Bicentennial Man


If the 200th anniversary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth (he was born May 25, 1803) is to prompt anything more than the sort of hollow obeisance that Emerson himself hated, it should offer the opportunity for new readers to discover his essential strangeness and vitality. His words of power: fluid, volatile, rush, pulse, expansion. It’s just this concern with dynamic process that’s lost when he is regarded as simply a remote figure in the old American landscape, Reverend Smiles of the Fresh Air League, dispenser of bootstrap bromides—that is to say, when he is not read but known only through scrapings of the considerable crust of cliché that has formed around him.

So read him. The Emerson essay is one of the unique forms in literature—not an argument (they convince no one) but rather a bounded energy field of conflicting currents. To enter its flow is to be pulled between assertion, provocation, contradiction, and occasionally eddies of lassitude broken by the statement or passage that rings simply and strangely true and direct. Emerson always speaks directly—he is writing for you, to challenge your preconceptions, overturn your orthodoxies, and affirm your cautious intuitions. His essays are a dialogue or they are nothing; or, worse than nothing in Emersonian terms, mere relics of historical interest.

One can (one should) easily get lost in the flux. This too is deliberate. “The most interesting writing,” Emerson says, “is that which does not quite satisfy the reader. Try and leave a little thinking for him; that will be better for both . . . A little guessing does him no harm, so I would assist him with no connections.” His own work provides a model for the approach he recommends the reader take toward all literature: Read history as (auto)biography. Recognize “in every work of genius . . . our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” And never stop: “Around every circle another can be drawn . . . there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning . . . there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

Given his concern with continual overturning, any attempt to summarize Emerson runs the danger of showing only where the interpreter stopped. The past few years have seen a proliferation of stunted Emersons, brought forth to demonstrate his heroism or villainy in relation to a variety of social issues and trends, drawn from a narrow cross section of his current. The great virtue of Lawrence Buell’s Emerson lies in its attempt to do justice to Emersonian process, as well as to the way he has been appropriated by various cultural agendas and actively engaged by writers ranging from Whitman and Ralph (Waldo) Ellison to Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold.

Along the way, Buell chips away at some of the received opinions that cluster round Emerson’s name. One particular target is the nationalist Emerson, the homespun spokesman for Yankee individualism. Buell sensibly points out that Emerson’s own formative influences were European—and later Asian. Moreover, he had little taste for cant, patriotic or otherwise. America was possibility, the newness of the nation perhaps offering some unique opportunities for self-realization, but the quest transcends all borders.

In his effort to present Emerson in the round, Buell approaches him variously as social critic and poet (a brilliant analysis of Emerson’s style and “aesthetic of the fragment”), religious radical and philosopher (to the extent to which he can be considered a philosopher in any systematic sense). But he realizes these boundaries are porous. In each sector, his remarks are informed, sensitive, and extremely insightful. I would quarrel only with some of his remarks on Emerson’s spiritual beliefs.

This area, as Buell notes, tends to provoke discomfort and irritation among academics, one political philosopher finding it “maddening” to think that Emerson might “not have been able to approach radicalism except through religious inspiration.” This, to me, indicates a certain poverty of imagination in contemporary intellectual culture, along with a distasteful intolerance. Under the push and pull of Emerson’s prose, one belief or experience seems to hold firm, one rich enough to bear continual investigation. It is, essentially, monist: the belief that everything that is is the expression of a unified consciousness, that there is no divinity apart from creation but that everything in creation is an expression of the divine. Subtract this core, and Emerson can take on some very strange forms, threatening on occasion to devolve into something monstrous: an Ayn Rand who could write.

Buell is aware of these dangers but persists in the effort to create an Emerson more palatable to a materialist mind-set, at one point attempting to recast his belief in a deep self essentially identical to the “Over-Soul” in Freudian terms. I leave it to followers of that bizarre belief system to judge the success of this, but remain dubious as to whether Emerson can ever be satisfactorily “rehabilitated” in this way.

Which is to say Buell’s Emerson is not mine, in one crucial aspect. But his own is rich and multifaceted, and their dialogue, the result of over 30 years of thoughtful reading and argument, fulfills the highest goals to which a study of Emerson can aspire: It leads us back to him with fresh complications.