LITERATURE – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the father of
American literature. In a series of strikingly original essays, written in
the mid-nineteenth century, he fundamentally changed the way that
America saw its cultural and artistic possibilities, and he enabled a
separation from transatlantic literary traditions. “We have listened too long…”, he wrote, “…to the Courtly muses of Europe.” Emerson’s abjection of cultural
traditions brought about what one contemporary called: “America’s
intellectual declaration of independence.” and he established generational conflict
and transformation as commanding ideas in American literature. Emerson himself hardly seemed destined
to fit a revolutionary mold. He was born in 1803, the son of a Boston
preacher, and was descended from a line of New England ministers that went back
to the bedrock of seventeenth-century Puritanism. When his father died in 1811,
his mother took in boarders to pay the rent. Still, she sent her son to Harvard in
1817, and then Harvard divinity school to train for the priesthood in 1825. As a young man, Emerson was strongly influenced by a
remarkable aunt of his: Mary Moody Emerson, who though self-taught, had read
everything from Shakespeare to the romantics and it formed a unique
religious perspective based on piety nature and literature, that would
resonate powerfully in the life and work of her nephew. So when Emerson was ordained in 1829,
marrying the love of his life Ellen Tucker in the same year, he was
already unsatisfied with the formal nature of New England religious
orthodoxy. When Ellen died of tuberculosis just two years later, he
resigned from the church and soon after embarked on a trip to Europe. Leaving on Christmas Day 1832,
two crucial things happened to Emerson on that tour of europe. In Paris, he went to the famous “Jardin des Plantes”, a botanical and zoological garden. There he had an epiphany. Writing in his journal that: “I feel the
centipede in me, the Cayman, carp, eagle and Fox… …I am moved by strange sympathies. I say
continually: I will be a naturalist.”. Emerson’s insight was that nature is in us, a part of us, and not just its higher forms, but in all its grotesquerie and
wildness. The second thing that happened on that
tour, was that Emerson met the English romantic poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
and William Wordsworth, and found them rather ordinary, dry
and conservative men. The insight that Emerson drew from this, was that if great men could be so
ordinary, why should not ordinary men be great? as he would write a few years later, meek young men grow up in libraries, believing
it their duty, to accept the views which Cicero, Locke, Bacon have given. Forgetful
that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote
these books. Emerson had found two ideas that would
guide his life’s work. That man and nature are one and that everyone can
recognize that they are a uniquely, significant human being. On his return to America in 1833, Emerson
became a professional lecturer giving talks on natural history and literature in halls around New England. He remarried and had several children, presenting a stolid, bourgeois
appearance to the world. But his inner life was full of
turbulence and originality. In his 1836 essay, “Nature”, Emerson outlined the germ of a new
philosophy, a key element of this, was the importance of American originality. In
its opening lines, Emerson wrote: “Our age is retrospective, it builds the sepulchres
of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories and criticism. The foregoing
generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we
also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”. America, needed to stop looking
back to its European heritage and start looking about it self. No past moment was more important,
than the present moment. No tradition was more important, than
novelty. No generation, was better than the current generation. Everything that
matters is here now insisted Emerson, and that here was: America. This was an extension of Emerson’s ideas,
about the significance of the individual that came under the heading of what he
called “self-reliance”. Everywhere Emerson looked, he saw people leading lives that were based on tradition, that were limited by religious forms and social
habits. No one could be themselves, Emerson
thought, because they were all too busy being what they were supposed to be. Emerson wanted to get rid of each of
these burdens: the past, religion and social forms, so that each person could
find out who they truly were. As he put it: “History is an impertinence and an injury; Our religion, we have not chosen, but
society has chosen for us… And… …Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the
manhood of every one of its members.” We must, he argued, live from within
trusting nothing but our own intuitions. For, as he concluded… …nothing is at last sacred but the
integrity of your own mind. This leaves open a vital question: What
is your nature… …once you’ve rid yourself of history,
tradition and religion? What can be said is that it isn’t
necessarily self-indulgence, haterism or narcissism. Rather, it’s the surrender to that force
which Emerson recognized back in the Jardin des Plantes. An obedience to nature itself. By nature, Emerson seem to mean the natural world:
plants, animals, rocks and sky, but what he really meant was God. Emerson was a “Pantheist”. That is, someone
who believe that God exists in every part of creation, from the smallest grain
of sand to the stars. But also crucially that the divine spark
is in each of us. In following ourselves, we are therefore not merely being fickle or selfish, we are rather, releasing a divine will, that history, society and organized religion normally hide from us. The individual as
Emerson writes “is a God in ruins”. But we have it within us, by casting off all
custom to rebuild ourselves Emerson makes this Pantheist connection,
explicit in what are perhaps his most famous lines. “Crossing a bear common, in
snow puddles at twilight under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any
occurrence of special good fortune, I’ve enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am
glad to the brink of fear, standing on the bare ground, my head
bathed by the blythe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes… …I become a transparent eyeball… …I am nothing… …I see all. The currents of
the universal being circulate through me… …I am part or particle of God! In the Romantic tradition on which
Emerson draws, it is the sublime, great mountains, rushing torrance, dark forests, which releases the inner vision as we find ourselves in all of them. For Emerson, it’s a perfectly dull walk across an
ordinary common on a dark winter’s evening that brings him, to the brink of fear. Emerson’s God, is in the snow puddles too. Stood there on the common, he disappears, becoming nothing as the
currents of God flow through him. What is left is just, a transparent
eyeball. Such transcendent moments are rare, but they reveal an essential
connection between nature, God and man. They are one. They also give Emerson a proper sense of
each individual’s importance, as a part of God. Transcendentalism became the name of the
movement that grew up around Emerson, at this time. Another aspect of the epiphany
that was to have a profound effect on American literature, was the
emphasis on the value of the ordinary. What Emerson put forward in essays like
“The American scholar” and “the poet”, was that the American every day, was a proper
subject for literature. This was because for Emerson, the
transcendentalist God is everywhere, and it’s the poet’s job to reveal this. “There is no object…”, he wrote, “…so foul that
intense light will not make it beautiful.” “…Even a corpse has its own beauty.” This
coming from a man who had opened his first wife’s tomb a year after her death… …to take a look! The great American writers, who followed Emerson, were liberated by his work to
look around and write about what they saw and how they lived, transforming the everyday into a vital
symbol of something higher and more elusive. Henry David Thoreau’s two years
at Walden Pond, became a book that showed the cosmos reflected in the depths of
the waters of a mere pond. The poet Walt Whitman said: “I was
simmering, simmering, simmering… …Emerson brought me to a boil.” Emily Dickinson heard a fly and could
write of the other side of death. The novelist Herman Melville, took a whaling voyage, and made it an allegory
of American imperialism and the defiance of nature. In the 20th century, the
American critic Harold Bloom looked back at Emerson’s originality and saw in it
the origin of: “The strong tradition of American poets.” From Robert Frost and
Wallace Stevens to John Ashbery, Emerson’s legacy to american literature
and culture and indeed to the world, was one of ceaseless invention and forward
momentum. As he put it: “I unsettle all things… …no facts are to me sacred, none are profane… …I simply experiment an endless seeker
with no past at my back.” people of Paul pronouncing his name if you don’t
speak German it’s not at all obvious how you’re supposed to say it a safe bet is
to start with a hard was a great check writer who has come to own a part of the
human emotional spectrum which we can now call the casket desk and which
thanks to him where

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