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"The Infinitude of the Private Man"

 
A bicentennial appreciation of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Until age 30, he did nothing to distinguish himself from respectable mediocrity. He graduated in the exact middle of the 59-member Harvard class of 1821, his greatest distinction the dubious honor of being chosen class poet after six others who had been asked "positively refused." Yet he went on to become one of the great literary essayists of all time, and one of the most influential figures in the history of American thought. This was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), whose bicentennial will be celebrated this year in a series of gatherings from Massachusetts to China.

Emerson as a young man…
Photographs courtesy of Harvard University Archives
Calligraphy and styling of photographs by Bartek Malysa

The Boston into which Emerson was born was a town of fewer than 25,000 people, proud of its revolutionary heritage but a cultural backwater compared to London and Paris. It was New England’s metropolis, then as now; but New Englanders feared (and with reason) they were destined to become a smaller and smaller part of the United States. Yet within a mere half-century, New England — and the Boston area in particular — had become a center for literature, for avant-garde American thought in religion, philosophy, and education, and for a host of other reform movements from temperance to abolition to feminism. The so-called Transcendentalist movement, for which Emerson was the key inspirational figure, was one of the primary reasons why.

As a child of Romanticism, Emerson was attracted by the romantic idealization of childhood. But he never idealized his own. He consistently referred to his father’s generation slightingly, as "that early ignorant and transitional Month-of-March, in our New England Culture." When their father died young, Emerson and his brothers grew up in genteel poverty — pinched, driven, and sickness-prone. Small wonder that his first course of action as an adult was prudently to follow the beaten path to ministry that his father and grandfathers had trod ever since the seventeenth century. But the early death of his beloved first wife, Ellen (Tucker) Emerson, began a chain reaction that shook him out of that conventional niche and into a career as freelance writer and public lecturer.

Loss plunged Emerson into a deep loneliness that unexpectedly opened up the discovery of an inner power he could only think of as a god within. "I have only one doctrine," he wrote years later, "the infinitude of the private man." He did not exaggerate by much. Self-Reliance, as he preferred to call it, did indeed become the cornerstone of his mature thought, and of Transcendentalism. Meanwhile, his modest inheritance from Ellen’s estate enabled him to resettle in precarious security in his ancestral town of Concord, remarry, and try his wings in a venue that proved a much better match for his talents.

The American Lyceum movement, just then taking shape, was a loosely-knit assemblage of individual town- and city-based forums for lecturing, debating, and other entertainments of a more or less instructive character: a premodern equivalent to adult education and educational TV. Thanks in no small part to the already-embedded Yankee traditions of village organization and the self-help ethic, lyceums proliferated quickly all across the northern states, following the path of the New England diaspora westward to and across the Mississippi. Almost every year from the mid 1830s to the late 1860s, Emerson worked up a "course" of six to a dozen lectures, typically starting in or near Boston and fanning out in widening circles as the network grew, contracting at each place for the exact number of engagements. These lectures he quarried and synthesized from the voluminous journal he kept lifelong ("my savings bank," he called it) and reworked later into books of essays.

Emerson in middle age. At right: A caricature of Emerson as "Transparent Eyeball," a reference to a passage in Nature, by his friend and fellow Transcendentalist Christopher Cranch.
Photographs courtesy of Harvard University Archives
Calligraphy and styling of photographs by Bartek Malysa

The lyceum was an ideal platform for a person of ministerial background (the largest single occupational group of speakers) who had justified that choice of vocation to himself on the grounds of his love of writing and oratory. But the topics were not supposed to be specialized or sharply partisan or doctrinal. Cultural enlightenment and intellectual stimulation were the primary goals. The standby lyceum talks favored by the famous abolitionists Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, for instance, were "The Lost Arts" and "Self-Made Men" (in some versions of which Douglass nodded respectfully in Emerson’s direction).

The result was a highly miscellaneous menu of possibilities. This in itself appealed to Emerson. He ranged from arts and letters to biography and history to issues of moral conduct, social theory, and popular science. His life-list of lectures reminds one of the wandering table of contents of one of his own favorite writers, Michel de Montaigne, with whose example partly in mind Emerson, too, wrote essays on "Friendship," "Books," "Education," and "Experience."

Emerson was unique among successful lyceum orators for his ability to hold an audience even when he was difficult or abstruse, and despite a low-key manner that depended almost wholly for special effects upon his memorable voice. "Full and sweet, rather than sonorous," his friend Margaret Fuller described it, "yet flexible, and haunted by many modulations, as even instruments of wood and brass seem to become after they have been long played on with skill and taste." Like modern students upon a first attentive reading of his essays, Emerson’s nineteenth-century audiences were sometimes put off, but more often reacted with a combination of slight befuddlement and invigoration at the sense of experiencing agile, challenging thinking in action.

Yet Emerson’s two most influential speeches were not given in the lyceum but at Harvard. "The American Scholar," the Phi Beta Kappa oration for 1837, has understandably though a bit misleadingly been nicknamed "our intellectual declaration of independence." It issues a ringing call for literary and cultural emergence — for Americans to stop imitating "the courtly muses of Europe" — but Emerson does not take a hard-line nationalist tone so much as foresee the United States bringing to maturity the two central ideas in modern transatlantic thought: a renewed respect for the individual, and a new attentiveness to the worth of ordinary or common life. In any event, the speech remains the only lecture ever given at Harvard widely read today by nonacademics.

"The American Scholar" voiced its audience’s inner anxieties and convictions. The core vision of Emerson’s 1838 address to the graduating class and faculty of Harvard Divinity School was quite similar, but its far more confrontational tone provoked a firestorm. That Emerson made religious reform his theme and proceeded to target the timidity and conformism of his own sect, and in its inner sanctum to boot, was especially galling. The Divinity School Address was a ringing assertion of the claims of individual conscience and spiritual experience over against Unitarian teachings about the authority of Jesus. It established Emerson’s reputation for intellectual radicalism and made him persona non grata at Harvard for more than a decade.

Emerson as a national icon. At left: Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts.
Photographs courtesy of Harvard University Archives
Calligraphy and styling of photographs by Bartek Malysa

In time, alma mater re-embraced the prodigal son, appointed him to its Board of Overseers, made him a distinguished visiting professor, and named its philosophy building after him. Why? Fame certainly helped, as Emerson’s lectures and books increasingly made him a household word throughout the northern United States and he came to be regarded as the chief spokesman for progressive American ideas in Britain and parts of Europe. So too, at least in the long run, did his increasing engagement with secular issues, particularly the antislavery movement. Perennially suspicious of team efforts of any sort, Emerson was slower to join it than many in his own circle, including even his own wife, Lydia (Jackson) Emerson. But he was well in advance of mainstream northern consensus. In the decade before the Civil War he became increasingly an outspoken public advocate for abolition. After the war, he was increasingly looked upon as the articulator of the Union’s highest ideals.

"I never dared be radical when young/For fear it would make me conservative when old" — so goes a mini-poem by Robert Frost, inspired by a passage in the greatest of all Emerson’s essays, "Experience." In his own lifetime Emerson found himself typed in turn as a dangerous radical and as a national icon. Which image is truer? This is a question still being debated two centuries after his birth. It’s a sign that Emerson will remain alive for a long time to come.