Ralph Waldo Emerson–who died 135 years ago in Concord, Massachusetts–was a victim of his own good reputation. Essayist, poet, lecturer, and purported leader of the American transcendental movement, he was known in his lifetime as the “Sage of Concord,” the “wisest American,” or (after one of his most famous early addresses) the “America Scholar.” The names stuck, and expectations ratcheted up accordingly, with one scholar claiming in an 1899 biography, “his whole life, however closely examined, shows no flaw of temper or of foible. It was serene and lovely to the end.” By the time of his bicentennial celebration in 1903, the firebrand once associated with the “latest form of infidelity” had become canonized, as Emerson scholar Wesley T. Mott puts it, as “Saint Waldo.”
It was, of course, a reputation impossible to live up to.
To be sure, some of his contemporaries idolized Emerson with a warmth exceeding veneration. Louisa May Alcott, whose family lived up the road from the Emersons, had a teenaged crush on the “great, good man, untempted and unspoiled by the world.” Henry James, Sr. (the father of the novelist) said in the 1860s that “if this man were only a woman, I should be sure to fall in love with him.” But as the philosopher George Santayana once said of Emerson and his admirers, “veneration for his person…had nothing to do with their understanding or acceptance of his opinions.” Chief among those “opinions” was his transcendental idealism, which struck many readers as an avoidance of the real world–okay for saints, not so good for philosophers. “Reality eluded him,” Santayana said flatly; his mind was “a fairyland of thoughts and fancies.” James regretted his friend’s constitutional ignorance of the “fierce warfare of good and evil.”
In 2003 Emersonians gathered again in Boston and Concord, this time to commemorate his two-hundredth birthday with an academic conference and a private reception in the Emerson house hosted by his heirs. It was (I make no apologies) a moving event: we stepped across the velvet ropes, sat in Emerson’s reading chair, pulled family books off the shelves, saw his lecturing robe hanging in a bedroom closet.
But these sorts of commemorations tend to draw fire, especially for a slow-moving target like Emerson. John Updike, noted author and spoil-sport, weighed in with a 2003 article for the New Yorker, “Big Dead White Male,” that once again castigated Emerson for “waving aside evil” and “mak[ing] light of the world and its usual trials.” (As if the man who lost his father, his wife, two brothers, and first-born son—all before his fortieth birthday—had somehow escaped life’s sorrows.) In recent years we’ve seen similar appraisals: “Giving Emerson the Boot,” “Ralph Waldo Emerson, Big Talker” (both 2010), “Where’s Waldo? There is Less to the Bard of Concord than Meets the Eye” (2015), and “What is Emerson For?” (2016). Emerson comes off as a starry-eyed naïf with nothing to teach us beyond (in the words of a recent critic) “a set of contradictory, baffling, radical, reactionary ideas that offer no practical guidelines for actual human behavior.” If he’s such a sage, we ask, how about some answers?
Several years ago I wrote an account of the attempts to construct Emerson’s early reputation by biographers who “built their own Waldos” according to personal politics, family agendas, Gilded Age ideologies, and the commerce of publication. They challenged Emerson’s reputation as teacher-in-chief, and with good reason. He didn’t have much use for received wisdom unless it struck the individual soul as true. Lessons imposed are not lessons learned. Emerson insisted in his 1838 “Divinity School Address,” it is “not instruction, but provocation” that we can offer each other. “Trust thyself,” “Build your own world,” “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist”–even his most hortatory life lessons may be seen as provocations in disguise, daring us to think, not just consent. His essays are dramatic monologues, performances of minds in turmoil, joy, despair, or rebellion. He was much more comfortable as the skeptic described in his 1850 essay “Montaigne,” always “try[ing] the case” rather than settling it.
In a little book on the American character, The Exploring Spirit (1976), the historian Daniel J. Boorstin distinguishes discoverers–those who know what they are looking for but not where to find it–from explorers, whose purpose is to set out for the unknown and see what turns up. Emerson was in Boorstin’s sense an explorer, following the terrain where it took him, fashioning metaphors to help make sense of the unfamiliar. For the “wisest American,” pushing us to search for ourselves the rich and complex frontiers of human experience was a calling more appropriate than sainthood.
Featured Image credit: Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Frank Duvaneck at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.