The American Spirit in Literature
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
Chapter VI. The Transcendentalists
To understand the literary leadership of New England during the thirty years immediately preceding the Civil War it is necessary to recall the characteristics of a somewhat isolated and peculiar people. The mental and moral traits of the New England colonists, already glanced at in an earlier chapter, had suffered little essential modification in two hundred years. The original racial stock was still dominant. As compared with the middle and southern colonies, there was relatively little immigration, and this was easily assimilated. The physical remoteness of New England from other sections of the country, and the stubborn loyalty with which its inhabitants maintained their own standards of life, alike contributed to their sense of separateness. It is true, of course, that their mode of thinking and feeling had undergone certain changes. They were among the earliest theorists of political independence from Great Britain, and had done their share, and more, in the Revolution. The rigors of their early creed had somewhat relaxed, as we have seen, by the end of the seventeenth century, and throughout the eighteenth there was a gradual progress toward religious liberalism. The population steadily increased, and New England’s unremitting struggle with a not too friendly soil, her hardihood upon the seas, and her keenness in trade, became proverbial throughout the country. Her seaport towns were wealthy. The general standards of living remained frugal, but extreme poverty was rare. Her people still made, as in the earliest days of the colonies, silent and unquestioned sacrifices for education, and her chief seats of learning, Harvard and Yale, remained the foremost educational centers of America. But there was still scant leisure for the quest of beauty, and slender material reward for any practitioner of the fine arts. Oratory alone, among the arts of expression, commanded popular interest and applause. Daniel Webster’s audiences at Plymouth in 1820 and at Bunker Hill in 1825 were not inferior to similar audiences of today in intelligence and in responsiveness. Perhaps they were superior. Appreciation of the spoken word was natural to men trained by generations of thoughtful listening to “painful” preaching and by participation in the discussions of town-meeting. Yet appreciation of secular literature was rare, and interest in the other arts was almost non-existent.
Then, beginning in the eighteen-twenties, and developing rapidly after 1830, came a change, a change so startling as to warrant the term of “the Renascence of New England.” No single cause is sufficient to account for this “new birth.” It is a good illustration of that law of “tension and release,” which the late Professor Shaler liked to demonstrate in all organic life. A long period of strain was followed by an age of expansion, freedom, release of energy. As far as the mental life of New England was concerned, something of the new stimulus was due directly to the influence of Europe. Just as the wandering scholars from Italy had brought the New Learning, which was a revival of the old learning, into England in the sixteenth century, so now young New England college men like Edward Everett and George Ticknor brought home from the Continent the riches of German and French scholarship. Emerson’s description of the impression made by Everett’s lectures in 1820, after his return from Germany, gives a vivid picture of the new thirst for foreign culture. “The North American Review” and other periodicals, while persistently urging the need of a distinctively national literature, insisted also upon the value of a deeper knowledge of the literature of the Continent. This was the burden of Channing’s once famous article on “A National Literature” in 1823: it was a plea for an independent American school of writers, but these writers should know the best that Europe had to teach.
The purely literary movement was connected, as the great name of Channing suggests, with a new sense of freedom in philosophy and religion. Calvinism had mainly done its work in New England. It had bred an extraordinary type of men and women, it had, helped to lay some of the permanent foundations of our democracy, and it was still destined to have a long life in the new West and in the South. But in that stern section of the country where its influence had been most marked there was now an increasingly sharp reaction against its determinism and its pessimism. Early in the nineteenth century the most ancient and influential churches in Boston and the leading professors at Harvard had accepted the new form of religious liberalism known as Unitarianism. The movement spread throughout Eastern Massachusetts and made its way to other States. Orthodox and liberal Congregational churches split apart, and when Channing preached the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819, the word Unitarian, accepted by the liberals with some misgiving, became the recognized motto of the new creed. It is only with its literary influence that we are here concerned, yet that literary influence became so potent that there is scarcely a New England writer of the first rank, from Bryant onward, who remained untouched by it.
