By Henry A. Beers.
There has been but one movement in the history of the American mind which has given to literature a group of writers having coherence enough to merit the name of a school. This was the great humanitarian movement, or series of movements, in New England, which, beginning in the Unitarianism of Channing, ran through its later phase in transcendentalism, and spent its last strength in the antislavery agitation and the enthusiasms of the civil war. The second stage of this intellectual and social revolt was transcendentalism, of which Emerson wrote, in 1842: “The history of genius and of religion in these times will be the history of this tendency.” It culminated about 1840-41 in the establishment of the Dial and the Brook Farm Community, although Emerson had given the signal a few years before in his little volume entitled Nature, 1836, his Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard on the American Scholar, 1837, and his address in 1838 before the Divinity School at Cambridge. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) was the prophet of the sect, and Concord was its Mecca; but the influence of the new ideas was not confined to the little group of professed transcendentalists; it extended to all the young writers within reach, who struck their roots deeper into the soil that it had loosened and freshened. We owe to it, in great measure, not merely Emerson, Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Thoreau, but Hawthorne, Lowell, Whittier, and Holmes.
In its strictest sense transcendentalism was a restatement of the idealistic philosophy, and an application of its beliefs to religion, nature, and life. But in a looser sense, and as including the more outward manifestations which drew popular attention most strongly, it was the name given to that spirit of dissent and protest, of universal inquiry and experiment, which marked the third and fourth decades of this century in America, and especially in New England. The movement was contemporary with political revolutions in Europe and with the preaching of many novel gospels in religion, in sociology, in science, education, medicine, and hygiene. New sects were formed, like the Swedenborgians, Universalists, Spiritualists, Millerites, Second Adventists, Shakers, Mormons, and Come-outers, some of whom believed in trances, miracles, and direct revelations from the divine Spirit; others in the quick coming of Christ, as deduced from the opening of the seals and the number of the beast in the Apocalypse; and still others in the reorganization of society and of the family on a different basis. New systems of education were tried, suggested by the writings of the Swiss reformer, Pestalozzi, and others. The pseudo-sciences of mesmerism and of phrenology, as taught by Gall and Spurzheim, had numerous followers. In medicine, homeopathy, hydropathy, and what Dr. Holmes calls “kindred delusions,” made many disciples. Numbers of persons, influenced by the doctrines of Graham and other vegetarians, abjured the use of animal food, as injurious not only to health but to a finer spirituality. Not a few refused to vote or pay taxes. The writings of Fourier and Saint-Simon were translated, and societies were established where co-operation and a community of goods should take the place of selfish competition.
About the year 1840 there were some thirty of these “phalansteries” in America, many of which had their organs in the shape of weekly or monthly journals, which advocated the principle of Association. The best known of these was probably the Harbinger, the mouth-piece of the famous Brook Farm Community, which was founded at West Roxbury, Mass., in 1841, and lasted till 1847. The head man of Brook Farm was George Ripley, a Unitarian clergyman, who had resigned his pulpit in Boston to go into the movement, and who after its failure became and remained for many years literary editor of the New York Tribune. Among his associates were Charles A. Dana—now the editor of the Sun--Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others not unknown to fame. The Harbinger, which ran from 1845 to 1849--two years after the break-up of the community—had among its contributors many who were not Brook Farmers, but who sympathized more or less with the experiment. Of the number were Horace Greeley, Dr. F. H. Hedge—who did so much to introduce American readers to German literature—J. S. Dwight, the musical critic, C. P. Cranch, the poet, and younger men, like G. W. Curtis and T. W. Higginson. A reader of to-day, looking into an odd volume of the Harbinger, will find in it some stimulating writing, together with a great deal of unintelligible talk about “Harmonic Unity,” “Love Germination,” and other matters now fallen silent. The most important literary result of this experiment at “plain living and high thinking,” with its queer mixture of culture and agriculture, was Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, which has for its background an idealized picture of the community life; whose heroine, Zenobia, has touches of Margaret Fuller; and whose hero, with his hobby of prison reform, was a type of the one-idea’d philanthropists that abounded in such an environment. Hawthorne’s attitude was always in part one of reserve and criticism, an attitude which is apparent in the reminiscences of Brook Farm in his American Note Books, wherein he speaks with a certain resentment of “Miss Fuller’s transcendental heifer,” which hooked the other cows, and was evidently to Hawthorne’s mind not unsymbolic in this respect of Miss Fuller herself.
It was the day of seers and “Orphic” utterances; the air was fall of the enthusiasm of humanity and thick with philanthropic projects and plans for the regeneration of the universe. The figure of the wild-eyed, long-haired reformer—the man with a panacea—the “crank” of our later terminology—became a familiar one. He abounded at non-resistance conventions and meetings of universal peace societies and of woman’s rights associations. The movement had its grotesque aspects, which Lowell has described in his essay on Thoreau. “Bran had its apostles and the pre-sartorial simplicity of Adam its martyrs, tailored impromptu from the tar-pot. . . . Not a few impecunious zealots abjured the use of money (unless earned by other people), professing to live on the internal revenues of the spirit. . . . Communities were established where every thing was to be common but common sense.”
