Ralph Waldo Emerson: Public and Private Revolutions

Photograph of Emerson in later life / Wikimedia Commons


By Dr. David M. Robinson and Dr. Jean McClure Mudge / 09.15.2015
Robinson: Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Director of the Center for the Humanities, Oregon State University
Mudge: Scholar and Researcher of American Studies

The “New Thinking”: Nature, Self, and Society, 1836-1850

By Dr. David M. Robinson

There is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power. – Emerson“,Experience”, Essays II, 1844

Spokesman for the New Age

Leaving for Europe in late 1832, having resigned his pulpit and still in grief over the loss of his wife Ellen, Emerson sought to renew his severely tested faith and optimism. He began his recovery in an unexpected place, the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where Antoine Laurent de Jussieu’s Cabinet of Natural History presented an array of plants arranged by botanical classification. To Emerson’s hungry eye, this display suggested interconnection, transformation, and all-encompassing unity, the verities that his recent crisis had brought into question. He saw vitality in this collection of living plants, the constantly transmuting yet interwoven processes of the natural world, a unified cosmos defined by its perpetual energy and unending metamorphosis. “I feel the centipede in me — cayman, carp, eagle, & fox”, he wrote in his journal. “I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually ‘I will be a naturalist’.”[1] Before returning to America, he began to make notes for a philosophy of nature, and on his arrival he began to fulfill his “naturalist” ambition with lectures on “The Uses of Natural History” and “Water” at the Boston Society of Natural History.[2] These early lectures, and the powerful insight that he experienced in Paris, became the foundation of his first book Nature, which established him as the exponent of an era of self-awareness and social renewal.

2.1 Nature, Emerson’s first book, 1836.

With increasing clarity Emerson became aware that the tangible natural world could be the most accessible entry into an intangible realm of the spirit. For him, there could be no division between a scientific perspective and a religious one. Scientific advances strengthened his belief in a unified cosmos, the manifestation of a single force or energy. “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact”, he declared. To study the processes and development of nature was also to penetrate the transcendent laws that governed the spiritual and moral realms.[3]

Although Nature did not conform to the expected format of a theological or philosophical treatise, Emerson’s prose-poem explored the deepest religious questions, combining reasoned argument with poetic insight to decipher the natural world as a code of fundamental laws that defined the purpose of human experience. The full range of human awareness — observation, reason, aesthetic sensitivity, and emotion — was necessary to comprehend the bond between nature and the human. At the outset, Emerson recounted a dramatically revelatory moment “in the woods” in which he felt “uplifted into infinite space”, and freed of “all mean egotism”. His vision was transformed, and the natural and spiritual worlds opened to him: “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God”.[4] In other passages, he seemed to become part of the natural world itself, speaking of “an occult relation between man and the vegetable”, and proclaiming, “I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons”.[5] These were moments of unburdened freedom from material reality, but they were paradoxically triggered by a deep sensual immersion within it. Emerson’s exuberant responsiveness to nature traversed the barriers between world and soul, each of which was encompassed in “the immutable laws of moral Nature”.[6]

Such exuberance can be infectious, but it can also evoke wry amusement. Christopher Pearse Cranch, one of Emerson’s most ardent devotees, seized on Emerson’s weirdly striking images of the transparent eyeball and the occult vegetables for several gently satiric caricatures which circulated among friends in his day, but went unpublished until 1951.[7]

2.2 C. P. Cranch, caricature of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, c. 1838–1839.

However odd they may have seemed, Emerson’s evocations of his encounters with natural events suggested that thoughtful interactions with nature would awaken a fulfilling and purposeful life. But to activate this potential, one must renounce settled doctrines and conventions. “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship”, he declared.[8] His sustaining faith was that every individual had access to a greater spirituality through contemplation, self-examination, and attention to the suggestions of the natural surroundings. “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” he asked. “Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine”.[9]

Nature began as a hymn to the beauty of the woods and streams, but Emerson steered his argument toward the transformative beauty of nature, the capacity of creation to evoke a new energy within the human psyche. “All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature”, he asserted in the chapter “Discipline”, a pivotal chapter in his argument. Drawing on the eighteenth-century concepts of the moral sense, and a longer tradition of Platonic idealism, he depicted a cosmos whose deepest self-expression was concordant, harmonious action. “Every natural process is but a version of a moral sentence. The moral law lies at the centre of nature and radiates to the circumference. It is the pith and marrow of every substance, every relation, and every process”.[10] Plato, and his many later followers, maintained that a deeper source of ideas gave the apparent world its material form. Plato was, as Robert D. Richardson explained, “the single most important source of Emerson’s lifelong conviction that ideas are real because they are the forms and laws that underlie, precede, and explain appearances”. Early discussions with his Aunt Mary Moody Emerson piqued his interest in Platonic idealism, and he was introduced to later versions of neo-idealism by his reading of the seventeenth-century English “Cambridge Platonists”, Ralph Cudworth and Henry More.[11] His preferred contemporary writers, the British Romantics William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, had also reformulated a version of Platonism, seeing it as a liberating alternative to the dry empiricism of John Locke and the skepticism of David Hume.[12] Emerson regarded the Romantics’ resurrection of a modern form of idealism as a revolutionary turn in modern thinking, and as Barbara Packer noted, their powerful message, especially that of Carlyle, was a call to action. “If Carlyle preached a new gospel, how were his American disciples to put it into practice?”[13]

For Emerson, idealism breathed new life into the physical world, transforming it from lifeless matter into energy, and giving it vast religious dimensions. “Idealism saith: matter is a phenomenon, not a substance”, he wrote in Nature, reaffirming his Parisian insight that creation was not static and unmovable but changing and malleable, a cycle of energies and interactions.[14] This leap from “substance” to “phenomenon” was crucial to Emerson because it resolved the dualism of body and spirit through the unifying agency of the event. To recognize that both matter and soul were continually revealed in the processes of nature was also to see those processes as expressions of a vital, evolving unity. “A spiritual life has been imparted to nature” and “the solid seeming block of matter has been pervaded and dissolved by a thought”, he wrote.[15] He redefined religion as the enactment — the making real — of idealism, “the practice of ideas, or the introduction of ideas into life”.[16] This is the reason that Emerson concluded Nature with a call to action. Proclaiming Nature’s ultimate message through the voice of an “Orphic Poet”, Emerson emphasizes “building” rather than “seeing” or “understanding” as the conclusive wisdom. “Build, therefore, your own world”, the Orphic Poet proclaims. “As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit”.[17]

Concord Life and the Emergence of Transcendentalism

The ebullient mood of Nature and its message of world-building reflected the domestic and interpersonal world that Emerson was creating for himself in Concord.

2.3 Emerson house, 10 May 1903.


[LEFT]: 2.4 Concord and Vicinity.
[RIGHT]: 2.5 Concord Village and Walden.

There in 1835, he brought a new wife, Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, who had been following his career as pastor and lecturer. The first of four children, Waldo, was born in Concord in 1836, the month after Nature was published. As Bliss Perry explained in his still indispensable portrait of Emerson’s domestic life, his neighbors “welcomed him as a true son of Concord into the ordinary life of the village. They put him on the School Committee. He taught in the Sunday School. He joined the Fire Company, and the Social Circle”.[18] His home thus became not only a retreat for study and writing but a literary headquarters for the emerging American Transcendentalists. His door was open to frequent visitors, and through a combination of his Concord hospitality and his frequent forays into Boston, he built a network of like-minded friends. He played an important role in the gatherings of the “Transcendental Club”, a group of rebellious Unitarian ministers who supported each other in dissent from what they regarded as the exhausted structures of their church. The club met thirty times in Boston, Concord, and other nearby places between 1836 and 1840, and became a rallying point for the Transcendental new views.[19] Even though he had resigned his Boston pulpit in 1832 before traveling to Europe, he resumed week-to-week supply preaching at a nearby church in East Lexington. This job required no ministerial duties except the one he preferred — preaching — and he had carefully preserved his stock of manuscript sermons (now held in the Houghton Library at Harvard). Throughout this busy Concord life Emerson continued to be remarkably productive and creative in his work as a “scholar”.[20] He was a vigorous writer with a steely discipline, who conducted extensive correspondence and generated a continual flow of lectures, essays, and poems. Most crucially, he maintained a voluminous journal that was the taproot of all of his work. He was able to accomplish all this, Bliss Perry explains, through “the long, inviolable mornings in his study”, which began early and were sustained by “two cups of coffee and — it must be owned — a piece of pie”.[21]

Foremost among his projects in the middle and late 1830s were annual winter lectures in Boston, performances that developed a local following and eventually enabled Emerson to expand his travels into other areas in the Northeast and the growing Midwest. His Boston lectures were a testing ground for his newest thinking, and served as the basis for the essay collections, published in the early 1840s, that became the cornerstone of his literary career. Two controversial public addresses at Harvard accelerated his rise as a public figure; these remain among his best known and most enduring cultural legacies. The first was a provocative address to the 1837 meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, traditionally a celebration of “The American Scholar”.

2.6 “American Scholar Address”, 1837.

Emerson used the title as a vantage for critique rather than celebration, charging that “the spirit of the American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant”.[22]

Applying the primary message of Nature to the literary and creative life, he urged original independence rather than passive compliance. While books were presumably the scholar’s chief concern, Emerson called them dangerous when they stood in the way of independent thinking. “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books”. Each new generation, he argued “must write its own books”, using the past for inspiration, but testing all received values against the conditions of the present.[23] “Books are for the scholars’ idle times”, he declared, cautioning against imitative, passive, or merely receptive reading that leads not to “Man Thinking” but instead to “the bookworm”.[24] He urged the scholar — he might have said the “author”, “the artist”, or “the builder”, or anyone of a creative and critical mind — to return to the primordial energy of nature to become original and authentic. “The one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul”.[25]

As we view it now, this appears to be the moment when Emerson emerged into public prominence. Controversial to some of his listeners because of its hard-edged critique of American intellectual culture, “The American Scholar” was nevertheless memorable. As time passed”, Richardson observed, “the talk became famous, even legendary”.[26] He cites Oliver Wendell Holmes’s enduring claim that “The American Scholar” was “our intellectual Declaration of Independence”,[27] a characterization that addressed America’s deep-rooted sense of literary and artistic inferiority in the face of Europe. Emerson frankly disparaged the feebleness of American writing, a pursuit that seemed to falter “amongst a people too busy to give letters” serious attention.[28] When, unexpectedly, he received a second invitation to keynote a public event at Harvard, he was given the opportunity to assess the doctrines of Christianity and the state of the church, the most sacrosanct of his culture’s foundations.

In the spring of 1838 the graduating students from Harvard Divinity School, the stronghold of New England Unitarianism, invited Emerson to speak at their commencement the next July. These beginning ministers numbered only seven, but the ceremony in the chapel at Divinity Hall was filled with close to a hundred alumni, faculty members, local pastors, friends, and family. Several key figures in the Unitarian establishment were there, including the erudite Biblical scholar Andrews Norton; Divinity School Dean John Gorham Palfrey, later prominent as an antislavery politician and historian; and Henry Ware Jr., a Harvard faculty member who had been Emerson’s predecessor and mentor in the pulpit at Boston’s Second Church.[29] In “The American Scholar”, Emerson had applied the principles of originality and direct experience to literature, scholarship, and action. In what became known as his “Divinity School Address”, he measured religion and contemporary worship by this same standard. He argued that the religious spirit itself was being stifled by the routine performance of empty ceremony and rote creed.

Emerson called his listeners back to the “sentiment of virtue”, an inherent “delight in the presence of certain divine laws”. To assure them that he was not opening a conventional theological exposition, he explained that “these laws refuse to be adequately stated”, but are instead revealed through direct experience, what we encounter daily “in each other’s faces, in each other’s actions, in our own remorse”.[30] Such experience was, he believed, innate, the sign within us of the same ceaseless energy that coursed through nature. “This sentiment”, he explained, “lies at the foundation of society, and successively creates all forms of worship. The principle of veneration never dies out”.[31]

2.7 “Divinity School Address”, 1838.

Emerson wanted to return the church and its ministers to the direct, experiential roots of religion and thereby free them from the hollow forms of belief and worship that were now too common. He audaciously rejected the significance of Biblical miracles, and explained Jesus’s claim to be the son of God as an arresting metaphor for his sense of a divinity within every man and woman. Jesus demonstrated an inner spiritual power that was not unique, but potentially universal. “Alone in all history, [Jesus] estimated the greatness of man”, Emerson maintained.[32] While he showed a reverence for Jesus, he by no means granted him a divine or supernatural character, as it was broadly understood in the 1830s.

Making himself more explicit, and more shocking, Emerson also denied the personhood of God in his description of the shortcomings of his religious tradition. “Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons”.[33] Uneasy with the theological use of anthropomorphic terms such as “Father”, Emerson saw the personification of God as a false projection of limited human qualities onto an unfathomable power. His rejection of the personhood of God was one of his most disquieting ideas, inviting the strong criticism of his former ministerial mentor, Henry Ware. Ware insisted that an impersonal God lacked religious value. But Emerson held that to personalize God was to limit one’s access to deeper sources of religious energy. Emerson sometimes used the word “God”, in his journal and in his published work, but he constantly searched for other ways to express this originating energy: “Soul”, “Over-Soul”, “World Soul”, “Spirit”, “One”, “Moral Sense”, and “Moral Law”. Emerson’s conception of a continually developing deity corresponded with his belief in the potential for a continually growing spiritual awareness of the individual, and provided the basis for a revitalized spirituality, stripped of religious mythology and churchly traditions.[34]

Emerson himself was a product of the tradition that he was so frankly condemning. He revered the eloquent preaching of William Ellery Channing, whose landmark sermon of 1819, “Unitarian Christianity”, had separated Unitarians from the Calvinist-grounded Congregationalism that had been New England’s dominant theology for two centuries. The Unitarians dismissed the concept of original sin and affirmed the spiritual resources of every individual. They advocated a life of disciplined self-examination and continuing spiritual development. But Emerson’s skepticism about Biblical miracles and Jesus as a supernatural figure touched sensitive points of Christian belief that were still dear to most Unitarians. He asked this graduating class — and by extension their professors and everyone gathered — not to accept these cherished precepts without intense scrutiny. Only through their witness to a direct experience of the holy might they preach with influence to their churches, and “convert life into truth”.[35]

2.8 Walden Pond from Emerson’s Cliff, 1903.

While the “American Scholar” had ruffled some of its listeners, this attack on both Christian doctrine and church practice provoked a storm of controversy. A week after the address was published, a Boston newspaper brought out a stinging attack against it by Harvard’s leading Biblical scholar, Andrews Norton, who himself had been a leader in the Unitarian break with Calvinism. A year later, at a meeting of Divinity School alumni, Norton expanded his attack on Emerson’s Address with a fiery rebuttal, “A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity”.[36] Norton spoke for those Unitarians who viewed Emerson’s ideas as a dangerously subversive abandonment of the key elements of Christianity. Cranch, ever loyal to Emerson, lost no time caricaturing Norton in an outrage and circulated the cartoon among his transcendentalist friends. Although ruffled, Emerson refused to engage his critics directly in public debate, rejecting a pamphlet war that would drain his energies for the campaign that he wanted to continue.[37]

Emerson believed that these conflicts were signs of much more than a theological schism. They registered a wider divergence of perspective and values in his culture, and they held the promise of a significant cultural transformation. “The two omnipresent parties of History, the party of the Past and the party of the Future, divide society to-day as of old”, he argued in his series “Lectures on the Times, 1841–1842”. He could feel the progressive currents of egalitarian change and predicted that “the present age will be marked by its harvest of projects, for the reform of domestic, civil, literary, and ecclesiastical institutions”.[38] In this atmosphere of contending parties, Emerson and his allies recognized that stronger efforts to spread their views were needed, and that one of their most pressing needs was a journal of Transcendentalist opinion and artistic expression. In July 1840, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and others launched a new quarterly, The Dial.

