Emerson: The Roots of Prophecy

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 284
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Evelyn Barish began this book partly to inquire into a silence--Ralph Waldo Emerson's failure to discuss or mourn his father, who died when the boy was seven years old. As she probed the meaning of this loss, she found herself tracing the development of an American prophet, producing a detailed intellectual biography of Emerson's early years up to the writing of Nature. In the process she has painted a vivid picture of American society of the period and of Emerson's unusual family--including his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a brilliant and eccentric woman, who was described by Emerson as spinning at a higher velocity than all the other tops but who also rode around Concord in her shroud! In the years after the death of William Emerson, Mary Moody Emerson came to help her widowed sister-in-law, Ruth, rear her five sons and thus became a deep influence on the young Ralph Waldo. Barish reveals the complexities of the Emersons' family life, the preoccupations with death and questions of sexual identity in the Romantic fantasies that Emerson wrote as a youth, the emotional struggles of his student years at Harvard, and his private study of the unsettling ideas of the skeptical philosopher David Hume. Pursuing a series of small clues, she clears up the obscurity surrounding the crucial breakdown of his health during the vocational crisis of his twenties. Finally, she traces his path out of fear and self-doubt into autonomy, as he overcame crippling grief after the death of his first wife. Barish makes it clear how Emerson the American classic thinker emerged from a welter of conflicts and handicaps previously obscure to us. How did he free himself from the rigor mortis of his own cultural and personal past--from what he called the "corpse-cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street and Harvard College"--to become the liberator of America from the intellectual shackles of its colonial experience? Her answer redefines Emerson's "self-reliance" not in traditional transcendent or idealistic terms but as the result of real life and hard struggle--experience "passed through the fire of thought."

    Originally published in 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6060-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations of Frequently Cited Works
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. Abbreviations of Names
    (pp. xv-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-9)

    This book began as an attempt to understand a silence. Asked to contribute to a collection of essays about Emerson a “consciousness study” comparing his early and late journals, I became aware of two things. The first was the absence of almost any reference to his father, who had died when the boy was seven. The journals, kept from an early age and richly inclusive, referred frequently to his family—his brothers and aunt especially. But there were no comments about his father, William Emerson, no memories, no quotations handed down by mother or aunt—no vision at all. Apparently...

  7. Chapter 1 PARENTS
    (pp. 10-35)

    The family into which Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, probably seemed a model of prudence, propriety, and good feeling to his father’s parishioners. For four years William Emerson had been minister of the First Church in Boston, one of the community’s most important congregations socially and politically, and he was filling the pulpit of America’s oldest church with success. He was a handsome, graceful man, polished in manner, interested in literature, and soon to be cofounder or sponsor of several philanthropic societies and of America’s earliest literary journal. Later, a sister of one of Ralph’s classmates...

  8. Chapter 2 AUNT
    (pp. 36-53)

    William and Ruth Emerson, however, were not alone in influencing Ralph’s growth. Joined to them and deserving nearly equal status was William’s younger sister, Mary Moody Emerson, a figure strikingly different from either parent—indeed, from anyone else. She not only visited the family and helped care for the children during her brother’s lifetime, but after his premature death she and Ruth together set up the boardinghouse that supported themselves and the six children for several crucial years. Both siblings were intellectuals, but where William had prided himself on being a prudent Christian, she was a self-proclaimed romantic; where he...

  9. Chapter 3 YOUTH
    (pp. 54-71)

    In 1828 Emerson wrote to Charles that in response to questions from his fiancée and her family, he had “dragged” the four brothers “over the coals of my vituperations. . . . I cook them up & shall cook in every form. I roast, broil, fry, & mince. I salt and I pepper them well. I make sugar candy of their virtues & if they have said a word against me, I cut them into sausages. So you had best walk with circumspection.” To love for Emerson was also to hunger; the metaphor’s charm lies in the mixture of reckless...

  10. Chapter 4 ROMANCE
    (pp. 72-98)

    “I wonder,” Emerson wrote to Mary in 1821, some months I after graduating from college at age eighteen:

    how you can ever have linked a hope to the wayward destinies of a thing like me, to my dream-like anticipations of greatness. Not many indulge this prophecying vein, and yet there is something noble & striking in the attempting of a man to conceive the bent of his fortunes which begin here, and no where & never end; it is putting out an arm into the unseen world, and when some have done it, they have felt the reaching and beckoning...

  11. Chapter 5 HUME
    (pp. 99-115)

    The antidote to romance would be the hard subjects leading to masculine and professional spheres: philosophy and history, then at the cutting edge of intellectual endeavor. And the way would be through study of David Hume, a great mind who had worked in both fields. Though dead some forty years, Hume was still anathema to the leading Protestant theologians; devoting extended study to him suggests how much it was already characteristic of Emerson to rely on private judgment. The first evidence of this self-directed course came when Emerson set himself to compete for the Bowdoin Prize, offered by Harvard on...

