Last February, Harvard’s Belknap Press issued the final volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Collected Works, a project that had taken over 40 years. It was conceived at the beginning of what is now called “The Emerson Revival.” Before the 1970s, Harvard professor Lawrence Buell remarks, “even specialists could not be counted on to treat Emerson as anything better than an amateur warmup act.” Poststructuralism, however, provided a paradigm for “Emerson’s fragmentary, self-reflexive prose,” and as its star rose, so did Emerson’s.
Interest in Emerson has been going strong ever since. When I completed graduate school six years ago, no discussion of American literature seemed complete without reference to Emersonian this or Emersonian that: He was regularly brought up in discussions of contemporary poetry and contemporary politics, and once he was even suggested as a source of personal ressourcement during the grind of academic life. In the last half-decade, over 20 books solely or partly devoted to Ralph Waldo Emerson (excluding collections and reprints) have been published by major university presses.
But now that his Collected Works is complete, I’d like to suggest that we close the book on the Emerson Revival. Earlier scholars got Emerson right: He may serve “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” but he is no American Hamlet, and his work is no great matter.
Most people agree that Emerson is not a philosopher. Logic is a problem for him. So are categories. In case it has been a while since you’ve read the Bard of Concord, let me give you just one example from his only sustained attempt at philosophical argument, “Nature.” He opens with the seemingly central distinction between “Nature” and “Soul” and almost immediately ties himself in knots. “Nature,” he writes, is “NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.”
It’s odd to think of “my own body” as “not me,” but let’s move on. Stopping to think when reading Emerson rarely pays off. So what is “Soul”? If you think it’s “me,” you’re being entirely too consistent with your categories to benefit from Emersonian wisdom. No, it’s the spiritual force, the “Spirit,” the “infinite mind,” or the “Father,” that is distinct from both “me” and “not me” of which “me” and “not me” are symbols.
Actually, not symbols; the “me” is more like “a transparent eyeball,” and “Nature” is more like a river “whose floods of life stream around and through us,” in which we become “nothing” or “part or particle of God” or something. Emerson is a monist who uses the categories of dualism, and, because of this, he rarely makes sense.
How about Emerson’s much-lauded practical wisdom? Perhaps I’m missing something, but he is rarely either practical or wise. His aphorisms tend to be either chicken soup for the academic soul or the gobbledygook of a man who prefers the sounds of words to their meanings.
In the chicken soup category, we have: “The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers”; “All things are moral”; “To be great is to be misunderstood”; “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”; and “If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God,” among others.
In the gobbledygook category, we have: “Your conformity explains nothing” (which I’ve been tempted to shout at my son’s Little League games); “The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps”; and “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put.”
Other sayings are downright troubling. “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. . . . Good and bad are but names,” for example. “I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency,” Emerson writes. “Let us never bow and apologize more.”
His central idea, of course, is “Trust thyself.” In his earlier essays, he encourages his readers to disregard the past, institutions, and dogma, and to obey “the eternal law” within. “I will not hide my tastes or aversions,” he writes. “I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints.” But in a later essay on Napoleon, who seems to have embodied the “deep” self-trust Emerson lauds, he states confusingly (after praising Napoleon) that what made Napoleon’s egoism wrong was that it “narrowed, impoverished and absorbed the power and existence of those who served him.” And whose fault is this?