n May 25, 1803, one of the great minds of America was born — Ralph Waldo Emerson. He arrived in a family in which books and the love of learning was paramount, and he was reading at the age of three. He grew to be a well-read but conventional young man who attended Harvard College, then a commonplace institution with a rigid pattern of education. When he graduated in 1821, he was ranked well below the middle of his class.
But Emerson had the gift of tending his mind, nurturing his being, enlarging his soul, through the absorption of nature and the discipline of reading, which would be a life-long enterprise. He came to represent the self-directed and thoroughly committed intellectual who sensed in his potential something greater than his ministerial training and experience could provide. And he launched himself into a life of the mind that has had an impact on American arts and letters perhaps greater than that of any other American.
By 1850, biographer Robert Richardson says of Emerson, he was “dangerously famous.” His 1836 publication, Nature, marked the beginning of the Romantic Era in America. The “Divinity School Address” declared his independence from organized religion and alienated him from Harvard for much of the rest of his life. His annual lectures, which took him across the country repeatedly and provided materials for two collections of essays in the 1840s, brought him close to the people of America often and regularly. Richardson comments that “By the early 1870s Emerson’s reputation was so great that it had a life of its own. Eventually his fame effectively concealed him, especially from his admirers.”
Much of the danger in his fame was that many people who heard him did not understand him. In his later years, he often became something of a joke in newspapers, which reported his lectures and visits to western cities. Yet William Dean Howells observes that it was “Emerson’s great fortune to have been misunderstood, and to have reached the dense intelligence of his fellow [citizens] after a whole lifetime of perfectly simple and lucid appeal.”
In one of the finest early reassessments of Emerson, Bliss Perry, in a series of lectures at Princeton University in March 1931 and published as Emerson Today by Princeton University Press in 1931, notes that the modern reader knows Emerson as a “gifted literary artist,” through his essays and poetry. And his fame continued to grow.
In his own lifetime, he touched deeply the lives and writings of Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and a host of colleagues, who considered him friend. Walt Whitman became the very embodiment of the poet Emerson predicted would emerge,“with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer;” In more recent times, Henry James could not have written The American except under Emerson’s influence. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man would have been impossible without Emerson’s vision. It is doubtful Loren Eiseley would have been the anthropologist, essayist, and poet he became or Buckminster Fuller the architect, teacher, and essayist he became without Emerson. In short, few of the important people in American intellectual life have been untouched by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Robert Frost, too, was influenced by Emerson’s spirit. Frost biographer Lawrance Thompson at the Philobilon Club of Philadelphia in 1940 gave a lecture, published by the club that same year, called Emerson and Frost, Critics of Their Times. In it he says, “Emerson and Frost express primary interest in whatever tends to promote the understanding of these inner harmonies in the individual, in the private [person]. They look with suspicion and distrust on any phenomenon, political or economic, that tends to impede the growth of these inner harmonies.”
There is something in what Thompson called the “inner harmonies in the individual” that is vitally important to me. My own initial intellectual awakening came as I read Emerson and found in his poetry and essays a kinship with my own inner harmonies. I now read Emerson frequently in my later years for this reason. And I find in visits to Concord, MA, a compatible companionship to my inner harmonies in the setting, the ambiance, and residual spirit that seems to dwell where Emerson and his friends once lived.
It is for these spiritual nurturings that the humanities were given, it seems to me. It is well to be reminded of them as we observe the 200th anniversary of Emerson’s birth.
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