This ferment has long since subsided, and much of what was then seething has gone off in vapor or other volatile products. But some very solid matters have also been precipitated, some crystals of poetry translucent, symmetrical, enduring. The immediate practical outcome was disappointing, and the external history of the agitation is a record of failed experiments, spurious sciences, Utopian philosophies, and sects founded only to dwindle away or to be re-absorbed into some form of orthodoxy. In the eyes of the conservative, or the worldly-minded, or of the plain people who could not understand the enigmatic utterances of the reformers, the dangerous or ludicrous sides of transcendentalism were naturally uppermost. Nevertheless the movement was but a new avatar of the old Puritan spirit; its moral earnestness, its spirituality, its tenderness for the individual conscience. Puritanism, too, in its day had run into grotesque extremes. Emerson bore about the same relation to the absurder out-croppings of transcendentalism that Milton bore to the New Lights, Ranters, Fifth Monarchy Men, etc., of his time. There is in him that mingling of idealism with an abiding sanity, and even a Yankee shrewdness, which characterizes the race. The practical, inventive, calculating, money-getting side of the Yankee has been made sufficiently obvious. But the deep heart of New England is full of dreams, mysticism, romance:
“And in the day of sacrifice,
When heroes piled the pyre,
The dismal Massachusetts ice
Burned more than others’ fire.”
The one element which the odd and eccentric developments of this movement shared in common with the real philosophy of transcendentalism was the rejection of authority and the appeal to the private consciousness as the sole standard of truth and right. This principle certainly lay in the ethical systems of Kant and Fichte, the great transcendentalists of Germany. It had been strongly asserted by Channing. Nay, it was the starting-point of Puritanism itself, which had drawn away from the ceremonial religion of the English Church, and by its Congregational system had made each church society independent in doctrine and worship. And although Puritan orthodoxy in New England had grown rigid and dogmatic it had never used the weapons of obscurantism. By encouraging education to the utmost, it had shown its willingness to submit its beliefs to the fullest discussion and had put into the hands of dissent the means with which to attack them.
In its theological aspect transcendentalism was a departure from conservative Unitarianism, as that had been from Calvinism. From Edwards to Channing, from Channing to Emerson and Theodore Parker, there was a natural and logical unfolding; not logical in the sense that Channing accepted Edwards’s premises and pushed them out to their conclusions, or that Parker accepted all of Channing’s premises, but in the sense that the rigid pushing out of Edwards’s premises into their conclusions by himself and his followers had brought about a moral reductio ad absurdum and a state of opinion against which Channing rebelled; and that Channing, as it seemed to Parker, stopped short in the carrying out of his own principles. Thus the “Channing Unitarians,” while denying that Christ was God, had held that he was of divine nature, was the Son of God, and had existed before he came into the world. While rejecting the doctrine of the “vicarious sacrifice” they maintained that Christ was a mediator and intercessor, and that his supernatural nature was testified by miracles. For Parker and Emerson it was easy to take the step to the assertion that Christ was a good and great man, divine only in the sense that God possessed him more fully than any other man known in history; that it was his preaching and example that brought salvation to men, and not any special mediation or intercession, and that his own words and acts, and not miracles, are the only and the sufficient witness to his mission. In the view of the transcendentalists Christ was as human as Buddha, Socrates, or Confucius, and the Bible was but one among the “Ethnical Scriptures” or sacred writings of the peoples, passages from which were published in the transcendental organ, the Dial. As against these new views Channing Unitarianism occupied already a conservative position. The Unitarians as a body had never been very numerous outside of eastern Massachusetts. They had a few churches in New York and in the larger cities and towns elsewhere, but the sect, as such, was a local one. Orthodoxy made a sturdy fight against the heresy, under leaders like Leonard Woods and Moses Stuart, of Andover, and Lyman Beecher, of Connecticut. In the neighboring State of Connecticut, for example, there was until lately, for a period of several years, no distinctly Unitarian congregation worshiping in a church edifice of its own. On the other hand, the Unitarians claimed, with justice, that their opinions had, to a great extent, modified the theology of the orthodox churches. The writings of Horace Bushnell, of Hartford, one of the most eminent Congregational divines, approach Unitarianism in their interpretation of the doctrine of the Atonement; and the “progressive orthodoxy” of Andover is certainly not the Calvinism of Thomas Hooker or of Jonathan Edwards. But it seemed to the transcendentalists that conservative Unitarianism was too negative and “cultured,” and Margaret Fuller complained of the coldness of the Boston pulpits; while, contrariwise, the central thought of transcendentalism, that the soul has an immediate connection with God, was pronounced by Dr. Channing a “crude speculation.” This was the thought of Emerson’s address in 1838 before the Cambridge Divinity School, and it was at once made the object of attack by conservative Unitarians like Henry Ware and Andrews Norton. The latter, in an address before the same audience, on the Latest Form of Infidelity, said: “Nothing is left that can be called Christianity if its miraculous character be denied. . . . There can be no intuition, no direct perception, of the truth of Christianity.” And in a pamphlet supporting the same side of the question he added: “It is not an intelligible error, but a mere absurdity, to maintain that we are conscious, or have an intuitive knowledge, of the being of God, of our own immortality, . . . or of any other fact of religion.” Ripley and Parker replied in Emerson’s defense; but Emerson himself would never be drawn into controversy. He said that he could not argue. He announced truths; his method was that of the seer, not of the disputant. In 1832 Emerson, who was a Unitarian clergyman, and descended from eight generations of clergymen, had resigned the pastorate of the Second Church of Boston because he could not conscientiously administer the sacrament of the communion—which he regarded as a mere act of commemoration—in the sense in which it was understood by his parishioners. Thenceforth, though he sometimes occupied Unitarian pulpits, and was, indeed, all his life a kind of “lay preacher,” he never assumed the pastorate of a church. The representative of transcendentalism in the pulpit was Theodore Parker, an eloquent preacher, an eager debater, and a prolific writer on many subjects, whose collected works fill fourteen volumes. Parker was a man of strongly human traits, passionate, independent, intensely religious, but intensely radical, who made for himself a large personal following. The more advanced wing of the Unitarians were called, after him, “Parkerites.” Many of the Unitarian churches refused to “fellowship” with him; and the large congregation, or audience, which assembled in Music Hall to hear his sermons was stigmatized as a “boisterous assembly” which came to hear Parker preach irreligion.
