Why Read Emerson?

by Jim Farrar (1987)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, it seems, is not as influential today as he has been in the past. To wit, part of Emerson's entry in the Oxford Companion To English Literature is as follows:

Of his many later works, mention should be made of his moving tribute to his friend and follower Thoreau in which, after a warm appreciation, he mildly deplored Thoreau's want of ambition, a comment which takes on an ironic light in view of Emerson's current neglect as a writer and Thoreau's great and continuing influence (316).

The emphasis is mine. What is inferred from this judgement, assuming it to be accurate, is that Emerson's writing has lost its scholarly appeal, that his ideas are no longer applicable to twentieth century sensibilities.

At best, however, this can only be partially true. Emerson is still read and, I would guess, will continue to be read in the future. But, outside of college and high school literature classes, he seems to have lost his following. He is one of those authors who, if we read him at all, we do so because we have to. His prose is, I suspect, undeniably difficult and, at times, inaccessible to most modern readers. His essays, as well as his poetry and his journals, represents a distillation of thought which almost demands the reader to pay attention and chew a bit on each sentence before fully understanding it, a hard enough task for any reader, and especially difficult for one used to what may be termed as the "quick read," which is the mainstay, I fear, of America's book-buying public.

The question that occurs to me, then, when considering Emerson's place in American letters, is the one I've already asked indirectly: is his work relevant to our own time?

The answer, I believe, is yes. Emerson's observations of his own society and of the individual's place in it still hold true today, some one hundred years after his death.

Throughout his work, Emerson emphasizes the value of and encourages the development of individuality, a celebration of both the mind and the spirit which, as the world grows more complex, is as applicable today as it was during Emerson's. "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," he writes in Self-Reliance (149).

Characteristically, in Politics he tells us that governments are "not superior to the citizen; that every one of them was once the act of a single man" (241). Emerson's observations of human nature and of the historical context in which they are being made seem as fresh today as they must have when they were originally published in the nineteenth century. Consider the following journal entry, from October of 1841:

There is a great destiny which comes in with this as with every age, which is colossal in its traits, terrible in its strength, which cannot be tamed, or criticised, or subdued. It is shared by every man and woman of the time, for it is by it they live. As a vast, solid phalanx the generation comes on, they have the same features, and their pattern is new in the world. All wear the same expression, but it is that which they do not detect in each other (187).

In 1841, the United States was but fifty years into the Industrial Revolution; the nuclear age that was yet to come was over a hundred away. Emerson's genius is such that it captures the feeling of both. The loss of individual identity in an increasingly complex social structure is, as mentioned, a theme Emerson, and later Thoreau, would continually address in his journals, as well as in his essays and lectures. His words are a warning to, as well as an acknowledgment of, the new generation, both critical and constructive, and somewhat fatalistic.

What becomes readily apparent about Emerson when reading his journals is that he obviously put a great deal of thought into his writing, and that he used his journals as a tool to develop his philosophy. Undoubtedly, it was never his intention to publish them. What we get from his journals, then, is a unguarded glimpse of Emerson's mind at work.

"[W]e care for individuals," he wrote in his journal in 1841, "not for the waste universality. It is the same ocean everywhere, but it has no character until seen with the shore or the ship" (184-85). Earlier, in Self Reliance, he had written "I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier" (160). Emerson, if nothing else, was consistent in thought.

Of his more popular contemporary, Thoreau, Emerson said "I am very familiar with his thoughts – they are my own quite originally drest" (187). If we owe a debt to Thoreau, then most certainly we must pay homage to Emerson as well, for it was Emerson who preceded him and laid the intellectual groundwork for Thoreau's philosophy. Modern readers of Thoreau would do well to remember this.

Works Cited

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion To English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selections From Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960.

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