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First Edition 1888. Rtfirinted 1894


THE following attempts at literary portraiture
originally appeared, with three exceptions, in
American periodicals The Atlantic Monthly,
The Century, and Harpers Weekly. The paper
on Emerson was contributed to Macmillaris
Magazine, that on " The Art of Fiction " to
Longman's and that on M. Guy de Maupassant
to The Fortnightly Revieio. The reminiscences
of Turge'nieff were written immediately after his
death, the article on Anthony Trollope on the
same occasion, before the publication of his
interesting Autobiography, and the appreciation
of Alphonse Daudet before that of his three
latest novels. The date affixed to the sketch of
Robert Louis Stevenson is that of composition.







V. ROBERT Louis STEVENSON ..... 137

VI. Miss WOOLSON 177








MR. ELLIOT CABOT has made a very interesting con-
tribution to a class of books of which our literature,
more than any other, offers admirable examples : he
has given us a biography l intelligently and carefully
composed. These two volumes are a model of re-
sponsible editing I use that term because they con-
sist largely of letters and extracts from letters :
nothing could resemble less the manner in which
the mere bookmaker strings together his frequently
questionable pearls and shovels the heap into the
presence of the public. Mr. Cabot has selected,
compared, discriminated, steered an even course be-
tween meagreness and redundancy, and managed
to be constantly and happily illustrative. And his
work, moreover, strikes us as the better done from
the fact that it stands for one of the two things that
make an absorbing memoir a good deal more than
for the other. If these two things be the conscience
of the writer and the career of his hero, it is not

1 A Memoir of Halph Waldo Emerson ; by James Elliot
Cabot. Two volumes : London, 1887.

* B


difficult to see on which side the biographer of
Emerson lias found himself strongest. Ealph Waldo
Emerson was a man of genius, but he led for nearly
eighty years a life in which the sequence of events
had little of the rapidity, or the complexity, that a
spectator loves. There is something we miss very
much as we turn these pages something that has
a kind of accidental, inevitable presence in almost
any personal record something that may be most
definitely indicated under the name of colour. We
lay down the book with a singular impression of
paleness an impression that comes partly from the
tone of the biographer and partly from the moral
complexion of his subject, but mainly from the
vacancy of the page itself. That of Emerson's per-
sonal history is condensed into the single word Con-
cord, and all the condensation in the world will not
make it look rich. It presents a most continuous
surface. Mr. Matthew Arnold, in his Discourses in
America, contests Emerson's complete right to the
title of a man of letters ; yet letters surely were the
very texture of his history. Passions, alternations,
affairs, adventures had absolutely no part in it. It
stretched itself out in enviable quiet a quiet in
which we hear the jotting of the pencil in the note-
book. It is the very life for literature (I mean for
one's own, not that of another) : fifty years of resi-
dence in the home of one's forefathers, pervaded by
reading, by walking in the woods and the daily
addition of sentence to sentence.


If the interest of Mr. Cabot's pencilled portrait is
incontestable and yet does not spring from variety,
it owes nothing either to a source from which it
might have borrowed much and which it is impos-
sible not to regret a little that he has so completely
neglected : I mean a greater reference to the social
conditions in which Emerson moved, the company
he lived in, the moral air he breathed. If his bio-
grapher had allowed himself a little more of the
ironic touch, had put himself once in a way under
the protection of Sainte-Beuve and had attempted
something of a general picture, we should have felt
that he only went with the occasion. I may over-
estimate the latent treasures of the field, but it seems
to me there was distinctly an opportunity an oppor-
tunity to make up moreover in some degree for the
white tint of Emerson's career considered simply in
itself. We know a man imperfectly until we know
his society, and we but half know a society until we
know its manners. This is especially true of a man of
letters, for manners lie very close to literature. From
those of the New England world in which Emerson's
character formed itself Mr. Cabot almost averts his
lantern, though we feel sure that there would have
been delightful glimpses to be had and that he would
have been in a position that is that he has all the
knowledge that would enable him to help us to
them. It is as if he could not trust himself, know-
ing the subject only too well. This adds to the
effect of extreme discretion that we find in his


