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Mr. Emerson's Revolution

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Jean McClure Mudge

Foreword: Emerson’s Renewing Power

John Stauffer et Steven Brown

Texte intégral

Emerson in Cambridge, 1817-1871.

Changes in Boston, 1810-1870.

1The Mr. Emerson to which this volume pays tribute is a figure so ensconced in America’s intellectual framework that we sometimes forget how iconoclastic he actually was. In his essays, Emerson fought intolerance, extolled imagination over doctrine, indicted fundamentalism, and demystified American exceptionalism. Simply put, Emerson was a Disturber of the Peace — an anti-honorific to which history has attached a gold star.

2When closely examined alongside his radical peers, his prominence seems just as odd. Take, for instance, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Beecher Stowe, or Abraham Lincoln, each of whom exhibited a focus and clarity of vision not commonly attributed to Emerson’s writing. These representative men and women told their stories with beginnings, middles, and oracular ends.

3An ex-slave masters his master. An author popularizes the black hero. A president decimates an institution of injustice.

  • 1 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Ma (...)

4Emerson, on the other hand, wondered. He puzzled over the nation like a Sphinx, writing aphoristically about the enigmas of nature, mind, spirit, and heart. “The world,” he said, “is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”1

  • 2 Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2003), 292.
  • 3 Richard D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, (...)

5But these metaphysical conceits mattered little to Emerson when detached from their function in the real world. The necessity of a useable past, a useable spirituality, and a useable independence underscored his existential dilemmas. “More than any other writer,” argues Lawrence Buell, “Emerson invites you to kill him off, if you don’t find him useful.”2 Never mind art, philosophy, religion or history for their own sake. If they didn’t answer the question “How should I live?,” then they were no more than sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.3

  • 4 Joseph-Marie, baron de Gerando, Self-Education, or the Means and Art of Moral Progress (Boston, Mas (...)

6It is the “I” of “How should I live?” that often loses its contextual significance when examined against the abstractions of Transcendentalism. Certainly there is an “I,” or an “eye,” altogether Emerson’s alone. But there is also Mr. Emerson, for whom self-reliance prioritizes the well-being and justice of the larger public sphere. Emerson, while still young, learned the lesson from the French philosopher, Joseph Gerando: “We cannot fully enter into the conceptions of what is just, without putting ourselves, in imagination, completely into the situation of another, so as to perceive how he would see and feel, and thus understand what should be done for him, as if it were done for ourselves.”4

7There could be no ethics, no justice, no revolution without empathy. At the “crucial moments,” Emerson freed himself from cloistered study and joined in the mutual-reliance of his neighbors.

8Emerson’s career, however, might suggest that he was a selective participant in the public realm. After all, he planted no bean rows near Walden. He did not spend time in jail for protesting the poll tax. Although he shared the educational and reform goals of his close friend Bronson Alcott and his relative George Ripley, he declined to participate in either Fruitlands or Brook Farm, their respective Utopian communes. And during the 1830s and 40s, he maintained a cautious distance between himself and the abolitionist struggle.

9But in a sense, the whole of Emerson’s life (1803-1882) spanned an extended crucial moment.

10Fate nested him in a hotbed of political activism. Boston, like no other city in America, bred utopians, suffragists, religious and educational dissenters, abolitionists, perfectionists, vegetarians. The residual fervor of a revolution not three decades old at the time of Emerson’s birth, coupled with the enthusiasms of the second Great Awakening, doubtlessly contributed to this surplus of nonconformity.

11Overseas, revolutions and merciless retaliations in Italy and Greece set Europe on edge. In the States, President Jackson broke treaty and enforced the Indian Removal Act. Nat Turner’s Rebellion panicked the masses. Garrison’s Liberator encouraged abolitionist resolve. Polk invaded Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 catalyzed the indignation of John Brown. And the Civil War, to borrow from Yeats, slouched toward Sumter to be born.

12Like Lincoln, Emerson resented slavery even in his youth but, like him as well, fell prey to prevailing assumptions regarding racial hierarchy. To Emerson’s advantage, a cohort of fiercely intelligent abolitionist women — his Aunt Mary Moody Emerson, his second wife Lydia Jackson, and Margaret Fuller (to name only three)— constantly challenged his conscience and complacency. His transition to full-blown abolitionism needed only a nudge.

  • 5 Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven and London: Yale Unive (...)

