Ralph Waldo Emerson image
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Born in May 25, 1803 / Died in April 27, 1882 / United States / English


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No one has a better claim than Ralph Waldo Emerson to being the central figure in the whole history of American literature. All artists distill influences from the past to become, themselves, influences on the future, but in Emerson's case the affiliations reach farther back and farther forward and more generally and consequentially in both directions. He inherits, for example, the inwardness of his Puritan ancestors—their struggle to adjust their lives and the world itself to an order above nature, their fear of losing touch with the immanence of the divine, and even their contempt for formalism in religion and their belief that each particular self is at last the only scene of regeneration. Emerson's nineteenth-century reformation of such seventeenth-century motives was decisively influential on poets such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. His presence and example were deeply felt in American philosophy, religion, music, and education, both during his lifetime and into the twentieth century.

Emerson was not, of course, simply the mediator of a Puritan worldview; he was a man of his own time, whose intellectual heritage was mediated for him by the late-Augustan culture of his youth and by the heady Anglo-Germanic Romanticism of his adult years. Born 25 May 1803, he grew up in Federalist Boston, the son of William Emerson (1769-1811), a socially prominent Unitarian minister, and Ruth Haskins (1768-1853), whose background was Anglican. The Puritan tradition held little attraction for either of his parents, and in the civic-minded culture of flourishing, fashionable Boston (incorporated as a city in 1822), Calvinist views, when noticed at all, were apt to be scorned as narrow, superstitious, provincial, and vulgar. If not for his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, to whom the mystical depths of the old religion irresistibly appealed, young Waldo might have adapted more comfortably than he did to the Scottish "Common Sense" philosophy of Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1821, or to the empiricism (based on the philosophy of John Locke) of Harvard's Unitarian Divinity School, which he briefly attended a few years later. Aunt Mary, a lively, sharp-tongued personality who had special charge of Emerson's childhood religious education, was a source of more modern influences as well: suspicious of city life, she talked endlessly to her nephew about the charms of solitary communion with nature and the pastoral delights of the poetry of William Wordsworth. She was undoubtedly the most important of the early influences on Emerson, keeping him open at once to the mysteries of the spiritual life and to forms of Romantic subjectivity just then beginning to reach America from Europe. She had been a main source of strength and character after the death of her brother, Emerson's father, in 1811, when as a consequence Ruth Emerson and her sons (William, Ralph Waldo, Charles Chauncy, Edward Bliss, and Robert Bulkeley) were instantly thrust into poverty and social obscurity. Aunt Mary taught high-mindedness and self-respect as compensations for the new difficulties of the outward life, and in part by this encouragement three of the sons eventually graduated from Harvard. Nothing could shake Aunt Mary 's conviction that her nephews were meant to accomplish great things.

Still, Emerson came cautiously and at times reluctantly to the vocational decision that put him, in 1829, in the pulpit of Boston's Second Church (Unitarian). Emersons had been ministers almost from the family 's American beginnings, so the call was virtually a genealogical destiny. The position certainly had its attractions. Boston ministers were salaried intellectuals with a built-in audience and long-range job security; barring some spectacular malfeasance, they could look forward to a life of comfort and prestige, of literature, reflection, and social influence. Emerson was especially intrigued by the professional example of William Ellery Channing, Unitarian minister at the Federal Street church and a genius at preaching, always identified at that time as among America's leading literary figures. Channing demonstrated how far Unitarianism had departed from the stern, sin-obsessed tenets of Calvinism when he spoke in 1828 of man's "likeness to God." Such signs of liberal thinking and acknowledgment of the individual were not enough, however, to allay Emerson's doubts about Unitarianism as a sect or system, and his relation to it remained equivocal even as he began to write out his weekly sermons.

As a preacher Emerson spoke often and eloquently of ethical matters, bending his already considerable powers as a writer to show the link between strength and rectitude of character on the one hand and principles of natural religion on the other. The world was not, as the Calvinists had insisted, "the Scaffold of the Divine Vengeance" but rather a system that, because it was framed by benevolence in the first place, now and always rewards benevolence with power. Emerson took the increasing popular recognition of this belief as a sign of progress; religion seemed to be liberating itself in the direction of the spiritual and poetic—pointing, as he could then bring himself to think, toward a sort of millennium. "It has been thought," he suggested in a sermon of 1827, "that Christianity is preparing its own triumphs, that a purer age shall come, when God shall be worshipped in spirit and in truth." Then, "civil laws, that are now found necessary to coerce the peace of society," will no longer be needed, and "men shall feel as a community." The perfectionist utopianism of the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830) seems in this statement to be speaking through the enthusiastic new minister, but the appeal of the image and the attraction of the motive were enduring and long outlasted Emerson's allegiance to the church as an institution.

In 1830 he started reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge seriously and shortly after that, Thomas Carlyle; their sympathetic promotion of German post-Kantian philosophy encouraged Emerson's independent speculations and contributed to his decision in 1832 to leave the Second Church. He had married Ellen Tucker on 30 September 1829, and her death in 1831 of tuberculosis at age nineteen, an emotionally shattering event for Emerson contributed to his religious crisis. But the immediate and ostensible reason for the resignation was his unwillingness to offer communion to a congregation that seemed to value it only as a customary and venerable rite of the church. He agreed with Sampson Reed, a follower of Swedish philosopher and writer Emanuel Swedenborg, that dead religious forms were now too much respected and that care had to be taken "that the life which is received be genuine." Emerson's hunger for personal authenticity and truth of character made painful for him the act of conciliating others by saying or doing anything he did not himself believe. He regarded the saying of the Quaker George Fox, "What I am in words, I am the same in life," as profoundly admirable. Nothing could give genuineness to the Lord's Supper but the communicant's own actively engaged faith: not history or tradition, not even Christ's injunction, could save it from vacant formalism or the meaninglessness of routine. The stand that Emerson took in vindication of individual consciousness as the living, underived source of value—indeed as the seat of meaning and power—was perhaps the first act of his career as a Transcendentalist.