It has been said that, on its philosophical side, New England transcendentalism was a restatement of idealism. The impulse came from Germany, from the philosophical writings of Kant, Fichte, Jacobi, and Schelling, and from the works of Coleridge and Carlyle, who had domesticated German thought in England. In Channing’s Remarks on a National Literature, quoted in our last chapter, the essayist urged that our scholars should study the authors of France and Germany as one means of emancipating American letters from a slavish dependence on British literature. And in fact German literature began, not long after, to be eagerly studied in New England. Emerson published an American edition of Carlyle’s Miscellanies, including his essays on German writers that had appeared in England between 1822 and 1830. In 1838 Ripley began to publish Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature, which extended to fourteen volumes. In his work of translating and supplying introductions to the matter selected, he was helped by Ripley, Margaret Fuller, John S. Dwight, and others who had more or less connection with the transcendental movement.
The definition of the new faith given by Emerson in his lecture on the Transcendentalist, 1842, is as follows; “What is popularly called transcendentalism among us is idealism. . . . The idealism of the present day acquired the name of transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses, by showing that there was a very important class of ideas, or imperative forms, which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired; that these were intuitions of the mind itself, and he denominated them transcendental forms.” Idealism denies the independent existence of matter. Transcendentalism claims for the innate ideas of God and the soul a higher assurance of reality than for the knowledge of the outside world derived through the senses. Emerson shares the “noble doubt” of idealism. He calls the universe a shade, a dream, “this great apparition.” “It is a sufficient account of that appearance we call the world,” he wrote in Nature, “that God will teach a human mind, and so makes it the receiver of a certain number of congruent sensations which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade. In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make whether Orion is up there in heaven or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul?” On the other hand, our evidence of the existence, of God and of our own souls, and our knowledge of right and wrong, are immediate, and are independent of the senses. We are in direct communication with the “Over-soul,” the infinite Spirit. “The soul in man is the background of our being—an immensity not possessed, that cannot be possessed.” “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” Revelation is “an influx of the Divine mind into our mind. It is an ebb of the individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the sea of life.” In moods of exaltation, and especially in the presence of nature, this contact of the individual soul with the absolute is felt. “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 and particle of God.” The existence and attributes of God are not deducible from history or from natural theology, but are thus directly given us in consciousness. In his essay on the Transcendentalist Emerson says: “His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded center in himself; center alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence—relative to that aforesaid Unknown Center of him. There is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God.”
Emerson’s point of view, though familiar to students of philosophy, is strange to the popular understanding, and hence has arisen the complaint of his obscurity. Moreover, he apprehended and expressed these ideas as a poet, in figurative and emotional language, and not as a metaphysician, in a formulated statement. His own position in relation to systematic philosophers is described in what he says of Plato, in his series of sketches entitled Representative Men, 1850:
“He has not a system. The dearest disciples and defenders are at fault. He attempted a theory of the universe, and his theory is not complete or self-evident. One man thinks he means this, and another that; he has said one thing in one place, and the reverse of it in another place.” It happens, therefore, that, to many students of more formal philosophies, Emerson’s meaning seems elusive, and he appears to write from temporary moods and to contradict himself. Had he attempted a reasoned exposition of the transcendental philosophy, instead of writing essays and poems, he might have added one more to the number of system-mongers; but he would not have taken that significant place which he occupies in the general literature of the time, nor exerted that wide influence upon younger writers which has been one of the stimulating forces in American thought. It was because Emerson was a poet that he is our Emerson. And yet it would be impossible to disentangle his peculiar philosophical ideas from the body of his writings and to leave the latter to stand upon their merits as literature merely. He is the poet of certain high abstractions, and his religion is central to all his work—excepting, perhaps, his English Traits, 1856, an acute study of national characteristics; and a few of his essays and verses, which are independent of any particular philosophical stand-point.