In its first issue, Emerson provided a rationale for the journal as a voice in “the progress of a revolution” in New England, challenging the adequacy of present forms of literature, religion, and education. Its sources would be innovative, as Emerson described them in “The Editors to the Reader”, not the familiar work of established authors, but rather “the discourse of the living, and the portfolios which friendship has opened to us”.[39] Fuller served as The Dial’s first editor, making her among the earliest American women to edit a literary journal.

2.9 The Dial, wrapper, No. 1, July 1840.

The Dial became particularly important to aspiring poets such as Cranch, Jones Very, Ellen Sturgis Hooper, and Caroline Sturgis Tappan, whose work may not have been easily placed in more conventional journals. Access to The Dial was also vital for Fuller, whose work is now recognized as pioneering on several counts. Of particular importance were her 1841 essay “Goethe”, the most perceptive early American critical assessment of this literary master, and her epochal defense of women’s rights, “The Great Lawsuit”. Fuller expanded this article into Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), a book that brought her to prominence and became a founding document for the women’s rights movement in America. Thoreau’s early essays on nature and Emerson’s defining lecture on “The Transcendentalist” also first reached print via The Dial.[40] Bronson Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings”, aphoristic prose-poems that seemed impenetrably abstract to many readers, were among its most controversial pieces.[41] One of the magazine’s most forward-thinking projects, jointly promoted by Emerson and Thoreau, was a series of “Ethnical Scriptures”, translations of ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Confucian religious texts. This pioneering effort disseminated knowledge about world religions, encouraging a modern, comparative view of Christianity, and suggesting its place as one faith tradition among the world’s religions. Both Emerson and Thoreau remained keenly interested in Asian beliefs, finding links between their radical explorations in spirituality and these classic non-Western traditions. Although The Dial was publishing what we now recognize as historically important texts, its subscribers never exceeded about 300, and Emerson, busy with other matters, was finally forced to cease publishing it. But its four-year run had given his friends important encouragement and a common purpose in addressing America’s need for a cultural revolution.[42]

2.10 Emerson’s four volumes of The Dial

Emerson’s ever-enlarging journal and his rich backlog of public lectures were the foundations for the work that would assure his place in the global literary canon: Essays I (1841). Characterized by its sharp-edged aphorisms and epigrammatic turns-of-phrase, this book established Emerson as a stylistic innovator and an influential voice of wisdom and ethical guidance. He spoke directly to a rapidly shifting religious climate in which the findings of modern Biblical research and emerging science generated doubt and anxiety, and proposed fresh and revitalizing approaches to spiritual questions. He urged his readers to higher levels of integrity and ethical awareness, and offered them desperately needed freedom from tightly sanctioned limits on their thought and behavior. The best known of his remedies for doubt and anxiety was an essay that codified his own early struggle for self-acceptance and social confidence. He entitled it “Self-Reliance”. “Trust thyself; every soul vibrates to that iron string”. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”. “What I must do, is all that concerns me, not what the people think”. “Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times”.[43] These and other lasting affirmations were vivid reminders of the code of courage and balanced self-possession necessary to resist modern society’s crushing demands for acquiescence and conformity.

Emerson contended that the self-reliant individual gained strength not from external social approval but from inner resources — spiritual trust and recognition of the moral sentiment — that built and sustained character. Emerson’s belief that the self was grounded in a greater Self discouraged egotism on the one hand, and social anarchy on the other. But such trust was hard to achieve and to retain. The distinctive tone of high confidence and optimism in his writings actually disguised his ongoing inner struggle with self-doubt and pessimism. “In the dark hours our existence seems to be a defensive war”, he privately recorded in 1835, “a struggle against the encroaching All which threatens with certainty to engulf us soon, & seems impatient of our little reprieve”.[44] This voice of insecurity stayed largely hidden in Emerson’s speeches and published works, where he regularly put forward a self-assured and resolute persona. But a long history in his own experience with building courage lay behind “Self-Reliance”, making his words apply first to himself, then to his readers.

“Self Reliance” was one of twelve essays in this first collection, which included subjects ranging from “History” to “Friendship” to “Art”. Together they constitute a loosely structured theory of human culture and the ethical life. While “Self-Reliance” attained cultural significance through its articulation of the presumably characteristic national value of individualism, its answering essay, “Friendship”, has garnered wider recent attention, as readers of Emerson have come to recognize the social dimensions of his work more deeply. For Emerson, friendship and self-reliance are not mutually exclusive qualities. Each virtue depends on the other for its completion. Friendship must not be taken as a denial of self-reliance, Emerson cautions: “we must be our own, before we can be another’s”. But true friendship demands careful cultivation and what he terms “a long probation”, or period of testing and trial. But its achievement stands as one of the greatest of human fulfillments, the sign of an aware and ethically purposeful life. Friendship is “the nut itself whereof all nature and all thought is but the husk and shell”.[45] Emerson’s discourse on friendship, with its careful analysis of interpersonal bonds, is a crucial indicator of the social trajectory of Emerson’s work in the 1840s and 1850s, which is more directly engaged with the daily conduct of life, its social contexts, and the imperatives of political reform.


[LEFT]: 2.11 Emerson house, front hallway looking north.
[RIGHT]: 2.12 Second floor nursery, Emerson house.

Self-Reliance and the Challenge of Reform

By the early 1840s Emerson was becoming more engaged in social criticism, developing a more relational theory of the self, and responding to the increasingly rancorous national political climate. Deep personal tragedy reinforced this shift of perspective. In January 1842, soon after the his success with the publication of Essays I, his first child Waldo, age five, developed scarlet fever and, within days, died.

“I comprehend nothing of this fact but its bitterness”, he confided in his journal. “Explanation I have none, consolation none that rises out of the fact itself; only diversion; only oblivion of this & pursuit of new objects”.[46] No stranger to disappointment, injustice, uncertainty, and loss, the death of the cherished Waldo affected him much more deeply than the earlier losses of his father, three brothers, and even his beloved first wife Ellen. Waldo’s sudden absence jarringly refocused his attention on the meaning of life’s major reversals. The loss accentuated the fragility of life and the tenuous stability of its moods and perspectives, and encouraged openness and patience, virtues that clarified the limits of the self. Stunned by the loss, Emerson’s grief-guided search for a response pointed him toward determined engagement in this world, and quickened his already discernible turn toward the pragmatic. Meaningful life and true character demanded purpose, will, discipline, stoical patience, and active involvement.[47]

2.13 Waldo Emerson, Jr. (30 October 1836–27 January 1841).

Compelling evidence of this change is Emerson’s poem “Threnody”, an elegy for Waldo written over many months. It registers Emerson’s tortuous passage from blank despair to a renewed worldly purpose. His guide out of this morass is the voice of a “deep Heart” that responds to his personal pain with the assurance that death does not erase abiding values and affections: “Hearts are dust, hearts’ loves remain; / Heart’s love will meet thee again”.[48] The poem’s companion piece was “Experience”, now regarded as the greatest of his essays. A complex meditation that blends surrealistic imagery with a succession of gripping voices and shifting moods, the essay records Emerson’s voyage from numbed bewilderment to a tempered determination to rise “up again” and confront experience.[49] Strikingly candid in its portrayal of personal loss, “Experience” also sets the direction for the later public phase of his work. Beginning half-way up the stairway of life, Emerson depicts his dazed effort to find his way in a chaotic and misfortune-filled world. “Experience” poses a labyrinthine series of dilemmas in which the resolution of one adversity leads inevitably to another. In contrast with the earlier epiphany in the Jardin des Plantes, or the ecstasy of the transparent eyeball image of Nature (only eight years in the past), Emerson now dramatizes the loss of energy, desire, and self-confidence that darkens every purpose. His way forward is less to heal or redeem the private self than to envision the eventual emergence of a more communal justice. He calls for patience, resilient courage, and a conviction that “there is victory yet for all justice”.[50] The antidote to misfortune is “the transformation of genius into practical power”, the resolute application of one’s intellectual resources and ethical commitments with reasoned, persistent effort.[51] Devastated by tragedy, Emerson turned mourning into a motivation for dedicated service.

This evolution toward a larger role in public affairs was not an easy one for Emerson. In 1838, concerned friends and family called on him to protest President Van Buren’s order forcing the Cherokee nation to leave Georgia for the West. He wrote a blistering condemnation of the policy as a moral outrage to American civilization. But privately, he recorded his unhappiness at entering this debate over public policy, expressing his inner conflict between his literary calling and his sense of a citizen’s public duty to advance progressive political causes.[52] As his stature as a public figure grew, so did his recognition of his responsibility to use his influence productively, especially as the national crisis over slavery and other abrasive issues intensified in the 1840s and 1850s. The revolutionary currents of the 1840s in Europe also began to be felt in the United States, and as Larry J. Reynolds has shown, those ideas had a profound impact on Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and other American writers.[53] One important sign of the political turn among the Transcendentalists was a growing interest in the philosophy of Charles Fourier, a French utopian social theorist whose work was translated in 1840 by Albert Brisbane. Fourier’s complex and sometimes bizarre theories focused on the formation of small communes or “phalanxes” that could create liberating alternatives to the competitive market economy. Emerson’s friends George and Sophia Ripley urged him to join them in launching Brook Farm, one of the best known communal experiments of the era, but Emerson demurred. “I think that all I shall solidly do, I must do alone”, he wrote to Ripley, remaining sympathetic but skeptical of communal alternatives to familial life.[54] In one sense he was right — the communes did not last long. Brook Farm, though a rewarding experience for many of its members, disbanded after six years in financial failure. Another close friend, Bronson Alcott, launched Fruitlands, an even more short-lived communal experiment that disbanded when facing its first winter.[55] Despite their clear failures as enduring institutions, these efforts were nevertheless valuable expressions of dissent, as Emerson recognized. Their formation signaled important opposition to the powerful new America that was coming into being.

The search for a more harmonious and cooperative form of social organization reflected a deep concern about the nation’s hypocritical professions of democracy and its egregious social injustices. In an 1839 journal entry Emerson observed that “the number of reforms preached to this age exceeds the usual measure”, an indicator, he believed of “the depth & universality of the movement which betrays itself by such variety of symptom”. He offers a brief list of these oppositional groups, suggesting that they address almost every dimension of modern life: “anti-money, anti-war, anti-slavery, anti-government, anti-Christianity, anti-College; and, the rights of Woman”.[56] But among these many reform efforts, the antislavery movement would quickly move to prominence, both in Emerson’s thinking and on the national scene. One of the pieces that Emerson contributed to The Dial was an 1841 speech to the Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Library Association in Boston, entitled “Man the Reformer”. Len Gougeon called attention to one moment in the speech in which Emerson lauded abolitionism for showing Americans their “dreadful debt to the Southern negro”.[57] The goods produced by slave labor provided consumers in the North, even those opposed to slavery, with items of comfort and luxury. “We are all implicated, of course, in this charge”, Emerson asserts. “It is only necessary to ask a few questions as to the progress of the articles of commerce from the fields where they grew, to our houses, to become aware that we eat and drink and wear perjury and fraud in a hundred commodities”.[58]

Emerson remained an advocate of the reform movements, including antislavery, over the next few years, but a somewhat distanced one. He concluded Essays: Second Series with the 1844 lecture “New England Reformers”, a text that Richardson describes as “calm and qualifying”, and containing little mention of the antislavery movement.[59] A brief sentence near the end of that lecture, however, provides an important clue to his attitude about his public role as a spokesman for reform: “Obedience to his genius is the only liberating influence”.[60] Emerson was reluctant to leave the path he had set for himself as a “scholar” of philosophy and literature. To put it more bluntly, he was wary of becoming enslaved to antislavery, and thereby losing what he felt was his particular voice and mission. Well after he had entered the antislavery effort unreservedly, he would express his misgivings in these arresting words: “I do not often speak to public questions; — they are odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work. I have my own spirits in prison; — spirits in deeper prisons, whom no man visits if I do not”.[61] But as the national political crisis over legal slavery simmered, he realized that the epitome of social injustice was the slave, the man or woman robbed legally of self-possession and the right to act and choose freely. The slaveholder had no right to oppress another individual who was by right his equal. The slave came to represent for him the greatest moral contradiction of modern civilization.[62]

A pivotal moment for Emerson came in the summer of 1844 when he was invited by the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society to speak on the tenth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. Urged onward at home by his wife Lidian, and by other women friends, he began to research the history of the slave trade as well as the British parliamentary debates and legislation leading to the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean. This assiduous homework resulted in one of his most stirring addresses in which he described the horrors of slavery in detail and made a powerful case, emotionally and intellectually, that slavery was a moral violation.[63] Emerson’s reading had given him a wider understanding of the slave trade and of the physical conditions of slavery in the Caribbean, and had moved him to portray slavery, in vivid terms, as a viscerally moral issue: “The blood is moral: the blood is anti-slavery: it runs cold in the veins: the stomach rises with disgust, and curses slavery”.[64] The speech signaled an intensified concern with social and political issues, and was a major step in Emerson’s adaptation of his identity as a scholar to that of an engaged public commentator and social critic.

International Fame and National Crisis

Increasingly in demand as a lecturer, Emerson traveled extensively on the expanding lyceum circuit, an important source of his income from the 1840s onward.[65]

His itineraries first focused on New England, expanding to the greater Northeast and the Middle Atlantic States, and then after 1850 following the nation’s westward expansion to include frontier cities and towns. Conditions for travel were often arduous, and though some audiences were thirsty for culture, others were less than receptive. But Emerson persisted, combining a need for new audiences and continuing income with a desire to bring the life of serious thinking to all who would listen. Emerson clearly wanted to know his country, as his unremitting travels show. But he was a frank and incisive observer, and was often disappointed in what he saw. “Great country, diminutive minds”, he noted with disgust in a June 1847 journal entry on “eager, solicitous, hungry, rabid, busy-body America”. His lament for American culture centered on its scattered attention and aimless energy. “Alas for America as I must often say, the ungirt, the diffuse, the profuse, procumbent, one wide ground juniper, out of which no cedar, no oak will rear up a mast to the clouds! it all runs to leaves, to suckers, to tendrils, to miscellany. The air is loaded with poppy, with imbecility, with dispersion, & sloth”.[66] A little over three months later he was on his way to a lecture tour in Great Britain, where his writings had gained a substantial following.


[LEFT]: 2.14 Emerson at 43, May 1846.
[RIGHT]: 2.15 Emerson in Great Britain and France, 1847–1848.