After his resignation he set sail for Europe, hoping to restore his shaken health and to consider various literary projects he had vaguely in mind. He toured the Roman ruins in Sicily, traveled north through Italy, and visited France, England, and Scotland before returning home in the fall of 1833. On this trip he met the writers he had been reading—Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle—and was relieved and emboldened to find he could more than hold his own with each. In Paris, at the Jardin des Plantes, Emerson had been fascinated by the animals on exhibit, finding in each of them, as he thought, an external development or symbol of some familiar human trait (a fox, for example, could be seen as a portrait of cunning), and thus Emerson could make out their relevance—or "occult relation"—to himself. Suddenly, the phenomenal world was unlocked. Nature, he thought, was a map of the mind, and he determined, in the enthusiasm of this insight into the miraculous fullness and unity of life, to become a naturalist.

Back home Emerson began his lifelong career as a lecturer, first on scientific subjects, then on literary, ethical, and metaphysical topics, appearing in lyceums around Boston and feeling his way toward his first book, Nature. This slim, ninety-five-page volume, which he published anonymously in 1836, was a manifesto of what Emerson, borrowing the term from Francis Bacon, was calling the "First Philosophy." His manifesto stated that the world consisted of Spirit (thought, ideas, moral laws, abstract truth, meaning itself ) and Nature (all of material reality, all that atoms comprise); it held that the former, which is timeless, is the absolute cause of the latter, which serves in turn to express Spirit, in a medium of time and space, to the senses. In other words, the objective, physical world—what Emerson called the "Not-Me"—is symbolic and exists for no other purpose than to acquaint human beings with its complement—the subjective, ideational world, identified with the conscious self and referred to in Emersonian counterpoint as the "Me." Food, water, and air keep us alive, but the ultimate purpose for remaining alive is simply to possess the meanings of things, which by definition involves a translation of the attention from the physical fact to its spiritual value. Emerson was saying that human life cannot be accounted for on a purely mechanical basis: without some such notion of the spiritual as Emerson describes, men and women could perhaps register the existence of the world (as animals do) but could have no meaningful relation to it, no sense of its beauty, no feeling for the fitness of its moral relations. Such consciousness is the experiential link to higher ("transcendental") realms. As in the revelation at the Jardin des Plantes, the germ of spirit in moral consciousness is the sign of relation between the human and the divine and is perpetually attuned to the dramatic shows that spirit unceasingly plays out. By the time Nature appeared in October 1836, Emerson's private circumstances (his own particular material world) had undergone considerable changes. In the interval since his return from Europe, he had received a little more than $23,000 from the estate of his first wife, roughly equivalent to thirteen times his annual salary at the Second Church. He had married again on 14 September 1835 (to Lydia Jackson of Plymouth), had bought a large house in Concord, his ancestral home, and meant to live off the proceeds of his bank stock, supplemented with income from the fall and winter lecture seasons. The house was large because Emerson meant to provide a home for his widowed mother, Ruth, as well as for his brother Charles (his closest intellectual companion at this time) and for Charles's wife-to-be, Elizabeth Hoar. But Charles, who seems to have been every bit as talented as his brother, though with a disabling streak of melancholy, succumbed to tuberculosis in 1836 at the age of twenty-eight, shortly before the scheduled marriage. Emerson remembered him in a beautiful passage from Nature:

When much intercourse with a friend has supplied us with a standard of excellence, and has increased our respect for the resources of God who thus sends a real person to outgo our ideal; when he has, moreover, become an object of thought, and, whilst his character retains all its unconscious effect, is converted in the mind into solid and sweet wisdom,--it is a sign to us that his office is closing, and he is commonly withdrawn from our sight in a short time.

Thus, even the pranks and tragedies of nature serve the mind and are friendly to wisdom and reverence.

During the years leading up to the publication of Nature, Emerson's youthful penchant for versifying suddenly and distinctly matured into an important talent for poetry. The poems he was now writing indicate that his recently arrived-at convictions about the symbolic relation of spirit and nature were a source of transformative energy. In other words, having seen that the world is a poem, Emerson could now live in it as a poet. Among the early products of this insight, perhaps "The Snow-Storm" (written in the winter of 1834-1835) best captures his sense of how expression in language was to work and what it might accomplish. At a purely narrative level the poem describes an ordinary New England overnight snowstorm augmented by drifting winds. But Emerson's storm is no meteorological event; it is the arrival and passing by of a great impersonal artist, hidden and working with materials from an "unseen quarry" to possess and transfigure the landscape.


the fierce artificer

Curves his white bastions with projected roof

Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work

So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he

For number or proportion.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And when his hours are numbered, and the world

Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,

Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art

To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,

Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,

The frolic architecture of the snow.

In Nature, Emerson was to say that "Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts": in the poem, the snowstorm is not just an instance of the creative power but also a symbol for it. Humans learn from the snow (perhaps the purpose of snow is to teach this idea) that spirit builds by a thoroughgoing repossession; the artist who would create organically must, in similar fashion, see and possess the world (as having an author's title to it), not by a laborious adherence to "number or proportion" but by sheer abandonment to the great fundamental laws of nature.

This sort of thinking is specifically characteristic of Emersonian Transcendentalism and implies that the universe is filled with intelligence. Because many people tend now to believe that the universe is filled instead with randomness, Emerson's views can often seem antiquated and theological. He had not "caught on" to the lessons of modern science, but in the 1830s, neither had anyone else. The question that every reader of Emerson has to face is not whether what he had to say is "true" according to an account of the world that emerged after him but whether what he had to say is in any sense useful still.

Those who argue for Emerson's continuing relevance often point out that he was and is (with the possible exception of Jonathan Edwards) the most impressive proponent of philosophical idealism that the United States has produced. (Emerson's 1842 definition of Transcendentalism was "Idealism as it appears in 1842.") Logically, there are only two ways of looking at the world: either one is a materialist and thinks that the physical world constitutes the sum total of real existence, or one is an idealist and believes, with Plato, that ideas, since they are timeless, have a greater primacy and reality. Neither proposition is in any meaningful sense truer than the other, and most people, defying consistency, are idealists and materialists by turn. But in adopting a strong idealist position, Emerson became a useful critic of the rampant materialism of Jacksonian America. His position, moreover, allowed him to connect the world of facts to the "unseen quarry" of antecedent spirit, uniting the world to its meanings in ways that no materialist (incapable, by definition, of symbolism) ever could. Emerson finally rests his argument for idealism on its better congruence with thought and observation: "The advantage of the ideal theory over the popular faith," he said in Nature, "is this, that it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind." What, after all, has the human mind and spirit to do with things, other than to make them over into thoughts?

