Monday, October 16, 2006

Griswold on Emerson

Rufus Wilmot Griswold, aside from having a remarkable name, produced a large number of rather lovely books on literature. In The Prose Writers of America. With a survey of the history, condition, and prospects of American literature (1847), he surveys the writers of the day, catching plenty of folks who don't make more recent texts. His treatment of Ralph Waldo Emerson is interesting, and it includes a brief comment on William B. Greene.

[Born 1803.]
THE development of the transcendental philosophy in New England is deserving of more consideration than can here be bestowed upon it. I can remember the period when the general principles of Locke, with a slight infusion of Reid and Dugald Stuart, constituted the orthodox philosophical creed of New England. The first shock given to that system was Professor Marsh's calm, profound and luminous exposition of the doctrines of Coleridge, in his prefaces to the American editions of The Friend and the Aids to Reflection. This was followed by Mr. Brownson's various writings and lectures, developing, in a popular form, the philosophy of Victor Cousin and the French school. Almost everybody who attended a lecture or a sermon by Mr. Brownson, was at once transformed into a metaphysician, and could discourse very decisively on the essential distinction between reason and reasoning, and could look with compassion on all who held to the old philosophy, or were defective in insight. Cousin was very grateful to his American disciple, and repeatedly spoke of him as the first metaphysician in the United States. But there have been changes of the moon since then, and it is needless to say that Mr. Brownson now shines in the light of a different system.

Contemporary with Mr. Brownson, though very different in mind and character, was Mr. Emerson, the transcendentalist par eminence, and the most original of the school. Neither Coleridge nor Cousin was sufficient for him, but in subtlety and daring he rather approaches Fichte. He is the son of a Unitarian clergyman of Boston, and in 1821, when about seventeen years of age, was graduated at Harvard University. Having turned his attention to theology, he was ordained minister of one of the congregations of his native city, but embracing soon after some peculiar views in regard to the forms of worship, he abandoned his profession, and retiring to the quiet village of Concord, after the manner of an Arabian prophet, gave himself up to "thinking," preparatory to his appearance as a revelator. His oration entitled Man-Thinking, delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society in the summer of 1837, attracted a great deal of attention, but less than his address before the senior class in Divinity College at Cambridge in the following year. He began now to be understood. His peculiarity was not so much his system as his point of view. He did not pretend to reason, but to discover; he was not a logician, but a seer; he announced, not argued. His prominent doctrine is, that the deity is impersonal,—mere being, and comes to self-consciousness only in individuals. The distinction of this from pantheism is this, that while pantheism "sinks man and nature in God," Mr. Emerson "sinks God and nature in man."

In 1838 Mr. Emerson published Literary Ethics, an oration, and in the following year a small volume entitled Nature. In 1840 he commenced The Dial, a magazine of literature, philosophy and religion, which was continued four years; in 1841 he published The Method of Nature, an oration; Man the Reformer, a lecture on some of the prominent features of the present age; three Lectures on the Times, and the first series of his Essays. In the next two or three years he published little except his papers in The Dial, but in 1844 be gave to the public lectures on New England Reformers, the Young American, and Negro Emancipation in the West Indies, and the second series of his Essays. He has since delivered lectures on Swedenborg, Napoleon, New England, and other subjects, which are regarded by some who have heard them as decidedly the finest of his works; and in December, 1846, he published a volume of Poems, which have peculiar and remarkable merits.

Mr. Emerson is "a seeker with no Past at his back." He evidently aims to break the moulds of popular beliefs, and to get at the heart of the matter, to look around and within with the fresh vision of "a first man," and like Adam in the garden to put his own names upon what he sees. He has none of the ill humour which denies because others affirm; he simply takes leave to look for himself. While therefore he continually sees and represents things in singular lights, and sometimes inverts them, so that it would seem to be an inevitable conclusion that either he is crazy or we, on the other hand he regenerates our faith, by giving us an original testimony to great truths. Thus, his essay on The Over-Soul, notwithstanding its unscriptural title, is as orthodox as St. Paul.

Whatever appearances there may be to the contrary, Mr. Emerson is no destructive. He is a builder, a born and anointed poet. His demand is Truth. He must stand face to face with the Absolute. Insatiable as is his craving for truth, he is always orderly and serene. He gives no sign that any deterring considerations have ever occurred to him. Whatever suggestions of fear or policy there may be, they are less than cobwebs to him. They cannot impede, they do not even tease him. He is as self-possessed and assured as if he carried in his pocket a commission, signed and sealed of all mankind, to say just the thing that he is saying.

Mr. Emerson is never commonplace. Hence we infer that he is a genuine worker. He cannot, like a host of others, write in his sleep. Every thing is wrought out by his own thought. I have sometimes fancied that he must, in his listless moments, repine at the stubbornness of his genius, which can bear to be mute, but which cannot declaim, nor tolerate in him any attempt at "fine writing." There is a very common talent, passing for a great deal more than it is worth,—the sole talent of many quite distinguished writers,—which lies in the putting of words together so fitly and musically that they seem to sing a new truth, when it is "an old song," with no variations. Mr. Emerson is utterly deficient in this power. He cannot juggle with words. He has no bank-notes: nothing but bullion. If he states an old and world-known truth, he does it with that felicity of expression which gives us a fresh sense of its value, and we confess that the same thing was never before so well said. He fits his word to his thought, consulting no ear but his own.

In reading Mr. Emerson's works we must observe Coleridge's admirable rule: "When you cannot understand an author's ignorance, account yourself ignorant of his understanding." At the slightest glance we shall find here and there in them much to inspire respect for his sagacity and admiration for his genius. When therefore he seems to be unintelligible, or absurd, modesty dictates that we should at least entertain the question whether the defect be in him or us. If we cannot explain his ignorance, we shall do wisely to distrust our own understanding. It is possible, nay, it is in a very high degree probable, not only that he really has a meaning, but that he has a very good and a very great meaning, and that he has expressed it in the very best form, so that, were we as keen-sighted as he, we should recognise the beauty both of the thought and the expression.

An ingenious friend and admirer of Mr. Emerson, a few years since, put forth some very amusing pencil sketches illustrative of I his hard sayings. They were caricatures, it is true; but they implied a great compliment. How many of our writers of established fame use language sufficiently picturesque to admit of such illustrations?

—In connection with the opposition to the old school of metaphysics may be mentioned Doctor Walker, the Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University; the Reverend Theodore Parker, and the Reverend William B. Greene. Doctor Walker delivered in Boston a few years ago three series of lectures on Natural Religion, in which he steered between the extremes of both parties, confined himself to no particular system, but in his general principles coincided very nearly with Cousin, as modified by Jouffroy. Mr. Parker may also be classed with the school of Cousin, but his metaphysics are confusedly blended with radical notions regarding government, and heretical notions regarding religion,—a kind of aggregation in one mind of what is most offensive in the different French and German schools. Mr. Greene is a powerful and original thinker, with no other point of agreement with the transcendentalists than the negative one of rejection of Locke.

Opposed to all these is Mr. Bowen, the well-known editor of the North American Review, who hates transcendentalism in all its forms, deeming it, as developed in New England, a monstrosity, made up of cant, sentimentalism, and unreason. A receiver of the general principles of Locke, as modified by the progress of philosophical discovery, he enforces them with great energy and determination. Though I dissent from many of his opinions, and question the validity of his positions, I still think that his disquisitions evince a strength, breadth, and acuteness of understanding, a knowledge of his subjects, and a directness of style which place them very high among American contributions to the science of metaphysics.

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