The magnificent dreamer, brooding as ever on the renewal or reedification of the social fabric after ideal law, heedless that he had been uniformly rejected by every class to whom he has addressed himself and just as sanguine and vast as ever;—the most cogent example of the drop too much which nature adds of each man’s peculiarity.
—Emerson on Amos Bronson Alcott
I was much taken with the image of the young Ralph Waldo Emerson, convalescing in Florida in the winter of 1827, playing “a kind of poor man’s golf by propelling green oranges with his stick along the beach at St. Augustine.” Equally surprising was the verbal snapshot of the elderly Emerson, in his seventies, wrapped in a shawl on a cool evening, enjoying conversation and remarking “the singular comfort” of a good cigar. Somehow such pastimes seem much too human, material, and commonplace for America’s greatest idealist thinker. America’s most peculiar thinker, too, by Carlos Baker’s lights. In any case, such colorful imagery and verbal precision—as well as sharp characterization and a fine gift for storytelling—are hallmarks of Baker’s new major biography, posthumously published, called Emerson Among the Eccentrics. Baker was a longtime Professor of English at Princeton and author of Hemingway: A Life Story; Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision; and The Echoing Green: Romanticism, Modernism, and the Phenomena of Transference in Poetry. He was also the author of four volumes of fiction and two of poetry, which may account for his splendid literary gifts. Baker died in 1987, before he could finish Emerson Among the Eccentrics, but it was so nearly complete that the rescue of the manuscript and the appearance of the work, however belated, constitute a publishing event of some importance.
Baker’s intention in writing this compendious study of Emerson’s life is suggested by notes for the book he drafted in the early 1970s. His aim, he wrote, would be
to write what will amount to a new biography of Emerson, developed by reference to some of his leading friendships, chiefly but not exclusively literary. These will include Alcott, Edward Thompson Taylor, Jones Very, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Theodore Parker, Walt Whitman, Mary Moody Emerson, Charles Newcomb and Ellery Channing. Through [Emerson’s] connections with these, it should be possible to watch the unfolding of his religious, literary, and political ideas, his changing views of nature, man and God; to show how his friends reflected, contradicted, partly diverged from, or zealously misrepresented his philosophical and ethical teachings; to use their views to throw light on his, and his to throw light on them in a program of spiritual ecology, complicated by the fact that he both half-created the climate of opinion by which he was nurtured, while partly adapting his opinions to the ideological environment which local and national events thrust upon him.
As may seem evident from these remarks, Baker’s design was conceived long before the present requirement that biography and literary criticism must reflect a politically correct position on race-class-gender victimization. What he has given us here is a solid, old-fashioned composite biography of some of the most interesting figures in the American Renaissance. But the plan also outlines too tall an order, involving the recreation of something like the whole intellectual and artistic culture of the Concord-Cambridge-Boston triangle from the 1830s to the 1880s—the era of Transcendentalism, or “The Newness,” and its aftermath. Thus, while it is no surprise to learn from James R. Mellow’s informative introduction that Emerson Among the Eccentrics was a half-century in the making, the book cannot be said to have fulfilled completely its ambitious intent. It is, however, a major recreation of Emerson’s world from which the general reader and the specialist alike will profit.
It was Baker’s theory of biography that “one cannot take the measure of a man from disjunctive episodes lifted from his youth or old age; biography is the study of the whole man in the context of time.” If Emerson can’t really be measured apart from the context of his time, what was that context like? Baker’s answer is confident: Emerson created for himself a context of friendships involving a host of eccentrics, and to know him fully is to take the measure of these peculiar people who flocked to, circled about, and deeply affected him. Hence the subtitle of the book: A Group Portrait.
For all its six hundred pages, Emerson Among the Eccentrics does not really capture Emerson in youth. The group biography begins in about 1830, with Emerson in his late twenties, on the verge of his resignation from the Unitarian ministry in Boston and about to become the Transcendental poet and philosopher who will announce: “I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred, none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no past at my back.” His first wife, Ellen, has died of consumption, and he has since been remarried to Lydia Jackson and will soon begin a family, including the children Waldo, Ellen, and Edward. I mention these family details because Baker is particularly good at bringing alive the internal dynamics of the extended family, which included (at the outset) Emerson’s mother, his Aunt Mary Moody, and his brothers Charles and Edward. Such a method fulfills Emerson’s belief that
if a man wishes to acquaint himself with the real history of the world, with the spirit of the age, he must not go first to the state-house or the court-room. The subtle spirit of life must be sought in facts nearer. It is what is done and suffered in the house … in the temperament, in the personal history, that has the profoundest interest for us. The great facts are the near ones.