When Emerson resigned his parish in 1832, he made a short trip to Europe, where he visited Carlyle at Craigenputtock, and Landor at Florence. On his return he retired to his birthplace, the village of Concord, Massachusetts, and settled down among his books and his fields, becoming a sort of “glorified farmer,” but issuing frequently from his retirement to instruct and delight audiences of thoughtful people at Boston and at other points all through the country. Emerson was the perfection of a lyceum lecturer. His manner was quiet but forcible, his voice of charming quality, and his enunciation clean-cut and refined. The sentence was his unit in composition. His lectures seemed to begin anywhere and to end anywhere and to resemble strings of exquisitely polished sayings rather than continuous discourses. His printed essays, with unimportant exceptions, were first written and delivered as lectures. In 1836 he published his first book, Nature, which remains the most systematic statement of his philosophy. It opened a fresh spring-head in American thought, and the words of its introduction announced that its author had broken with the past. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us and not the history of theirs?”
It took eleven years to sell five hundred copies of this little book. But the year following its publication the remarkable Phi Beta Kappa address at Cambridge, on the American Scholar, electrified the little public of the university. This is described by Lowell as “an event without any former parallel in our literary annals, a scene to be always treasured in the memory for its picturesqueness and its inspiration. What crowded and breathless aisles, what windows clustering with eager heads, what grim silence of foregone dissent!” To Concord come many kindred spirits, drawn by Emerson’s magnetic attraction. Thither came, from Connecticut, Amos Bronson Alcott, born a few years before Emerson, whom he outlived; a quaint and benignant figure, a visionary and a mystic even among the transcendentalists themselves, and one who lived in unworldly simplicity the life of the soul. Alcott had taught school at Cheshire, Conn., and afterward at Boston on an original plan—compelling his scholars, for example, to flog him, when they did wrong, instead of taking a flogging themselves. The experiment was successful until his Conversations on the Gospels, in Boston, and his insistence upon admitting colored children to his benches, offended conservative opinion and broke up his school. Alcott renounced the eating of animal food in 1835. He believed in the union of thought and manual labor, and supported himself for some years by the work of his hands, gardening, cutting wood, etc. He traveled into the West and elsewhere, holding conversations on philosophy, education, and religion. He set up a little community at the village of Harvard, Massachusetts, which was rather less successful than Brook Farm, and he contributed Orphic Sayings to the Dial, which were harder for the exoteric to understand than even Emerson’s Brahma or the Over-soul.
Thither came, also, Sarah Margaret Fuller, the most intellectual woman of her time in America, an eager student of Greek and German literature and an ardent seeker after the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. She threw herself into many causes—such as temperance and the higher education of women. Her brilliant conversation classes in Boston attracted many “minds” of her own sex. Subsequently, as literary editor of the New York Tribune, she furnished a wider public with reviews and book notices of great ability. She took part in the Brook Farm experiment, and she edited the Dial for a time, contributing to it the papers afterward expanded into her most considerable book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In 1846 she went abroad, and at Rome took part in the revolutionary movement of Mazzini, having charge of one of the hospitals during the siege of the city by the French. In 1847 she married an impecunious Italian nobleman, the Marquis Ossoli. In 1850 the ship on which she was returning to America, with her husband and child, was wrecked on Fire Island beach and all three were lost. Margaret Fuller’s collected writings are somewhat disappointing, being mainly of temporary interest. She lives less through her books than through the memoirs of her friends, Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, T. W. Higginson, and others who knew her as a personal influence. Her strenuous and rather overbearing individuality made an impression not altogether agreeable upon many of her contemporaries. Lowell introduced a caricature of her as “Miranda” into his Fable for Critics, and Hawthorne’s caustic sketch of her, preserved in the biography written by his son, has given great offence to her admirers. “Such a determination to eat this huge universe!” was Carlyle’s characteristic comment on her appetite for knowledge and aspirations after perfection.
To Concord also came Nathaniel Hawthorne, who took up his residence there first at the “Old Manse,” and afterward at “The Wayside.” Though naturally an idealist, he said that he came too late to Concord to fall decidedly under Emerson’s influence. Of that he would have stood in little danger even had he come earlier. He appreciated the deep and subtle quality of Emerson’s imagination, but his own shy genius always jealously guarded its independence and resented the too close approaches of an alien mind. Among the native disciples of Emerson at Concord the most noteworthy were Henry Thoreau, and his friend and biographer, William Ellery Channing, Jr., a nephew of the great Channing. Channing was a contributor to the Dial, and he published a volume of poems which elicited a fiercely contemptous review from Edgar Poe. Though disfigured by affectation and obscurity, many of Channing’s verses were distinguished by true poetic feeling, and the last line of his little piece, A Poet’s Hope,
“If my bark sink ‘tis to another sea,”
has taken a permanent place in the literature of transcendentalism.
The private organ of the transcendentalists was the Dial, a quarterly magazine, published from 1840 to 1844, and edited by Emerson and Margaret Fuller. Among its contributors, besides those already mentioned, were Ripley, Thoreau, Parker, James Freeman Clarke, Charles A. Dana, John S. Dwight, C. P. Cranch, Charles Emerson, and William H. Channing, another nephew of Dr. Channing. It contained, along with a good deal of rubbish, some of the best poetry and prose that has been published in America. The most lasting part of its contents were the contributions of Emerson and Thoreau. But even as a whole it was a unique way-mark in the history of our literature.