The most interesting and peculiar phase of the new liberalism has little directly to do with the specific tenets of theological Unitarianism, and in fact marked a revolt against the more prosaic and conventional pattern of English and American Unitarian thought. But this movement, known as Transcendentalism, would have been impossible without a preliminary and liberalizing stirring of the soil. It was a fascinating moment of release for some of the most brilliant and radical minds of New England. Its foremost representative in our literature was Ralph Waldo Emerson, as its chief exponents in England were Coleridge and Carlyle. We must understand its meaning if we would perceive the quality of much of the most noble and beautiful writing produced in New England during the Golden Age.
What then is the significance of the word Transcendental? Disregarding for the moment the technical development of this term as used by German and English philosophers, it meant for Emerson and his friends simply this: whatever transcends or goes beyond the experience of the senses. It stressed intuition rather than sensation, direct perception of ultimate truth rather than the processes of logic. It believed in man’s ability to apprehend the absolute ideas of Truth, Rectitude, Goodness. It resembled the Inner Light of the Quaker, though the Quaker traced this to a supernatural illumination of the Holy Spirit, while the Transcendentalist believed that a vision of the eternal realities was a natural endowment of the human mind. It had only to be trusted. Stated in this form, it is evident that we have here a very ancient doctrine, well known in the literature of India and of Greece. It has been held by countless persons who have never heard of the word Transcendentalism. We need go no further back than Alexander Pope, a Roman Catholic, whom we find declaring: “I am so certain of the soul’s being immortal that I seem to feel it within me, as it were by intuition.” Pope’s friend Swift, a dean of the Church of England and assuredly no Transcendentalist, defined vision as seeing the things that are invisible.
Now turn to some of the New England men. Dr. C. A. Bartol, a disciple of Emerson, maintained that “the mistake is to make the everlasting things subjects of argument instead of sight." Theodore Parker declared to his congregation:
“From the primitive facts of consciousness given by the power of instinctive intuition, I endeavored to deduce the true notion of God, of justice and futurity . . . . I found most help in the works of Immanuel Kant, one of the profoundest thinkers of the world, though one of the worst writers, even in Germany; if he did not always furnish conclusions I could rest in, he yet gave me the true method, and put me on the right road. I found certain great primal Intuitions of Human Nature, which depend on no logical process of demonstration, but are rather facts of consciousness given by the instinctive action of human nature itself. I will mention only the three most important which pertain to Religion. 1. The Instinctive Intuition of the Divine, the consciousness that there is a God. 2. The Instinctive Intuition of the Just and Right, a consciousness that there is a Moral Law, independent of our will, which we ought to keep. 3. The Instinctive Intuition of the Immortal, a consciousness that the Essential Element of man, the principle of Individuality, never dies.”
This passage dates from 1859, and readers of Bergson may like to compare it with the contemporary Frenchman’s saying: “The analytical faculties can give us no realities.”
Let us next hear Emerson himself, first in an early letter to his brother Edward: “Do you draw the distinction of Milton, Coleridge, and the Germans between Reason and Understanding? I think it a philosophy itself, and, like all truth, very practical. Reason is the highest faculty of the soul, what we mean often by the soul itself: it never reasons, never proves, it simply perceives, it is vision. The understanding toils all the time, compares, contrives, adds, argues; near-sighted, but strong-sighted, dwelling in the present, the expedient, the customary.” And in 1833, after he had left the Unitarian pulpit, Emerson made in his diary this curious attempt to reconcile the scriptural language of his ancestral profession to the new vocabulary of Transcendentalism: “Jesus Christ was a minister of the pure Reason. The beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount are all utterances of the mind contemning the phenomenal world . . . . The understanding can make nothing of it. ’Tis all nonsense. The Reason affirms its absolute verity . . . . St. Paul marks the distinction by the terms natural man and spiritual man. When Novalis says, ’It is the instinct of the Understanding to contradict the Reason,’ he only translates into a scientific formula the doctrine of St. Paul, ’The Carnal Mind is enmity against God.’”
One more quotation must suffice. It is from a poem by a forgotten Transcendentalist, F. G. Tuckerman.
“No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead; But, leaving straining thought and stammering word, Across the barren azure pass to God; Shooting the void in silence, like a bird– A bird that shuts his wings for better speed!”