13But what he got was a blow to the head. Provoked by the barbarity of events, from the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law to Bleeding Kansas and the brutal caning of Charles Sumner, Emerson’s outrage — unlike Lincoln’s — transcended his desire for union. He had been a devotee of civilization, culture, and refinement. If there was one thing he could not stomach, it was barbarity: “I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”5 And if that meant bloodshed, so be it. He incited efforts to arm the champions of freedom in Kansas. He first urged, and then strenuously stood behind, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and campaigned for his re-election. He evangelized the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution. He openly supported reparations for slaves and aided in efforts to recruit black men to fight the South. Freedom and equality dictated the moral center of his lectures on American civilization throughout the war.

  • 6 CW 1: 21.

14So what makes Emerson’s voice stand out among those of equal conviction and perhaps clearer motivation? There is no single answer, but one in particular deserves consideration. Emerson was drawn to symbols, but during the war he too became a living symbol: a bridge between the virtuosity of Awakening thinkers and the common sense of Revolutionary activists. “Long hereafter,” he said, “amidst agitation and terror in national councils,— in the hour of revolution,— these solemn images shall reappear in their morning lustre as fit symbols and words of the thoughts which the passing events shall awaken” (emphasis added).6 Just as principle revealed itself in action, action awoke the mind to new symbols of reason and justice.

  • 7 Anthony Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” American Anthropologist, New Series, 58: 2 (April 1956 (...)

15The cultural anthropologist Anthony Wallace’s characterization of Awakenings puts Emerson in proper context. The first thing that precedes a communal or national revitalization movement is a general feeling of alienation among the citizenry. Time passes and the individual begins to redirect her antipathies toward the governing bodies. Consequently (or serendipitously), a revivalist prophet or visionary appears. Younger generations are drawn to the visionary, who finally convinces enough of the undecided to alter the status quo.7 Emerson meets all five of these conditions. Disaffected by his Unitarian upbringing, he became critical of religious and political tradition. Having searched his books, his schools, and his peers for a prophet, he discovered one — not from without, but from within. And with the publication of Nature (1836) and deliverance of “The American Scholar” (1837), Emerson found his following.

  • 8 See Ch. 3 of this volume by Len Gougeon, “Emerson the Reformer: A Pragmatic Idealist in Action, 185 (...)

16It is Wallace’s final step —“convincing the undecided”— that really bridges Emerson the Idealist with Mr. Emerson the Activist (or, in different terms, the Transcendentalist and the Revolutionary). To inspire radical reform, he took advantage of shared experience. According to Len Gougeon, Emerson “appealed to the nation’s youth to commit itself to renew the country’s founding ideals” under a “Second Declaration of Independence.” The move was strategic. Few documents of justice would have been so widely and intimately familiar to the people. “A great revolution” was at hand: the “promise” of an “ideal Republic.”8

  • 9 CW 2: 72.

17Jean McClure Mudge calls Emerson’s transformation from idealist to activist his “metamorphosis,” a word he would have approved. He alludes to that idea at the end of “Compensation” (1841), championing “incessant” change within the individual.9 By concentrating, enriching, and strengthening the mind, the individual self widens its circle of experience to contain multitudes. For Emerson that circle exceeded the circumference of the present and encompassed the future. It embraced North and South, black and white, male and female. Unlike other revolutions that defined injustices endemic to their moments in history, Mr. Emerson’s revolution is an orbit in which we continue to exist.

Notes

1 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971-2013), 1: 21. Hereafter CW.

2 Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2003), 292.

3 Richard D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995), 16.

4 Joseph-Marie, baron de Gerando, Self-Education, or the Means and Art of Moral Progress (Boston, Mass.: Carter and Hendee, 1830), 98.

5 Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 107; see also Len Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 7.

6 CW 1: 21.

7 Anthony Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” American Anthropologist, New Series, 58: 2 (April 1956), 269-70; William McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 12-17.

8 See Ch. 3 of this volume by Len Gougeon, “Emerson the Reformer: A Pragmatic Idealist in Action, 1850-1865,” 155; Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 243; Emerson compares Harper’s Ferry with the Boston Massacre.

9 CW 2: 72.

Table des illustrations

Légende Emerson in Cambridge, 1817-1871.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2280/img-1.jpg
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Légende Changes in Boston, 1810-1870.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/2280/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 57k

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