Obviously he was seeking new stimulation, and a respite from the monotonous mediocrity that defined American culture. The ten-month journey to Britain was an eventful and transformative one for Emerson. As Richardson so expressively put it, “England jolted Emerson. Everything seemed different, bigger, faster, heavier … All was bustle and activity in England”.[67] Lecturing in Liverpool, Manchester, and cities in the Midlands, he got a close look at England in the midst of its Industrial Revolution, and spoke to a varied audience that included workingmen’s groups. He had Thomas Carlyle’s assistance in London, and met literary celebrities such as Tennyson, George Eliot, and Dickens. Yet the England that Emerson visited was also an anxious nation, concerned about its own stability as it witnessed continental Europe erupt in political revolution in 1848. In a three-week interlude during the spring of 1848, he traveled to Paris where he witnessed the barricaded city in open revolution. He corresponded with Margaret Fuller, then in Italy, who had become an ardent proponent of the Italian Risorgimento led by Giuseppe Mazzini.[68] This tense political atmosphere kept him in constant thought about the divided, rancorous America to which he would return. In this sense, Emerson was a tourist with a double vision; he wanted to see and understand the new Britain that was rising as the world’s greatest commercial and industrial power, and he also wanted the perspective that this other nation could give him on America. These questions were at the heart of his 1856 volume, English Traits, a work that combined descriptive aspects of the travel narrative with social analysis directed ultimately at the prospects of American advancement.

The future of America, he recognized, would be determined by how it responded to the slavery crisis, a question deeply rooted in the issue of race. Emerson’s initial reaction to England’s remarkable industrial growth and commercial power was to attribute it to the power of the Saxon “race”. The category of race was a large one in the 1840s, much under scientific discussion, and it was a form of classification that included a variety of peoples, as Philip F. Nicoloff has written.[69] Drawn to racial explanations of British power initially, Emerson was forced to look into theories of race more deeply, and ultimately rejected one of the central ideas of the day, the fixity of the races. “The limitations of the formidable doctrine of race suggest others which threaten to undermine it, as not sufficiently based”, he wrote in the chapter on “Race” in English Traits. “The fixity or incontrovertibleness of races as we see them, is a weak argument for the eternity of these frail boundaries, since all our historical period is a point to the duration in which nature has wrought”. In appealing to the vastness of historical time, Emerson dissolved the “frail boundaries” of racial division, and clarified the grounds of human equality upon which the essential moral objection to slavery rested.[70]

2.16 Emerson’s study, 1972.

Emerson’s English tour had another powerful impact on him. He saw not only the growing industrial economy of England, but also the history-making achievements of its scientists. The most crucial evidence of this impact can be found in the set of new lectures that he wrote and delivered in London in the early summer of 1848, “Mind and Manners of the Nineteenth Century”. Addresses he heard by the prominent paleontologist Richard Owen and the renowned theorist of electricity Michael Faraday stimulated Emerson to return to key questions that he had pursued in his own early natural history lectures, and in his first book Nature. Published from manuscript in 2001 in Joel Myerson and Ronald A. Bosco’s edition of Emerson’s Later Lectures, the “Mind and Manners of the Nineteenth Century” series has proven to be an extremely important addition to the Emerson canon. The lectures clarify the impact of modern science on Emerson’s later thinking, bringing out a further dimension of his interest in the pragmatic, the material, and the empirical. This scientific bent, which Emerson sought to merge with his earlier commitment to idealism, evolved into a recurring project over the later phase of his career.[71]


[LEFT]: 2.17 Emerson’s pocket globe (terrestrial and celestial).
[CENTER]: 2.18 Emerson’s penknife, bottle-opener/hook, and scissors.
[RIGHT]: 2.19 Emerson at 45, 1848.

Emerson returned home in July 1848 to a nation in deepening political crisis over slavery. Once back, he acknowledged having allowed himself “freely to be dazzled by the various brilliancy of men of talent”, but found himself in “no way helped”.[72] The journey had, however, shown him America from a new critical perspective, and he would need that perspective in the coming decade.

2.20 Period Map of U.S. in 1848, railroad timetable.

Freshly appreciative of America as a young nation with hopeful ideas, he was also reminded of his nation’s faults and areas of blindness. The political crisis accelerated on the 7th of March, 1850, when New England’s most respected political figure, Daniel Webster, delivered the speech that enabled passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, an integral part of the Compromise of 1850. This law required the institutions, and the citizens, of the Northern states to cooperate in returning escaped slaves to their legal owners. Infuriated by this betrayal, Emerson watched as the law began to take effect and escaped slaves were returned to their bondage in the South.

2.21 Emerson at about 47, c. 1850.

In 1851, with “that detestable law” on his mind, he entered this pledge in his journal: “All I have, and all I can do shall be given & done in opposition to the execution of this law”.[73]

Dialogues with Self and Society, 1835-1860

By Dr. Jean McClure Mudge

“I was as a gem concealed; Me my burning ray revealed”. – The Koran, as quoted by Emerson in“Love”, Essays I (1841)

To appreciate the role that Emerson’s inner life played in his translation of ideas into action, understanding his method of pursuing the truth is vital. In that quest, verbal exchange was primary. And dialogue, of course, depended upon words. Since boyhood, the Bible’s opening claim, “In the beginning was the Word”, had resounded in his young mind like an organ’s deepest diapason chord. What did words mean? How close to the truth were they? Bored in church as a child, he had once said over and over, “‘black’, ‘white’, ‘board’, etc., twenty or thirty times” until they became utter nonsense. Words were quite arbitrary, he realized, and were at least one level away from the tangible world. Here was “a child’s first lesson in Idealism”, as he put it, the sense of a reality beyond any concrete thing or imperfect name for it.[74]

Words as mere metaphors gained strength when nine-year-old Emerson started writing poetry. Later, his poetic perspective made Harvard’s “higher criticism” of the Bible, or any text, all the more easy to accept. Language necessarily conveyed common meanings, but no word — casual or established — could define the truth for Emerson for all time. He also saw that body language, especially the face and eyes, could nuance speech or communicate wordlessly. Further, he came to appreciate that “the language of the street” — slang, double negatives, even oaths and cursing — was stronger and closer to vital life than proper speech. “Cut these words & they would bleed …”, he wrote.[75] Then as his lecturing career began, the limits of words took on new urgency. At the same time, close friendships forced him to explore his innermost being. In late 1839 and early 1840, he wrote the lectures on “Love” and “Friendship”, placing them in the first half of his Essays I (1841). Though clearly wanting his feelings to be glimpsed, he long kept his very core a secret, even from himself.

Exploring Emerson’s emotional life reveals that his public position as a Transcendental thinker ensconced in Concord’s countryside encompassed private passions as fiery as his mind. Not fully understanding these himself, he had to come to grips with his feelings before he defined his goals as a lecturer. Recognizing himself in his heart of hearts was also essential before he entered the world of social reform. His earliest experiences with love and friendship had arisen in a relatively affection-free atmosphere, ruled by his dedicated but distant mother and aunt. Encouraged by their cool models, eight-year-old Ralph then built a stronger emotional and psychological wall after his father’s death, adopting an inherited sense of privilege as well as duty that pushed away all but his brothers. By age eleven, when his excellent memory and oratory skills led a Concord storekeeper to put him up on a sugar barrel to recite for customers, he could genuinely feel superior — partial solace and compensation for the family’s waning resources. Such performances help explain his unpopularity and quarreling with other boys, while he remained liked by adults, as his uncle Samuel Ripley noted.[76] Ralph’s complex barrier of combined family position, responsibility, talent, and self-defense also grew from a desire to distinguish himself from his father’s tarnished reputation as a profligate spender and, for some, even a lady’s man. (As seen in Chapter 1, after William Emerson’s death, his wife and sister Mary rarely mentioned him.) Aloofness allowed Ralph to limit his chances to be offended, or to offend. When in his late thirties he was brought to face his “mask”, as he himself called it, the process was slow and came about through intense Socratic dialogue.

In Emerson’s day, dialogue, or conversation, was the popular mode for social interaction, a parallel on the everyday level of the era’s rage for oratory. Boston’s educated — meeting informally in each other’s homes, bookstores, and increasingly in hotels — demanded quality thoughts from leaders in their midst, and among themselves. Superb conversation was noted between friends of both genders, often prompted by public speeches from such revered local figures as William Ellery Channing in the pulpit and Daniel Webster in the U.S. Senate. Margaret Fuller led more deliberate exchanges for women alone, occasionally attended by men, through private subscription to her “Conversations”. So, too, did Elizabeth Peabody at her “Foreign Library” bookstore near Boston Common. As Emerson lectured his way toward stature in the 1830s, he mined private conversations, beginning with dialogues with himself, including dreams, as raw material for his public words. Often he would take whole sections from his journal — his “Savings Bank”, as he called it — or from letters to friends to quote verbatim or re-work for his lectures. Both his journals and letters were often based on talks with friends on walks, at his dinner table, in his study, or gleaned from public speeches, more often than not given by men whom he knew. He carried on other conversations with stimulating printed sources, a “creative reading” stemming from his desire to use them in his lectures.[77] From journal to lecture, he further developed and revised his ideas-in-dialogue into published essays.

Lecturing as Conversation

Just home from Europe in the fall of 1833, thirty-year-old Emerson reinvented himself as a scholarly entrepreneur, a lecturer with high purpose. Self-defined in Italy as an American “Adam”, he projected himself as the inaugurator of a new cultural start for the country. Freedom and self-command, previously only for royalty or clergy before the Revolution, were now possible for all citizens. Every man and woman was a potential king or queen if s/he played the “iron string” of selfhood in harmony with God and Moral Law; this was, simply put, “ethics without cant”.[78]

Emerson’s inheritance from his first wife Ellen, fully in hand by 1837, was yet insufficient to support his financial needs, so he sold tickets for his talks and felt the compensation well deserved.[79] He read from prepared texts, but expected audiences to react, as his family had reacted when he practiced beforehand. He explained to Carlyle: “… I preach in the Lecture-Room and then it tells, for there is no prescription [proscription]. You may laugh, weep, reason, sing, sneer, or pray, according to your genius. It is the new pulpit, and very much in vogue with my northern countrymen”.[80] Emerson began his lecturing career with a single appearance in Boston in November 1833, which in series format grew to seven the next year. By 1838, he was delivering thirty lectures per year, singly or as courses, largely in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.[81]

Building on his preaching reputation, Emerson often surpassed his own standard for public speaking. Contemporaries reported, “His coming into the room had the magic of sunlight”; his smile made him “the translated inhabitant of some higher sphere”; and his deep baritone voice had “the appeal of silver trumpets”. Even his eye seemed trumpet-like. Normally, he read quietly, hands folded, from a manuscript of about forty pages. But to emphasize a point, he would make a fist with his right hand, knuckles up, and come down with his forearm while shooting his audience “such a glance as no one ever saw except from Emerson: … like the reveille of a trumpet”. The fingers of his left hand seemed to let out energy, another profile testified: “He stands at an acute angle towards his audience, and limberly, and has barely a gesture beyond the motion of the left hand at his side, as if the intensity of his thoughts was escaping, like the electricity of a battery, at that point”.


[LEFT]: 2.22 Emerson at 45, 1848.
[RIGHT]: 2.23 Emerson caricatures, New York Tribune, 6 February 1849.

Emerson’s reserved, plain style contrasted with the era’s flamboyant oratory. Yet he generated such spiritual excitement that a spoof of him in the New York Tribune only underlined his effect. Its four cartoons showed him with an axe chipping sparks off the world, dancing on his toes while emitting charges from hair and hands, grabbing a comet’s tail for a ride, and swinging from a rainbow between earth and stars, a clear put-down to delight Gotham’s empirically-minded readers. Nevertheless, with his high-minded message and deep penetrating voice, Emerson would become the country’s most persuasive lecturer.[82]

By 1837, Boston educator Bronson Alcott saw Emerson’s power as poetical rather than logical, his earthy language moving seamlessly into expressions of “loftiness” and “grandeur”. He spoke of his “whip of small chords — delicate and subtle of speech, eloquent with truth”, and predicted his friend’s international success: “Emerson is destined to be the high literary name of this age”.[83] Margaret Fuller, a powerful intellectual force among Boston’s young, had earlier drawn spiritual strength from Emerson as a preacher, and now found his lectures subtly powerful and lyrically inspiring.[84] Even the uneducated flocked to him. A Mrs. Bemis of Concord never missed an Emerson lecture. Not understanding a word but undaunted, she “got the lesson from the tone and attitude of the man”[85]

After moving into his own house in Concord in 1834, Emerson came to nickname it “Bush”, probably with reference to the forty-four pine trees he eagerly planted around it.[86] Bush became one of the centers for the Transcendental Club, begun by Emerson and Unitarian minister friends: his cousin George Ripley, George Putnam, and Frederic Henry Hedge. (It was long called “Hedge’s Club”.) To emphasize their “new thinking” as distinct and to broadcast their rebelliousness from Harvard’s establishment, the group’s founding meeting was held in Cambridge on September 8, 1836, the same day the college celebrated its bicentennial.[87]


[LEFT]: 2.24 Harvard Bicentennial Celebration, 1836.
[RIGHT]: 2.25 Emerson Dining Room.

Other diverse, earnest, and well-read young Unitarian ministers came to join them, the group often gathering over dinner at Emerson’s house. Like Emerson, they were largely fatherless, and thus felt all the more liberated to question tradition. But unlike him, as full-time pastors, they were wary and initially not as out-spoken as he in making their views public. In this loose membership, the non-clergymen Emerson and Alcott were the most radical, not counting Henry David Thoreau, who attended only sporadically. Alcott occasionally invited his teaching assistant, the insightful and well-educated Elizabeth Peabody, sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s future wife, Sophia. Other women visitors were Ripley’s wife, Sarah, Mary Moody Emerson, Elizabeth Hoar (fiancée of Emerson’s brother Charles), and Margaret Fuller. This range of views insured fresh ideas would always be vigorously debated, even though the men dominated.[88]

2.26 Elizabeth Hoar with unidentified child, c. 1850.

Amos Bronson Alcott

Alcott, Thoreau, and Fuller were the three friends who most closely observed and seriously conversed with Emerson as his public persona took shape beyond the pastorate and his innermost identity was revealed, at least to himself. Four years older, Alcott came from a modest farming family near New Haven, Connecticut and was bright, sensitive, largely self-taught, a voracious reader, and a dedicated idealist.[89] A peddler in Virginia and the Carolinas for six years, he adopted his clients’ genteel speech and manners. By 1828, he had begun teaching school in Boston, and heard Emerson preach for the first time the following year, judging him one of the “lesser glories of [Boston’s] moral world”, below the “pre-eminent” William Ellery Channing. In late January 1830, he again heard Emerson preach “a good sermon” on “Conscience”.[90] After briefly teaching in Pennsylvania, Alcott returned to Boston in 1834, and with Elizabeth Peabody’s help, started a small experimental school for pre-teen children at the Masonic Temple.