volumes, but it is the cause of our not finding certain
things, certain figures and scenes, evoked. What is
evoked is Emerson's pure spirit, by a copious, sifted
series of citations and comments. But we must read
as much as possible between the lines, and the pic-
ture of the transcendental time (to mention simply
one corner) has yet to be painted the lines have
yet to be bitten in. Meanwhile we are held and
charmed by the image of Emerson's mind and the
extreme appeal which his physiognomy makes to
our art of discrimination. It is so fair, so uniform
and impersonal, that its features are simply fine
shades, the gradations of tone of a surface whose
proper quality was of the smoothest and on which
nothing was reflected with violence. It is a plea-
sure of the critical sense to find, with Mr. Cabot's
extremely intelligent help, a notation for such

We seem to see the circumstances of our author's
origin, immediate and remote, in a kind of high, ver-
tical moral light, the brightness of a society at once
very simple and very responsible. The rare single-
ness that was in his nature (so that he was all the
warning moral voice, without distraction or counter-
solicitation), was also in the stock he sprang from,
clerical for generations, on both sides, and clerical in
the Puritan sense. His ancestors had lived long (for
nearly two centuries) in the same corner of New
England, and during that period had preached and
studied and prayed and practised. It is impossible


to imagine a spirit better prepared in advance to be
exactly what it was better educated for its office in
its far-away unconscious beginnings. There is an
inner satisfaction in seeing so straight, although so
patient, a connection between the stem and the
flower, and such a proof that when life wishes to
produce something exquisite in quality she takes her
measures many years in advance. A conscience like
Emerson's could not have been turned off, as it were,
from one generation to another : a succession of
attempts, a long process of refining, was required.
His perfection, in his own line, comes largely from
the non-interruption of the process.

As most of us are made up of ill-assorted pieces,
his reader, and Mr. Cabot's, envies him this trans-
mitted unity, in which there was no mutual hustling
or crowding of elements. It must have been a kind
of luxury to be that is to feel so homogeneous,
and it helps to account for his serenity, his power of
acceptance, and that absence of personal passion
which makes his private correspondence read like a
series of beautiful circulars or expanded cards pour
prendre congt. He had the equanimity of a result ;
nature had taken care of him and he had only to
speak. He accepted himself as he accepted others,
accepted everything ; and his absence of eagerness,
or in other words his modesty, was that of a man
with whom it is not a question of success, who has
nothing invested or at stake. The investment, the
stake, was that of the race, of all the past Emersons


and Bulkeleys and Waldos. There is much that
makes us smile, to-day, in the commotion produced
by his secession from the mild Unitarian pulpit : we
wonder at a condition of opinion in which any utter-
ance of his should appear to be wanting in superior
piety in the essence of good instruction. All that
is changed : the great difference has become the in-
finitely small, and we admire a state of society in
which scandal and schism took on no darker hue ;
but there is even yet a sort of drollery in the spec
tacle of a body of people among whom the author of
The American Scholar and of the Address of 1838 at
the Harvard Divinity College passed for profane,
and who failed to see that he only gave his plea for
the spiritual life the advantage of a brilliant ex-
pression. They were so provincial as to think that
brilliancy came ill - recommended, and they were
shocked at his ceasing to care for the prayer and the
sermon. They might have perceived that he ivas the
prayer and the sermon : not in the least a seculariser,
but in his own subtle insinuating way a sanctifier.