It is obvious that this “contemning the phenomenal world,” this “revulsion against the intellect as the sole source of truth,” is highly dangerous to second-class minds. If one habitually prints the words Insight, Instinct, Intuition, Consciousness with capitals, and relegates equally useful words like senses, experience, fact, logic to lower-case type, one may do it because he is a Carlyle or an Emerson, but the chances are that he is neither. Transcendentalism, like all idealistic movements, had its “lunatic fringe,” its camp-followers of excitable, unstable visionaries. The very name, like the name Methodist, was probably bestowed upon it in mockery, and this whole perturbation of staid New England had its humorous side. Witness the career of Bronson Alcott. It is also true that the glorious affirmations of these seers can be neither proved nor disproved. They made no examination and they sought no validation of consciousness. An explorer in search of the North Pole must bring back proofs of his journey, but when a Transcendentalist affirms that he has reached the far heights of human experience and even caught sight of the gods sitting on their thrones, you and I are obliged to take his word for it. Sometimes we hear such a man gladly, but it depends upon the man, not upon the trustworthiness of the method. Finally it should be observed that the Transcendental movement was an exceedingly complex one, being both literary, philosophic, and religious; related also to the subtle thought of the Orient, to mediaeval mysticism, and to the English Platonists; touched throughout by the French Revolutionary theories, by the Romantic spirit, by the new zeal for science and pseudo-science, and by the unrest of a fermenting age.
Our present concern is with the impact of this cosmopolitan current upon the mind and character of a few New England writers. Channing and Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller and Alcott, Thoreau and Emerson, are all representative of the best thought and the noblest ethical impulses of their generation. Let us choose first the greatest name: a sunward-gazing spirit, and, it may be, one of the very Sun-Gods.
The pilgrim to Concord who stops for a moment in the village library to study French’s statue of Emerson will notice the asymmetrical face. On one side it is the face of a keen Yankee farmer, but seen from the other side it is the countenance of a seer, a world’s man. This contrast between the parochial Emerson and the greater Emerson interprets many a puzzle in his career. Half a mile beyond the village green to the north, close to the “rude bridge” of the famous Concord fight in 1775, is the Old Manse, once tenanted and described by Hawthorne. It was built by Emerson’s grandfather, a patriot chaplain in the Revolution, who died of camp-fever at Ticonderoga. His widow married Dr. Ezra Ripley, and here Ralph Waldo Emerson and his brothers passed many a summer in their childhood. Half a mile east of the village, on the Cambridge turnpike, is Emerson’s own house, still sheltered by the pines which Thoreau helped him to plant in 1838. Within the house everything is unchanged: here are the worn books, pen and inkstand, the favorite pictures upon the wall. Over the ridge to the north lies the Sleepy Hollow cemetery where the poet rests, with the gravestones of Hawthorne and the Alcotts, Thoreau and William James close by.
But although Concord is the Emerson shrine, he was born in Boston, in 1803. His father, named William like the grandfather, was also, like the Emerson ancestors for many generations, a clergyman–eloquent, liberal, fond of books and music, highly honored by his alma mater Harvard and by the town of Boston, where he ministered to the First Church. His premature death in 1811 left his widow with five sons–one of them feebleminded–and a daughter to struggle hard with poverty. With her husband’s sister, the Calvinistic “Aunt Mary Moody” Emerson, she held, however, that these orphaned boys had been “born to be educated." Arid educated the “eager blushing boys” were, at the Boston Latin School and at Harvard College, on a regimen of “toil and want and truth and mutual faith.” There are many worse systems of pedagogy than this. Ralph was thought less persistent than his steady older brother William, and far less brilliant than his gifted, short-lived younger brothers, Edward and Charles. He had an undistinguished career at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1821, ranking thirtieth in a class of fifty-nine. Lovers of irony like to remember that he was the seventh choice of his classmates for the position of class poet. After some desultory teaching to help his brothers, he passed irregularly through the Divinity School, his studies often interrupted by serious ill-health. “If they had examined me,” he said afterward of the kindly professors in the Divinity School, “they never would have passed me.” But approve him they did, in 1826, and he entered decorously upon the profession of his ancestors, as associate minister of the Second Church in Boston. His “Journals,” which are a priceless record of his inner life, at this and later periods, reveal the rigid self-scrutiny, the tender idealism, with which he began his ministerial career.