Emerson’s second wife, Lydia, whom he promptly renamed Lidian (but always called “Queenie”), got more than she bargained for in marrying so distinguished a literary figure. Emerson had inherited a substantial sum from the estate of his first wife, and, in due course, he was to earn even more as a writer and lecturer. But his celebrity—and their growing family—brought into the household a larger and larger group of friends and acquaintances each of whom made some kind of claim upon her husband and on their resources of time and money. Overnight visitors were a constant in Concord; and some of them, like Margaret Fuller (who was in love with Emerson) stayed for weeks or even months. And at times the whole responsibility of the household devolved upon Lidian, as Emerson was absent on long lecture tours. At one point the young Henry David Thoreau also lived in their household, at the top of the second-floor stairs, serving for more than two years as the household major-domo and general factotum assisting Lidian in running the establishment.
Emerson, usually ensconced in his scriptorium, was so given over to solitude that he invited these friends into his house out of a need for society—the two extremes representing the poles of his consciousness. Indeed, he encouraged many of his admirers to move to Concord just to be near him. Elizabeth Peabody called the Emerson household “The Mount of Transfiguration,” in view of what it supposedly did to those who visited there.
It is a small wonder, then, that the beautiful and elegant wife Lidian Emerson developed some major quirks in dealing with her new husband and his peculiar friends. She was not Emerson’s intellectual equal, had little interest in his more abstruse metaphysical inquiries, and could not compete with some of the intellectual women— like Caroline Sturgis and Margaret Fuller— who pursued Emerson with a spiritual hunger that now seems indistinguishable from the erotic. Lidian reflected the stress of her situation by neurotic, anorexic, perhaps even bulemic behavior. She was, in any case, often depressed, dyspeptic, given to emotional outbursts, rail thin, obsessed with odd diets like poppies and oatmeal, and generally suspicious of ordinary food. She was so cadaverous that her friends called her the “walking skeleton,” and she insisted that the food we don’t put into our mouths does us more good than the food we do. If some of her odd mannerisms surprised their friends, Emerson was silent and kept the sweet independence of his own soul.
Emerson was doubtless flattered by the attention of the young Harvard graduate Thoreau, who so fully incarnated the Emersonian principles of self-reliant individualism, the doctrine of perpetual revelation, and reverence for nature as the manifestation of the divine indwelling spirit. “Thoreau gives me in flesh and blood and pertinacious Saxon belief, my own ethics. He is far more real, and daily practically obeying them, than I,” Emerson observed. He wrote a splendid character sketch of Thoreau, describing the youth as short in stature, but “firmly built, of light complexion, with strong, serious blue eyes, and a grave aspect.” Outdoors, Thoreau wore “a straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trowsers, to brave scrub oaks and smilax and to climb a tree for a hawk’s or a squirrel’s nest. He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor.” Baker adds that Thoreau was astonishingly hirsute, with arms “thickly matted with fur, like the pelt of an animal.” So committed was Thoreau to the out-of-doors, so completely was he taken up with the wildness of things, especially while living out at Walden Pond, that Emerson and the children called him “the Oneida Chief.”
But Thoreau was a true eccentric, and in time Emerson was to become vexed with his young protégé, complaining of “the Personality that eats us up.” Thoreau chilled “the social affections” by contradicting everything one said, whether casually, or seriously, in conversation. “‘On hearing any proposition,’ Emerson wrote, ‘his first instinct … was to controvert it,’ and in a manner ‘never affectionate but superior, didactic,’ scornful of the ‘petty ways’ of his interlocutors, ‘like a New England Socrates at his most eristic.’” Emerson was to complain that “all his resources of wit and invention are lost to me in every experiment, year after year, that I make, to hold intercourse with his mind. Always some weary captious paradox to fight you with, and the time and temper wasted.” The bickering, in the long run, wasn’t worth it. But to Thoreau, being self-reliant seemed to require it.
