The Chronicle Review

Giving Emerson the Boot

Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

January 17, 2010

Americanists of the world, unite! Weary with the cult of Ralph Waldo Emerson—the Sage of Concord, the Father of American Transcendentalism—ours is a call to arms. We have awakened from a century-long sleep to find ourselves confronted with a grave mistake, an intellectual blunder: an unseemly idolatry for one of the most confounding of American writers. Speed thee to thy rest, pernicious Sage, for we will submit our students to you no more.

What is it about the old man that so vexes?

To begin, there's the ego. Other than the odd English major, virtually every student encountering Emerson for the first time (there's almost never a second) gains very little from the exercise other than a rough appreciation for what it must be like to sit in the company of a boorish deity. Emerson writes from on high. (Is it any wonder that another boor, Frank Lloyd Wright, was such a devoted follower?) Our man has taken in a holy draught of air and unfortunately decided to let it out, and his followers have been keen on following the scent ever since. Our students, however, rightly detect something more foul.

What a student finds, in fact, is a set of contradictory, baffling, radical, reactionary ideas that offer no practical guidelines for actual human behavior. And that's the good news.

Most students can hardly be expected to grapple with Emerson's Nature or "Experience" with any degree of efficacy. They may come to understand some of the major principles and tensions and perhaps, later on in some dark hour, Emerson will re-emerge to teach a lesson about not trusting appearances or the value of stoicism. In all likelihood, students will leave Emerson having been immersed in a confused stew of 19th-century occultism offered up in schizophrenic prose. And we, their professors, often act as if their difficulties stemmed from their own lack of imagination.

The fault, though, is that of the author. Because of Emerson's obscurantist and peripatetic style, his meanings—assuming there are some—are hidden. Consider this koan, one among many: "It is essential to a true theory of nature and of man, that it should contain somewhat progressive. Uses that are exhausted or that may be, and facts that end in the statement, cannot be all that is true of this brave lodging wherein man is harbored, and wherein all his faculties find appropriate and endless exercise. And all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope."

That is the prose of a crazy person.

Emerson's readers must therefore latch on to what little they understand. Case in point: Emerson's aphorism-laden "Self-Reliance," which the two of us think of as the "Emerson Who Teaches." That is, regrettably, the Emerson who reminds our students of what they already know: They are the center of the world. Their parents and teachers have already told them thus; their iPhone rings with the news; and now here's Emerson to tell them exactly the same thing­—"In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." Now that Twitters.

The savvy English major comes away delighted with Emerson's aphorisms and amazed by his ability to thrust together barely related concepts that seem like a viable argument. In that way, Emerson reminds us of the novitiate graduate student who attempts to write theory for the first time. Having read a little, and having been both confused and charmed by it, the student dives in, employing language and concepts barely understood. The result is predictable nonsense. Emerson, too, picks and grabs, looking for a viable path through the forest. The problem, though, is that he has landed himself in a cumbersome thicket. What emerges is a bloated monster that has just gorged itself on nature, God, spirit, reason, understanding, and virtue, to name just a few.

But we are only getting started. Of the many serious violations and petty criminalities in Emerson's vision, perhaps none is more egregious than his optimism. He apparently believes this rubbish about the godhead in each one of us, but such grandiose confidence in his fellows contravenes much that we know about human behavior. We only wish that Emerson could have witnessed the 20th century, its brutality, its murderous regimes, its epochal indifference to life. If grief teaches us nothing, as Emerson avers, then we are incapable of learning, and we will never get close to the "real nature" that Emerson longs for.

Charles Frazier (an English Ph.D.) eviscerates that impractical Emerson in the pages of his novel Cold Mountain. It's Emerson's ethereal philosophizing that inspires the feckless father of Ada Monroe to purchase a farm and do nothing at all with it. When the senior Monroe dies, Ada finds herself on the brink of starvation until the earthy Ruby shows up and gets Ralph (a horse) and Waldo (a cow)—both of whom had taken to wandering aimlessly around the farm—back to work. Frazier has enough talent to dispatch Emerson and, in the process, make himself wealthy enough that he'll never have to teach Ralph Waldo again. The double play is sublime.