But as a scheme of life for Ralph Waldo Emerson this vocation would not satisfy. The sexton of the Second Church thought that the young man was not at his best at funerals. Father Taylor, the eccentric Methodist, whom Emerson assisted at a sailor’s Bethel near Long Wharf, considered him “one of the sweetest souls God ever made,” but as ignorant of the principles of the New Testament as Balaam’s ass was of Hebrew grammar. By and by came an open difference with his congregation over the question of administering the Communion. “I am not interested in it,” Emerson admitted, and he wrote in his “Journal” the noble words: “It is my desire, in the office of a Christian minister, to do nothing which I cannot do with my whole heart.” His resignation was accepted in 1832. His young wife had died of consumption in the same year. He now sailed for Italy, France, and England, a memorable journey which gave him an acquaintance with Landor, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle, but which was even more significant in sending him, as he says, back to himself, to the resources of his own nature. “When shows break up,” wrote Whitman afterward, “what but oneself is sure?” In 1834 and 1835 we find Emerson occupying a room in the Old Manse at Concord, strolling in the quiet fields, lecturing or preaching if he were invited to do so, but chiefly absorbed in a little book which he was beginning to write–a new utterance of a new man.
This book, the now famous “Nature” of 1836, contains the essence of Emerson’s message to his generation. It is a prose essay, but written in the ecstatic mood of a poet. The theme of its meditation is the soul as related to Nature and to God. The soul is primal; Nature, in all its bountiful and beautiful commodities, exists for the training of the soul; it is the soul’s shadow. And every soul has immediate access to Deity. Thus the utility and beauty and discipline of Nature lift the soul Godward. The typical sentence of the book is this: “The sun shines today also"; that is to say: the world is still alive and fair; let us lift up our hearts! Only a few Americans of 1836 bought this singular volume, but Emerson went serenely forward. He had found his path.
In 1837 he delivered the well-known Phi Beta Kappa oration at Harvard on “The American Scholar.” Emerson was now thirty-four; he had married a second time, had bought a house of his own in Concord, and purposed to make a living by lecturing and writing. His address in Cambridge, though it contained no reference to himself, was after all a justification of the way of life he had chosen: a declaration of intellectual independence for himself and his countrymen, an exhortation of self-trust to the individual thinking man. “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” Such advice to cut loose from the moorings of the past was not unknown in Phi Beta Kappa orations, though it had never been so brilliantly phrased; but when Emerson applied precisely the same doctrine, in 1838, to the graduating class at the Harvard Divinity School, he roused a storm of disapproval. “A tempest in our washbowl,” he wrote coolly to Carlyle, but it was more than that. The great sentence of the Divinity School address, “God is, not was; he speaketh, not spake,” was the emphasis of a superb rhetorician upon the immediacy of the soul’s access to God. It has been the burden of a thousand prophets in all religions. The young priests of the Divinity School, their eyes wearied with Hebrew and Greek, seem to have enjoyed Emerson’s injunction to turn away from past records and historical authorities and to drink from the living fountain of the divine within themselves; but to the professors, “the stern old war-gods,” this relative belittlement of historical Christianity seemed blasphemy. A generation passed before Emerson was again welcomed by his alma mater.
The reader who has mastered those three utterances by the Concord Transcendentalist in 1836, 1837, and 1838 has the key to Emerson. He was a seer, not a system-maker. The constitution of his mind forbade formal, consecutive, logical thought. He was not a philosopher in the accepted sense, though he was always philosophizing, nor a metaphysician in spite of his curious searchings in the realm of metaphysics. He sauntered in books as he sauntered by Walden Pond, in quest of what interested him; he “fished in Montaigne,” he said, as he fished in Plato and Goethe. He basketed the day’s luck, good or bad as it might be, into the pages of his private “Journal,” which he called his savings-bank, because from this source he drew most of the material for his books. The “Journal” has recently been printed, in ten volumes. No American writing rewards the reader more richly. It must be remembered that Emerson’s “Essays,” the first volume of which appeared in 1841, and the last volumes after his death in 1882, represent practically three stages of composition: first the detached thoughts of the “Journal;” second, the rearrangement of this material for use upon the lecture platform; and finally, the essays in their present form. The oral method thus predominates: a series of oracular thoughts has been shaped for oratorical utterance, not oratorical in the bombastic, popular American sense, but cunningly designed, by a master of rhetoric, to capture the ear and then the mind of the auditor.