From time to time Emerson collected and published his lectures under various titles. A first series of Essays came out in 1841, and a second in 1844; the Conduct of Life in 1860, Society and Solitude in 1870, Letters and Social Aims in 1876, and the Fortune of the Republic in 1878. In 1847 he issued a volume of Poems, and 1865 Mayday and Other Poems. These writings, as a whole, were variations on a single theme, expansions and illustrations of the philosophy set forth in Nature, and his early addresses. They were strikingly original, rich in thought, filled with wisdom, with lofty morality and spiritual religion. Emerson, said Lowell, first “cut the cable that bound us to English thought and gave us a chance at the dangers and glories of blue water.” Nevertheless, as it used to be the fashion to find an English analogue for every American writer, so that Cooper was called the American Scott, and Mrs. Sigourney was described as the Hemans of America, a well-worn critical tradition has coupled Emerson with Carlyle. That his mind received a nudge from Carlyle’s early essays and from Sartor Resartus is beyond a doubt. They were life-long friends and correspondents, and Emerson’s Representative Men is, in some sort, a counterpart of Carlyle’s Hero Worship. But in temper and style the two writers were widely different. Carlyle’s pessimism and dissatisfaction with the general drift of things gained upon him more and more, while Emerson was a consistent optimist to the end. The last of his writings published during his life-time, the Fortune of the Republic, contrasts strangely in its hopefulness with the desperation of Carlyle’s later utterances. Even in presence of the doubt as to man’s personal immortality he takes refuge in a high and stoical faith. “I think all sound minds rest on a certain preliminary conviction, namely, that if it be best that conscious personal life shall continue it will continue, and if not best, then it will not; and we, if we saw the whole, should of course see that it was better so.” It is this conviction that gives to Emerson’s writings their serenity and their tonic quality at the same time that it narrows the range of his dealings with life. As the idealist declines to cross-examine those facts which he regards as merely phenomenal, and looks upon this outward face of things as upon a mask not worthy to dismay the fixed soul, so the optimist turns away his eyes from the evil which he disposes of as merely negative, as the shadow of the good. Hawthorne’s interest in the problem of sin finds little place in Emerson’s philosophy. Passion comes not nigh him, and Faust disturbs him with its disagreeableness. Pessimism is to him “the only skepticism.”
The greatest literature is that which is most broadly human, or, in other words, that which will square best with all philosophies. But Emerson’s genius was interpretative rather than constructive. The poet dwells in the cheerful world of phenomena. He is most the poet who realizes most intensely the good and the bad of human life. But Idealism makes experience shadowy and subordinates action to contemplation. To it the cities of men, with their “frivolous populations,”
“are but sailing foam-bells Along thought’s causing stream.”
Shakespeare does not forget that the world will one day vanish “like the baseless fabric of a vision,” and that we ourselves are “such stuff as dreams are made on;” but this is not the mood in which he dwells. Again: while it is for the philosopher to reduce variety to unity, it is the poet’s task to detect the manifold under uniformity. In the great creative poets, in Shakespeare and Dante and Goethe, how infinite the swarm of persons, the multitude of forms! But with Emerson the type is important, the common element. “In youth we are mad for persons. But the larger experience of man discovers the identical nature appearing through them all.” “The same—the same!” he exclaims in his essay on Plato. “Friend and foe are of one stuff; the plowman, the plow, and the furrow are of one stuff.” And this is the thought in Brahma:
“They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly I am the wings:
I am the doubter find the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.”
It is not easy to fancy a writer who holds this altitude toward “persons” descending to the composition of a novel or a play. Emerson showed, indeed, a fine power of character-analysis in his English Traits and Representative Men and in his memoirs of Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. There is even a sort of dramatic humor in his portrait of Socrates. But upon the whole he stands midway between constructive artists, whose instinct it is to tell a story or sing a song, and philosophers, like Schelling, who give poetic expression to a system of thought. He belongs to the class of minds of which Sir Thomas Browne is the best English example. He set a high value upon Browne, to whose style his own, though far more sententious, bears a resemblance. Browne’s saying, for example, “All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God,” sounds like Emerson, whose workmanship, for the rest, in his prose essays was exceedingly fine and close. He was not afraid to be homely and racy in expressing thought of the highest spirituality. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is a good instance of his favorite manner.
Emerson’s verse often seems careless in technique. Most of his pieces are scrappy and have the air of runic rimes, or little oracular “voicings”—as they say at Concord—in rhythmic shape, of single thoughts on “Worship,” “Character,” “Heroism,” “Art,” “Politics,” “Culture,” etc. The content is the important thing, and the form is too frequently awkward or bald. Sometimes, indeed, in the clear-obscure of Emerson’s poetry the deep wisdom of the thought finds its most natural expression in the imaginative simplicity of the language. But though this artlessness in him became too frequently in his imitators, like Thoreau and Ellery Channing, an obtruded simplicity, among his own poems are many that leave nothing to be desired in point of wording and of verse. His Hymn Sung at the Completion of the Concord Monument, in 1836, is the perfect model of an occasional poem. Its lines were on every one’s lips at the time of the centennial celebrations in 1876, and “the shot heard round the world” has hardly echoed farther than the song which chronicled it.
Equally current is the stanza from Voluntaries:
“So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, ‘Thou must,’
The youth replies, ‘I can.
So, too, the famous lines from the Problem:
“The hand that rounded Peter’s dome,
And groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
Wrought in a sad sincerity.
Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew;
The conscious stone to beauty grew.”