Such views could not be altogether popular in shrewd, acquisitive New England, which was just then poised on the brink of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, Emerson's views were pointedly antipopular, and his readership, as he expected, was at first quite small. No more than 1,500 copies of Nature were printed in the edition of 1836, and even then not all were sold for a dozen years. From the beginning he was accused of being obscure and--worse yet--of being out of step with conventional Protestant piety.

Emerson assembled his audience slowly, in the lecture halls of Boston-area lyceums, by appealing to a starved appetite for intelligent nonsectarian talk on subjects that today would be called "cultural." In 1835 he gave a series of lectures on biography, which allowed him to theorize about beauty ("Michel Angelo"), religious reform ("Martin Luther"), the usefulness of liberty to a genius ("John Milton"), the similarity of Quaker spiritualism to the transcendentalism of Immanuel Kant or Johann Gottlieb Fichte ("George Fox" ), and the role of the philosopher in public affairs ("Edmund Burke"). Also in 1835, during the fall season, he gave a series of lectures on English literature (including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Bacon, and the tradition of "Ethical Writers" to which he himself belonged). In the introduction to this series Emerson defined literature as "the clothing of things of the mind in the things of matter" and imagination as "that active state of the mind in which it forces things to obey the laws of thought." In a world where, as he later said, "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind," literature is the satisfying reassertion of the controlling position of thought and spirit.

In the still more broadly ranging and ambitious lectures of the following year, the pattern of composition that would permanently characterize Emerson's work began to emerge. The "Philosophy of History" series (1836) develops topics that Emerson had written about, often in a scattered and desultory way, in his private journals, which he had been keeping as a record of his reading and thinking since Harvard days. These journals, which comprise sixteen volumes in the modern edition, are a great achievement in themselves and provide the most complete record extant of the intellectual life of any nineteenth-century American. Emerson called them his "savings bank," and by means of an elaborate system of topical indexing he was able to make them bear interest in the composition of his lectures. The lectures, in turn, were candidates for revision into essays: for example, much of the "Philosophy of History" series achieved an ultimate form in Emerson's first published collection, titled simply Essays, which appeared in 1841. By that time his increasingly evident success as a lecturer had drawn favorable attention and had produced a reading audience for his books. Probably most of those who bought Emerson's books and pamphlets at this time had earlier heard him speak; for them a personal presence was infused into the act of reading, and the words were received in the remembered tones of a living voice.

American publishing had not yet learned the ways of mass marketing, nor had it made use of the technical advantages offered by the Industrial Revolution in production, advertising, and distribution. Authorship was hardly yet a lucrative profession (as Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, was finding out); yet, it could, as in Emerson's case, result in a regional reputation and by attracting the attention of like-minded men and women provide the focal point for a literary-philosophical movement. In the 1830s the personnel of American Transcendentalism came together, and they gathered around Emerson.

Amos Bronson Alcott was among the first to discover that Emerson was an interesting fellow: Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody had noticed Emerson as a promising young minister at the Second Church and sought him out in 1835. So, too, a year later, did Margaret Fuller, who in turn brought Emerson into contact with her own wide circle of friends. Henry David Thoreau was still a student at Harvard when he read Nature, by his new Concord neighbor; it was at Emerson's suggestion shortly afterward that Thoreau began to keep a journal of his own. To all of Emerson's new acquaintances a major point of interest was that Emerson corresponded regularly with Carlyle (as indeed he did for the greater part of his life) and that by 1838 he had become the British essayist's American editor. Because Carlyle was interested in German Romantic philosophy, New Englanders who shared that interest began gravitating toward Emerson as Carlyle's American counterpart. Indeed, interest in German literature and philosophy ran high just then: Emerson seems to have taught himself German well enough to read most of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's works (as he told Carlyle) in 1836; Margaret Fuller had learned the language a few years earlier from James Freeman Clarke and Frederic Henry Hedge; and another of Emerson's friends, George Ripley, editor of a series titled "Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature," published Fuller's first book, a translation of Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe, in 1839. Hedge also guided Theodore Parker's German studies in 1838. At Harvard's bicentennial celebration on 8 September 1836 (the day before Nature was published), Ripley and Hedge convened with Emerson at a Cambridge hotel to establish the Transcendental Club. Such people as Clarke, Fuller, Parker, Alcott, and Peabody joined in later meetings.

The immediate occasion for the Transcendental Club's organization was the dissatisfaction of the progressive younger men (the average age of club members was thirty-two) with the rational empiricism of Locke and its spiritually deadening influence on Unitarianism. Coleridge, who, like Carlyle, was deeply indebted to the Germans and about whom, in 1833, Hedge had written glowingly in the Christian Examiner, was an altogether better guide than Locke in spiritual matters (or so these young men of Boston felt). Coleridge's views on human life, as expressed in The Friend (1818) and Aids to Reflection (1825) for example, were organic and therefore emphasized growth toward an ideal and stressed as well the unity of subject and object--or, in religious terms, the unity of human and divine. Coleridge had, for Emerson and his gathering of friends, usefully distinguished between the Understanding and the Reason--that is to say, between normal, manipulative mental faculties and the intuitive affinity of consciousness for higher truths, including the moral law. Reason, this unmediated connection with high and permanent--indeed transcendental--realms, this faculty so like that which inspired poets' use (or by which, rather, the poets themselves are used) was exactly what was missing from the belief of the church; without it Unitarianism was little more than a set of rituals for merchants to observe, and its downward course to a perfect sterility was unavoidable.

