A review of Emerson by Lawrence Buell
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Making of a Democratic Intellectual by Peter S. Field
Emerson and Self-Reliance by George Kateb
Understanding Emerson: "The American Scholar" and His Struggle for Self-Reliance by Kenneth S. Sacks
Ralph Waldo Emerson was arguably America's first and perhaps most influential public or democratic intellectual. During his lifetime, he was one of the most popular lecturers and essayists in the United States and England; and although his reputation may not be as great today as it was during his lifetime and immediately following his death, there continues to be an enormous amount of interest in his life and thoughtPeter S. Field reports that no fewer than three biographies of Emerson have been published in the last decade alone. What accounts for this continuing interest? Although none of these books sets out to answer this question directly, each one suggests at least one reason why Emerson continues to be a beloved American icon by academics and the public alike.
Kenneth Sacks's Understanding Emerson is certainly the most narrowly focused of the four books and is therefore more likely to appeal primarily to Emerson scholars. Nonetheless, even for a more general audience, Sacks presents us with a lively, readable, and thorough account of the circumstances surrounding the composition and reception of Emerson's 1837 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa oration "The American Scholar." Averring that this oration is the "most celebrated academic talk in American history," Sacks offers a detailed description of the political, social, and religious climate of Boston and Harvard as well as many fine sketches of Emerson's friends and family, from Bronson Alcott to his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. The overall picture that emerges from Sacks's copiously documented account is of an Emerson who is rather unsure of himself on the eve of the orationindeed, as someone who is rather ashamed that he "continued to compromise his desire to express himself with complete candor" during his lyceum lectures the previous years. Emerson therefore finally summoned "the courage to defy tradition" and live up to his principles by directly challenging the very educational system in which he had been raised. This oration (coupled perhaps with his Harvard Divinity School address the following year) now begins to sound familiar Emersonian themes: the need to transform the university from producing future Boston Brahmins to cultivating unified and harmonious souls; to be liberated from (if not to reject outright) any books, cultures, or traditions that did not directly aid in the development of a student's inner voice or intuition; and to celebrate in literature the "rich potential of popular culture," or what Emerson called the literature of "the near, the low, the common." In short, "The American Scholar" was the "fountainhead of his engagement with humanity."
Peter S. Field's Emerson: The Making of a Democratic Intellectual is the closest of the four books we have to an intellectual biography, although his goal is not so "comprehensive;" instead, Field seeks to "distill the essence of his character and expose his singular impact upon nineteenth-century American culture" by focusing on key moments in his life. At the risk of oversimplifying, Field identifies four pivotal moments in his democratic intellectual development. First, Emerson ultimately rejected the elite Boston Brahmin establishment to which his father belonged and studiously cultivated as pastor of the influential First Congregational Church. Second, after his father's early death when he was eight years old, Emerson was first marked by the "genteel poverty" of his family and then by his education at Harvard (which he more often than not concluded was too rigid and uninspired). Third, although he finally decided to become a minister after all, he soon resigned from the pastorate of Boston's Second Church after three short years and more or less broke with what he saw as the staid formalism and social elitism of the Unitarians with his infamous Harvard Divinity School address. And finally, Emerson's vocation as a public lecturer at last provided him with an "egalitarian medium""a type of secular sermon"whereby he could address and emotionally connect with people directly, exhorting them throughout his career to actualize their untapped inner potential. But perhaps the highlight of the book is Field's even-handed account of Emerson and the politics of race, slavery, and abolitionism. Field cites three basic phases in the evolution of Emerson's thought: up until 1837, when he gave his first lecture on slavery, he was more or less indifferent to the issue; although he remained "largely mute on slavery" during the following decade, he began to question his earlier belief about the "intractable inferiority of Africans"; but after the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law, "Emerson often joined the ranks of antislavery activists, at least in his own measured, prosaic way." What Field helps to bring out in relief in this Emerson's "single great foray into active politics" is his ambivalence toward it. "Dismissive of the American tendency to fetishize politics, Emerson unwaveringly urged his fellow citizens to redirect their energies more properly toward self-improvement and culture. The political apparatus of the state could only offer marginal help with what in the end proved to be a personal quest." Although it may be hard to believe today, America's first great democratic intellectual was one of the most unpolitical individuals there was.