Emerson’s work as a lecturer coincided with the rise of that Lyceum system which brought most of the American authors, for more than a generation, into intimate contact with the public, and which proved an important factor in the aesthetic and moral cultivation of our people. No lecturer could have had a more auspicious influence than Emerson, with his quiet dignity, his serene spiritual presence, his tonic and often electrifying force. But if he gave his audiences precious gifts, he also learned much from them. For thirty years his lecturing trips to the West brought him, more widely than any New England man of letters, into contact with the new, virile America of the great Mississippi valley. Unlike many of his friends, he was not repelled by the “Jacksonism of the West"; he rated it a wholesome, vivifying force in our national thought and life. The “Journal” reveals the essential soundness of his Americanism. Though surrounded all his life by reformers, he was himself scarcely a reformer, save upon the single issue of anti-slavery. Perhaps he was at bottom too much of a radical to be swept off his feet by any reform.
To our generation, of course, Emerson presents himself as an author of books, and primarily as an essayist, rather than as a winning, entrancing speaker. His essays have a greater variety of tone than is commonly recognized. Many of them, like “Manners," “Farming,” “Books,” “Eloquence,” “Old Age,” exhibit a shrewd prudential wisdom, a sort of Yankee instinct for “the milk in the pan,” that reminds one of Ben Franklin. Like most of the greater New England writers, he could be, on occasion, an admirable local historian. See his essays on “Life and Letters in New England," “New England Reformers,” “Politics,” and the successive entries in his “Journal" relating to Daniel Webster. He had the happiest gift of portraiture, as is witnessed by his sketches of Montaigne, of Napoleon, of Socrates (in the essay on Plato), of his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, of Thoreau, and of various types of Englishmen in his “English Traits.” But the great essays, no doubt, are those like “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “The Over-Soul,” “Fate,” “Power,” “Culture,” “Worship,” and “Illusions.” These will puzzle no one who has read carefully that first book on “Nature.” They all preach the gospel of intuition, instinctive trust in the Universe, faith in the ecstatic moment of vision into the things that are unseen by the physical eye. Self-reliance, as Emerson’s son has pointed out, means really God-reliance; the Over-Soul–always a stumbling-block to Philistines–means that high spiritual life into which all men may enter and in which they share the life of Deity. Emerson is stern enough in expounding the laws of compensation that run through the universe, but to him the chief law is the law of the ever-ascending, victorious soul.
This radiant optimism permeates his poems. By temperament a singer as well as a seer and sayer, Emerson was nevertheless deficient in the singing voice. He composed no one great poem, his verse presents no ideas that are not found in his prose. In metre and rhyme he is harsh and willful. Yet he has marvelous single phrases and cadences. He ejaculates transports and ecstasies, and though he cannot organize and construct in verse, he is capable here and there of the true miracle of transforming fact and thought into true beauty. Aldrich used to say that he would rather have written Emerson’s “Bacchus” than any American poem.
That the pure, high, and tonic mind of Emerson was universal in its survey of human forces, no one would claim. Certain limitations in interest and sympathy are obvious. “That horrid burden and impediment of the soul which the churches call sin," to use John Morley’s words, occupied his attention but little. Like a mountain climber in a perilous pass, he preferred to look up rather than down. He does not stress particularly those old human words, service and sacrifice. “Anti-scientific, antisocial, anti-Christian” are the terms applied to him by one of his most penetrating critics. Yet I should prefer to say “un-scientific," “unsocial,” and “non-Christian,” in the sense in which Plato and Isaiah are non-Christian. Perhaps it would be still nearer the truth to say, as Mrs. Lincoln said of her husband, “He was not a technical Christian.” He tends to underestimate institutions of every kind; history, except as a storehouse of anecdote, and culture as a steady mental discipline. This is the price he pays for his transcendental insistence upon the supreme value of the Now, the moment of insight. But after all these limitations are properly set down, the personality of Ralph Waldo Emerson remains a priceless possession to his countrymen. The austere serenity of his life, and the perfection with which he represents the highest type of his province and his era, will ultimately become blended with the thought of his true Americanism. A democrat and liberator, like Lincoln, he seems also destined like Lincoln to become increasingly a world’s figure, a friend and guide to aspiring spirits everywhere. Differences of race and creed are negligible in the presence of such superb confidence in God and the soul.