2.27 A. Bronson Alcott in his 40s, c. 1840s.

From this time forward, Alcott, hearing Emerson lecture rather than preach, was increasingly impressed with his content and style.[91] The two men also began exchanging visits between Boston and Concord. Meanwhile, Alcott published Record of a School (1835), Peabody’s verbatim record of Alcott’s Q & A sessions with his students on the subject of character. Emerson, on reading this testimony to infant wisdom, was captured by Alcott’s sense of children as innocent souls only recently arrived from eternity — a sharp contrast to New England’s residual ideas about original sin.[92] By mid-October 1835, Alcott’s growing enthusiasm for Emerson approached hero-worship: he had become “a revelation of the Divine Spirit, an uttering Word [emphasis his]”. In Concord, Alcott had a scintillating “intellectual and spiritual” conversation with Emerson and his family. Returning in late November, he correctly prophesied, “I shall seek [Mr. Emerson’s] face and favor as a precious delight of life”.[93] Alcott would always address his friend as “Mr. Emerson”, reflecting his sense of their educational and social differences.

In February 1836, while still working on Nature, Emerson accepted Alcott’s request to critique his draft essay, “Psyche or Breath of Childhood”, a study of his daughters and their supposed proximity to the unseen world. Emerson suggested he rewrite this endless paean to Spirit, Life, or God, which Alcott did, but by August, though Emerson supported publication, Alcott had shelved the idea.[94] His attention was on a second book, Conversations with Children on the Gospels.[95] Six months before its publication, Peabody warned Alcott about including certain “unveiled physiological references” — birth and circumcision — as potentially incendiary. (In the fall, she left the school in protest, and Margaret Fuller replaced her.) When the book attracted heavy criticism, Emerson, Peabody, and Ripley came to Alcott’s defense. But by 1838, his school much shrunken, he returned to “Psyche” and Emerson’s criticism.[96]

In fact, some of Alcott’s ideas had apparently found their way into Emerson’s Nature.[97] In May 1837, Emerson, valuing his friend’s thoughts, commanded Alcott to leave teaching and, in effect, adopt his own strategy, “Write! … the written word abides, until slowly and unexpectedly and in widely sundered places it has created its own church”. But Alcott wanted to be an active teacher, and privately thought Emerson overestimated his talents.[98] Also, after his stay with the Emersons for a few days that May, he saw his host’s distance from others, even, he charged, “using them for his own benefit and as means of gathering materials for his works”. He accused Emerson of being too idealistic and intellectual, too drawn to a perfect beauty rather than truth, too interested in effect and fame, in short, “A great intellect, refined by elegant study, rather than a divine life radiant with the beauty of truth and holiness. He is an eye more than a heart, an intellect more than a soul”.[99]

Simultaneously, Emerson was privately noting the innate distance between any two persons, “Is it not pathetic that the action of men on men is so partial? We never touch but at points … Here is Alcott by my door — yet is the union more profound? No, the Sea, vocation, poverty, are seeming fences, but Man is insular, and cannot be touched. Every man is an infinitely repellent orb & holds his individual being on that condition”.[100] To be true to one’s nature demanded solitude. By late January 1838, however, Alcott, who had recently repeated his complaints about Emerson, was momentarily warmed by his words as the two walked to his house. Alcott recalled his saying, “I know of no man of diviner faith in the soul, or who, amidst every hindrance, stands as firmly by it as yourself. Abide by yourself and the world shall come round to you at last”.[101] In February, Emerson offered to pay for the publication of Alcott’s “Psyche”, but by June, after careful review, reversed his position. The problem, he said, was stylistic, “’Tis all stir and no go”. Self-doubt made Alcott quickly accept his opinion, softened by Emerson’s adding that it would be “absurd” to require the other man’s work to be like his own. He welcomed “a new mind” with its “new style”. Afterward, Alcott vowed that silence, living, and actual deeds would be his publication. He soon planned a series of adult conversation courses in several towns on topics such as “Free Will”. But this idea only bore fruit years later when Alcott traveled west on several tours, then began the Concord School of Philosophy.[102]

Free of his critical role, Emerson tried to see his friend’s true virtues, observing, “Alcott has the great merit of being a believer in the soul. I think he has more faith in the Ideal than any man I have known. Hence his welcome influence”. Though a “wise woman”, probably Fuller, had criticized Alcott for having too few thoughts, Emerson believed that Alcott’s “distinguishing Faith”, his “palpable proclamation out of the deeps of nature that God yet is”, separated him from “a countless throng of lettered men … ” A year later, Emerson even tolerated Alcott’s distaste for books and lack of a formal education. Yet after closer company with Fuller and hearing Mary Moody Emerson’s withering remark — “I am tired of fools”—Emerson was ready by December 1840 to come down hard, writing that “Alcott is a tedious archangel”. The next year, he elaborated: “Alcott stands for Spirit itself & yet when he writes, he babbles”.[103] When Alcott was about to depart for England in 1842, his trip paid for by Emerson, Emerson praised his inventive and limitless conversation. But his writings could not capture that verbal power. Emerson agreed with the Boston Post that Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings”, published in The Dial, “resembled a train of 15 railroad cars with one passenger”.[104] On paper, Alcott could not take anyone with him.

From this time on, both men were reliably ambivalent about each other, but Emerson more so than Alcott. He found Alcott an “air-plant”, moving from thought to thought, but also “brooding”, producing “monotony in the conversation, & egotism in the character”. Emerson exaggeratedly blurted: “I do not want any more such persons to exist”.[105] Later, in 1849, in a semi-whimsical mood, he made two lists of heroes, the “Bigendians” and “Littleendians”. On the first list were Plato and other historic figures he would treat in Representative Men (1850). Alcott headed the “Littleendians”, while Emerson put himself and Thoreau, in that order, last on this list.[106] Yet in 1852, he revealed Alcott’s importance to him: “It were too much to say that the Platonic world I might have learned to treat as cloud-land, had I not known Alcott, who is a native of that country, yet I will say that he makes it as solid as Massachusetts to me”.[107] Between 1840 and 1848, Alcott came and went from Concord. In 1842, he generously remarked that Emerson’s essays “Love” and “Friendship” had revived his ties to “Concordia” and returned him to “the realms of affection, a dweller in the courts of humanity”.[108] In contrast, as Emerson’s idealism increasingly encompassed the pragmatic, Alcott continued to serve as both an ascetic model to admire and an unrealistic egotist to mourn — the tense basis of their ongoing friendship.

2.28 A. Bronson Alcott in his 70s, c. 1870s.

Henry David Thoreau

As with Alcott, Emerson’s relationship with Thoreau ran the gamut between distance and affection, but for other reasons and with a very different emotional impact. True, Thoreau, like Alcott, came from a modest family. His father was a pencil-maker in Concord, and his mother took in boarders. Again like Alcott, Thoreau was intellectually untried. But he was more formally educated. Henry was a senior at Harvard in early April 1837, when at home in Concord on spring break, he walked from his house on Main Street to Emerson’s on the Cambridge Turnpike for their first meeting. Emerson was immediately impressed. Fourteen years his junior, Thoreau could be the sort of “youthful giant”, as yet unspoiled by having chosen a profession, that Emerson described as being “sent to work revolutions”.[109] Thoreau returned to Harvard, read Nature and recommended it to others, then came back to Concord. Within a few months, Emerson’s questions, “What are you doing now? Do you keep a journal?” prompted Thoreau’s first lines in his journal. Over twenty-four years, it grew to over two million words.[110]

Emerson suggested that Thoreau read classic works and criticized his first attempts in poetry and prose. They also took long walks and talked endlessly. Both slope-shouldered, the tall, lean “Mr. Emerson” with the short, stocky “Henry” would become a pair commonly seen en route to Walden Pond or other Concord haunts. In fact, Thoreau was so often with Emerson that he adopted Emerson’s expressions and voice patterns, even imitating his pauses and hesitations.[111] After one walk-and-talk in early February 1838, Emerson noted, “I delight much in my young friend, who seems to have as free & erect a mind as any I have ever met”. Thoreau had told him about a schoolboy friend, Wentworth, who had refused to bow to a Dr. Heywood, leading Heywood to clear his throat as Wentworth went by. The boy replied, “‘You need not hem, Doctor; I shan’t bow’.”[112] The story spoke to Emerson’s emphasis on independence and revealed Thoreau’s strong bias against authority. Such traits help explain why both men became idiosyncratic reformers, each in his own way.

Searching for a career, Thoreau took miscellaneous jobs and made several attempts to become a schoolteacher. Uninhibited in speaking to Emerson and uncertain of his future, his combative streak grew stronger. When roads and fences prevented his free movement across the countryside, he complained of being “hustled out of nature”, as Emerson put it. Emerson, who owned two acres in Concord and, by 1845, would add forty-one more at Walden Pond, agreed that owning property was not the best arrangement. But “Wit & Worth”, he wrote, were presumably in control, and “the bold bad man” was contained. He urged Henry to relieve his ire by expressing this “maggot of Freedom & Humanity” in “good poetry”. But Thoreau thought that “not the best way; that in doing justice to the thought, the man did not always do justice to himself: the poem ought to sing itself: if the man took too much pains with the expression he was not any longer the Idea himself”. Emerson agreed, “[T]his was the tragedy of Art that the Artist was at the expense of the Man”.[113] Thoreau, as idealistic as Emerson, was pressing his more fortunate friend to wonder, who owned nature?[114] From opposite poles, Alcott, the super-idealist, and Thoreau, the naturalist-protester against convention — both born to a lesser status than he — were squeezing Emerson to examine his thoughts.

But Thoreau entered into Emerson’s world much more intimately than did Alcott. By the early 1840s, Emerson’s overlapping worlds of new friendships, lecturing, publishing, and a growing family — a third child, Edith, would be born in late 1841 — had become enormously demanding. Protégé Thoreau was a natural person from whom to seek help. Twenty-three years old, Thoreau had just endured the double pain of being rejected by the attractive young Ellen Sewall while winning the ire of another suitor of Ellen’s, who happened to be his deeply admired older brother John. Henry needed to leave his tense family circle. Sensitive to his situation, on April 18, 1841, Emerson invited him to move into Bush. For the next two years, he occupied the small sleeping alcove at the top of the front stairs. Bringing his own desk, Henry came to Bush to write, to use Emerson’s library, and to earn his keep as handyman.[115]

2.29 Thoreau’s desk, flute, and sheet music.

He helped in the garden, orchard, barn, and with editorial chores for The Dial and other publishing matters. He also led Emerson on special excursions: After one enchanted moonlight row, Emerson dubbed him “the good river-god”.[116]

Thoreau, joining the family when Waldo was four-and-a-half, Ellen two, Edith on the way, and remaining close after Edward’s birth in 1844, rapidly became a beloved elder brother.[117] He so thoroughly charmed the Emerson children that they greeted him by grabbing his knees to plead for stories and songs, homemade toys, magic tricks, or for popped corn in a copper warming-pan. He would play his flute while they accompanied him on grass whistles he had made them (the best from the golden willow). Emerson more formally entertained his children and their friends in his study, or led them on Sunday afternoon nature walks.[118] Thoreau’s capable hands, sprightly conversation, independence, and attention to the children could not help but impress Lidian as well.[119] Then in early January 1842, Henry returned home to nurse his brother John, ill with lockjaw (tetanus). John soon died. Afterward, deeply depressed, Henry withdrew into complete silence. Within weeks, equally swiftly, little Waldo died of scarlet fever. In despair, Emerson nevertheless had to leave home for a pre-arranged lecture tour, first for ten days, then for weeks. Though ill, Thoreau, who was needed in Emerson’s absence, returned to Bush.[120]

Living in Concord for much of the rest of their lives, Emerson and Thoreau based their friendship on great mutual trust, dedication to both nature and transcendental truth, and admiration for each other’s separate talents. But different views about nature and society, as well as personal tensions, were visible above this sure foundation. Emerson wondered how to promote Thoreau, whose writing, while free in style, seemed to have no new subjects. In September 1841, he noted, “I am familiar with all his [Henry’s] thoughts — they are my own originally drest”.[121] Thoreau’s prejudice against the privileged was also a problem: He could hardly fit well into Emerson’s circle of well-bred friends, either in the Transcendental Club or the circle of Boston’s young elite that Margaret Fuller soon brought him. (Fuller did not share Emerson’s sense of Thoreau’s promise; Alcott, in contrast, soon predicted his future success.) Thoreau’s antagonism to authority and property may have also been directed at Emerson, his employer, lender, and literary agent. In turn, Emerson must have been ambivalent at least regarding Thoreau’s clear appeal to Lidian and the children, a bond that was only strengthened by his own frequent absences. Their friendship was a struggle between two mutually proud, prickly, and even ornery men. When Emerson returned from lecturing in March 1842, however, Thoreau tried to read his cool reserve positively. Emerson, he reasoned, was shyly embarrassed by his affection for him. Thoreau wrote in his journal, “My friend is my real brother”.[122]

At the end of July 1839, Thoreau showed Emerson a new poem, “Sympathy”. Its subject was the handsome eleven-year-old Edmund Sewall, brother of Ellen, to whom Thoreau would unsuccessfully propose two years later. Edmund had spent a week with the Thoreaus that summer. “A stern respect”, the poem narrates, held boy and man apart, a Platonic note continued to the end, where sympathy is defined as loving “that virtue which he is” and which his beauty speaks. Emerson had thought the poem “beautiful”, the “purest strain & the loftiest, I think that has yet pealed from this unpoetic American forest”.[123]

After Ellen’s rejection, Thoreau played with journal-based fantasies about a same sex relationship, Platonic or otherwise, but firmly checked this avenue of affection as less desirable than marriage.[124] Undoubtedly, Thoreau and Emerson discussed the male and female characteristics that genius combined.[125] Their frequent chats may explain the few references to this subject in their journals. But a thread running through The Dial, particularly under Fuller’s forceful leadership in its first two years, focused on romantic friendship. To this and later issues, Thoreau contributed his poems “Sympathy” and “Friendship”, an essay on the Roman satirical poet “Persius”, and translations of the Greek Anacreon’s graceful poetry on the joys of wine and love, whose homoerotic intent Thoreau did not hide.[126] In short, by the spring of 1842, when he made the journal entry mentioned above, after eighteenth months in the highly charged atmosphere of Emerson’s household of young guests (described in pages to come), Thoreau might have expected some natural affection from his host, patron, friend, and now brother. Until Thoreau’s death, Emerson remained his close-but-distant benefactor, sometime promoter of his lectures and books, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854), while also being his severest critic. He had extolled Thoreau in May 1839 for feeling “no shame in not studying any profession”, but in 1851 complained that he lacked ambition: “Fault of this, instead of being the head of American Engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party”.[127] Emerson knew that Thoreau, like himself, sought wisdom, but thought his focus on action inadequate and recommended steady contemplation.[128] And Thoreau’s independence, acerbic words, and solo experiment in a cabin at Walden Pond revealed his preference for nature over people. Emerson alleged that he felt just the opposite.[129] Further, he was not impressed with Thoreau’s attitude toward art, Emerson’s chosen profession. His young friend, he reported, once blotted “a paper with ink, then doubled it over & safely defied the artists to surpass his effect”.[130] On Thoreau’s apparent lack of “that power to cheer & establish [a relationship]”, Emerson wrote, “As for taking [his] arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree”.[131]

On his side, Thoreau continued to extol Emerson in his journal in the mid-1840s; “There is no such general critic of men & things — no such trustworthy & faithful man.—More of the divine realized in him than in any”.[132] Yet their tensions had led Thoreau to leave Bush in May 1843 to try his luck as a writer in New York, while tutoring Emerson’s nephew, the son of William Emerson, on Staten Island. Unsuccessful and homesick, Thoreau wrote Emerson and Lidian a wry letter of high feeling, “But know, my friends, that I a good deal hate you all [including others, e.g., Hawthorne and Elizabeth Hoar] in my most private thoughts — as a substratum of the little love I bear you. Though you are a rare band and do not make half use enough of one another”.[133] Thoreau returned home after only six months. Then in 1847–1848, while Emerson lectured in Great Britain, he readily accepted Lidian’s invitation to move in as head-of-house and helper for ten months.