The most noteworthy of Emerson’s pupils was Henry David Thoreau, “the poet-naturalist.” After his graduation from Harvard College, in 1837, Thoreau engaged in school-teaching and in the manufacture of lead-pencils, but soon gave up all regular business and devoted himself to walking, reading, and the study of nature. He was at one time private tutor in a family on Staten Island, and he supported himself for a season by doing odd jobs in land-surveying for the farmers about Concord. In 1845 he built, with his own hands, a small cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, near Concord, and lived there in seclusion for two years. His expenses during these years were nine cents a day, and he gave an account of his experiment in his most characteristic book, Walden, published in 1854. His Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers appeared in 1849. From time to time he went farther afield, and his journeys were reported in Cape Cod, the Maine Woods, Excursions, and A Yankee in Canada, all of which, as well as a volume of Letters and Early Spring in Massachusetts, have been given to the public since his death, which happened in 1862. No one has lived so close to nature, and written of it so intimately, as Thoreau. His life was a lesson in economy and a sermon on Emerson’s text, “Lessen your denominator.” He wished to reduce existence to the simplest terms—to
“live all alone
Close to the bone,
And where life is sweet
He had a passion for the wild, and seems like an Anglo-Saxon reversion to the type of the Red Indian. The most distinctive note in Thoreau is his inhumanity. Emerson spoke of him as a “perfect piece of stoicism.” “Man,” said Thoreau, “is only the point on which I stand.” He strove to realize the objective life of nature—nature in its aloofness from man; to identify himself, with the moose and the mountain. He listened, with his ear close to the ground, for the voice of the earth.
“What are the trees saying?” he exclaimed. Following upon the trail of the lumberman, he asked the primeval wilderness for its secret, and
“saw beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight linnaea hang its twin-born heads.”
He tried to interpret the thought of Ktaadn and to fathom the meaning of the billows on the back of Cape Cod, in their indifference to the shipwrecked bodies that they rolled ashore. “After sitting in my chamber many days, reading the poets, I have been out early on a foggy morning and heard the cry of an owl in a neighboring wood as from a nature behind the common, unexplored by science or by literature. None of the feathered race has yet realized my youthful conceptions of the woodland depths. I had seen the red election-birds brought from their recesses on my comrade’s string, and fancied that their plumage would assume stranger and more dazzling colors, like the tints of evening, in proportion as I advanced farther into the darkness and solitude of the forest. Still less have I seen such strong and wild tints on any poet’s string.”
It was on the mystical side that Thoreau apprehended transcendentalism. Mysticism has been defined as the soul’s recognition of its identity with nature. This thought lies plainly in Schelling’s philosophy, and he illustrated it by his famous figure of the magnet. Mind and nature are one; they are the positive and negative poles of the magnet. In man, the Absolute—that is, God—becomes conscious of himself; makes of himself, as nature, an object to himself as mind. “The souls of men,” said Schelling, “are but the innumerable individual eyes with which our infinite World-Spirit beholds himself.” This thought is also clearly present in Emerson’s view of nature, and has caused him to be accused of pantheism. But if by pantheism is meant the doctrine that the underlying principle of the universe is matter or force, none of the transcendentalists was a pantheist. In their view nature was divine. Their poetry is always haunted by the sense of a spiritual reality which abides beyond the phenomena. Thus in Emerson’s Two Rivers:
“Thy summer voice, Musketaquit,
Repeats the music of the rain,
But sweeter rivers pulsing flit
Through thee as thou through Concord plain.
“Thou in thy narrow banks art pent;
The stream I love unbounded goes;
Through flood and sea and firmament,
Through light, through life, it forward flows.
“I see the inundation sweet,
I hear the spending of the stream,
Through years, through men, through nature fleet,
Through passion, thought, through power and dream.”
This mood occurs frequently in Thoreau. The hard world of matter becomes suddenly all fluent and spiritual, and he sees himself in it—sees God. “This earth,” he cries, “which is spread out like a map around me, is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed.” “In me is the sucker that I see;” and, of Walden Pond,
“I am its stony shore,
And the breeze that passes o’er.”
“Suddenly old Time winked at me—ah, you know me, you rogue—and news had come that IT was well. That ancient universe is in such capital health, I think, undoubtedly, it will never die. . . . I see, smell, taste, hear, feel that ever-lasting something to which we are allied, at once our maker, our abode, our destiny, our very selves.” It was something ulterior that Thoreau sought in nature. “The other world,” he wrote, “is all my art: my pencils will draw no other; my jack-knife will cut nothing else.” Thoreau did not scorn, however, like Emerson, to “examine too microscopically the universal tablet.” He was a close observer and accurate reporter of the ways of birds and plants and the minuter aspects of nature. He has had many followers, who have produced much pleasant literature on out-door life. But in none of them is there that unique combination of the poet, the naturalist, and the mystic which gives his page its wild original flavor. He had the woodcraft of a hunter and the eye of a botanist, but his imagination did not stop short with the fact. The sound of a tree falling in the Maine woods was to him “as though a door had shut somewhere in the damp and shaggy wilderness.” He saw small things in cosmic relations. His trip down the tame Concord has for the reader the excitement of a voyage of exploration into far and unknown regions. The river just above Sherman’s Bridge, in time of flood “when the wind blows freshly on a raw March day, heaving up the surface into dark and sober billows,” was like Lake Huron, “and you may run aground on Cranberry Island,” and “get as good a freezing there as anywhere on the North-west coast.” He said that most of the phenomena described in Kane’s voyages could be observed in Concord.