Thus, the Transcendental Club constituted itself as the radical left wing of the Unitarian ministry, outdoing even the liberal Channing, who declined an invitation to join them, fearing the antinomian tendency of the "New Views." The crisis in Unitarianism, however, was only a particular manifestation of a much broader cultural malaise, and the club did not confine its attention merely to church affairs. Later topics of discussion included the obstacles to "American Genius," whether humanity advances collectively or only as individuals, the ethics of property-owning, and, eventually, the project of establishing the Brook Farm cooperative. Although religious topics predominated, there was a marked continuity between themes of religious and social reform. The indictment of the church was inseparable from the indictment of modern society, which Ripley was not alone in finding "mean and false and hollow and repulsive." The last meetings of the club occurred in 1840, when Brook Farm and The Dial were coming into being.

The Transcendental critique of modern society centered on society 's willing purchase of material well-being at the expense of spiritual and humane values. Wealth, power, and prestige seemed everywhere the seductive fruit of human exploitation, while artists and the moral heroes of the reform movements were voices crying in the wilderness. Yet, the new culture of industry and commerce, so evidently powerful, proved vulnerable on its own terms. In the spring of 1837 came an unprecedented financial panic that closed the banks, interrupted stock dividends, and sent capitalists scurrying for cover. To Emerson, whose own investment income was threatened, this instability in the marketplace simply showed the difference between what was real and deep-seated on the one hand and what was unworthy, perplexing, and illusory on the other. "The humblebee and the pine warbler," he wrote in his journal, "seem to me the proper objects of attention in these disastrous times." His poem "The Humble-Bee," written in May of 1837, illustrates the point that a truly natural perspective is never implicated in or damaged by the force and frauds of modern competitive commerce. "Aught unsavory or unclean / Hath my insect never seen." While the poem may not seem a sufficient antidote to the excesses of capitalism, it shows that, in a world that is always radically subjective, decisions about what is real and what is not have profound moral consequences. One can ally oneself with the natural and benign or with the artificial and destructive. Because people live in whatever world their awareness makes, the availability of conscious choice becomes a critically important fact.

Emerson's most consequential public appearance in 1837 was at the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa ceremony in August. In this address, familiarly known as "The American Scholar," he called on his countrymen to shun imitation and produce a literature of insight and originality. "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands," he said, "draws to a close." Announcing this end to American provincialism, he perhaps suppressed the knowledge that his own recent poem "The Humble-Bee" had been a close imitation of Alfred Tennyson's "The Grasshopper." But the proposed ideal was much more important than any or all failures to achieve it. Literature would henceforth be significant to the extent that it was a free, natural, and direct witness to the human spirit; it could no longer aspire to maintain a tradition or to reflect, dimly or brightly, foreign glories from the past.

In taking up the question of how such originality could be cultivated, Emerson introduced the doctrine of the "One Man," illustrated by a fable from Plato involving the original division of Man into men. This mythic fall from primal unity into social plurality, in Emerson's retelling, echoes in different ways the Judeo-Christian myth of the fall as well as Adam Smith's concept of the division of labor and vaguely anticipates Marx's theory of alienation. The penalty of such a fall is that each person becomes identified with an ever smaller remnant of human purpose. Life itself gets small and cheap, and people hunger for a restoration to original dominion in the individual (literally the "undivided") state. A person follows a particular occupation--or "specializes"--by a process of resigning all other occupations to the rest of humanity. Indeed, the existence of organized society requires this action. One cheerfully gives up the exercise of certain human faculties, as if such abdication did not make one less completely human--as if it did not, in the degenerated social state, require the whole circuit of the population to represent adequately what being human means. Consequently, one may either shrink to the dimensions of the life that such renunciations have defined, becoming an essentially dependent part of society and incomplete by definition, or one may conserve the identity defined at first by the whole unresigned range of possibility and look upon one's occupation as a subordinate instrument of undivided humanity. As Emerson says, the Scholar may either be "Man Thinking" or a mere thinker; that is, he may be defined either as an instance of full and original agency or as the mere embodiment of a predetermined function, dissociated and screened off from all the other functions of life. Emerson had a grand notion of the individual in his rightful state ("Man is a god in ruins," he had said in Nature) and meant in this address to warn man away from the shriveling ruin of custom and conformity. The originality he hoped to encourage was the natural expression of self-reliant human beings in their undivided scope and power.

A little less than a year later, on 15 July 1838, Emerson delivered his address to the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School. Somewhat to his surprise, it turned out to be the most controversial pronouncement of his entire career. The invitation to speak had come from the students themselves--that is, from the six members who comprised the senior class--who had been intrigued by Emerson's lecture on "Holiness," delivered in Boston the preceding January. Emerson's thesis in that lecture was that religion had become objectionable because it represented "divine agency as personated in a God quite external to the soul and the world." Religion is properly understood not as an adjustment to something permanently separate from one's own nature but rather as an acceptance of the thing that marks one as human--the moral sentiment. "The self-surrender to this moral sentiment, the acceptance of its dominion throughout our constitution as the beatitude of man, is Holiness."

To his Harvard audience in July, "in this refulgent summer," Emerson called on his reserves of poetic power to make religion seem almost palpably continuous with a moral and aesthetic response to the mysterious beauty of nature. With great formal economy, Emerson showed that the world is immensely beautiful, that a life is well spent in the study of it, that study leads to laws of cause and relation, that these transcendent (or divine) laws tend to make nature "a mere illustration and fable of [the observing] mind," and that the delight felt in the presence of these laws is "the sentiment of virtue.. . the essence of all religion." The implication of these observations (one would hesitate to call them an argument) is that if religion is a reverence for creation, then one needs to be reminded, that creation is ongoing and available, here and now. The much-complained-of hollowness of contemporary religion comes from its active discouragement of what Emerson, in Nature, had called "an original relation to the universe" and what he in this address calls a "primary faith." Indeed, religion seems to pride itself on its secondary nature: it degrades the ordinary, observable miracles of providence out of an exaggerated respect for miracles of the antique record, in which the distinguishing qualities are that they cancel nature and that no one living has ever seen them. Religion sanctifies aspects of ancient history and complains about today; it loves forms and traditions and the testimony of others better than life itself. As a social institution (as a natural human impulse that has become an institution), religion perversely separates man from God, who ought rather to be apprehended as "the indwelling Supreme Spirit."