[LEFT]: 2.30 Lidian Jackson Emerson, c. 45,with son Edward Waldo Emerson, c. 3, c. 1847.
[CENTER]: 2.31 Henry David Thoreau at 37, 1854.
[RIGHT]: 2.32 Title page, Walden, or Life in the Woods, 1854.

Emerson returned from this tour with a new sense of fame and elevation, affecting Thoreau in a doubly negative way. Though Thoreau occasionally lectured on his own subjects, he had not yet been published at thirty-one, and Boston’s literary circles cruelly satirized him as Emerson’s scrounging shadow. Thoreau was also taken aback when Emerson, feeling too involved in efforts to publish it, declined to review Thoreau’s A Week; moreover, after it did not sell, he reversed his favorable opinion.[134] Thoreau naturally nursed both self-chastisement and resentment. At the same time, he rejected Emerson’s efforts to restore an earlier, easier friendliness, resuming his hate-love mode. But Henry now also consciously feared that his friendship toward Emerson bore “the tendency and nicety of a lover”.[135] With typical discipline, he resisted such niceties.

Ironically, Thoreau’s erotic distancing mirrored Emerson’s own self-isolation: Thoreau, like Emerson, felt he had to hide his true affections. In Thoreau’s case, his almost daily contact with the whole Emerson family demanded the utmost vigilance and restraint, a cover that often exacerbated his cantankerousness. Evidently unconscious of such behavior himself, he wrote in his journal the day before Emerson’s fiftieth birthday in 1853, “Talked or tried to talk with R.W.E. Lost my time — nay almost my identity — he assuming a false op-position where there was no difference of opinion — talked to the wind — told me what I knew & I lost my time trying to imagine myself somebody else to oppose him”.[136] Not long afterward, Emerson seemed to be referring to the same event, or one like it, but missed Thoreau’s covert passion when he noted, “H[enry] seemed stubborn & implacable; always manly & wise, but rarely sweet … “[Like Webster], H[enry] does not feel himself except in opposition. He wants a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory, requires a little sense of victory, a roll of the drums, to call his powers into full exercise”.[137] Further encouraging Thoreau’s disguise was his sympathy for Lidian, whom he had addressed as “sister” in 1843, and whom he knew had waited in vain for endearing expressions from Emerson both in England and after he returned home.

Yet despite these personal idiosyncrasies and philosophical differences, and despite Thoreau’s own restraint, Emerson’s high interest in Thoreau and admiration for his “mother wit” remained steady.

2.33 Henry David Thoreau at 39, 1856.

After Thoreau’s death in May 1862, only Emerson could have delivered a eulogy that combined such depth of insight, feeling, and perceptive criticism, ending, “wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home”.[138] Thoreau had been one of Emerson’s closest friends. Even when his feeling was masked in behavior suggesting the opposite, Thoreau had felt the same way about Emerson.[139]

Sarah Margaret Fuller

With the directed energy of a laser beam, and much more powerfully than either Alcott or Thoreau, Margaret Fuller first impressed, then came to pressure Emerson, forcing him to open up at his emotional center. Fuller was twenty-six, seven years younger than Emerson, when she met him in late July 1836, a year after Alcott and nine months before Thoreau. The highly educated first child of a Boston lawyer and former member of Congress, Fuller came to Concord for a brief first visit, but stayed for three weeks. Her conversational ability, dominating personality, and rich knowledge of classical and modern literature eclipsed her initially off-putting appearance and aggressive manner. Emerson, always drawn to beautiful women, noted Fuller’s plainness, nasal voice, and constantly fluttering eyelids. Myopia made her squint, and overly tight corseting thrust her head unattractively forward. Margaret’s reputation for intellectual pride and satirical put-downs was also well known.

On their first meeting, Emerson predicted that they would “never get far”. But soon he was reading her parts of his as-yet unpublished Nature. After she left, he called her “very accomplished & very intelligent”, even “extraordinary”. The quick change was not so surprising. They had both recently suffered personal losses: Fuller’s father in 1835, and Emerson’s brother Charles just two months before they met. Other similarities more surely placed them on a par. Unlike Alcott and Thoreau, Fuller came from the same narrow slice of Boston’s social elite as Emerson, knew poverty, and shared many friends with him, among them her cousin James Freeman Clarke and Frederic Henry Hedge.[140]

2.34 Margaret Fuller in her late 20s, c. late 1830s-early 1840s

Over the next few years, Fuller rapidly moved into Emerson’s inner circle through regular correspondence, more visits, her avid interest in his lectures, and her participation in the Transcendental Club. She also taught him German pronunciation and wittily delivered forbidden gossip. In addition, Fuller played to Emerson’s distance from reformers in the late 1830s, when she safely flaunted her learning over female do-gooders, “Who would be a goody that could be a genius?”[141] The two soon called each other “Margaret” and “Waldo”, Fuller establishing a first name basis with Emerson that Alcott, Thoreau, and even Lidian could not.[142] Less than a year after meeting Fuller, Emerson, while delighted with his first-born son Waldo — nearly six months old in April 1837 — privately revealed his frustration with post-marriage reality: “The husband loses the wife in the cares of the household. Later, he cannot rejoice with her in the babe for by becoming a mother she ceases yet more to be a wife … at last nothing remains of the original passion out of which all these parricidal fruits proceeded; and they die because they are superfluous”.[143] Fuller witnessed this new strain in Emerson’s two-year-old marriage, itself based on the couple’s understanding that his first wife Ellen would always remain, in death as in life, his “ardent love, all loves excelling”.[144]

Nevertheless, Emerson’s nicknames for Lidian showed either respect or teasing affection: “Asia”, for her spiritual ascents and insights, and “Lidian Queen” or “Queenie”, for staying in bed until noon — to avoid sunlight that might aggravate the after-effects of scarlet fever — as well as for her taste in fine furnishings and dress. But Emerson abhorred illness, and Lidian’s frequent depressions did not help.[145] However, intelligent and poetic, she could be playful, feeding his need for silliness. Her “Transcendental Bible” wryly mocked his lofty ideals as self-serving. He thought her satirical scripture “a good squib” and “always laughed” when recalling it.[146] He also delighted in her “gift to curse & swear”, allowing that “every now & then in spite of all manners & christianity”, she might “rip out on Saints, reformers & Divine Providence with the most edifying zeal”.[147] On marriage as an institution, Emerson was predictably ambivalent. But by 1850, he had softened his views, finding the married state to be a “good known only to the parties. A relation of perfect understanding, aid, contentment, possession of themselves & the world — which dwarfs love to green fruit”.[148]

2.35 Emerson at about 50 with son Edward (c. 9) and daughter Ellen (c. 14), c. 1853.

What he truly sought was a lasting, stimulating, and compatible friendship, something that his heroes — Plato, Montaigne, and Bacon — had all so highly valued, but on his terms and suiting his schedule.

Fuller stood apart among Emerson’s female friends and family for exuding fiery feeling as well as intellect. Emerson had known ardency only with Ellen. Both his mother and Mary Moody Emerson had lacked personal warmth. He later remembered that in contrast to Fuller’s “great tenderness & sympathy”, “M.M.E. has none”.[149] With affection among friends one of her highest priorities, Fuller increasingly sought to pierce Emerson’s guarded emotions. In March 1838, his ideas, she said, were a “torch” to her own. She also drew him closer by dubbing him, “Sanctissime”, Most Holy One, confessing to him her professional and personal troubles. Emerson could accept the role of hero-friend, but was bewildered by the role of priest-confessor. In mid-August, just after Fuller had made a brief visit, he noted the tragic disparity between “a gay dame of manners & tone so fine & haughty that all defer to her as to a countess … the dictator of society” and the reality of listening to her gnawing private woes from which she saw no release.150 By 1839, however, Fuller was basking in Emerson’s and others’ acclaim for her translation of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe.[151] Soon she was bringing him three select young friends. Epitomizing New England privilege, talent, learning, and sensitivity, their attention decidedly flattered him.

Emerson had attracted other youth on his own: Thoreau and Jones Very, with Ellery Channing (nephew of William Ellery Channing), Charles Newcomb, and C. R. Cranch soon to come. But beyond any others, Fuller and her special trio stimulated him to explore more deeply the meaning of Transcendental (ideal) love, friendship, and marriage. Already in June 1838, Fuller had introduced him to her artistic and poetic student, Caroline Sturgis, the twenty-year-old daughter of a partner in Bryant and Sturgis, a leading firm in the China trade. Sturgis, described as “very plain but with fine eyes”, was an apt pupil of Fuller’s spiritual guidance and wrote insightful, engaging letters. Then in July 1839, at a Boston art exhibit of Washington Allston’s paintings, Fuller presented to Emerson the twenty-one-year-old Samuel Gray Ward, a handsome literary and artistic son of the American agent for Baring Brothers, English bankers for the Anglo-American trade.

Fuller had long been romantically drawn to Ward and believed that he reciprocated her feelings. In early October, she introduced Emerson to the stunningly beautiful twenty-six-year-old Anna Barker, daughter of a prosperous Quaker businessman from New Orleans.[152] Barker’s regal appearance and demeanor impressed him as did her instinctive warmth and frankness. He noted, “She can afford to be sincere. The wind is not purer than she is”.[153]

2.36 Samuel Gray Ward, before 1907.

Sturgis, Ward, and Barker were nothing less than a “necklace of diamonds about [Fuller’s] neck”, a phrase of Elizabeth Hoar’s that Emerson soon repeated in describing Fuller as “the queen of some parliament of love”. The title only emphasized Fuller’s longstanding self-image as a queen.[154] Swept into her court, Emerson battled two sets of conflicting desires: the flattering company of these cultured young people and his need for solitude to think and write. At Harvard, he had fixed Martin Gay by eye but had exchanged only a few words with him at best. After Ellen’s death, he guiltily recalled moments of treating even her coolly. In his second marriage, he and Lidian co-existed in parallel lives early defined by his nuptial demand, “You are in love with what I love”. Emerson judged himself and anyone else to be “an infinitely repellent orb”, as he had told Alcott, and repeated in his 1838 lecture “The Heart”. In mid-November 1839, he wrote in his journal, “I dare not look for a friend to me who have never been one”.[155] But the next day, he again saw the virtues of his “churl’s mask” of “porcupine impossibility of contact with men”.[156]

The man behind this mask became clear only weeks later, and then to Emerson alone. Meanwhile, Fuller, sensing Ward’s interest in her waning, increased her attack on Emerson’s reserve. Her campaign, in fact, had begun in 1838, sharing art, literature, and her friends’ intimate letters. Exploiting Emerson’s eye for art,157 Fuller sent him copies of Italian artworks collected by Ward (her “Raphael” or “Michel Angelo”) during his tour of Europe (1836–1838).158 In the summer of 1839, Fuller also gave Emerson novels infused with sex-role exchanges and romantic entanglements by risqué French novelists Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, and others. He had already read young Bettina von Arnim’s highly-charged, fictionalized love letters to the fifty-eight-year-old Goethe.159 Then in mid-October, Fuller told Emerson that Ward was in love with Anna Barker. A month later, she sent him two sets of letters, one between Ward and Barker, and the other, between herself and Sturgis. These revealed Fuller’s complex range of maternal and paternal affections toward her three “children” (Ward called her “Mother”) as well as her amorous feelings for them.[160]

While Fuller worked to break down Emerson’s wall, his attention fell on Ward. Now that Ward and Barker were engaged, Emerson could cultivate Ward’s friendship without jeopardy in this dangerously erotic small circle. The titles he gave himself and Ward reflect his view of their relationship: Ward was “Prince-of-the-Purple Island”, the color signifying radiant enchantment, while Emerson scoldingly called himself “that Puritan at Concord”.[161] Since early October, Ward had loaned Emerson more of his art collection.[162] One drawing especially caught his eye, a Roman relief of the sleeping nude Endymion, originally a handsome young shepherd or astronomer, watched over by Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon and hunt — successor to her original Greek counterpart Selene — represented by a dog. With one paw, the goddess leans on Endymion’s shoulder. The other is caressingly poised over his head.

2.37 Endymion, drawing, c. 1830s.

In the Greek myth, Selene’s desire that Endymion “never leave her”, which kept her adoringly nearby even as he slept, makes her ask Zeus, Endymion’s father, to grant him eternal youth and immortality. In other legends, Zeus asks Endymion to choose his future. He elects dormant youth and eternal life. The end result is the same: he is ageless and immortal, alive but asleep.

Endymion seems to have reflected both Emerson’s sense of his unawakened emotions and his need for solitude. Long before, he had repressed his “animal spirits”, professing to lack them, but he still yearned for the attentions of a Diana-like friend.[163] Yet that attention could not invade his creative meditative life. In mid-August, he noted in his journal that “every mortal” is tyrannized by the inescapable “rule” of a small company of men and women, leading one to dodge “behind a grave-stone at last …” — clearly the equivalent of endless sleep. This thought reappears at the end of Emerson’s later published poem “Manners” (1867): “Too weak to win, too fond to shun / The tyrants of his doom, / The much deceived Endymion / Slips behind a tomb”. “Much deceived” may refer to his hope for transcendent, platonic relations with his young friends, betrayed by Ward and Barker’s split from their idyllic quintet.[164]

Whatever the truth, Endymion united Ward and Emerson aesthetically. Only two days after Fuller’s letters arrived, Ward wrote to present him with the drawing. Emerson answered the same day, “I am warmed at heart by your good will to me”. He hung it in an honored place next to an engraving of Guido’s Aurora, a wedding present from Carlyle.[165] The next day he wrote Fuller, stunned by the intimate letters in her packet. He felt himself “swimming” inside the liquid of “an Iris” — his own artistic eye — “knocked” about by a red light, and even blinded by a “casual” white one — a revelatory moment. “How fine these letters are! … They make me a little impatient of my honourable prison — my quarantine of temperament wherefrom I deal courteously with all comers, but through cold water”. Emerson then almost shouted, “I should like once in my life to be pommelled back & blue with sincere words”. He even stormed into his dining room, accosting Lidian and his mother with the novel idea that he should be writing such passionate stuff. Yet, ambivalent and guarding his composure, he shied away: “I like no deep stakes — I am a coward at gambling”.[166]

Now turned on by Endymion and these letters, Emerson explored his innermost self, but only in his journal, and then using a third-person pseudonym: “Rob was tender & timid as a fawn in his affections, yet he passed for a man of calculation & cold heart. He assumed coldness only to hide his woman’s heart” [his emphasis].[167] Seven months later, on June 11, 1840, after revising “Love” for publication, Emerson elaborated the point, again to his journal, but now in the first person: “I [am] cold because I am hot — cold at the surface only as a sort of guard & compensation for the fluid tenderness of the core — have much more experience than I have written there [in “Love”], more than I will, more than I can write. In silence we must wrap much of our life, because it is too fine for speech, because also we cannot explain it to others, and because somewhat [somehow] we cannot yet understand”.[168]

Emerson, stymied by the limits of his self-analysis, could at least name his “woman’s heart” and its high heat, disguised by a cold exterior. He was not confessing to homosexuality. His lifelong devotion to Ellen attests to the opposite. And his close but chaste interest in Caroline Sturgis does the same.[169] Rather, both he and Fuller luxuriated in feeling psychologically male and female, the typical androgyny of geniuses according to Goethe.[170] Now, alone to himself, Emerson recognized his predominantly female sensibility (a trait that his friend Henry James, Sr. made public much later)[171] A male-dominant society required Emerson to keep that a secret. Biologically fully male, he readily married a second time. Only afterward did he protest the married state (awake or dreaming),[172] and then only temporarily, as we have seen. Marriage and children doubly hid his female psyche as did his repeated disgust for “unmanly” words or deeds. Ultimately, his mask distanced him from anyone. Yet Fuller and her parliament of love had served to make Emerson as fully honest with himself as he could find words for.