  12. Chapter 6 HISTORY
    (pp. 116-131)

    At the end of the summer of 1823, the twenty-year-old Emerson took a fortnight’s solitary walk through Massachusetts and Connecticut. He had by then been teaching full-time for two years, but he was about to enter a new stage in his life, and he went alone. The journal he kept, designed to be shown to his family, was deliberately outward-looking and unreflective in tone with one exception, a brief Hawthornian tale of “the subterranean man,” a lead miner Emerson met who in perfect solitude had been digging a tunnel through stone for twelve years. He had not yet found any...

    (pp. 132-144)

    When he was seventeen and seeking to differentiate himself from ordinary persons—people who were merely eccentric, lacked common sense, “did jobs,” or possessed “gaunt lantern countenances—who have at one time and another shocked my nerves and nauseated my taste by their hideous aspect”—Emerson determined that the crucial factor was the capacity for fancy and “sublime contemplation.” To the mind with such a gift, he wrote, it is “given to command the disappearance of land and sea, and mankind and things, and they vanish. Then,” he went on, “comes the Enchanter, illuminating the glorious visions from heaven, granting...

    (pp. 145-157)

    In 1838 Emerson, already known as an iconoclast, deeply offended the Unitarian establishment and effectively broke with it when—at the request of the students, not the professors—he delivered a commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School. In that famous speech he referred to Christian doctrines as “cultus” and “mythus.” He told his audience that the church around them was dying—this he asserted was common knowledge. But “the old is for slaves”—let it go. So much for eighteen centuries of doctrine. “The man who aims to speak as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest...

  15. Chapter 9 THE MOONLESS NIGHT
    (pp. 158-176)

    The next year and a half were full of so many reversals for Emerson that only a very determined and resourceful man could have persisted. He left Cambridge around March 1825, undoubtedly hoping that by turning away from books and their associated stresses he would recover. His fragmentary autobiographical notes record that he had spent the summer on his Uncle Ladd’s farm in Newton. There he heard—and did not forget—the words of a fellow farm laborer, a devout Methodist, who remarked to him that men were “always praying,” and that “their prayers were always answered.” In 1826 he...

  16. Chapter 10 THE HOUSE OF PAIN
    (pp. 177-197)

    When Emerson boarded theClematisin the last week of November 1826, bound for Charleston, South Carolina, he was embarking with borrowed money on the kind of trip the poor made only when life was at stake. He did not really know his destination or when he would return.

    Despite its importance, Emerson never named the disease that had changed his life. Whatever his reasons may have been, the result of his studied silence has been that obscurity and confusion have surrounded the issue. Some biographers ignore his illness almost completely; others refer to it very briefly, as “symptoms ....

  17. Chapter 11 THE FRUITS OF SUMMER
    (pp. 198-210)

    The Emerson who returned from the South in June 1827 was a man very different from the youth who only nine months earlier had evoked as his persona a “ghastly child of death and darkness, summon[ed] to mourn, / Companion of the clod brother of worms,”¹ and who had written while on his trip, “I have an appetite for pain.” What he had seen in his exploration of himself and the boundaries of his isolation had led him back to the world. He was twenty-four, eager to work, to be healthy, and to marry.

    The doctrine that Emerson was ready...

  18. Chapter 12 MARRIAGE
    (pp. 211-228)

    While he was maturing these ideas, Emerson pursued his goal at a steady pace that made up for lost time. Within three months of his return he began preaching regularly. At age twenty-four he was the head of the family with many people dependent on him. Ultimately, Emerson’s success in life would have been impossible without his shaping capacity, his sense of timing, and his judgment about when to follow and when to resist the paths taken by others.

    Managing his health was a crucial test of that judgment, for his greatest problem was the slow uncertainty of his recuperation....

  19. Chapter 13 ADAM’S ANSWER
    (pp. 229-249)

    Emerson’s married life was even briefer than it seemed, for within six months Ellen had begun to fail. A springtime trip as far south as Philadelphia did not help, and by their first anniversary Emerson’s prescient remark to Charles, made after her first loss of blood, that he feared she was “too lovely to live long” was being proved right.¹

    It would be desireable to know how Emerson experienced his marriage subjectively, but he left little direct evidence, and speculation would be unproductive. Letters between the couple do not survive, and his journals for this period are essentially notebooks for...

    (pp. 250-258)

    This study has thrown new light on several issues. Two of the broader ones addressed by other scholars are the relation of Emerson’s temperament to his work, and the formal qualities—or deficiencies, as some see them—of that writing. Questions of temperament were first stressed by Stephen Whicher, who perceived beneath Emerson’s nineteenth-century serene and vatic image feelings of “impotence” and “hopelessness.” Though hostile to much in Emerson, Whicher was an original and influential reader, and he affected many who followed him. The eventual implication of this strain of discussion was that some weakness of character kept Emerson from...

  21. Index
    (pp. 259-267)