Lawrence Buell's Emerson is an expansive and eclectic discussion which focuses on "key moments of Emerson's career and major facets of his thought," among which are his contributions to poetry and literature, religion, philosophy, social thought and reform, and what Buell calls "mentorship" (i.e., to what extent we can use Emerson as a mentor given the fact that he repeatedly urged individuals to "make free with history, books, traditions, sacred cows of all sorts," if these cultural authorities were not deemed useful in one's own self-actualization). There is much to recommend in this wide-ranging, evocative analysis. In the first place, Buell effectively discloses both the broad, general influence Emerson has had on so many other thinkers and movements (from Nietzsche to Pragmatism) as well as the wide range of writers and texts which influenced him (from the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg to the Bhagavad Gita). Part of Buell's effort here is to make plausible the claim that although Emerson was "the first public intellectual in the history of the United States," he was not crudely nationalistic or parochial but was indeed rather open and perhaps even multi-cultural both in his outlook and influence. Buell is also helpful in revealing important tensions in Emerson's thought, in particular those concerning religion and social activism. With respect to religion, Emerson claimed that there was an overarching soul or spirit that permeated humans and nature alike while at the same affirming that the only authentic expression of that immanent god was by and through each and every individual, with no one capable of laying down an authentic expression of this universal divine spirit for others. In respect to social activism, and especially abolitionism, Buell demonstrates how "Emerson had trouble deciding which was worse: to keep silent about practicalities while the world burned, or to intervene at the risk of falling into programmatic myopia to the detriment of a scholar's proper work." Ultimately, Buell (who takes his cue from a remark William James made about Emerson's religiosity) correctly sees that Emerson's "metaphysics," which oscillates between privileging the transpersonal and then the personal, or monism and then individualism, is reflected throughout his writings. "His philosophy of history sometimes boils down to the individual biographies of selected great men, sometimes to the emanation of a polymorphous universal mind. His social thought sometimes privileges acts of conscienceful self-assertion, sometimes transpersonal higher law or principle. His literary theory sets extremely high value on individual inspiration even as he remains convinced of inspiration's transpersonal character."
Originally published in 1995, George Kateb's Emerson and Self-Reliance has been reissued with a new preface (which explores the religious dimensions of Emerson's first and perhaps most difficult to read book, Nature). In one important sense, this is perhaps the most Emersonian of all the four books: just as Emerson encouraged his audience to make use of other authors and authorities as they saw fit, so Kateb appropriates him for his own purposes as well, showing us how Emersonian self-reliance is in fact a theory or vital component of "democratic individuality." Kateb distinguishes between what he calls "mental" and "active" self-reliance, and he argues that the only genuine form of independence comes through thinking rather than acting. Mental self-reliance is "the steady effort of thinking one's thoughts and thinking them through. It is intellectual independence, reactive and responsive self-possession." By seeing "life and the world with one's own eyes, with eyes cleansed of the effects of the group mind and institutional constrictions," we will be able to "perceive and pronounce beauty and hence to see and say what is truly there. The net effect is justice: to see the beauty that is present but often obscured, ignored, betrayed, or self-unclaimed." Kateb finishes his discussion of mental self-reliance with a fine exploration of the extent to which friendship and sexual love contribute to it or not. His conclusion: "Mental self-reliance begins and may very well end in solitude, but its point, which is love of the world, gathers indispensable help from the friendship in sexual love as well as the love in unsexual friendship." The final two chapters of the book examine the less elevated form of independence, active self-reliance, and in particular economic and political activity. Emerson favors "economic self-help" and gives qualified support to the pursuit of wealth as a "proper manifestation" of active self-reliance; "state socialism," by contrast, "is altogether incompatible with every aspect of Emerson's thought." But the highest form of active self-reliance is finding and doing one's vocation: that which one can uniquely do and/or do in one's own unique way becomes a vital expression of oneself. As for politics, Kateb comes to conclusions similar to, and perhaps even stronger than, those of Field and Buell: "Emerson would be an anarchist if he could."
Although Kateb generally makes a strong case for privileging mental over active self-reliance, it is somewhat puzzling why he desires to use Emerson as "the founder of the philosophy of democratic individualism": why turn to such a wholly unpolitical man, one who was at best ambivalent about politics and even associations, and who has no theory whatsoever of prudence or statesmanship? If the answer lies in the fact that Emerson celebrates the potential self-reliance of each and every soul, and thus elevates democratic citizens, then it is unclear why Kateb insists on wanting to eliminate from Emerson the very ground of that beliefnamely, his insistence that a universal mind or spirit pervades all human beings, and that all humans have access and can give expression to that spirit by hearkening to their own inner voice or genius. Kateb, however, seems troubled and even sometimes embarrassed by Emerson's religiosity, and he clearly wants to secularize him for a more modern democratic audience. But if one does this, then one wonders where the source for our unlimited potential would be located? One may disagree with Emerson's spiritualism; but if individuals are shorn of the divinity Emerson claimed was in us all, it seems exceedingly difficult to affirm that individuals could ever approach genuine mental or active self-reliance. This question notwithstanding, Kateb is to be applauded for trying to concretize the meaning of self-reliance as well as for working out its manifold implications in love and friendship, economics and politics.
Educational reformer, democratic intellectual, cosmopolitan individual and spiritualist, self-reliant sageas these books demonstrate, there seems to be something for everyone in Emerson's corpus. Let us conclude with this Tocquevillean-inspired question. Not only do these four books argue that Emerson was one of the first and most influential public intellectuals, they also strongly suggest that he was a healthy one for democracies as well. But is this so clear? Emerson's unique brand of individualism demands that we slough off any authority or institution (organized religion chief among them) that did not speak to the divine that is within us all; but in so doing, does he not leave us more naked and alone in the process, and therefore all the more susceptible to the tyranny of the majority? Would not this unmooring of the soul from tradition, custom, habit, religion, and associations leave most of us ever more dependent upon and susceptible to the crushing and numbing weight of mass opinion? Certainly these four fine books, all of which show great scholarship and learning, allow one to begin to meditate on this and other important questions by laying out what Emerson's unique legacy of individualism entailed.