Citizens of Concord in May, 1862, hearing that Henry Thoreau, the eccentric bachelor, had just died of consumption in his mother’s house on Main Street, in his forty-fifth year, would have smiled cannily at the notion that after fifty years their townsman’s literary works would be published in a sumptuous twenty-volume edition, and that critics in his own country and in Europe would rank him with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet that is precisely what has happened. Our literature has no more curious story than the evolution of this local crank into his rightful place of mastership. In his lifetime he printed only two books, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers"–which was even more completely neglected by the public than Emerson’s “Nature"–and “Walden," now one of the classics, but only beginning to be talked about when its shy, proud author penned his last line and died with the words “moose” and “Indian” on his lips.
Thoreau, like all thinkers who reach below the surface of human life, means many different things to men of various temperaments. Collectors of human novelties, like Stevenson, rejoice in his uniqueness of flavor; critics, like Lowell, place him, not without impatient rigor. To some readers he is primarily a naturalist, an observer, of the White of Selborne school; to others an elemental man, a lover of the wild, a hermit of the woods. He has been called the poet-naturalist, to indicate that his powers of observation were accompanied, like Wordsworth’s, by a gift of emotional interpretation of the meaning of phenomena. Lovers of literature celebrate his sheer force and penetration of phrase. But to the student of American thought Thoreau’s prime value lies in the courage and consistency with which he endeavored to realize the gospel of Transcendentalism in his own inner life.
Lovers of racial traits like to remember that Thoreau’s grandfather was an immigrant Frenchman from the island of Jersey, and that his grandmother was Scotch and Quaker. His father made lead pencils and ground plumbago in his own house in Concord. The mother was from New Hampshire. It was a high-minded family. All the four children taught school and were good talkers. Henry, born in 1817, was duly baptized by good Dr. Ripley of the Old Manse, studied Greek and Latin, and was graduated at Harvard in 1837, the year of Emerson’s Phi Beta Kappa address. Even in college the young man was a trifle difficult. “Cold and unimpressible,” wrote a classmate. “The touch of his hand was moist and indifferent. He did not care for people.” “An unfavorable opinion has been entertained of his disposition to exert himself,” wrote President Quincy confidentially to Emerson in 1837, although the kindly President, a year later, in recommending Thoreau as a school-teacher, certified that “his rank was high as a scholar in all the branches and his morals and general conduct unexceptionable and exemplary.”
Ten years passed. The young man gave up school-keeping, thinking it a loss of time. He learned pencil-making, surveying, and farm work, and found that by manual labor for six weeks in the year he could meet all the expenses of living. He haunted the woods and pastures, explored rivers and ponds, built the famous hut on Emerson’s wood-lot with the famous axe borrowed from Alcott, was put in jail for refusal to pay his polltax, and, to sum up much in little, “signed off” from social obligations. “I, Henry D. Thoreau, have signed off, and do not hold myself responsible to your multifarious uncivil chaos named Civil Government.” When his college class held its tenth reunion in 1847, and each man was asked to send to the secretary a record of achievement, Thoreau wrote: “My steadiest employment, if such it can be called, is to keep myself at the top of my condition and ready for whatever may turn up in heaven or on earth.” There is the motto of Transcendentalism, stamped upon a single coin.
