Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am reading two volumes of Emerson’s writings. One is a luxurious, leather bound collection of his essays and lectures. The other is a marvelous little cloth bound book of the sort that were common in the early twentieth century (this one was published by T.Y. Crowell & Co, but is similar to the Modern Library or Everyman editions you might find of more or less classic or otherwise edifying works), containing his early poems.

The essays made me wish I had a bit of time to consider Emerson as a philosopher, because I will say that I think he’s probably underrated by modern academics. I’m not saying he’s a first rate, original thinker, but still criminally underrated. But, while obviously, I have time to consider him, what I really mean is the sort of stuff I don’t have time for (like going back and re-reading Kant side by side with Emerson in a comprehensive fashion).

Emerson one had the stated intention (though maybe not the ambition) of becoming a pastor when he was in college, and while that career did exist for a while, he sloughed it off. But his lectures have the tone of a sort of secular sermon. My own church and the churches I attended in my youth, were not of the fire and brimstone mentality and were often intellectually probing and sophisticated. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of ‘off weeks’ when the priest talks about his cat, but perhaps the styles can be linked. Not saying the my current Catholic parish or the Episcopal parishes of my father were particularly in the style of American Transcendentalism, but rather that they perhaps share something of an origin story. Oh, and that Emerson, despite claiming not to be much of an orator, took something useful from his time as a pastor.

I remember distinctly a poem by Emerson appearing in a high school or middle school textbook. I can’t remember what it was. These poems seem equally forgettable. His mixture of the conversational, urgent, and erudite, so masterful in his essays, feels so bland here. If they had had creative writing programs back then, I’d say that he possess the nineteenth century equivalent of the sameness that afflicts so many MFA graduates (many are wonderful, but the criticism of an ‘MFA style’ seems not entirely misplaced to me).

The essays would be wonderful to bring to Thailand, because they can be read and re-read, but the volume itself is too big to lug around a tropical metropolis. The poems would be easy to bring, but wouldn’t provide the value one needs in a travel book.


Advertisements