New Englands inventor of transcendentalism is still revered today for his high-minded thoughts on individuality, freedom and nature
Ralph Waldo Emerson burst on to the American literary scene in the autumn of 1836, as the protege of Thomas Carlyle, under whose spell he had fallen during a visit to England in 1833. On his return to America, duly inspired, the 30-year-old Emerson embarked on a brilliant career as an acclaimed public lecturer, a programme of self-enlightenment through which he would evolve his post-Romantic and quasi-religious idea of transcendentalism. This ecstatic concept, typical of the American mind at its more fervent and mystical, was first expressed in a lecture entitled Nature that Emerson gave at Harvard on 5 November 1836 in which he articulated his belief that Nature is the symbol of spirit. This, according to the critic Jay Parini, would influence generations of poets and nature writers for whom this call to arms became a major source of ideas.
Nature, Emerson declared, in a self-conscious echo of the Romantic ideal, is the incarnation of thought. He added, with thrilling opacity, that The world is the mind precipitated. In explication of these mysteries, he argued that to experience the wholeness with nature for which we are naturally suited, we must be separate from the quotidian distractions imposed by society. For Emerson, it was solitude that would be the singular mechanism through which the questing individual might become fully engaged in the world of nature.
He instructed, in words which soon resonated among an emerging generation of Americans: To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.
When a person experiences true solitude, in nature, it takes him away, elevating him to a new level of consciousness. Society, Emerson said, destroys wholeness, whereas Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each others hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapour to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.
From this kind of exalted secular piety, its a short step to Emersons definition of a spiritual relationship with nature through which the individual can discover the spirit of nature, and accept it as the Universal Being: Nature is not fixed but fluid; to a pure spirit, nature is everything.
Like all the great American intellectual salesmen, Emerson was intent on establishing himself as the chief explicator of natures special language a unique means of communication, offered exclusively to his followers: Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.
This was heady stuff in straitlaced, post-revolutionary New England. Other invitations followed and on 31 August 1837, now speaking within the precincts of Harvard, Emerson gave his now-famous Phi Beta Kappa Oration, which would become known as The American Scholar, described by Oliver Wendell Holmes as Americas intellectual declaration of independence.
After this, Emerson never looked back. He became the Sage of Concord, Massachusetts whose Essays approached the status of holy writ. The first volume of these was published in 1841; its influence would reverberate down the remaining decades of the century.
Subsequently, Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing ideas popular in America, ideas such as individuality and freedom, mankinds ability to fulfil itself through individual endeavour. Emerson is one of several figures who adopted a pantheist approach to existence by rejecting any religious faith that separated God from the world. His Nature was fairly abstract: Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.
Emersons high-flown articulation of America first, expressed in sentences such as We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe, struck a powerful chord with impressionable and idealistic young men like Henry David Thoreau. His Walden (No 64 in this series) is directly descended from Emersons Essays, especially those that addressed quasi-existential questions such as friendship, heroism, art and, in a popular restatement of his Phi Beta Kappa speech, the all-American question of self-reliance, a rhetorical paean that has a strange, almost surreal, topicality in the spring of 2017. Nothing at last is sacred, declares Emerson, but the integrity of your own mind He had already elaborated what he means by this: To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.
Some of Emerson, stripped of its high-mindedness, is a passionate American frontier howl which, strangely, can also morph into unvarnished Trumpism: No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it The doctrine of hatred must be preached as the counteraction of the doctrine of love when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim.
A foolish consistency, Emerson remarks soon after this, is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Emerson, one of the most influential writers in the United States during the 19th century, is central to American Romanticism. His essays and lectures had a profound influence on the thinkers, writers and poets who came after him. Once, when asked to sum up his work, he said he believed in the infinitude of the private individual. Emerson is also renowned as a mentor and friend of Henry David Thoreau whose Walden owes him a deep debt.
A signature sentence
There is a time in every mans education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.
Three to compare
Nature and Selected Essays is available in Penguin Classics (8.99). To order a copy for 7.64, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99