Emerson's protest against the ebb of faith in the churches belongs to an American revisionary project, stretching back to the Puritans, to oppose the tendency of religion to become vested in forms and to recover its personal and private (and hence present) value by eliminating distance, time, occasion, and hierarchy between man and God. "Dare to love God," says Emerson, "without mediator or veil." Some, wishing to put a name to Emerson's heresy, have speculated that these views place him in a Gnostic tradition. Like the ancient Gnostics (about whom Emerson could have known little), he regards Jesus as a great moral teacher whose ideas are more to be valued than his actions or person, emphasizes transcendence through reunion with Spirit, and systematically prefers poetic (mythic or metaphoric) interpretations of doctrines over literal ones. While he lacks the sharp dualism and contempt for the world that also characterized the Gnostics, the connection neatly points up the nature of Emerson's dissent from Christian orthodoxy.

Although the divinity students were satisfied that they got what they had bargained for in their speaker, the faculty were appalled--correctly taking the address as an attack on their methods and beliefs. Henry Ware Jr. expressed a sad surprise that Emerson should deny that God is best thought of as a "person," a "father," while Andrews Norton indignantly attacked the whole performance as subversive, charging Emerson with atheism in an essay titled "The New School in Literature and Religion" and again a year later in "The Latest Form of Infidelity." It took Harvard thirty years to recover and to invite Emerson back to speak again.

Emerson was warmly attacked and as warmly defended in the public prints. James Freeman Clarke, George Ripley, Orestes Brownson, and Theodore Parker all rushed to the defense of Emerson's call for spiritual renewal. The ironic effect of the wounded anger of the establishment was to sharpen the message of the Transcendentalists and to give them a cultural presence. As Emerson said in "Uriel," a poem based on the controversy: "In vain produced, all rays return; / Evil will bless, and ice will burn."

By the end of the decade Emerson found himself at the head of an avant-garde movement identified in the popular mind as promoting a pantheistic (if not atheistic) German Romantic challenge to normative American common sense. He and Carlyle came to be identified ever more closely, perhaps not merely as fellow Transcendentalists but also as markedly energetic and picturesque writers exerting an uncommon pressure on thought and language. The freshness of their perceptions seemed to their admirers proof of the validity of their premises.

The matter of Emerson's "premises" is important, because while he certainly prefers poetic statement to formal argument and so does not present himself as a philosopher, nevertheless, much of his writing is a teasing out of implication from a few fundamental insights. Indeed, this process is what gives his work its high degree of coherence (some might say repetitiveness). One sees this characteristic especially in Essays, a collection of revised lectures published in January 1841.

The titles of the twelve essays are ordinary nouns such as "History," "Self-Reliance," "Love," "Friendship," and "Heroism." The triteness they suggest is exactly the challenge that Emerson's treatment overcomes, for he proposes to look at each from the perspective of that "primary faith" he finds missing or discounted in his culture. Can his premises, in other words, offer a richer, more significant world than that in which the skeptical materialist habitually lives?

The first sentence of "History," the first essay in the book, reproduces, without revision, a sentence Emerson jotted down in 1836 as the organizing thesis of his lecture series "The Philosophy of History": "There is one mind common to all individual men." Much of the rest of the book is a logical predicate of that assertion--or rather of what makes that surprising assertion credible. Clearly individual persons have individual minds, but they also have a faculty in common that allows them to feel implicated in the whole. As early as 1831 Emerson claimed to believe in miracles because, as he said in a sermon of that year, "I can speak and be understood by you." Similarly, one relies every day on the supposition that reasons one finds personally persuasive will persuade others. The mere fact of interintelligibility implies reference to some overarching principle and to a fundamental unity in human consciousness. Ideas, which have their home in any mind, cannot belong exclusively to any one. In Nature, Emerson had given as a "fundamental law of criticism" that "Every scripture is to be interpreted by the same spirit which gave it forth"; that is, no sentence can be interpreted (or understood) if its meaning is not as much in the hearer already as it had been, with some semblance of originality, in the speaker. The doctrine, then, of the "one mind" is a logical deduction from the belief in the priority of spirit. The only sustenance of the mind is spirit: why then should the mind be otherwise than conformable in its unity to that which sustains it?

This premise of the unity of the "one mind" in its correspondence with spirit has a transformative application to almost every conceivable topic--or so at least it is made to seem in Emerson's discourse--as it displaces the popular premise that humans are all radically separate or "alienated" beings, moving about the social landscape in the hemming shadow of competing "others." "History," for example, ceases to be the burdensome record of what other people did in other places at other times and becomes the record of the progressive unfolding of the human mind: universal motives are echoed back in the actions of particular saints and heroes. These acts, making nothing of time and distance, speak immediately to the present because actor and audience are alike human. The mind that now reads is not morally different from the mind that once acted.

The most famous of the essays in the 1841 volume is "Self-Reliance." Emerson's credentials as a theoretician of democratic individualism rest squarely on his doctrine of self-reliance, but what can such a concept mean--what does "self" mean--if there is one mind common to all men? Emerson's view of what the self is, is rather unconventional, even surprising. His is not the self that John Locke influentially defined as (starting from nothing) the sum total of what comes through the senses. This Lockean self is the experiential, contingent one that most people believe in; yet, clearly there can be no unity of consciousness, no "one mind," common to such accidental, patched-up selves. Indeed, the evidence of the "one mind" leads Emerson to reject Locke's sensation-based empiricism. For Emerson, the self is the sign of the human in the individual, the site of one's moral, aesthetic, and intellectual connection with the spiritual laws of the universe. The "one mind" affirms justice over injustice, truth over falsehood, courage over fear, and beauty over ugliness. Humans are not themselves when they reverse these priorities. People are intuitively endowed with such preferences, and to the extent that they rely on these preferences they become more fully human, more authentic selves.

