easily happen that my companion finds himself somewhat tasked to meet the occasion.” We can imagine—though Emerson himself clearly cannot—just how “tasked” some hapless resident of Concord might have felt upon being buttonholed by the beaming Emerson in full spate, eager to lavish a few “initiative, spermatic prophesying man-making words” upon his dumbstruck interlocutor. But don’t shirk, don’t skulk away for “it is vain to tell me that you are sufficient to yourself but have not anything to impart. I know & am assured that whoever is sufficient to himself will, if only by existing, suffice me also.”
True, he has his pet bugbears, his quirks and foibles—more than his share of them in fact. He is especially peevish, as well as truly impressive, in his stubborn unwillingness to be dragooned into public demonstrations, even against evils he deplores, such as slavery, not only because of his dislike of “goodies” but also because he is convinced that his proper place is at his desk, thinking and writing. Beyond such recurrent wrangles over public as opposed to private responsibilities—ever more intense in the decades leading up to the Civil War—the Journals contain passages of lacerating grief, when something dreadful, something unbearable, shatters the well-buffed surfaces of his habitual aplomb.
In a long entry on the funeral of Nathaniel Hawthorne, on May 23, 1864, Emerson regrets an opportunity for friendship somehow missed; here the usual social comedy of his relations with others is tinged with honest grief for “he said so little, that I talked too much, & stopped only because,—as he gave no indications,—I feared to exceed.” A year later, an entry sarcastically headed “Southern Morality” crackles with genuine fury at the barbaric Confederate treatment of Union prisoners of war. But the most nakedly painful entries come earlier, though the events haunt Emerson ever after. When his five-year-old son Waldo dies suddenly, on January 28, 1842, Emerson is devastated, and we are touched in a new way by his words, if only because they falter and turn clumsy. “He gave up his little innocent breath like a bird,” Emerson writes, conventionally enough, but then, in the midst of the blank page he scrawls “Dear Waldo,” as though addressing a letter to his dead son, and the two bare words are heartbreaking. Emerson’s grief never leaves him, though he hides it. Twenty years later, in an entry for August 26, 1862, he recalls that once when he took Waldo to the circus, the child saw the clowns and said, “It makes me want to go home,” and this childish whim seems to the aging Emerson, for whom “life loses value every month,” to express his own discouraged state of mind.
Such moments, registered over a lifetime, together with the record of Emerson’s personal likes and dislikes, his changes of mood, his idiosyncratic observations, day after day, make of the Journals not only an inestimably precious literary and historical document; they also add depth and shading to the published work. Emerson remains one of the few nineteenth-century American writers who can set my teeth on edge and stand my hair on end. He and his work remain irritatingly alive. I can still recall the fateful moment when I peered through the dusty panes of my grandmother’s glass-fronted bookcase and spotted a little blue-bound volume with the odd-sounding title “Self-Reliance” stamped in gilt on its spine. Of course, I had to take it out and spread open the foxed and musty pages; of course, I had to read the thing, had to ingest all the toxins of that lethal little essay: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Who wouldn’t be hooked by such a flattering notion?
Emerson goes on to encourage non-conformism, inconsistency (“the hobgoblin of little minds”), outright boorishness: “Let us never bow and apologize more. A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.” (No great man came to eat at our house, so at least this advice wasn’t put into effect.) The coldness of temperament evident in the Journals here turns formulaic: “Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s.” My English grandmother saw in “Self-Reliance” a sort of update to Poor Richard’s Almanac: self-reliance offered a way to become “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” (In the same spirit, she remained firmly convinced that the sententious Polonius was the true hero of Hamlet. Wasn’t “neither a borrower nor a lender be” self-reliance in a nutshell?) In any case, she was too much of a lady, too reverent of tradition and immemorial custom, to follow Emerson’s vulgar injunction, “Insist on yourself; never imitate.”
The Journals of the same period both modify and complicate such postures. There, to be sure, Emerson asserts that “the least significant native emotion of my own” is more important than reading “the works of the old commanding writers,” but at the same time, he asks, “Is not the beauty that piques us in every object, in a straw, an old nail, a cobble-stone in the road, the announcement that always our road lies out into nature, & not inward to the wearisome odious anatomy of ourselves?” (his emphasis). Such entries suggest that Emerson’s loud promotion of the sovereign self came at a cost: he overstated the case to convince himself as well as others. When he relied on his eye, when he stepped “out into nature,” he could view the stars and admire “their admonishing smile.” At the very sight, he wrote, “I am glad to the brink of fear.” This, I think, is the true Emerson—not the posturing Sage but the hidden Emerson of the Journals, the Emerson who could write, in the late essay “Fate” of 1860, “A man must thank his defects, and stand in some terror of his talents.” The thousands of pages of these incomparable Journals, in their impossible stateliness as in their startled swerves, are twisted together from start to finish on the twin threads of that terror and that thankfulness.
Eric Ormsbys latest book is The Baboons of Hada, a selection of his poems (Carcanet)
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