Baker was of the opinion that Thoreau was in love, at least platonically, with Lidian Emerson. And it is true that, after he moved out of the Emerson household, Thoreau wrote her some letters very tender, rather exalted, and utterly transcendental in feeling. But however that may be, it is clear that Thoreau was contending, largely in vain, against a powerful, authentic genius. A great many people—James Russell Lowell in A Fable for Critics among them--dismissed Thoreau as a mere clone of the master:
How he jumps, how he strains, and gets red
in the face
To keep step with the mystagogue’s natural
Fie, for shame, brother bard; with good fruit
of your own,
Can’t you let Neighbor Emerson’s orchards
Indeed, not only was Thoreau’s thinking often indistinguishable from Emerson’s, at times so was his handwriting. (For some years a Thoreau manuscript was misattributed to Emerson, so nearly identical were their holographs.) Thoreau is well worth reading on his own, especially in Walden, but the similarities are there. What seems evident is that Thoreau’s only way of dealing with so formidable an influence as Emerson was continually to contradict him. This devotion to Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance became a tic, then a bad habit, and finally a contentious character trait. “Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture,” Emerson concluded. What he lacked was the ambition to be himself, someone truly great: “instead of being the head of American Engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party.”
Of particular interest is Carlos Baker’s portrait of the eccentric Edward Thompson Taylor, whose extemporaneous homilies at the Seaman’s Bethel in North Square in the 1840s offered the liveliest sermons in the state. “Father” Taylor—an “old-fashioned, shouting, hallelujah Methodist”—was called to minister to whatever sailors were in port. He was one of those shadowy peripheral figures mentioned in many biographies and literary histories, but here he comes into his own as the master of religious verbal pyrotechnics. Emerson was drawn to anyone exhibiting evident inspiration. Taylor preached to “rough sailors in red shirts in the central pews, and at the sides and in the gallery all manner of visitors: women and children, pale young unitarian ministers, Harvard intellectuals, the seriously devout, and the merely curious, all of them eager for another demonstration of Father Taylor’s prowess.” Baker quotes Emerson to the effect that “there was no snoozing in the Concord Lyceum while Taylor stood at the lectern. ‘The wonderful and laughing life of his illustration keeps us broad awake,’ Emerson wrote. ‘A string of rockets all night.’” Emerson was so taken with Taylor that he studied his manner closely, only to become disillusioned and conclude that, after all, there was no manner; it was all verbal smoke and mirrors, sui generis, a personality acting with spontaneous enthusiasm, rapt in religious ecstasy. The “utter want and loss of all method, the ridicule of all method” in his sermons, “bereaved” them, Emerson thought, of an intellectual power they might have had. Still, this colorful maker of homespun nautical metaphors was very nearly Emerson’s “perfect orator,” and his flamboyant sermons later won him a commendation in Emerson’s essay “Eloquence.”
Perhaps even more like Emerson in religious sensibility was the improvident transcendental seer and progressive educator Amos Bronson Alcott. Married to Abigail May and father of the young “celestials” Anna, Louisa May, and Elizabeth Alcott, this eccentric attained a kind of dubious celebrity as an “Orphic Poet” and founder of the Temple School on Tremont Street in Boston. Emerson was enchanted with Alcott’s idealism, copied many of his aphorisms and sayings into his notebook, and praised him everywhere as the incarnation of otherworldly spiritual genius.
Elizabeth Peabody (Hawthorne’s sister-in-law) and Margaret Fuller were Alcott’s sometime teachers, and the children who attended his school were some of the most hapless innocents ever victimized by an idiosyncratic American educational theory. (Alcott emphasized conversation as a means of educing the children’s already intuited knowledge of truth—even for subjects of which they could not possibly have had any understanding.) In one term, he conducted some conversations with the children on the Gospels. When Miss Peabody published her Record of a School (1835), with Alcott’s blasphemous dialogues with the eight-year-olds about Jesus, the parents withdrew the children in outrage, and Alcott was well-nigh finished as a schoolmaster. His whole life long Alcott spent his time devising one failed enterprise after another. One of the most famous instances of Alcott’s “continuous scuffling with untoward circumstances” was his creation of the short-lived commune Fruitlands.
The Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, learning that Alcott had sunk to supporting his family by chopping wood and plowing fields, wrote Elizabeth Peabody that “such a combination of day labor and high thought made this man ‘the most interesting object in our Commonwealth.’” Doubtless thinking of the Scottish poet Burns, Channing hailed Alcott as “Orpheus at the Plough.” Emerson linked him with “Apollo serving among the herdsmen of Admetus.” After anonymously paying Alcott’s rent bill of $52 per annum for some time, Emerson claimed that “Alcott was valuable enough to be ‘maintained at the public cost in the Prytaneum,’” and even at one point launched a fund to ameliorate the Alcotts’ condition, laying out $500 of his own money so that they could go to Europe.
