Keeping Emerson Around

Classics Transcendentalism

An amusing Chronicle of Higher Education article by William Major and Bryan Sinche calling for the delisting of Ralph Waldo Emerson from the literary canon has been making the rounds. I even linked to it myself, because I enjoy strong words like these:

Because of Emerson's obscurantist and peripatetic style, his meanings -- assuming there are some -- are hidden. Consider this koan, one among many: "It is essential to a true theory of nature and of man, that it should contain somewhat progressive. Uses that are exhausted or that may be, and facts that end in the statement, cannot be all that is true of this brave lodging wherein man is harbored, and wherein all his faculties find appropriate and endless exercise. And all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope."

That is the prose of a crazy person.

Emerson would have approved, because he always counseled against worshipful attitudes towards our literary heroes. It's right there in the first paragraph of "Self-Reliance", in a simpler phrase than the admittedly tangled quote above:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.

Certainly the iconoclastic ex-preacher of Concord, Massachusetts has been handed down to our living generations in the form of a bard and a sage, and that's why we should avoid being too impressed by his greatness.

The kind of stale ancestor-worship that Emerson proclaims against in "Self-Reliance" (Harold Bloom called it "The Anxiety of Influence") is still all around us today, though, and we probably need to listen to Emerson's advice more, not less. Just this weekend I noted two (2) instances of craven ancestor worship in the New York Times Book Review (the worshipped ancestors being, in this case, Joseph Papp and Alfred Hitchcock). To many of us who yearn to break free of the bounds of our artistic past, the beautiful prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson remains a balm, and of course William Major and Bryan Sinche's article is meant to be read humorously, because Emerson's position in the literary canon is completely secure.

Arguing against the greatness of Ralph Waldo Emerson is like arguing against "The Wizard of Oz" or the Beatles. It's a fun exercise, but the battle is over before it begins. I have been slightly disturbed, though, to see a few other publications and blogs linking to the Major/Sinche article in complete seriousness.

I think these linkers are misreading the original piece. I'm not going to explain what I think Emerson stands for today -- I've invoked him in these pages frequently before -- but I do sincerely hope nobody is dissuaded from reading him by this Chronicle of Higher Education article. That would be a sad mistake.

Toss Ralph Waldo Emerson out of the canon? I'd just as soon keep Waldo and toss out the canon. Much of it (Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau) wouldn't exist without him anyway.

(Image: the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts from above, via Google Maps.)

2 Responses to "Keeping Emerson Around"

I got a hearty laugh out of the Emerson piece, too. The way I looked at it was kind of like a "roast" on television, when a bunch of collegues poke fun at someone they really admire. It was in that spirit that I posted my reply to your latest NYTBRR.

by Muzzy on

No, Bloom did not call that the "Anxiety of Influence." He wrote about something much more profound than stale ancestor worship.

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