The literature of transcendentalism was like the light of the stars in a winter night, keen and cold and high. It had the pale cast of thought, and was almost too spiritual and remote to “hit the sense of mortal sight.” But it was at least indigenous. If not an American literature—not national and not inclusive of all sides of American life—it was, at all events, a genuine New England literature and true to the spirit of its section. The tough Puritan stock had at last put forth a blossom which compared with the warm, robust growths of English soil even as the delicate wind flower of the northern spring compares with the cowslips and daisies of old England.
In 1842 Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), the greatest American romancer, came to Concord. He had recently left Brook Farm, had just been married, and with his bride he settled down in the “Old Manse” for three paradisaical years. A picture of this protracted honeymoon and this sequestered life, as tranquil as the slow stream on whose banks it was passed, is given in the introductory chapter to his Mosses from an Old Manse, 1846, and in the more personal and confidential records of his American Note Books, posthumously published. Hawthorne was thirty-eight when he took his place among the Concord literati. His childhood and youth had been spent partly at his birthplace, the old and already somewhat decayed sea-port town of Salem, and partly at his grandfather’s farm on Sebago Lake, in Maine, then on the edge of the primitive forest. Maine did not become a State, indeed, until 1820, the year before Hawthorne entered Bowdoin College, whence he was graduated in 1825, in the same class with Henry W. Longfellow and one year behind Franklin Pierce, afterward President of the United States. After leaving college Hawthorne buried himself for years in the seclusion of his home at Salem. His mother, who was early widowed, had withdrawn entirely from the world. For months at a time Hawthorne kept his room, seeing no other society than that of his mother and sisters, reading all sorts of books and writing wild tales, most of which he destroyed as soon as he had written them. At twilight he would emerge from the house for a solitary ramble through the streets of the town or along the sea-side. Old Salem had much that was picturesque in its associations. It had been the scene of the witch trials in the seventeenth century, and it abounded in ancient mansions, the homes of retired whalers and India merchants. Hawthorne’s father had been a ship captain, and many of his ancestors had followed the sea. One of his forefathers, moreover, had been a certain Judge Hawthorne, who in 1691 had sentenced several of the witches to death. The thought of this affected Hawthorne’s imagination with a pleasing horror, and he utilized it afterward in his House of the Seven Gables. Many of the old Salem houses, too, had their family histories, with now and then the hint of some obscure crime or dark misfortune which haunted posterity with its curse till all the stock died out or fell into poverty and evil ways, as in the Pyncheon family of Hawthorne’s romance. In the preface to the Marble Faun Hawthorne wrote: “No author without a trial can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor any thing but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight.” And yet it may be doubted whether any environment could have been found more fitted to his peculiar genius than this of his native town, or any preparation better calculated to ripen the faculty that was in him than these long, lonely years of waiting and brooding thought. From time to time he contributed a story or a sketch to some periodical, such as S. G. Goodrich’s annual, the Token, or the Knickerbocker Magazine. Some of these attracted the attention of the judicious; but they were anonymous and signed by various noms de plume, and their author was at this time—to use his own words—“the obscurest man of letters in America.” In 1828 he had issued anonymously and at his own expense a short romance, entitled Fanshawe. It had little success, and copies of the first edition are now exceedingly rare. In 1837 he published a collection of his magazine pieces under the title, Twice-Told Tales. The book was generously praised in the North American Review by his former classmate, Longfellow; and Edgar Poe showed his keen critical perception by predicting that the writer would easily put himself at the head of imaginative literature in America if he would discard allegory, drop short stories, and compose a genuine romance. Poe compared Hawthorne’s work with that of the German romancer, Tieck, and it is interesting to find confirmation of this dictum in passages of the American Note Books, in which Hawthorne speaks of laboring over Tieck with a German dictionary. The Twice-Told Tales are the work of a recluse, who makes guesses at life from a knowledge of his own heart, acquired by a habit of introspection, but who has had little contact with men. Many of them were shadowy, and others were morbid and unwholesome. But their gloom was of an interior kind, never the physically horrible of Poe. It arose from weird psychological situations like that of Ethan Brand in his search for the unpardonable sin. Hawthorne was true to the inherited instinct of Puritanism; he took the conscience for his theme, and in these early tales he was already absorbed in the problem of evil, the subtle ways in which sin works out its retribution, and the species of fate or necessity that the wrong-doer makes for himself in the inevitable sequences of his crime.