For “to be ready for whatever may turn up” is Thoreau’s racier, homelier version of Emerson’s “endless seeker"; and Thoreau, more easily than Emerson, could venture to stake everything upon the quest. The elder man had announced the programme, but by 1847 he was himself almost what Thoreau would call a “committed man," with family and household responsibilities, with a living to earn, and bound, like every professional writer and speaker, to have some measure of regard for his public. But Thoreau was ready to travel lightly and alone. If he should fail in the great adventure for spiritual perfection, it was his own affair. He had no intimates, no confidant save the multitudinous pages of his “Journal,” from which–and here again he followed Emerson’s example–his future books were to be compiled. Many of his most loyal admirers will admit that such a quest is bound, by the very conditions of the problem, to be futile. Hawthorne allegorized it in “Ethan Brand,” and his quaint illustration of the folly of romantic expansion of the self apart from the common interests of human kind is the picture of a dog chasing its own tail. “It is time now that I begin to live,” notes Thoreau in the “Journal," and he continued to say it in a hundred different ways until the end of all his journalizing, but he never quite captured the fugitive felicity. The haunting pathos of his own allegory has moved every reader of “Walden:” “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail.” Precisely what he meant it is now impossible to say, but surely he betrays a doubt in the ultimate efficacy of his own system of life. He bends doggedly to the trail, for Henry Thoreau is no quitter, but the trail leads nowhere, and in the latest volumes of the “Journals” he seems to realize that he has been pursuing a phantom. He dived fearlessly and deep into himself, but somehow he failed to grasp that pearl of great price which all the transcendental prophets assured him was to be had at the cost of diving.
This is not to say that this austere and strenuous athlete came up quite empty-handed. Far from it. The byproducts of his toil were enough to have enriched many lesser men, and they have given Thoreau a secure fame. From his boyhood he longed to make himself a writer, and an admirable writer he became. “For along time,” he says in “Walden,” “I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their reward.” Like so many solitaries, he experienced the joy of intense, long-continued effort in composition, and he was artist enough to know that his pages, carefully assembled from his note books, had pungency, form, atmosphere. No man of his day, not even Lowell the “last of the bookmen,” abandoned himself more unreservedly to the delight of reading. Thoreau was an accomplished scholar in the Greek and Roman classics, as his translations attest. He had some acquaintance with several modern languages, and at one time possessed the best collection of books on Oriental literature to be found in America. He was drenched in the English poetry of the seventeenth century. His critical essays in the “Dial,” his letters and the bookish allusions throughout his writings, are evidence of rich harvesting in the records of the past. He left some three thousand manuscript pages of notes on the American Indians, whose history and character had fascinated him from boyhood. Even his antiquarian hobbies gave him durable satisfaction. Then, too, he had deep delight in his life-long studies in natural history, in his meticulous measurements of river currents, in his notes upon the annual flowering of plants and the migration of birds. The more thoroughly trained naturalists of our own day detect him now and again in error as to his birds and plants, just as specialists in Maine woodcraft discover that he made amusing, and for him unaccountable, blunders when he climbed Katahdin. But if he was not impeccable as a naturalist or woodsman, who has ever had more fun out of his enthusiasm than Thoreau, and who has ever stimulated as many men and women in the happy use of their eyes? He would have had slight patience with much of the sentimental nature study of our generation, and certainly an intellectual contempt for much that we read and write about the call of the wild; but no reader of his books can escape his infection for the freedom of the woods, for the stark and elemental in nature. Thoreau’s passion for this aspect of life may have been selfish, wolflike, but it is still communicative.
Once, toward the close of his too brief life, Thoreau “signed on" again to an American ideal, and no man could have signed more nobly. It was the cause of Freedom, as represented by John Brown of Harper’s Ferry. The French and Scotch blood in the furtive hermit suddenly grew hot. Instead of renouncing in disgust the “uncivil chaos called Civil Government,” Thoreau challenged it to a fight. Indeed he had already thrown down the gauntlet in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” which Garrison had published in the “Liberator” in 1854. And now the death upon the scaffold of the old fanatic of Ossawatomie changed Thoreau into a complete citizen, arguing the case and glorifying to his neighbors the dead hero. “It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived . . . . I hear a good many pretend that they are going to die . . . . Nonsense! I’ll defy them to do it. They haven’t got life enough in them. They’ll deliquesce like fungi, and keep a hundred eulogists mopping the spot where they left off. Only half a dozen or so have died since the world began.” Such passages as this reveal a very different Thoreau from the Thoreau who is supposed to have spent his days in the company of swamp-blackbirds and woodchucks. He had, in fact, one of the highest qualifications for human society, an absolute honesty of mind. “We select granite,” he says, “for the underpinning of our houses and barns; we build fences of stone; but we do not ourselves rest on an underpinning of granite truth, the lowest primitive rock. Our sills are rotten . . . . In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the postoffice. You may depend upon it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long time.”