While Emerson admired and supported so staunch a Transcendentalist ally, he eventually came to see that Alcott had zero national influence and had in fact become something of a local joke. He also came to bridle at Alcott’s fatiguing monumental ego. In 1848 Alcott protested to Emerson: “You write on the genius of Plato, of Pythagoras, of Jesus, of Swedenborg, why do you not write of me?” But why should such egotism have surprised Emerson? Alcott was only following the Emersonian admonition: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Eventually the Alcott girls got old enough to support their egotistical father and hapless mother. But Louisa May, who brought in considerable cash with her gothic romances and Little Women, had the last word on her father’s otherworldly improvidence in a satirical reminiscence of Fruitlands called “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873).
Other important oddities in Baker’s gallery of eccentrics include Jones Very, Ellery Channing, and Channing’s sister-in-law Margaret Fuller. Emerson’s celebration of Channing as a rising young poet of genius is solid evidence, if any were needed, that Emerson was a saintly and generous man who simply had no ear for verse. Yet year after year he praised (and even published in The Dial) the effusions of a poetaster who could write (of Caroline Sturgis, in “The River”):
Sweet falls the summer air
Over her form who sails with me;
Her way, like it, is beautifully free,
Her nature far more rare;
And is her constant heart of virgin purity.
If verses like these struck Emerson as having “a certain wild beauty immeasurable” that caused “a happiness lightsome and delicious” to fill “my heart and brain,” Margaret Fuller was blunt in telling Caroline Sturgis: “Of Ellery’s verse I think not much.” And when she took over editorship of The Dial, she rejected his poems. She thought not much of her brother-in-law the man either, since Ellery played the role of an infantile, temperamental, romantic poet, abusing her sister Ellen by wandering off on any mere whim, abandoning her to the ladies at lying-in time, and failing to support her financially.
The poets Ellery Channing and Jones Very were both drawn to Emerson by virtue of his verse, his moral vision, and his religious ecstasy—an ecstasy reported if not really experienced. But in Very’s case, it was felt: he was, Emerson thought, a true ecstatic. Very had distinguished himself as a tutor in Greek at Harvard and had begun to make a name for himself as a critic of classical poetry and as a poet himself. But Very’s students began to remark his quite odd behavior; and when he invaded the study of Henry Ware, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, and announced that the Second Coming was at hand and was “in him,” Harvard moved immediately to put the boy on a medical leave. In Salem, where Hawthorne had lived in his youth, Very marched right into people’s homes, declared himself to be the Messiah come again, and acclaimed his sonnets as directly inspired by God. Doubtless Very had heard the Emersonian admonition in “The Divinity School Address”: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” Unfortunately, like Allen Ginsberg, the deranged Very believed it could be done.
From this distance it appears that not the Deity but dementia possessed Jones Very; but his Transcendentalist friends were disposed to be tolerant of his strangeness. Emerson invited him into his house for five days, observed and talked to him, and judged Very “‘profoundly sane’ and wished all the world ‘were as mad as he.’” Ellery Channing —doubtless thinking of the Coleridgean term for intuition, said that the young poet had “not lost his Reason” but “his Senses.” Elizabeth Peabody claimed that Very’s frenzy was a temporary event “caused by overtaxing his brain in the attempt to look from the standpoint of Absolute Spirit.” And Bronson Alcott concluded that Very was merely “diswitted in the contemplation of the holiness of Divinity.” And so he was. Baker remarks that Very “was the same man who asserted, quite seriously, that he felt it an honor to wash his own face, since it was the outward temple of the inward spirit.”
In the fall of 1842, Emerson struck the note of ambivalence that always resounded when he wrote about either solitude or society. He could not make up his mind whether he did, or did not, want these friends about him. “What obstinate propensity to solitude is this? I fancied that I needed society and that it would help me much if fine persons were near, whom I could see when I would, but now that C[hanning] and H[awthorne] are here, and A[lcott] is returning, I look with a sort of terror at my gate.”