Perhaps, though, a double play isn't enough to retire Emerson, since there's really no such thing as "Emerson." There are many Emersons out there, one for every mood. The sage's multiple personalities generate many of the pedagogical problems that have long dogged teachers. Emerson's ideas cannot be distilled, and any reading of his work (absent an agonizing 15-week dive into all his major writings, an undertaking about as inviting as prepping for a colonoscopy) provides students with but a bit of the man.

Maybe we shouldn't blame Emerson; indeed, our failure may derive from our desire to present a "neat" narrative in our literature classes (a narrative Emerson necessarily troubles by being blissfully inconsistent). In any case, we present an aphoristic version of Emerson by teaching just one or two essays—because that's all we can do. But unlike Whitman, whose grassy leaves adhere to our feet and provide us something of their creator's essence, Emerson has no essence to give.

No, the Emerson who occupies our classrooms seems like more a counterweight than a heavyweight: Teaching Moby-Dick? Then you must teach Nature to contrast Ishmael's potentially fatal loss of self on the masthead ("move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror") with Emerson's transparent eyeball ("I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me"). Teaching Walden? Then you must teach Emerson's "Divinity School Address" to show how Thoreau (who built his famous cabin on Emerson's property) might be "the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall ... see the world to be the mirror of the soul." Teaching Leaves of Grass? Then you must teach "The Poet" to show how Whitman fulfills Emerson's call for both a seer and a sayer.

Teaching American literature that way is akin to giving Emerson credit for thinking up half of the books penned in the 19th century, but he could never have written them. Melville wrote his own books, so why not just teach him and let Emerson fade into the background? If absolutely necessary, we can approach Emerson slantwise after we've introduced students to Douglass, Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Stowe, Thoreau, Whitman, et al. Too often Emerson's airy idealism seems like a straw man for those heavy hitters to clean up.

Why, then, does Emerson remain on so many syllabi? Why cannot we overcome this foolish consistency and excise the man from our courses? Maybe we should blame F.O. Matthiessen, who coined the term "American Renaissance" in the eponymous 1941 book that fixed Emerson as the first (and least) of the great American writers of the antebellum era. Matthiessen's book spawned descendants that continue to influence teaching and writing on Emerson, and so, in spite of the viscous, disconnected prose, this Emerson-shaped hobgoblin continues to haunt us.

Another reason may well be that Emerson's stylistic failures actually appeal to teachers of literature: His inability to say just what he means or to rectify the many problems he identifies is more than applicable to our day-to-day pedagogical struggles. Or maybe it boils down to the fact that when Emerson confronts uncertainties born of the nation's uneven progress and his own progress through a life marked by highs and lows, he reckons with problems that dog us still: the challenges faced by individuals in an expansive and sometimes merciless world; the desire to overcome the ghosts of our personal and national histories; the hope that one might make sense of it all. One can justly say that Emerson tried, and that's something.

Still, when we read outlandish pronouncements like "we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable," we only scoff, for the very size of the enterprise seems hopeless. After all, shouldn't a man who claims there are no unanswerable questions be able to answer some of them?

By contrast, when we teach Thoreau's Walden, we like to spend time on the "The Bean-Field" and on one of our favorite lines in all the book: "I was determined to know beans." Now, there's something small enough that human knowledge might be able to encompass it. But even beans leave Thoreau and his readers with unanswerable questions. He tries to bring those questions down to size; he looks for teachable moments, and he makes careful notes: the depth of the pond, the cost of his house or a train ride. By showing us the universal in the particular, Thoreau earns his dazzling concluding chapter and his sparkling final line: "The sun is but a morning star." For Emerson, a sentence like that would be as likely to begin an essay as end it; it is just another suitable-for-framing quotation.

And that is why we must put Emerson to bed. He tempts us with his big thoughts and enchants us with his impossible optimism, but he finally leaves us frustrated, confounded, and sputtering before a class of students who want to know what they've just read and why they should care. To them we say: It may well be that no question we conceive is unanswerable, but we prefer the measured and aloof view espoused by Ishmael as he contemplated the whale's spout. English professors might also do well to heed his advice when they contemplate teaching Emerson: "The wisest thing the investigator can do then, it seems to me, is to let this deadly spout alone."

William Major is an associate professor and Bryan Sinche an assistant professor of English at the University of Hartford.