There is much in the world around people to dissuade them from relying on their own innate reserves of authenticity. "Society," says Emerson in "Self-Reliance," "is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members"; it never ceases to cajole the individual into affiliation with one or another community of opinion. Emerson's principal example of the individual compromised and despoiled by society is the minister who speaks as an advocate, as his denomination hires and licenses him to do, rather than as he might think for himself. Emerson comes close to suggesting that the institutions of the public culture, in procuring consensual conformity and discouraging self-reliance, produce what the twentieth-century political theorist Antonio Gramsci called "hegemony." Emerson and Gramsci could hardly have less in common philosophically, yet both oppose the oppression of hegemony in order that the individual might act with power.

Emerson identifies the manifold intimidations of the social-institutional realm as offering the most serious obstacles to self-determination. People grow, Emerson suggests, by disbelieving in limitation, which is the principle of negation and death. A superficial reading of Emerson might lead one to believe that because growth is defined as movement in the direction of perfect reliance on the "one mind" in its "original relation" to the universe, then such a state of transcendental "oneness" and insight as Emerson famously depicted in Nature is the preordained end point of growth. In "Circles," however, one of the strongest of the early essays, Emerson makes that interpretation untenable: because human growth is a progressive affiliation with infinitude, growth cannot have an end point. There is no "arriving"; human growth is all onwardness, which, in turn, is the principle of affirmation and life.

Already, when Emerson's first book of essays appeared in 1841, New England was far gone in the upheavals of romantic reform. William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, was ten years old, a standing invitation not to compromise on positions demanded by the moral law. Like Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Garrison elevated the requirements of conscience over the corrupting promise of financial gain and over the economically determined pro-slavery dictates of church and state as well. What was socially respectable in American institutional life simply had to take a backseat to what was right. In 1837 and 1838, between the delivery of the "American Scholar" and the "Divinity School" addresses, Emerson had given the first of his many speeches against slavery and had published an open letter to President Martin Van Buren opposing the removal of the Cherokees from their ancestral lands in Georgia. These performances felt awkward to Emerson, whose politics were rendered unconventional (and at times, to conventional people, invisible) by a seemingly instinctual preference for private and individual modes of behaving over the public and social alternatives. Romantic reform is defined, after all, by the room it makes for subjectivity.

The soon-to-be-opened utopian experiment of Brook Farm, planned at Transcendental Club meetings, was a symptom of broad dissatisfaction among advanced thinkers about the way people customarily arranged their lives. A better way seemed possible if only cooperation and humane values superseded the ordinary advantage-taking of the competitive market economy. More radical, however, than any of the particular social theories that flourished at Brook Farm was the belief of its inmates that human life could be reshaped and improved by a series of conscious choices in the free air of West Roxbury. It was a time to question the old and build for the new, and young people, all more or less influenced by Emerson, were leading the way.

Emerson was tempted by the prospect of living at Brook Farm. Its leader, George Ripley, was a good friend, as were many of the original members. Emerson shared much of their reform idealism, but his decision not to join, once taken, was firm. His reasons, if not specifically given, are nevertheless all there in Essays. The aim of the book was in many ways quite similar to that of Brook Farm: the working out of a new and better life than conventional society was capable of sustaining. Yet Emerson's answers differed fundamentally from Ripley 's, more inward and spiritual and self-reliant, less dependent on the outward circumstance or on the conveniences of cooperative living in a socialist--and later Fourierist--setting. "To join this body," he wrote in his journal, "would be to traverse all my long-trumpeted theory . . . that a man is stronger than a city, that his solitude is more prevalent and beneficent than the concert of crowds." The new life, Emerson thought, was more apt to issue from a revolutionized consciousness than from a reorganized kitchen. No abuse common to conventional society was ever actually corrected in these experiments, Emerson later concluded, but was at best merely concentrated and shuffled into the background. "The communities hitherto founded by Socialists," he said, including Brook Farm, "are only possible by installing Judas as steward."

Another project of the Transcendental Club interested him more. This project was the launching of a periodical, named by Alcott The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion. It was the first belletristic journal in New England and a public vehicle for the otherwise privately debated views of Emerson and his circle. The oral medium of the lyceum lecture suited Emerson well, but it had failed the others. Alcott, for example, was too abstruse and undisciplined to hold an audience, perfecting instead a mode of conversation better suited to small groups in parlors. Margaret Fuller cultivated a similarly informal conversational style, partly because the lyceums were not as yet freely open to women speakers. The Dial provided an audience for these as well as for emerging writers such as Thoreau, Parker, Channing, and Caroline Sturgis. Fuller became the editor of the journal, and Emerson lent considerable support, publishing several lectures there and making as well his first sustained appearance as a poet.

Emerson's frequent editorial consultations with Fuller on matters concerning The Dial brought them more regularly together and intensified their friendship. They were, arguably, each the other's best audience, and certainly the letters they exchanged, beginning in 1836, are as rich and vital a correspondence as that age can show. The first year of her editorship came at a difficult emotional period for Fuller, whose admiration for Emerson led her, in 1840, into the flirtatious experiment of assaulting her friend's cool impersonality--a flaw in his way of meeting friends that he had long recognized and regretted. Fuller conscripted another friend, Caroline Sturgis, into this project as well, which soon made Emerson nervous and finally annoyed, but he learned from it, much to the enrichment of the essays "Love" and "Friendship" that he was writing at this time.

Emerson's connection to his wife, Lidian as he called her, was that of a widower's sober second marriage. She was religious and sensitive, intelligent and quietly opinionated, strongly opposed to slavery, humorously ambivalent about Transcendentalism, and in favor of women's rights and the humane treatment of animals. She was a harried if uncomplaining hostess to flocks of visitors who, coming to see her husband, often stayed a week or more. Her world centered on the home, the management of servants, and the care of the children. Waldo had been born in 1836, just after the publication of Nature. Ellen, born in 1839 during the "Human Life" lecture series, was welcomed by her father as a "new dreamer of the dream of Human Life." Edith was born in 1841, and Edward, the last child, in 1844.