One source of terror was the frequent visitor Margaret Fuller, his co-editor of The Dial, who had become wildly unsettled by Emerson’s liberationist theology of love. Bright and ugly, Margaret was the ripest peach on the bough. But as no husband had yet plucked her from the branch, she had set her sights on Emerson. In Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852), he was to write that she was “like the queen of some parliament of love, who carried the key to all confidences.” But he had to impound the key in their case, to stop her from trying to eroticize their relationship. Lidian was likewise a distinct obstacle to Margaret’s claiming Emerson’s heart. “Nothing makes me so anti-Christian, and so anti-marriage,” Margaret confided to her diary, “as these long talks with Lidian.” No wonder, since Lidian was extolling the sacramental nature of marriage and the wickedness of trying to seduce another’s husband.
What is remarkable about a great many of Emerson’s eccentric friends is how acidly they competed with each other for his attention and approval, often carping and criticizing each other to him, with the effect, as Baker puts it, that “Emerson’s long dream of a cooperative assemblage of gifted individualists was … rapidly dissipated by their inability to get along with one another.” But their asperity with each other was sometimes matched by their vexation with the master himself, who was intent on preventing any undue intimacy. Emerson answered them by writing an essay, “Friendship,” in which he told his disciples that friendship was ideally a relationship between two large formidable natures who were “mutually beheld, mutually feared.” The friend was to be “to thee for ever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside.” The relationship with this beautiful enemy was to be entirely spiritual: “It is foolish to be afraid of making our ties too spiritual, as if so we could lose any genuine love.” In another place (again, probably thinking of Fuller), he writes, “Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit. A message, a thought, a sincerity, a glance from him, I want, but not news nor pottage.” But in fact too close a relation, for Emerson, was dangerous:
Though I prize my friends, I cannot afford to talk with them and study their visions, lest I lose my own. It would indeed give me a certain household joy to quit this lofty seeking, this spiritual astronomy, or search of stars, and come down to warm sympathies with you; but then I know well I shall mourn always the vanishing of my mighty gods.
Emerson was fully aware that his friends considered him aloof, but in one of his most remarkable statements, he told them in “Friendship” that “the condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it.”
Margaret Fuller’s letters to Emerson exaggerate Lidian’s holiness and her own readiness for some self-defining, extravagant, even sexual action. “Who would be a goody that could be a genius?” she asked in her journal (implicitly rejecting the patriarchal adage: “Be good sweet maid, and let who will be clever”). Fuller was also pre-emptively absolving herself for whatever evil that men might afterward accuse her of doing. By 1845 she was openly advocating the socialist (or Fourierist) line on marriage, declaring the holy institution to be oppressive to women and productive of spousal violence, infidelity, infanticide, and the marital uses of arsenic. Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) was the opening volley in the century’s feminist movement, and Margaret celebrated it by abandoning New England, with its “bloodless men,” and moving to New York, where she worked briefly for Greeley’s Herald Tribune. Italy was the final field of her activities, for there, during the Risorgimento, she became an activist for the revolutionist Mazzini, and had a probably illegitimate child with Giovanni Ossoli, an impoverished Italian aristocrat. After the collapse of the revolution, the three of them died in a shipwreck off Fire Island in 1850.
There were a great many other eccentrics in Emerson’s world whom Baker has engagingly sketched in here. One is Theodore Parker, the polymath abolitionist Unitarian minister who set a standard for learning and moral courage none of the others could match. Another is Walt Whitman, the lower Broadway incarnation of Emerson’s idea of the poet, the beginning of whose career the Sage had so generously saluted. Thoreau went down to New York and met Whitman; he found him to be “an extraordinary person,” one “full of brute power.” Alcott found him less appealing, describing Whitman as “broad-shouldered, rouge-fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr, and rank.” If Whitman didn’t bathe often enough for Alcott, Emerson was likewise embarrassed to have Whitman’s “pomes” turn priapic in “Children of Adam” and “Calamus.” This led E. P. Whipple rightly to complain that Leaves of Grass “had every leaf but the fig leaf.” A third oddity was Charles Newcomb, a rich Roman Catholic whose religious fanaticism was too much for his fellow Brook Farm denizens—especially since Newcomb “decorated his room with ferns, rushes, and pictures of Jesus and selected Catholic saints, and persisted in reading aloud from the church litany at all hours of the night.” Baker remarks that “for reasons that remain obscure he insisted on wearing gloves and a veil as he slept.”