Of the three periods into which his life divides
itself, the first was (as in the case of most men)
that of movement, experiment and selection that
of effort too and painful probation. Emerson had
his message, but he was a good while looking for
his form the form which, as he himself would have
said, he never completely found and of which it was
rather characteristic of him that his later years (with
their growing refusal to give him the wwd), wishing


to attack him in his most vulnerable point, where his
tenure was least complete, had in some degree the
effect of despoiling him. It all sounds rather bare
and stern, Mr. Cabot's account of his youth and
early manhood, and we get an impression of a ter-
rible paucity of alternatives. If he would be neither
a farmer nor a trader he could " teach school " ;
that was the main resource and a part of the general
educative process of the young New Englander who
proposed to devote himself to the things of the
mind. There was an advantage in the nudity, how-
ever, which was that, in Emerson's case at least, the
things of the mind did get themselves admirably well
considered. If it be his great distinction and his
special sign that he had a more vivid conception of
the moral life than any one else, it is probably not
fanciful to say that he owed it in part to the limited
way in which he saw our capacity for living illus-
trated. The plain, God-fearing, practical society
which surrounded him was not fertile in variations :
it had great intelligence and energy, but it moved
altogether in the straightforward direction. On
three occasions later three journeys to Europe he
was introduced to a more complicated world; but
his spirit, his moral taste, as it were, abode always
within the undecorated walls of his youth. There
he could dwell with that ripe unconsciousness of evil
which is one of the most beautiful signs by which
we know him. His early writings are full of quaint
animadversion upon the vices of the place and time,


but there is something charmingly vague, light and
general in the arraignment. Almost the worst he
can say is that these vices are negative and that his
fellow-townsmen are not heroic. We feel that his
first impressions were gathered in a community from
which misery and extravagance, and either extreme,
of any sort, were equally absent. What the life of
New England fifty years ago offered to the observer
was the common lot, in a kind of achromatic picture,
without particular intensifications. It was from this
table of the usual, the merely typical joys and sor-
rows that he proceeded to generalise a fact that
accounts in some degree for a certain inadequacy
and thinness in his enumerations. But it helps to
account also for his direct, intimate vision of the soul
itself not in its emotions, its contortions and per-
versions, but in its passive, exposed, yet healthy
form. He knows the nature of man and the long
tradition of its dangers ; but we feel that whereas
he can put his finger on the remedies, lying for the
most part, as they do, in the deep recesses of virtue,
of the spirit, he has only a kind of hearsay, un-
informed acquaintance with the disorders. It would
require some ingenuity, the reader may say too
much, to trace closely this correspondence between
his genius and the frugal, dutiful, happy but de-
cidedly lean Boston of the past, where there was a
great deal of will but very little fulcrum like a
ministry without an opposition.

The genius itself it seems to me impossible to con-


test I mean the genius for seeing character as a
real and supreme thing. Other writers have arrived
at a more complete expression : Wordsworth and
Goethe, for instance, give one a sense of having
found their form, whereas with Emerson we never
lose the sense that he is still seeking it. But no
one has had so steady and constant, and above all
so natural, a vision of what we require and what we
are capable of in the way of aspiration and inde-
pendence. With Emerson it is ever the special
capacity for moral experience always that and only
that. We have the impression, somehow, that life
had never bribed him to look at anything but the
soul ; and indeed in the world in which he grew up
and lived the bribes and lures, the beguilements and
prizes, were few. He was in an admirable position
for showing, what he constantly endeavoured to
show, that the prize was within. Any one who in
New England at that time could do that was sure of
success, of listeners and sympathy : most of all, of
course, when it was a question of doing it with such
a divine persuasiveness. Moreover, the way in
which Emerson did it added to the charm by word
of mouth, face to face, with a rare, irresistible voice
and a beautiful mild, modest authority. If Mr.
Arnold is struck with the limited degree in which
he was a man of letters I suppose it is because he is
more struck with his having been, as it were, a man
of lectures. But the lecture surely was never more
purged of its grossness the quality in it that sug-


gests a strong light and a big brush than as it
issued from Emerson's lips ; so far from being a
vulgarisation, it was simply the esoteric made
audible, and instead of treating the few as the
many, after the usual fashion of gentlemen on plat-
forms, he treated the many as the few. There was
probably no other society at that time in which he
would have got so many persons to understand that ;
for we think the better of his audience as we read
him, and wonder where else people would have had
so much moral attention to give. It is to be remem-
bered however that during the winter of 1847-48,
on the occasion of his second visit to England, he
found many listeners in London and in provincial
cities. Mr. Cabot's volumes are full of evidence of
the satisfactions he offered, the delights and revela-
tions he may be said to have promised, to a race
which had to seek its entertainment, its rewards
and consolations, almost exclusively in the moral
world. But his own writings are fuller still ; we
find an instance almost wherever we open them.