2.38 Emerson Parlor with family tea service.

In late October 1839, he found an important reason to fault Fuller’s “chronicle of sweet romance”: “What is good to make me happy is not however good to make me write. Life too near paralyses Art”.[173] This comment came from his working on first “Love” in 1839, then its companion, “Friendship”, finished in 1840. In each essay, he was spelling out concrete applications of his philosophy arising from lessons learned from his young friends. To protect all parties, relationships had to be described abstractly. Abstraction was especially necessary in “Love”, which he read as a lecture. The shorter of the two, this essay begins with a couplet from the Qur’an, “I was as a gem concealed; / Me my burning ray revealed”. Thus Emerson alludes to his new clarity about a “hot”, socially unacceptable self, omitting any hint of his feminine side. In the essay proper, Emerson describes the keen fire of Eros at work between “maidens” and “youth” — as well as between older pairs, he, at thirty-six, cagily admits. His players remain heterosexual throughout, progressing from physical attraction and an assumed sexual union to spiritual beauty. Finally, he reaches a central paradox: “love, which is the deification of persons, must become more impersonal every day”. The partners’ mutual imperfections demand it, if the union is to last. From then on, their souls’ trajectories are toward what Emerson calls a “real marriage”, beyond sex, a higher love seeking virtue and wisdom.[174]

In contrast to “Love”, Emerson begins “Friendship” with a poem that identifies a male addressee, ending, “The fountains of my hidden life / Are through thy friendship fair”. The word “hidden” echoes Emerson’s journal entries about “Rob” in December 1839 and his cold disguise in June 1840. But the essay drops the poem’s male dialogue to speak to an audience of either sex: any and all friends must follow an immutable natural law of attraction and repulsion, an ebb and flow of interest and contact. He insists that the soul of each remains “alone in the world”. However, the true friend, by conversation and correspondence, may come close, becoming “a beautiful enemy” — always desirable, but predictably other — “untamable, devoutly revered”. For spiritual and practical reasons, the soul needs solitude to reap the harvest of elusive, intuitive insights that friends may either interrupt or prevent. Again, paradoxically, friends may “only be more each other’s, because we are more our own”. The dance of approach and withdrawal ideally enhances each, so that the essence of friendship is nothing less than to “deify” each other.[175] Near its end, “Friendship” repeats word-for-word Emerson’s journal entry of December 22, “It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew to carry a friendship greatly on one side, without due correspondence on the other”.[176] (“On one side” is emphasized only in his journal.) He had apparently surmounted the paralyzing fear of unrequited love that he had known, beginning with Martin Gay.

Emerson’s ideal of friendship, set by 1840, made his self-reliance all the more sure. Sturgis came closer, but as a cherished “child” and “sister”, and he eventually steered her into marriage with a wealthy abolitionist friend, William Tappan.[177] He dealt with Fuller’s direct assault by firmly turning her aside, if these words in his journal were meant for her: “You would have I love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you”.[178] Perhaps the two personal dangers he most feared were gluttony — from youth, he constantly weighed himself — and illicit sex, especially if threatened by force.[179] In Margaret’s case, he described himself as forewarned, as if a voice had shouted, “Stand from under!” [Watch out below!].[180] Her aggression made an ostensibly cold fellow, he told her, a “cake of ice” — just the reverse of her desire.[181] After a time though, he wrote her, “… Be assured, dear Margaret, even though I may wear a churl’s mask, I shall never go quite back to my old arctic habits. I shall believe that nobleness is loving, and delights in sharing itself”.[182]

Lecturing as Sublimation

His true nature and scholarly needs increasingly clear to him, Emerson poured passion into his public words. On October 18, 1839, while enjoying Endymion and moving from writing “Love” to “Friendship”, he assessed his first five years of lecturing:

Adam in the garden, I am to new name all the beasts in the field & all the gods in the Sky. I am to invite men drenched in time to recover themselves & come out of time, & taste their native immortal air. I am to fire with what skill I can the artillery of sympathy & emotion. I am to indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life — the Forgotten Good, the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl & sin. I am to try the magic of sincerity that luxury permitted only to kings & poets. I am to celebrate the spiritual powers in their infinite contrast to the mechanical powers & the mechanical philosophy of this time. I am to console the brave sufferers under evils whose end they cannot see by appeals to the great optimism self-affirmed in all bosoms.[183]

Less than a month later, Emerson noted that Fuller had written to say, “… she waits for the Lectures seeing well after much intercourse that the best of me is there”. He immediately followed with self-criticisms about “a gulf”, a “frigidity & labor of my speech” between himself and others, even in his own house.[184] And in mid-February 1840, Emerson berated himself for not transcending “coldest self-possession” in his recent Boston lecture series, “On the Present Age”. Again he spelled out the sort of exhilarated energy he hoped to achieve on the platform: “I said I will agitate others, being agitated myself. I dared to hope for extacy [sic] & eloquence. A new theatre, a new art, I said, is mine. Let us see if philosophy, if ethics, if chiromancy [palmistry], if the discovery of the divine in the house & the barn in all works & all plays, cannot make the cheek blush, the lip quiver, & the tear start”. He accused himself of failing to ignite this sort of intensity, merely delivering “fine things, pretty things, wise things — but no arrows, no axes, no nectar, no growling, no transpiercing, no loving, no enchantment”.[185] His high aim demanded at least twenty hours of preparation per lecture. No wonder that in “Friendship”, in process just now, he ends by treating valued friends like his books: “We must have society on our own terms and admit or exclude it on the slightest cause”. Such constant exchange, he elaborates, might lead to “the vanishing of my mighty gods”.[186]

Despite his self-criticisms, when Emerson was in top form at the podium, he could arouse listeners to an erotic state. Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican and friend of Emily Dickinson and her brother Austin, wrote Austin: “[Emerson’s lecturing] is pictures, landscapes, poetry, music, babies, and beautiful women rolled up in an hour of talk. It takes the place of making love in our young days”. Others, Emerson simply held rapt. His daughter Ellen described one audience: “Not a word was lost, the whole company responded by movement, by smile, by breaths, by utter silence followed by some expressive sound from moment to moment through the whole lecture”.[187]

2.39 Tickets to an Emerson lecture, 1861; ticket to the Concord School of Philosophy, 1888.

From his teens, Emerson drew and painted watercolors, so that his later self-portrait as a painter-lecturer is altogether natural: “I am & always was a painter. I paint still with might & main, & choose the best subjects I can. Many have I seen come & go with false hopes & fears, and dubiously affected by my pictures. But I paint on. I count this distinct vocation, which never leaves me in doubt what to do but in all times, places, & fortunes, gives me an open future, to be the great felicity of my lot”. A few months later, he noted that the art of lecturing is instinctual and must come forth. Again, he is an artist, filled with “immortal ichor” — the ethereal fluid, instead of blood, that in classical mythology ran in the gods’ veins. At its best, lecturing showed forth “these throbs & heart beatings” that allowed his ideas to “be ejaculated as Logos or Word”.[188] Emerson’s choice of spermatic action aptly expresses the physical pleasure that successful lecturing gave him.

Toward the beginning of his poem, “The Problem”, written in early November 1839 at the height of his involvement with Fuller’s young friends, Emerson used the image of a volcano to express an irrepressible, erupting Word from nature’s center — his molten core. One painting he owned and kept in his front hall, an oil of Vesuvius erupting in 1794, symbolizes his felt situation.

2.40 Vesuvius erupting, “Distruzione della Torre del Greco nel 1794”.

As with Emily Dickinson, it expresses his sense of being “Vesuvius at Home”, while, unlike her, also being involved in the world. In public, Emerson could safely let his private passions find an outlet. Face-to-face with even the closest of friends, he could not. But to his art, like the true Puritan Romantic that he was, he gave his full heart and mind, at his best arousing his listeners’ deepest feelings. Not surprisingly, this intensity and its moving effect carried over to his later abolitionist and pro-feminist speeches.

Fuller, Emerson, and the Woman Question

Fuller led Emerson to unmask himself in private without altering his need for distance and solitude nor his vision of ideal love and friendship. But she did succeed in stirring his thoughts about women and their role in society. From 1840 to 1842, with Emerson’s help, Fuller edited The Dial, a quarterly that brought to print topics similar to those of the now defunct Transcendental Club. Fuller was determined that The Dial would reflect “body” as well as “soul”.[189] In that vein, she printed Sophia Ripley’s article “Woman” in January 1841, a well-received piece that added to the other leading female voices speaking out on their future in the young democracy. Throughout the 1830s, Quaker female abolitionists, most notably the Grimké sisters and Lucretia Mott — whom Emerson later met — had both exemplified and advocated a fuller role for women in society. So, too, had educational pioneers such as Mary Lyon, who founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in western Massachusetts in 1837, the first institution of higher education for women anywhere in the world. That same year, in her Society in America, Harriet Martineau, a friend of Fuller’s, criticized the shy conformity of most American women.[190] Such models provided vital context for the later work of women Transcendentalists like Ripley and Fuller.

Both women were building on Emerson’s ideas. Lines from his essay “Love” of two years before are Ripley’s main theme in “Woman”. She denounced the current phrase “the sphere of women” — the household — as a restraint on female spiritual independence. In “Love”, Emerson pointed to a prevailing “sensualism” in the education of young women that “withers the hope and affection of human nature, by teaching that marriage signifies nothing but a housewife’s thrift, and that woman’s life has no other aim”.[191] More importantly, Emerson, after becoming editor of The Dial in 1842, printed Fuller’s piece, “The Great Lawsuit”, as the lead article in the July 1843 issue.[192]

[LEFT]: 2.41 Emerson at 40, silhouette, 1843.
[RIGHT]: 2.42 Margaret Fuller at 36, 1846.

Fuller’s full title, “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women”, alluded to the suffering of both genders under a patriarchal society’s limits on individual hopes, especially that of women. By periodic, isolated self-study, she urged women to merge emotions with intellect. This echo of Emerson’s firm habit became overt in Fuller’s warning to women to know themselves before marrying. And then she directly quoted him: “Union is only possible to those who are units”.[193]

Interestingly, at this very moment Fuller was distancing herself emotionally from Emerson, a detachment that he reciprocated. In summer 1844, writing in her journal, she charged him, “You stand for Truth and Intellect, while I, for Love and Life. I can no longer think of you as a father confessor. Instead, from now on, I will see you as a Sweet Child — Great Sage — Undeveloped Man!” The same year, when she accepted Horace Greeley’s offer to write for his New-York Tribune, Emerson considered her another humanist lost to the “treadmill”.[194] But far from deserting Transcendental thought, Fuller had been expanding its reach well beyond “The Great Lawsuit” by such novel means as interviewing women inmates in Sing-Sing Prison in upper New York State.[195] In 1845, she published a much more developed treatise, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. It was destined to become a font of inspiration to a host of contemporary leaders of the nascent women’s movement and a landmark work in the history of women’s studies.[196]

Asked to write an introduction to Woman, Emerson declined. Perhaps he felt too close to Fuller to be an unbiased judge. In truth, he thought her strengths lay in conversation, not writing. In 1843, he had observed, “[Margaret] has great sincerity, force, & fluency as a writer, yet her powers of speech throw her writing into the shade”.[197] He was also busy preparing essays for his second collection.[198] In addition, only a few months before, he had publicly joined the abolitionist cause, evidently prioritizing that call above women’s rights. Another factor may also have been in play: In 1838, he had noted in his journal that many reformers’ self-righteousness put him off, “I hate goodies … Goodness that preaches undoes itself …  Goodies make us very bad … We will almost sin to spite them”.[199] In any reform, the key element for Emerson was the soulful energy of the affected parties, generated in enough numbers to become an irrepressible natural force. He said as much in his essay “Manners”, on which he was then working. Despite noting a “new chivalry in behalf of Women’s Rights” among men, he affirmed, “I confide so entirely in [woman’s] inspiring and musical nature, that I believe only herself can show us how she shall be served”.[200]

True to form, Emerson’s sense of what women wanted and were due would become more acute, but at this moment he held rather conventional opinions. Such views strengthen the interpretation that his declaration of a “woman’s heart” refers to his sensibilities, not his sexuality. He frequently honored women, especially his wives, for upholding society’s highest virtues, honor, and laws.[201] Further, in random notes in his journals, he sympathized with women’s plight, finding them in general to be slaves, which made the lives of intelligent women particularly tragic. In 1839, he noted, “Women see better than men. Men see lazily, if they do not expect to act. Women see quite without any wish to act”. At other moments, he found women heedless of time; questionable writers; blind pawns in a monied culture; and sometimes dangerous sexual snares.[202] Clearly, he was somewhat conflicted on the subject. At the same time, his closest women friends encouraged him to pursue topics that might be, as he put it, “telescopes into the Future”. Elizabeth Hoar urged that he work up “the rights of Woman”.[203] As the women’s movement gained momentum in the late 1840s and into the 1850s, Emerson slowly changed his views and forthrightly championed women’s rights, but only on finding that a majority of women themselves favored the cause.

After Fuller’s death in a shipwreck off Fire Island in 1850, as she was returning from Italy with her Italian husband and child, Emerson felt that he had “lost in her my audience”.[204] It was more than that. Though Fuller was one of his best critics, he had also lost the principal mid-wife to his hidden self. For him, their relationship had approached his ideal in “Friendship”. They had been “beautiful enemies”.