Hawthorne was strongly drawn toward symbols and types, and never quite followed Poe’s advice to abandon allegory. The Scarlet Letter and his other romances are not, indeed, strictly allegories, since the characters are men and women and not mere personifications of abstract qualities. Still, they all have a certain allegorical tinge. In the Marble Faun, for example, Hilda, Kenyon, Miriam, and Donatello have been ingeniously explained as personifications respectively of the conscience, the reason, the imagination, and the senses. Without going so far as this, it is possible to see in these and in Hawthorne’s other creations something typical and representative. He uses his characters like algebraic symbols to work out certain problems with; they are rather more and yet rather less than flesh and blood individuals. The stories in Twice-Told Tales and in the second collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, 1846, are more openly allegorical than his later work. Thus the Minister’s Black Veil is a sort of anticipation of Arthur Dimmesdale in the Scarlet Letter. From 1846 to 1849 Hawthorne held the position of surveyor of the Custom House of Salem. In the preface to the Scarlet Letter he sketched some of the government officials with whom this office had brought him into contact in a way that gave some offense to the friends of the victims and a great deal of amusement to the public. Hawthorne’s humor was quiet and fine, like Irving’s, but less genial and with a more satiric edge to it. The book last named was written at Salem and published in 1850, just before its author’s removal to Lenox, now a sort of inland Newport, but then an unfashionable resort among the Berkshire hills. Whatever obscurity may have hung over Hawthorne hitherto was effectually dissolved by this powerful tale, which was as vivid in coloring as the implication of its title. Hawthorne chose for his background the somber life of the early settlers of New England. He had always been drawn toward this part of American history, and in Twice-Told Tales had given some illustrations of it in Endicott’s Red Cross and Legends of the Province House. Against this dark foil moved in strong relief the figures of Hester Prynne, the woman taken in adultery; her paramour, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale; her husband, old Roger Chillingworth; and her illegitimate child. In tragic power, in its grasp of the elementary passions of human nature and its deep and subtle insight into the inmost secrets of the heart, this is Hawthorne’s greatest book.
He never crowded his canvas with figures. In the Blithedale Romance and the Marble Faun there is the same parti carré or group of four characters. In the House of the Seven Gables there are five. The last mentioned of these, published in 1852, was of a more subdued intensity than the Scarlet Letter, but equally original, and, upon the whole, perhaps equally good. The Blithedale Romance, published in the same year, though not strikingly inferior to the others, adhered more to conventional patterns in its plot and in the sensational nature of its ending. The suicide of the heroine by drowning, and the terrible scene of the recovery of her body, were suggested to the author by an experience of his own on Concord River, the account of which, in his own words, may be read in Julian Hawthorne’s Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife. In 1852 Hawthorne returned to Concord and bought the “Wayside” property, which he retained until his death. But in the following year his old college friend Pierce, now become President, appointed him consul to Liverpool, and he went abroad for seven years. The most valuable fruit of his foreign residence was the romance of the Marble Faun, 1860, the longest of his fictions and the richest in descriptive beauty. The theme of this was the development of the soul through the experience of sin. There is a haunting mystery thrown about the story, like a soft veil of mist, veiling the beginning and the end. There is even a delicate teasing suggestion of the preternatural in Donatello, the Faun, a creation as original as Shakespeare’s Caliban or Fouque’s Undine, and yet quite on this side the border-line of the human. Our Old Home, a book of charming papers on England, was published in 1863. Manifold experience of life and contact with men, affording scope for his always keen observation, had added range, fullness, warmth to the imaginative subtlety which had manifested itself even in his earliest tales. Two admirable books for children, the Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, in which the classical mythologies were retold, should also be mentioned in the list of Hawthorne’s writings, as well as the American, English, and Italian Note Books, the first of which contains the seed-thoughts of some of his finished works, together with hundreds of hints for plots, episodes, descriptions, etc., which he never found time to work out. Hawthorne’s style, in his first sketches and stories a little stilted and “bookish,” gradually acquired an exquisite perfection, and is as well worth study as that of any prose classic in the English tongue.
Hawthorne was no transcendentalist. He dwelt much in a world of ideas, and he sometimes doubted whether the tree on the bank or its image in the stream were the more real. But this had little in common with the philosophical idealism of his neighbors. He reverenced Emerson, and he held kindly intercourse—albeit a silent man and easily bored—with Thoreau and Ellery Channing, and even with Margaret Fuller. But his sharp eyes saw whatever was whimsical or weak in the apostles of the new faith. He had little enthusiasm for causes or reforms, and among so many Abolitionists he remained a Democrat, and even wrote a campaign life of his friend Pierce.
The village of Concord has perhaps done more for American literature than the city of New York. Certainly there are few places where associations, both patriotic and poetic, cluster so thickly. At one side of the grounds of the Old Manse—which has the river at its back—runs down a shaded lane to the Concord monument and the figure of the Minute Man and the successor of “the rude bridge that arched the flood.” Scarce two miles away, among the woods, is little Walden—“God’s drop.” The men who made Concord famous are asleep in Sleepy Hollow, yet still their memory prevails to draw seekers after truth to the Concord Summer School of Philosophy, which met annually, a few years since, to reason high of “God, Freedom, and Immortality,” next door to the “Wayside,” and under the hill on whose ridge Hawthorne wore a path as he paced up and down beneath the hemlocks.
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nature. The American Scholar. Literary Ethics. The Transcendentalism. The Over-soul. Address before the Cambridge Divinity School. English Traits. Representative Men. Poems.
2. Henry David Thoreau. Excursions. Walden. A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers. Cape Cod. The Maine Woods.
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mosses from an Old Manse. The Scarlet Letter. The House of the Seven Gables. The Blithedale Romance. The Marble Faun. Our Old Home.
4. Transcendentalism in New England. By O. B. Frothingham. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1875.
This is taken from Initial Studies in American Letters.
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