This last detail is suggestive of Hawthorne, the Salem solitary who, in the 1840s —before his marriage to Elizabeth Peabody’s sister Sophia—also lived for a time at Brook Farm. Hawthorne in due course found ridiculous the transcendental socialism of his high-minded companions at the Farm. He also kept a very wary distance from Emerson, even satirized him for living in cloud-cuckoo land in “The Celestial Railroad” and “Earth’s Holocaust,” and wrote a biting critique of the Brook Farm communitarians in The Blithedale Romance. It was Hawthorne who first noticed the oddity of the Emerson circle, describing Thoreau and Ellery Channing as among “those queer and clever young men whom Mr. Emerson (that everlasting rejecter of all that is, and seeker for he knows not what) is continually picking up by way of genius.”
For Hawthorne, none of this circle had in greater superfluity “the drop too much which nature adds of each man’s peculiarity” than Emerson himself. In his own time Emerson had a reputation for sublime sanity, an equilibrium of spirit and a serenity of soul beyond that of any other man. But Emerson was at times more eccentric than his friends. Granted that he was grief-stricken at the death of his first wife, Ellen, a beautiful young woman who died of consumption in 1831. But what are we to make of this bald entry in his journal, some thirteen months later: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin”? His reasons for so ghoulish an act are not explained in the journal.
Moreover, in 1857, long after his young son Waldo had died from scarlet fever—a death memorably eulogized in that remarkable poem “Threnody”—Emerson recorded in his notebook: “I had the remains of my mother and of my son Waldo removed from the tomb of Mrs. Ripley to my lot in ‘Sleepy Hollow.’ The sun shone brightly on the coffins, of which Waldo’s was well preserved—now fifteen years. I ventured to look into the coffin. I gave a few white-oak leaves to each coffin, after they were put in the new vault, and the vault was then covered with two slabs of granite.” Nothing else is said of this event in the journal. But Baker remarks that “at home he told his daughter, Ellen, that he had opened Waldo’s coffin. He did not elaborate, although he could hardly have helped recalling the day in 1832 when he had opened the coffin of that other Ellen whose name his eldest daughter bore.”
What accounts for such abnormal acts? Was it mere morbid curiosity? A wish to see what time and decay had done to his image of his beloved wife and child? Since death had no spiritual reality for Emerson, did he hope to find some confirmation of the primacy of soul? Was it a desire to reconcile himself to death by seeing what had happened to their physical bodies? In the absence of fact, there can be no end to speculation of this kind, but, whatever answer one may produce, most of us will feel that Emerson’s behavior was distinctly eccentric, if not pathological.
Because Emerson was one of the greatest writers America has produced, the tendency to hagiography in his friends and admirers has become infused into much of the literary criticism written about him. Baker’s work is salutary in reminding us that mixed with Emerson’s genius were traits of character and oddities of behavior that most men would regard as strange indeed. Beyond that, however, is a matter that Baker does not develop. And that is the negative impact, on American culture, of the transcendental doctrines Emerson espoused.
I am not referring here to the doctrine of self-reliance, which most parents teach their children quite naturally, though not perhaps in so absolutist a degree. I refer to what happens in a culture like ours when institutions as such are attacked as vicious, when people are told that the church and temple, the college and the political party, the Red Cross, the employee’s union, and the veteran’s group (and so forth) are all unnecessary organizations and are indeed inimical to one’s self-development, and that all one needs to do is to consult one’s own inner oracle and act out one’s own inner imperative, however antisocial it may be. To be told, Do your own thing, is for most people, it seems to me, ultimately disorienting and will leave them floundering and adrift and (even worse) determined— such is the Emersonian imperative—to act out their idiosyncrasies, to distill to the last “the drop too much which nature adds of each man’s peculiarity.” The 1960s represented, in my view, a widespread, disastrous, vulgar translation into action of such Emersonian doctrines, a sort of Age of Aquarius reincarnation of the 1830s “Newness.” It produced some colorful personalities and genuinely eccentric communitarian “lifestyles” worthy of Fruitlands. But we have still not recovered from that decade’s more sinister attack on the foundations of American culture and the moral life. We still have not directly challenged the Emersonian belief that there is no standard of right and wrong outside the self. And we have not recovered from his assault on the institutions by which we naturally and rightly organize our educational, political, religious, social, and intellectual life. It is through these institutions alone (however imperfect they may be) that jointly and mutually we implement our most deeply held convictions about the national life.
- Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait, by Carlos Baker, with an introduction and epilogue by James R. Mellow; Viking, 608 pages, $34.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 9, on page 19
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