Mature Lecturer and Founder of Clubs

Despite his need for isolated study, by 1850 Emerson’s lecturing, publications (Nature, Essays I, Essays II, Poems, including Representative Men), and abolitionist speeches had made him one of the country’s leading cultural figures and a major moral voice. In 1853, he extended his public conversations to the Mid-West. During the normal winter lecture season, despite never being robust and hating the cold, he endured bitter weather and rigorous travel, while also encountering the chill of listener impatience. In Beloit, Illinois, in early January 1856, when temperatures averaged twenty to thirty degrees below, Emerson knew that he needed both humor and variety to hold a hall. A year later, he also noted that the lecture circuit, no matter the location in America, had not become “the University of the people”, as Alcott had idealistically hoped. Rather, it drew virtual children who required being coddled, adored, and, above all, entertained.[205]

Nevertheless, for appropriate audiences throughout the 1850s, Emerson continued to challenge them in some of his most demanding and important lectures: “Fate”, “Power”, “Wealth”, “Culture”, and “Worship”.


[LEFT]: 2.43 Emerson at about 54, c. 1857, full-length in lecture suit.
[RIGHT]: 2.44 Emerson at about 54, c. 1857, seated.

In this pre-Civil War period, his lectures touched on philosophical aspects of the accelerating North-South tensions, while his antislavery speeches directly engaged ethics and politics. In one speech he said, “Americans were born to be propagandists of liberty — to each man the largest liberty compatible with the liberty of every other man. It is so delicious to act with great masses to great aims. For instance … the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery”. The National Anti-Slavery Standard observed, “Mr. Emerson has given a fine anti-slavery lecture. Never was such a change, apparently, as from the Emerson of ’45 to the Emerson of ’55 … People say, ‘He is no more a philosopher, but a practical man’.”[206] In truth, he was now intermingling both ideal and real worlds, uniting them sometimes with paradoxical punch, as when he announced in “Fate”: “Freedom is a necessity”. His 1850s lectures appeared as The Conduct of Life — in 1860, less than a year before war broke out. For his friend, the writer and editor Charles Eliot Norton, this reminder to the nation of universal moral principles made Emerson’s book the exact word needed in such perilous times.[207]

In this decade, Emerson sought to continue the conversations he had helped start in the 1830s with the Transcendental Club. The gentleman’s clubs he had enjoyed in London and Paris in 1848 encouraged him to introduce a similar association at home. In 1849, with Ward, Alcott, and others, he began the Town and Country Club in Boston, which soon became the Magazine or Atlantic Club (publisher of the Atlantic Monthly), itself giving way to the Saturday Club by December 1854. It was also known as “Emerson’s Club”, its meetings scheduled to coincide with his Saturday mornings at the Boston Athenaeum. This small, all-male group of leading humanists and scientists — among them, Louis Agassiz, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and James Russell Lowell — met once a month during the winter for discussion and dinner.[208] Richard Henry Dana remarked at the club’s first meeting, “Emerson is an excellent dinner table man, always a gentleman, never bores or preaches, or dictates, but drops & takes up topics very agreeably, & has even skill & tact in managing his conversation”.[209]

In 1858, the Adirondack Club — the Saturday Club’s summer substitute — sponsored an extensive camping trip for ten men, including Emerson, into the New York Lake District. An artist in the party, William Stillman, did an oil painting of the whole group, divided into smaller units.

Emerson stands alone in the middle.[210] Stillman’s placement of Emerson suggests his central but removed position, even in moments of relaxed camaraderie. In 1848, in a journal entry on “The Beatitude of Conversation”, Emerson had written from a similar center of one: “To talk with writers was a great pleasure”, he noted; “the best heads” produce “the divinest wine”. But their “economy” of listening only for ideas germane to their own work bothered him: “Each is apt to become abstracted & lose the remark of the other through too much attention to his own”. He went on, “To escape this economy of writers, women would be better friends; but they have the drawback of the perplexities of sex”.[211] Emerson’s intricate relations with Fuller and her friends were experiences, ten years past, to which he might well have been alluding, and reasons why the later groups he started, unlike the Transcendentalist Club, had no women members.

2.45 The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks, 1858.

As a pre-Freudian Romantic, Emerson placed high value on his dreams. At twenty-eight he called them “test objects” to help us “find out the secrets of our own nature”; in short, they were useful as another sort of conversation partner. “All mystics use them”, he wrote. Then and later, his dreams might be laced with threatening, even terrifying threads, suppressed by day. They combined a “double consciousness, a sub- & ob-jectiveness”, as he put it. By 1857, he was declaring, “I owe real knowledge and even alarming hints to dreams …” Nine years later, he was filled with marvel, evidently not for the first time, at the thought that he had authored both sides of his dream dialogues.[212] In 1869, over twenty years after referring to the “perplexities of sex” that women brought to conversation, Emerson described the following dream:

I passed into a room where were ladies & gentlemen, some of whom I knew. I did not wish to be recognized because of some disagreeable task, I cannot remember what. One of the ladies was beautiful, and I, it seemed, had already seen her, & was her lover. She looked up from her painting, & saw, but did not recognize me — which I thought was wrong — unpardonable. Later, I reflected that it was not so criminal in her, since I had never proposed [emphasis his]. Presently the scene changed, & I saw a common street-boy, without any personal advantages, walking with an air of determination, and I perceived that beauty of features signified nothing — only this clearness & strength of purpose made any form respectable & attractive.[213]

Emerson first appears to be the beautiful woman’s lover. His undefined wish to be anonymous (hidden) is achieved: she doesn’t recognize him. Then on consideration, as usual, he blames himself; he has not told her of his feelings. This scene dissolves to another. His eye is drawn to “a common street-boy”, physically unremarkable, for his “clearness & strength of purpose”. The boy’s virtue strikes him rather than his beauty. This dream combines Emerson’s androgynous sensibility and his sexual identity, making each distinct. In both “stories”, he reaffirms a high ethical aspiration, a good in itself, but also a shield against hurt.


[LEFT]: 2.46 Emerson master bedroom.
[RIGHT]: 2.47 Emerson’s house coat (left) and preaching robe (right), in bedroom alcove.

In 1849, Emerson reassessed what he had done on moving to Concord: “I left the city, I hid myself in the pastures. When I bought a house, the first thing I did was to plant trees. I could not conceal myself enough. Set a hedge here, set pines there, trees & trees, set evergreens, above all, for they will keep my secret all the year round”.[214] (This escape from authority by hiding himself was a pattern Emerson had followed since boyhood, when his father searched him out to make him swim.) The home that he had labeled “Bush”, surrounded by this ever-higher growth, at least psychologically protected the secret he had known for nine years, his “woman’s heart”. Joined with a need to work alone, Emerson’s desire to be concealed ironically increased with his mounting fame as a lecturer and reformer, which reached its height immediately after the Civil War. Instead of living his passions privately, Emerson had poured them into public advice. The commands of his poem, “Give All to Love” (1847) are directly distilled from the ideals he had so fervently described in “Love” and “Friendship” just a few years before: “Give all to love; / Obey thy heart; / Friends, kindred, days, / Estate, good-fame, / Plans, credit, and the Muse,— / Nothing refuse. — Keep thee to-day, / Tomorrow, forever, / Free as an Arab / Of thy beloved … Heartily know, / When half-gods go, / The gods arrive”.[215]


1 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982), 4: 200. Hereafter JMN.

2 For discussions of Emerson’s visit to the Jardin des Plantes and its impact, see David M. Robinson, “Emerson’s Natural Theology and the Paris Naturalists: Toward a ‘Theory of Animated Nature’,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 41 (1980), 69–88; Elizabeth A. Dant, “Composing the World: Emerson and the Cabinet of Natural History”, Nineteenth-Century Literature 44 (June 1989), 18–44; Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 139–42; and Lee Rust Brown, The Emerson Museum: Practical Romanticism and the Pursuit of the Whole (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997). For the texts of his early lectures on natural history, see The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959–1972), 1: 1–83. Hereafter EL.

3 The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols., eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971–2013), 1: 18 (Nature). Hereafter CW. For helpful interpretive discussions of Nature, see Sherman Paul, Emerson’s Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in American Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952); Barbara Packer, Emerson’s Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays (New York: Continuum, 1992); David M. Robinson, Apostle of Culture: Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982); David Van Leer, Emerson’s Epistemology: The Argument of the Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Alan D. Hodder, Emerson’s Rhetoric of Revelation (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989); and David Greenham, Emerson’s Transatlantic Romanticism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

4 CW 1: 10.

5 CW 1: 10 and 35.

6 JMN 5: 203.

7 See Frederick DeWolfe Miller, Christopher Pearse Cranch and his Caricatures of New England Transcendentalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951).

8 CW 1: 7.

9 CW 1: 18.

10 CW 1: 26. British ethical philosophers Lord Shaftesbury (1671–1713), Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), and David Hume (1711–1776) principally developed the concept of the moral sense, an innate human capacity for moral discrimination and benevolent action. Hutcheson’s work, in particular, directly influenced one of Emerson’s key mentors, William Ellery Channing, minister of the Federal Street Unitarian Church in Boston. Closely connected to it was the concept of “self-culture”, an important doctrine of Channing and other Unitarian thinkers of the generation preceding Emerson. For information on the tradition of Unitarian ethical thinking that shaped Emerson, see Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805–1861 (1970; reprint, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988); and Robinson, Apostle of Culture.

11 See Richardson, 65–69; quotations from 65–66. Emerson withdrew Henry More’s Divine Dialogues (1668) from the Boston Athenaeum on November 19, 1830. He acquired Ralph Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) on April 23, 1835. See Albert J. von Frank, An Emerson Chronology (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994), 54, 101. For further information on the Cambridge Platonists and their impact on American Unitarianism and Transcendentalism, see Daniel Walker Howe, “The Cambridge Platonists of Old England and the Cambridge Platonists of New England”, in American Unitarianism, 1805–1861, ed. Conrad E. Wright (Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society and Northeastern University Press, 1989), 87–120.

12 For important studies of the impact of the British Romantics on Emerson, see Barbara L. Packer, The Transcendentalists (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 20–45; Patrick J. Keane, Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005); and Greenham, Emerson’s Transatlantic Romanticism.

13 Packer, The Transcendentalists, 40.

14 CW 1: 37.

15 CW 1: 34.

16 CW 1: 35.

17 CW 1: 45.

18 Bliss Perry, Emerson Today (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1931), 47. For an important study of the family context of Emerson’s work and career, written from the perspective of women’s history and family history, see Phyllis Cole, Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

19 For an informative study of the Transcendental Club, see Joel Myerson, “A Calendar of Transcendental Club Meetings”, American Literature 44 (May 1972): 197–207. The origin of the name Transcendentalism seems to be obscure, but was most likely used first as a pejorative description. Emerson offered an explanation of the movement in his 1841 essay “The Transcendentalist” (CW 1: 201–16). For a thoughtful analysis see Charles Capper, “‘A Little Beyond’: The Problem of the Transcendentalist Movement in American History”, Journal of American History 85 (September 1998): 502–39.

20 For a study of Emerson’s long-developing conception of the scholar, one of his central concerns, see Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Emerson on the Scholar (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992).

21 Perry, 54.

22 CW 1: 69.

23 CW 1: 56.

24 CW 1: 57 and 56.

25 CW 1: 56. For an important study of the background and impact of the address, see Kenneth S. Sacks, Understanding Emerson: The American Scholar and His Struggle for Self-Reliance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

26 Richardson, 263.

27 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1885), 115. For reactions to the address, see Bliss Perry, “Emerson’s Most Famous Speech”, in The Praise of Folly and Other Papers (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1923), 81–112; John McAleer, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), 234–39; Sealts, Scholar, 97–110; Richardson, 262–65; and Sacks, 12–20.

28 CW 1: 52.

29 On the background and setting of the Divinity School Address, see Conrad Wright, “Emerson, Barzillai Frost, and the Divinity School Address”, in his The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1970); and Wright, ‘“Soul is Good, but Body is Good Too’,” Journal of Unitarian and Universalist History 37 (2013–2014): 1–20.

30 CW 1: 77.

31 CW 1: 79.

32 CW 1: 81.

33 CW 1: 82.

34 On Emerson’s stance of openness and change, his essay “Circles” (CW 2: 177–90) is of particular importance. See David M. Robinson, “Emerson and Religion”, Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Joel Myerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 165–67.

35 CW 1: 86.

36 For Norton’s initial response, see Andrews Norton, “The New School in Literature and Religion”, Boston Daily Advertiser (August 27, 1838), 2, http://bit.ly/1E9IslN; reprinted in Joel Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 246–50. For his address to the Divinity School alumni a year after Emerson’s Address, see A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity (Cambridge, Mass.: John Owen, 1839), excerpted with an informative discussion of the controversy, in Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950).

37 For the reaction to the Divinity School Address, see McAleer, 247–65; Packer, The Transcendentalists, 121–29; David M. Robinson, “Poetry, Personality, and the Divinity School Address”, Harvard Theological Review, 82 (1989): 185–99; Richardson, 295–300; and Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 165–69.

38 CW 1: 77.

39 CW 10: 96, 98.

40 See Joel Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial: A History of the Magazine and Its Contributors (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980).

41 On the reception of Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings”, see Joel Myerson, “’In the Transcendental Emporium’: Bronson Alcott’s ‘Orphic Sayings’ in The Dial”, English Language Notes 10 (1972): 31–38.

42 Myerson, N. E. Transcendentalists and the Dial, 95, 96. For an overview of The Dial, see Susan Belasco, “The Dial” in The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, eds. Joel Myerson, et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 373–83.

43 CW 2: 30, 31, 35. Essays was renamed Essays: First Series after Emerson published Essays: Second Series in 1844.

44 JMN 5: 28.

45 CW 2: 124; 119. For a discussion of Emerson and friendship, see the essay collection Emerson & Thoreau: Figures of Friendship, eds. John T. Lysaker and William Rossi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

46 JMN 8: 205.

47 On Emerson’s intellectual evolution, see Stephen E. Whicher, Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953); Joel Porte, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Packer, Emerson’s Fall; and David M. Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

48 CW 9: 295, 297.

49 CW 3: 49.

50 CW 3: 49. On the labyrinthine structure of “Experience”, see Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life, 58–70.

51 CW 3: 49.

52 Emerson’s letter of protest is included in Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, eds. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 1–5. Hereafter EAW. For an insightful discussion of the work and its context, see Richardson, 275–79.

53 Larry J. Reynolds, European Revolutions and the American Literary Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

54 L 2: 370.

55 Albert Brisbane, The Social Destiny of Man (Philadelphia: C.F. Stollmeyer, 1840). For a study of the rise of Fourierism in America, see Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994). On Brook Farm, see Joel Myerson, ed., The Brook Farm Book: A Collection of First-Hand Accounts of the Community (New York: Garland, 1987); Richard Francis, Transcendental Utopias: Individual and Community at Brook Farm, Fruitlands and Walden (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Richard Francis, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); and Sterling F. Delano, Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

56 JMN 7: 207. For an informative discussion of Emerson’s relationship with the social reform advocates of his day, see two essays by Linck C. Johnson: “Reforming the Reformers: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Sunday Lectures at Amory Hall, Boston”, Emerson Society Quarterly: A Journal of the American Renaissance 37 (4th Quarter 1991): 235–89 (hereafter ESQ); “‘Liberty is Never Cheap’: Emerson, ‘The Fugitive Slave Law’, and the Antislavery Lecture Series at the Broadway Tabernacle”, New England Quarterly 76 (December 2003): 550–92. For an insightful analysis of Emerson’s complex and hesitant support of the women’s rights movement, see Phyllis Cole, “Woman Questions: Emerson, Fuller, and New England Reform”, in Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and its Contexts, eds. Charles Capper and Conrad E. Wright (Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society and Northeastern University Press, 1999), 408–46.

