The Magazine

Emerson and Us

The American scholar as American preacher.

Sep 1, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 48 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
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by Lawrence Buell

Belknap, 397 pp., $29.95

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Making of a Democratic Intellectual

by Peter S. Field

Rowman & Littlefield, 253 pp., $36.95

Understanding Emerson

"The American Scholar" and His Struggle for Self-Reliance

by Kenneth S. Sacks

Princeton University Press, 199 pp., $29.95

THE BICENTENNIAL of Ralph Waldo Emerson's birth on May 25, 1803, has come and gone, leaving surprisingly little in its wake. The occasion was duly noted. But the observances had a quiet, perfunctory air about them. There was a flurry of local celebrations in his native New England: special tours of his Concord home, conferences and exhibitions at Harvard, lectures at Boston-area Unitarian and theosophical societies, pleasant articles in the Boston Globe, Harvard Magazine, and a few other periodicals. At the elegant Emerson Inn in Rockport, where the master is thought to have vacationed, one could even acquire a bronze bust for $350.

But this admiring sentiment does not seem to have spread much beyond the region or stimulated a more sustained national reflection on his larger legacy. Americans know they're expected to revere Emerson. But they are not sure quite why. Some are not even sure they should.

The eminent literary scholar Harold Bloom has few doubts on that score. He did his bit for the bicentennial by proclaiming Emerson to be "the dominant sage of the American imagination," "the central figure in American culture," a thinker who, far from being a faded tintype stowed away in the national attic, is "closer to us than ever on his two-hundredth birthday."

Bloom has been promoting Emerson for years now, and such statements, though predictably overblown, have a certain plausibility to them. Still, it's hard to locate the particular points where Emerson's influence has been most strongly felt. Bloom finds Emerson popping up in so many places--Richard Rorty, Republicans, libertarians, John Dewey, Henry Ford, Henry James Sr., Pentecostals, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Hart Crane, Robert Frost, George W. Bush--that his vast claims begin to sound meaningless. Where isn't Emerson?

Yet one sympathizes with Bloom. There is something undeniably large and at the same time ineffable about Emerson's status in our culture, a quality of being both everywhere and nowhere that is somehow reinforced by his way of doing things: his defiance of conventional categories, and the flowing amorphousness of his highly quotable but rambling and unsystematic style.

He who learns to write in strings of aphorisms has something to offer every attention span, which is why Emerson has appealed to a variety of audiences. He has been held in awe by the nineteenth-century American literati, admired by the likes of Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche, embraced by twentieth-century scholars and intellectuals of nearly every rank and ideological persuasion--and equally so by a long procession of aspiring businessmen, all-American motivational speakers, human-potential psychotherapists, transcendental meditators, and get-rich gurus, all anxious to claim his sanction.

One of his most worshipful twentieth-century admirers was the American composer Charles Ives, a fellow Yankee individualist who not only memorialized Emerson with a movement of his legendarily formidable piano sonata "Concord, Massachusetts, 1845," but was pleased to introduce advertisements for his life-insurance company, Ives and Myrick, with zingy Emersonian epigrams such as "I appeal from your customs; I must be myself!" (from the famous 1841 essay on "Self-Reliance"). Ives found it natural to embrace Emerson in both ways, even when to our ears they clash resoundingly, like the clanging countermelodies in Ives's own strange musical compositions.

So, it is not easy to know whether Emerson is best understood as the inspirational poet and prophet of a robustly independent American intellectual life, or as the spiritual father of contemporary narcissism, the über-Protestant who greased the skids from "Here I Stand" (Martin Luther, 1521) to "I've Gotta Be Me" (Sammy Davis Jr., 1969). But, as the example of Ives suggests, it may be helpful to start out by thinking of Emerson, first and foremost, as a peculiar product of New England culture, at a particular moment.