The death of five-year-old Waldo from scarlet fever in January 1842 was, to say the least, a stunning blow. Lidian, in her grief, may have held her husband in some degree responsible, since he had taken the child to church in snowy weather just a day before the symptoms emerged and a mere four days before he died. Her grief at the loss of her firstborn was profound and permanent; it affected her health, physical as well as mental, and put a strain on the marriage. Emerson, who had already lost a wife and two adult brothers, grieved as well, but after a different fashion; mainly he was appalled that such an event should seem so dreamlike, that it should leave him more numb and empty than sharply pained. Margaret Fuller loved the child as well--perfect in himself, as she thought, but prized, too, as a figuration of Emerson's this-worldly, affectional side--and she cooperated long and actively in the family's mourning. Shortly after, perhaps coincidentally, Fuller began to withdraw from the Transcendental scene in Massachusetts, first giving up The Dial to Emerson, then taking, in succession, a tour of the West, a job in New York, and at last an observer's role in the revolution in Italy.

The death of Waldo has long been identified as a turning point in Emerson's career and as being mainly responsible for the presumptively altered tone of Essays: Second Series (1844) as compared to the first volume. Certainly the great essay "Experience" engages the hypothesis of tragedy more directly than Emerson had previously done, settling on "the death of my son, now more than two years ago" as an indicator of the "evanescence and lubricity" of what the heart insists on holding closest. As young Waldo went, so went the grief after him, and because nothing stays, reality itself--that only treasure--shows poignantly as lacking in body and persistence. But the essay, like grief, is an act of bearing up: it offers a language of consolation, not of defeat or recantation. The main fact it confronts is the irreducible isolation of the self from all its objects, which Emerson calls "the most unhandsome part of our condition." Nature covers with illusion its unwillingness to sustain any direct or permanent connections; it seems to say "this is real," but it uses succession and surprise to teach humans to move on and do without. Objects are for learning from and not for holding onto or manipulating or erecting into idols. This assertion seems disappointing to the dream of power, but it is not new doctrine: Emerson had said virtually the same thing in "Each and All," a poem of 1834.

Poetry was much on Emerson's mind in the early 1840s, when he was publishing extensively in The Dial (nearly two dozen poems over four years) and moving for the first time in the company of other poets, such as Jones Very, William Ellery Channing II, Henry Thoreau, C. P. Cranch, and others whom The Dial had brought into his orbit. In advance of publishing his own book of poems, he elaborated his general views on poetics in a lecture of 1842 (which Whitman heard with delight in New York) and revised it for inclusion in Essays: Second Series. "The Poet," one of the most important and influential works in the history of American literary criticism, extended Emerson's thinking about natural symbolism from the "Language" chapter of Nature and, as any manifesto seeks to do, prepared his audience to receive the author's ensuing work on its intended ground.

Everywhere in nature the phenomenal (what appears) is dictated by the noumenal (what is), the beauty of which derives from "the instant dependence of form upon soul." Beauty is thus another name for attachment, and the poet, the redemptive observer and affirmer of connection, comes "re-attaching even artificial things, and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight." It is an organic argument, parallel in all respects with the argument for authenticity in "Self- Reliance," which denigrates all external helps, such as meters or available traditions of poetic forms, in favor of what is most intrinsic: "a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."

There is a sacred, inspired, rhapsodic quality to the figure of the poet as Emerson defines him, and indeed he compares him, early in the essay, with Jesus, the Son (as opposed to the Father or the Holy Spirit), as the interpreter to fallen humanity of higher perceptions. This representation validates Emerson's call to the poet, late in the essay, to leave the corruptions of the world "and know the muse only." Others may live in the world for him and be concerned with commerce and politics; for his part the poet must "lie close hid with nature" though he should "pass for a fool and a churl for a long season." The reward is "that the ideal shall be real to thee." That is the condition on which a command of poetic language is given.

The tailpiece to Essays: Second Series, a largely satirical survey titled "New England Reformers," was a late addition to the volume to bring it to publishable size; yet, it has a fitness to the volume that is by no means accidental. For one thing, it picks up the motif, started in "The Poet," of leaving the corruptions of the artificial world in order to react on it with a renovating power. Along with the essay "Politics," it raises the crucial and controversial question of the author's relation to organized reform.

The essay begins with a long descriptive paragraph surveying the dazzling multiplicity of reform causes, from temperance to socialism, from free love to dietary reform ("Bran had its prophets"), and offering the comedy of mutually contentious reformers, each with his turf to protect, each with his own salvific agenda. Emerson opts to regard these position-takers as symptoms of a general dissatisfaction with modern society rather than as efficient particular cures. Theirs is the noise of secession, of occupying places outside of society, which they declare is no longer a home for them. Some, such as Thoreau, refuse to pay their taxes and leave off voting. Here, then, is one version of democracy--the individual asserting his right to determine acceptable conditions of corporate life. But is this version the Emersonian self-reliant version? Is this the path to heroic individualism that Emerson points out?

The essay offers two judgments on the spectacle. One involves an endorsement. The need for reform is genuine; reform in the end will prevail, and the evils complained of will be overcome. The second judgment involves a dissent. Because the problems to be addressed are all various effects of imperfect faith, they cannot in the end be solved by proscription or secession or even by a tactical opposition, but only by love, education, and, in general, a faith capable of witnessing for the good it means to secure.

"New England Reformers" had originally been delivered as a lecture in March 1844. It had, oddly, little to say about abolitionism, which was clearly the most energetic and compelling of the reform movements. Yet, just five months later, at Concord on 1 August, Emerson delivered a stirring antislavery address commemorating Britain's freeing of the slaves in the West Indies. He regarded the act of emancipation as a miraculous triumph of higher principles of justice and humanity over material and pecuniary interest; in that respect the event becomes a striking illustration of the meliorating advance of civilization. It seems to show that persons were coming to be valued more and the power of the pound or the dollar to preempt moral issues to be weakening. The substitution of better values involves an inevitably corresponding change in perception: where previous generations saw only property and denied the humanity of slaves, a more advanced generation, themselves more human, naturally wished to see (and therefore did in fact see) persons. Thus, in the act of emancipation, as Emerson says, "A man is added to the human family." Like Britain, the United States is a culture of commerce, with just the values and perceptions that a culture so centered supports; yet, the exemplary work of antislavery men over the previous eighty years in Britain--Granville Sharpe, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, William Pitt, Charles James Fox, and Edmund Burke--shows that might cannot be permanently detached from right and that a better world appears in proportion as human beings are morally ready for it: abolitionism is no less sure of success in America than it had been in the colonies of Great Britain.