57 Len Gougeon, “‘Only Justice Satisfies All’: Emerson’s Militant Transcendentalism”. Emerson for the Twenty-First Century: Perspectives on an American Icon, ed. Barry Tharaud (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 496.

58 CW 1: 147.

59 Richardson, 395.

60 CW 3: 167.

61 EAW 73.

62 For a discussion of Emerson’s changing views of race, see Philip L. Nicoloff, Emerson on Race and History: An Examination of English Traits (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 123 and 142–46; and Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero, 178–86.

63 “An Address … on … the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies”, (also known as “Emancipation in the British West Indies” in earlier editions of Emerson’s works) has become increasingly central to the Emerson canon. See EAW 7–34. Key essays in the burgeoning scholarly discussion of Emerson and antislavery include Gougeon, Virtue’s Hero; Albert J. von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998); Gary Collison, “Emerson and Antislavery”, Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Joel Myerson (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 179–209; Phyllis Cole, “Pain and Protest in the Emerson Family”, in The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform, ed. T. Gregory Garvey (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), 67–92; Len Gougeon, “Emerson’s Abolition Conversion”, The Emerson Dilemma, 170–96; Sandra Harbert Petrulionis, “’Swelling That Great Tide of Humanity’: The Concord, Massachusetts, Female Anti-Slavery Society”, New England Quarterly 74 (2001), 385–418; Gregg D. Crane, Race, Citizenship, and Law in American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Buell, Emerson, 242–87.

64 EAW 10. For Emerson’s sources on the history of British abolitionism, see Joseph E. Slater, “Two Sources for Emerson’s Fist Address on West Indian Emancipation”, ESQ 44 (1966), 97–100.

65 For an informative account of Emerson’s lecture career and his style and impact as a lecturer, see McAleer, 486–503; Richardson, 418–22; and the editors’ “Historical and Textual Introduction” to The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001), xvii-lxxi. Hereafter LL. For Emerson’s detailed lecture travels year-by-year, see von Frank, An Emerson Chronology.

66 JMN 10: 79.

67 Richardson, 441.

68 On Emerson’s lecture tour in England, see von Frank, An Emerson Chronology, 218–37; McAleer, Emerson, 428–77; and Richardson, 441–56. On Emerson’s experience in Paris, and Fuller’s in Italy, see Reynolds, 31–36 and 54–78.

69 Nicoloff, 118–23.

70 CW 5: 27. For a more detailed discussion of the impact of Emerson’s tour of Great Britain and his thoughts on race and American politics, see Robinson, Emerson and the Conduct of Life, 112–33.

71 LL 1: 129–89. On Emerson’s London lectures see Laura Dassow Walls, “‘If Body Can Sing’: Emerson and Victorian Science”, Emerson Bicentennial Essays, eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Boston, Mass.: Massachusetts Historical Society and University Press of Virginia, 2006), 334–66; David M. Robinson, “Experience, Instinct, and Emerson’s Philosophical Reorientation”, Emerson Bicentennial Essays, 391–404; and David M. Robinson, “British Science, The London Lectures, and Emerson’s Philosophical Reorientation”, in Emerson for the Twenty-First Century: Globalism and the Circularity of Influence, ed. Barry Tharaud (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 285–300.

72 JMN 10: 339.

73 JMN 11: 344.

74 The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982), 8: 30. Hereafter JMN.

75 JMN 7: 374. See also, John McAleer, “Emerson as Lecturer”, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1984).

76 McAleer, 43.

77 JMN 5: 233.

78 James Elliot Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1887), 1: 150, as quoted in McAleer, 487, http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000389431

79 JMN 7: 312.

80 From Taylor Stoehr, Nay-Saying in Concord (Hamden: Archon Books, 1979), 28; The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle, ed. Joseph Slater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 171.

81 Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 418.

82 Julian Hawthorne, The Memoirs of Julian Hawthorne, ed. Edith Garrigues Hawthorne. (New York: Macmillan, 1938), 94, 95; Thoreau, Man of Concord, ed. Walter Harding (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960), 29, as quoted in Harmon L. Smith, My Friend, My Friend: The Story of Thoreau’s Relationship with Emerson (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 6; Richardson, 195; McAleer, 493. New York Herald Tribune, Tuesday, 6 February 1849; reproduced in Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (New York: Norton, 2001), 588.

83 A. Bronson Alcott, The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Co., 1938), January, Week III, 1837, 81–82. Hereafter JBA.

84 Charles Capper, Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life: The Private Years, I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 215–16, 237, 324.

85 McAleer, 153.

86 Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 119. The speaker of Emerson’s poem “Good-Bye” (1847) happily forswears the world’s vanities for his “own hearth-stone”, where he is “in the bush with God — ”. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. Robert E. Spiller, et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 9: 75–76. Hereafter CW.

87 Richardson, 245.

88 Ibid., 245–49.

89 Frederick C. Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott: An Intellectual Biography (London: Associated University Presses, 1982), 17–18.

90 JBA 12, 19, 23.

91 On Emerson’s Michelangelo lecture in 1835, Alcott remarked, “Few men — take nobler views of the mission, powers, and destinies of man than Mr. Emerson”. JBA, 56.

92 Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott, 130–31.

93 JBA, 58, 68–69, 70.

94 Dahlstrand, 145.

95 Emerson heard Alcott read his introduction, a summary of his Transcendentalist thought, with “pleasure”, Alcott reported. JBA, 79.

96 Dalhstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott, 140–41; JBA 75.

97 JBA, 78

98 Ibid., 89, 90. Emerson quoted Alcott: “Every man, he said, is a Revelation, & ought to write his Record. But few with the pen”. JMN 5: 98.

99 JBA, 91.

100 JMN 5: 329. “Alcott by my door” meant the door to his study which was across the hall from the Emerson’s guest room.

101 JBA, 99.

102 JMN 5: 506; JBA, 102–03; Dahlstrand, Amos Bronson Alcott, Chs. 11, 12.

103 JMN 7: 34, 177, 207, 539; 8: 118.

104 Ibid., 8: 210–11.

105 Ibid., 8: 213, 214.

106 Ibid., 11: 173.

107 Ibid.,13: 66.

108 Four years later at the Cliff, an overlook at Walden Pond, Alcott heard Emerson reciting lines that would be published in his Poems (1847). Alcott thought his friend “our first great poet”, and listed him at the head of those Americans shaping a “new literature”. JBA 160, 182.

109 JMN 5: 293.

110 Henry David Thoreau, Journal, October 22, 1837; The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, ed. Odell Shepard (New York: Dover, 1961), 2.

111 McAleer, 336–37; Smith, 18; Thoreau’s mother thought the influence was just the reverse, her angle on the matter was retold for years, much to Emerson’s amusement. JMN 15: 489–90.

112 JMN 5: 452.

113 Ibid., 7: 143–44.

114 Some years later, Emerson’s poem “Hamatreya” (1847) opens with a list of neighbors — proud landholders all — and ends with Earth’s triumph song over their remains. CW 9: 68–70.

115 Smith, 35–37.

116 JMN 7: 454.

117 Edward Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau As Remembered By a Young Friend (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), 5: 1–6.

118 Mrs. Harriet E. Chapman, Concord, “Children’s Reminiscences”, Boston Sunday Journal, 24 May 1903, Emerson Family Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard, 1280.235 (707), Box 65.

119 Ellen Tucker Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores Bird Carpenter (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1992), xlvi-xlviii.

120 Smith, 62.

121 JMN 8: 96.

122 Henry David Thoreau, Journal, vol. 6, March 20, 1842, MS, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Sentence added in pencil above inked line. Smith, 190n.40.

123 Henry David Thoreau, “Sympathy”, Collected Essays and Poems (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 524; Smith, 28; Caleb Crain, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 202. Later, Emerson sent the poem to Ward, who apparently liked it. Crain, 211.

124 Smith, 35.

125 Emerson noted in 1839: “Men of genius are said to partake of the masculine & feminine traits”. JMN 7: 310. In 1843, he wrote, “The finest people marry the two sexes in their own person”. Ibid., 8: 380.

126 Crain, 235; Joel Myerson, New England Transcendentalists and the Dial: A History of the Magazine and Its Contributors (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Presses), Appendix, 289–302; 314.

127 JMN 7: 201–02; 11: 400.

128 Ibid., 11: 15–16.

129 Ibid., 265–66.

130 Ibid., 10: 151.

131 Ibid.: 343.

132 Thoreau, Journal 2: Winter 1845–1846, 223.

133 Henry David Thoreau to Mr. and Mrs. R. W. Emerson, July 8, 1843, The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, eds. Walter Harding and Carol Bode (New York: New York University Press, 1958), 124.

134 Smith, 112, 129–33.

135 Ibid., 142.

136 Thoreau, Journal, 6: 149.

137 JMN 13: 183.

138 Emerson, “Thoreau”, Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, 411.

139 Smith, 170, 180.

140 McAleer, 324–25; JMN 5: 188; Joan von Mehren, Minerva and the Muse (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), 226; Capper, 188, 265–66.

141 JMN 5: 407.

142 McAleer, 327.

143 JMN 5: 297.

144 Emerson, untitled manuscript poem, September 1829, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Collected Poems and Translations, eds. Harold Bloom and Paul Kane (New York: The Library of America, 1994) 322, 606 (322n.13).

145 Emerson may also have named Lydia “Lidian” for her luxury tastes, high standards and piety that suggested the wealth and magnificence of Lydia, the ancient country in west-central Asia Minor (modern Turkey) on the Aegean, conquered by the Persians in 546 B.C.E. Writing Carlyle, Emerson described Lidian as “an incarnation of Christianity”, adding that he called her “Asia”, because she “keeps my philosophy from Antinomianism”. This teasing honor alluded to their religious differences. Emerson wrote Lidian on February 19, 1838, the day after requesting release from his “charge” to preach in nearby Lexington: “But does not the eastern Lidian[,] my Palestine[,] mourn to see the froward [sic] man cutting the last threads that bind him to that prized gown & band[,] the symbols black & white of old & distant Judah?” Five months later on July 15, 1838, Emerson delivered his clergy-challenging “Divinity School Address”. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Lydians; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 1: 1684; Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson, 2: 161; L 2: 113–14, as quoted in Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 310.

146 Ellen T. Emerson, The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, ed. Delores B. Carpenter (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1992), xvi-xviii; 81, 83.

147 JMN 8: 88.

148 Ibid., 11: 213.

149 Ibid., 11: 259, quoted in Lawrence Buell, Emerson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 88–89.

150 Von Mehren, 97–98; JMN 7: 48, quoted in Capper 247.

151 Von Mehren, 107.

152 Ibid., 50–51, 68, 82.

153 JMN 7: 260.

154 McAleer, 328; Capper, 264; Marshall, 119.

155 JMN 7: 298.

156 Ibid., 7: 30.

157 Ibid., 3: 270–71.

158 Crain, 201.

159 Capper, 258, 260–62, 326–27.

160 Von Mehren, 108, 111–12; Capper 325–26.

161 Von Mehren, 109; Richardson, 327.

162 Crain, 206–07; Capper, 327.

163 JMN 7: 509.

164 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endymion_(mythology); http://www.theoi.com/Titan/Selene.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_(mythology). Crain, 228; JMN 7: 211, 509; CW “Manners”, 9: 499.

165 Crain, 211, 216–17.

166 Capper, 327.

167 Emerson continued, “There is a play in which the sister is enamoured of her brother & when they embrace, she exclaims, “J’ai froid” [I am cold]. JMN 7: 321.

168 Ibid., 7: 368. In another self-observation of 1848, Emerson recorded, “The secret of Guy [his alter-ego from Harvard days], the lucky & famous, was, to conceal from all mankind that he was a bore. It was wonderful how often & how long by skilful dispositions & timings he managed to make it believed, by clever people, too, that he was witty & agreeable”. JMN 10: 322.

169 In 1879, on the fiftieth anniversary of his marriage to Ellen, Emerson returned to the site of their wedding, Ellen’s house in Concord, New Hampshire. Henry F. Pommer, Emerson’s First Marriage (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), 98; Marshall, 170–71.

170 JMN 7: 310; 8: 175, 380. See also Capper, I, 261–62, 288–89.

171 Henry James, Sr., “Emerson”, Atlantic Monthly 94 (1904), 743.

172 JMN 7: 544; 11: 213.

173 Ibid., 7: 273, as quoted in Capper, I, 326–27.

174 CW 2: 107, 109.

175 CW 2: 127.

176 Ibid.; JMN 7: 325.

177 Von Mehren, 220.

178 JMN 7: 400.

179 Emerson’s Puritan and Stoic self-discipline coalesced in his habit of keeping his weight about 144–45 all his adult life; in 1844, he objected to the free sex of Fourieristic communitarianism: “I have observed that [sexual] indulgence always effeminates. I have organs also & delight in pleasure, but I have experience also that this pleasure is the bait of a trap”. JMN 9: 115. See also, ibid., 9: 164.

180 R. W. Emerson, “Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli”, Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, 380.

181 The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia University Press, c. 1939–1995), 2: 352–53; McAleer, 332.

182 L 7: 400, 402; Crain, 228.

183 JMN 7: 271.

184 Ibid., 301.

185 Ibid., 338–39.

186 CW 2: 126.

187 McAleer, 491; Richardson, 422.

188 JMN 9: 49, 72.

189 Von Mehren, 142.

190 Ibid., 166; Elizabeth Alden Green, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1979), 169–70; Joel Myerson, The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1980), 202.

191 Von Mehren, 169.

192 Capper 2: 110.

193 Von Mehren, 169.

194 Ibid., 184, 215.

195 Ibid., 189 ff.

196 Capper 2: 190–91.

197 JMN 8: 369.

198 Von Mehren, 194.

199 JMN 7: 13.

200 CW 3: 88; Von Mehren, 195.

201 JMN 7: 96; 8: 380–81; 9: 191.

202 JMN 4: 306; 7: 388, 310; 9: 108. In 1845, as a random thought without context, Emerson expressed his sexual fears of women in verse: “Eve softly with her womb/ Bit him to death [full line space]/ Lightly was woman snared, herself a snare[.]” JMN 9: 164.

203 JMN 7: 48.

204 Ibid., 11: 258.

205 Ibid., 14: 27–28; 168.

206 Emerson’s Antislavery Writings, ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), xliv.

207 McAleer, 619.

208 Besides Emerson and these three men, others in the club were Samuel Gray Ward, Benjamin Pierce, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Edwin Percy Whipple, John Sullivan Dwight, Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar (Elizabeth Hoar’s brother), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Lothrop Motley. The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Joel Myerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 395.

209 McAleer, 552; von Frank, 299.

210 McAleer, 553; von Frank, 244–45.

211 JMN 11: 28–29.

212 Ibid., 3: 321; 5: 475; 14: 169; 16: 49.

213 Ibid., 16: 165.

214 Ibid., 11: 130.

215 CW 9: “Give All to Love”, 179–80.

From Mr. Emerson’s Revolution, edited by Jean McClure Mudge