Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Ralph Waldo Emerson

So far, every line of Emerson's which I've read has been either banal or ridiculous or both. I have yet to become interested by Emerson; I first became interested in Emerson when I learned, a couple of decades ago, that William Gaddis was a fan. It happens sometimes: A writer I love loves a writer I hate. Hunter S Thompson had a great admiration for Ernest Hemingway. I do not feel obliged to learn why.

In my childhood and early adulthood I was surrounded by volumes of the Modern Library, and less so since then. Not that I have a low opinion of the Modern Library. But I did have to check to see whether it still existed. (It does.) This paperback volume before me, a Modern Library College Edition of The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the fattest Modern Library volume I have ever seen. It has about 960 pages. That's more than the Modern Library hardcover edition of Ulysses. I must've gotten it at a thrift store. It begins with a Foreword by Tremaine McDowell, of whom I've never heard a thing. McDowell's Foreword begins: "Books, Emerson insisted more than a century ago, are for the student's idle hours; let him read only when he cannot think for himself." That would be a loathesome thing for a philistine businessman to say about his employees; for an author to say it about students is not profound, it's just ridiculous.

After McDowell's Foreword, this volume has an Introduction by Brooks Atkinson, whom I know by name and reputation, which begins, "Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first philosopher of the American spirit," and I don't want to read else by Brooks Atkinson, ever.

Avoiding Emerson is much more difficult. The stout Modern Library paperback before me contains as its penultimate piece the speech which Emerson delivered at the memorial service for Abraham Lincoln the 19th of April, 1865, in which he manages to insult Lincoln somewhat less than his good friend Nathanial Hawthorne had done in the piece which appeared in The Atlantic in 1862 and begins, "Of course, there was one other personage, in the class of statesman, whom I should have been truly mortified to leave Washington without seeing; since (temporarily, at least, and by force of circumstances) he was the man of men." Somewhat.

Both Hawthorne's piece and Emerson's tell me much more about Hawthorne and Emerson than about Lincoln. I much prefer Walt Whitman's piece, which, for one thing, strikes me as actually being about Abraham Lincoln, and not about the author:

I shall not easily forget the first time I ever saw Abraham Lincoln. It must have been about the 18th or 19th of February, 1861. It was a rather pleasant afternoon in New York City, as he arrived there from the West, to remain a few hours and then pass on to Washington to prepare for his inauguration. I saw him in Broadway, near the site of the present post office. He came down, I think from Canal Street, to stop at the Astor House.

The broad spaces, sidewalks, and street in that neighborhood and for some distance were crowded with solid masses of people — many thousands. The omnibuses and other vehicles had all been turned off, leaving an unusual hush in that busy part of the city. Presently two or three shabby hack barouches made their way with difficulty through the crowd and drew up at the Astor House entrance.

A tall figure stepped out of the center of these barouches, paused leisurely on the sidewalk, looked up at the granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotel — then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turned around for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds.

There were no speeches, no compliments, no welcome — as far as I could hear, not a word said. Still, much anxiety was concealed in that quiet. Cautious persons had feared some marked insult or indignity to the president-elect — for he possessed no personal popularity at all in New York City and very little political. But it was evidently tacitly agreed that if the few political supporters of Mr. Lincoln present would entirely abstain from any demonstration on their side, the immense majority — who were anything but supporters — would abstain on their side also. The result was a sulky, unbroken silence, such as certainly never before characterized a New York crowd.

From the top of an omnibus (driven up on side, close by, and blocked by the curbstone and the crowds) I had, I say, a capital view of it all and especially of Mr. Lincoln: his looks and gait; his perfect composure and coolness; his unusual and uncouth height; his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat pushed back on his head; dark-brown complexion; seamed and wrinkled yet canny-looking face; black, bush head of hair; disproportionately long neck; and his hands held behind, as he stood observing the people.

He looked with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces returned the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of comedy, almost farce, such as Shakespeare puts in his blackest tragedies. The crowd that hemmed around consisted, I should think, of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friend, while, I have no doubt (so frenzied were the ferments of the time) many an assassin’s knife and pistol lurked in hip- or breast-pocket there — ready, soon as break and riot came.

But no break or riot came. The tall figure gave another relieving stretch or two of arms and legs; then, with moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown-looking persons, ascended the portico steps of the Astor House, disappeared through its broad entrance — and the dumb-show ended.


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