Emerson's private sentiments had always been antislavery, but like many Northerners he did not feel moved to make so public a declaration as this until drawn out by events. What stirred him and what stirred those who invited him to make the address was the crisis over the annexation of Texas, which involved a vast extension of American slave territory and, with it, of the political power of Southern slaveholders. Many Northerners, quietly conscientious like Emerson, became vocal supporters of the cause of antislavery at this time. Slavery, which had been largely disregarded as the peculiar institution of a relatively few, relatively far-off wealthy planters, was becoming politically aggressive, threatening in ever more obvious ways to implicate Northerners in its webs of exploitation. This truth was driven home for Emerson in the months after the West India address, when his friend and neighbor Samuel Hoar was commissioned by Massachusetts to investigate the South Carolina practice of imprisoning free black sailors who landed with their Northern ships at Charleston. When Hoar arrived on the scene with his daughter Elizabeth (the same who was to have married Charles Emerson), the mission was blocked and he and Elizabeth were forced by threats of violence to retreat to the North. Emerson's outrage over this expulsion lasted a long time and reinforced his belief that slavery and civilized behavior were mutually incompatible.

Texas was annexed in 1845, and the Mexican War broke out the following year. Emerson protested both developments as advancing the cause of slavery rather than that of civilization but was criticized then--and since--for relying on moral suasion and self-culture to the exclusion of regular organization and political fixes. When his friend William Henry Channing (nephew of the recently deceased Unitarian minister) applied the logic of Garrison's slogan of "No Union with Slaveholders" and advocated Northern secession, Emerson saw the proposal's futility at once, noting that moral advancement--always the proper aim of reform, as Emerson supposed--could never be achieved by the political equivalent of surgery and quarantine. The poem he wrote in response, "Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing," is one of the most richly significant in Emerson's canon. It identifies his position in the conflict as the poetic spokesman for ideas vastly more compelling than political disunion. In the poem he declares that there are "two laws discrete, / Not reconciled"--one a law of practical power, to govern the world of things, and the other a law of ideal love, to govern the world of human beings. The crisis over Mexico and slavery is an instance of the confusion of these laws in a regime of unbounded materialism; it is the sort of consequence that follows when "Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind." If the reign of materialism "runs wild, / And doth the man unking," then the proper remedy must be a profounder faith, not superficial force. The poet, with his undegraded access to language, and not the canting priest (Channing) or ranting statesman (Daniel Webster), is sole patriot of the evil time, the true defender of the only values on which a genuine resolution can rest.

Emerson's position in the poem is consistent with his doctrine of self-reliance and indeed may serve as an instance or illustration of it. Although Emerson is entirely sympathetic with Channing's antislavery stance, he is unwilling to take his lead from men who trust more to tactics and stratagems than to the truth and justice of the cause itself, as though the former were strong and the latter weak. The truth is the only aspect worth allying oneself with, the only one that does not require, in exchange for that allegiance, a relinquishing of the self. Tactics that rely on force can never, in Emerson's view, add anything to the sum of human virtue; they may control behavior superficially, but the sickness remains and will find other outlets when denied this one. This choice of the ideal over the "practical" is, of course, terrifically high-minded and keeps the poet, in his self-reliance, separate from the excitements of organized reform schemes; it makes him something like the guardian and definer of what reformers actually want but are too apt to lose sight of--and faith in. Channing, the activist, complained to Emerson that his individualism effectively erased the concept of humanity, but Emerson, in his journal, framed a reply:

He that unites himself to the [human] race separates himself from the Father but he who by love and contemplation dwells with the father, from him the Race always proceeds filially & new, and the actual race feel in his presence their degeneracy & his salutary redeeming force. Keep thyself pure from the race. Come to them only as a saviour, not as a companion.

The business of being concerned with the truth is, in Emerson's view, a serious and prophetic rather than a sociable or accommodating one; yet, it offers its acolytes exquisite compensations of beauty and power.

During the years of The Dial (1840-1844) Emerson attracted a wider audience with his poems and was then encouraged to gather them into a volume. Over the next year and a half he wrote an additional fifteen poems to shape and fill out the book that was published under the title Poems on Christmas Day of 1846. The opinion of the reviewers was sharply polarized: Emerson was either the most important poet America had yet produced, or he was no poet at all, writing obscurely as a cold and unimpassioned intellectual. Whigs, Southerners, and establishment Unitarians were prominently represented among the detractors--more for reasons arrived at beforehand, one suspects, than from any immediate judgment of the poems. Democrats and radicals, on the other hand, found much to admire, but indeed the critical reception of the book was little more than a general referendum on Transcendentalism. Compared with the popular verse of the period, Emerson's poems were certainly vigorous and challenging, missing both the sentimentality and the metrical precision then commonly aimed at. Their typically short lines and terse economy seem in retrospect modern--perhaps, at the time, disconcertingly so.

Emerson anticipated and made use of this response in placing "The Sphinx" first, at the portal of the reader's experience. The suggestion is that the poems will seem like portentous riddles, which, as readers' lives ride on the outcome, they solve or fail to solve. They are instructed by "The Sphinx" on how to approach verses that signify as nature does, the riddle being to answer as nature is to spirit or as poems are to meanings.

Whitman used just such an organic analogy in alleging that his chants meant as actual leaves of grass mean, a thought that led him to suppose that life is a piling up of "guesses." For Emerson the universe "is the possibility of being reported." All is circuit of such dialogue as man has with the Sphinx, and "Who telleth one of my meanings, / Is master of all I am."

That suggestion of the interdependent unity of truth, of one's ability to access "all" through the part, is more like an axiom than a recurrent motif in the poetry, yet is most completely set forth and examined in the Goethe-influenced "Each and All." Many of the poems in this way specifically illustrate distinctively Transcendental positions. "Uriel," for example, gives poetic form to ideas central to the Divinity School address.