This hard, basic individualism was for Thoreau the foundation of all enduring social relations, and the dullest observer of twentieth century America can see that Thoreau’s doctrine is needed as much as ever. His sharp-edged personality provokes curiosity and pricks the reader into dissent or emulation as the case may be, but its chief ethical value to our generation lies in the fact that here was a Transcendentalist who stressed, not the life of the senses, though he was well aware of their seductiveness, but the stubborn energy of the will.
The scope of the present book prevents more than a glimpse at the other members of the New England Transcendental group. They are a very mixed company, noble, whimsical, queer, impossible. “The good Alcott,” wrote Carlyle, “with his long, lean face and figure, with his gray worn temples and mild radiant eyes; all bent on saving the world by a return to acorns and the golden age; he comes before one like a venerable Don Quixote, whom nobody can laugh at without loving.” These words paint a whole company, as well as a single man. The good Alcott still awaits an adequate biographer. Connecticut Yankee, peddler in the South, school-teacher in Boston and elsewhere, he descended upon Concord, flitted to the queer community of Fruitlands, was starved back to Concord, inspired and bored the patient Emerson, talked endlessly, wrote ineffective books, and had at last his apotheosis in the Concord School of Philosophy, but was chiefly known for the twenty years before his death in 1888 as the father of the Louisa Alcott who wrote “Little Women.” “A tedious archangel,” was Emerson’s verdict, and it is likely to stand.
Margaret Fuller, though sketched by Hawthorne, analyzed by Emerson, and painted at full length by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, is now a fading figure–a remarkable woman, no doubt, one of the first of American feminists, suggesting George Eliot in her physical unattractiveness, her clear brain, her touch of sensuousness. She was an early-ripe, over-crammed scholar in the classics and in modern European languages. She did loyal, unpaid work as the editor of the “Dial,” which from 1840 to 1844 was the organ of Transcendentalism. She joined the community at Brook Farm, whose story has been so well told by Lindsay Swift. For a while she served as literary editor of the “New York Tribune" under Horace Greeley. Then she went abroad, touched Rousseau’s manuscripts at Paris with trembling, adoring fingers, made a secret marriage in Italy with the young Marquis Ossoli, and perished by shipwreck, with her husband and child, off Fire Island in 1850.
Theodore Parker, like Alcott and “Margaret,” an admirable Greek scholar, an idealist and reformer, still lives in Chadwick’s biography, in Colonel Higginson’s delightful essay, and in the memories of a few liberal Bostonians who remember his tremendous sermons on the platform of the old Music Hall. He was a Lexington farmer’s son, with the temperament of a blacksmith, with enormous, restless energy, a good hater, a passionate lover of all excellent things save meekness. He died at fifty, worn out, in Italy.
But while these three figures were, after Emerson and Thoreau, the most representative of the group, the student of the Transcendental period will be equally interested in watching its influence upon many other types of young men: upon future journalists and publicists like George William Curtis, Charles A. Dana, and George Ripley; upon religionists like Orestes Brownson, Father Hecker, and James Freeman Clarke; and upon poets like Jones Very, Christopher. P. Cranch, and Ellery Channing. There was a sunny side of the whole movement, as T. W. Higginson and F. B. Sanborn, two of the latest survivors of the ferment, loved to emphasize in their talk and in their books; and it was shadowed also by tragedy and the pathos of unfulfilled desires. But as one looks back at it, in the perspective of three-quarters of a century, it seems chiefly something touchingly fine. For all these men and women tried to hitch their wagon to a star.