" All these great and transcendent properties are ours. . . .
Let us find room for this great guest in our small houses. . . .
Where the heart is, there the muses, there the gods sojourn,
and not in any geography of fame. Massachusetts, Connecticut
River, and Boston Bay, you think paltry places, and the ear
loves names of foreign and classic topography. But here we
are, and if we will tarry a little we may corne to learn that here
is best. . . . The Jerseys were handsome enough ground
for Washington to tread, and London streets for the feet of
Milton. . . . That country is fairest which is inhabited by the
noblest minds. "


We feel, or suspect, that Milton is thrown in as a
hint that the London streets are no such great place,
and it all sounds like a sort of pleading consolation
against bleakness.

The beauty of a hundred passages of this kind in
Emerson's pages is that they are effective, that they
do come home, that they rest upon insight and not
upon ingenuity, and that if they are sometimes ob-
scure it is never with the obscurity of paradox.
We seem to see the people turning out into the
snow after hearing them, glowing with a finer glow
than even the climate could give and fortified for a
struggle with overshoes and the east wind.

"Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority,
pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, are not as bandages
over your eyes, that you cannot see ; but live with the privilege
of the immeasurable mind. Not too anxious to visit periodi-
cally all families and each family in your parish connection,
when you meet one of these men or women be to them a divine
man ; be to them thought and virtue ; let their timid aspira-
tions find in you a friend ; let their trampled instincts be
genially tempted out in your atmosphere ; let their doubts
know that you have doubted, and their wonder feel that you
have wondered."

When we set against an exquisite passage like that,
or like the familiar sentences that open the essay on
History (" He that is admitted to the right of reason
is made freeman of the whole estate. What Plato
has thought, he may think ; what a saint has felt,
he may feel ; what at any time has befallen any
man, he can understand ") ; when we compare the
letters, cited by Mr. Cabot, to his wife from Spring-


field, Illinois (January 1853) we feel that liis spiri
tual tact needed to be very just, but that if it was
so it must have brought a blessing.

" Here I am in the deep mud of the prairies, misled I fear
into this bog, not by a will-of-the-wisp, such as shine in bogs,
but by a young New Hampshire editor, who over-estimated the
strength of both of us, and fancied I should glitter in the
prairie and draw the prairie birds and waders. It rains and
thaws incessantly, and if we step off the short street we go up
to the shoulders, perhaps, in mud. My chamber is a cabin ;
my fellow - boarders are legislators. . . . Two or three gover-
nors or ex - governors live in the house. ... I cannot com-
mand daylight and solitude for study or for more than a
scrawl." . . .

And another extract :

"A cold, raw country this, and plenty of night- travelling
and arriving at four in the morning to take the last and worst
bed in the tavern. Advancing day brings mercy and favour to
me, but not the sleep. . . . Mercury 15 below zero. ... I
find well-disposed, kindly people among these sinewy farmers
of the North, but in all that is called cultivation they are only
ten years old."

He says in another letter (in 1860), "I saw
Michigan and its forests and the Wolverines pretty
thoroughly ; " and on another page Mr. Cabot shows
him as speaking of his engagements to lecture in the
West as the obligation to "wade, and freeze, and
ride, and run, and suffer all manner of indignities."
This was not New England, but as regards the country
districts throughout, at that time, it was a question of
degree. Certainly never was the fine wine of philo-
sophy carried to remoter or queerer corners : never


was a more delicate diet offered to "two or three
governors, or ex-governors," living in a cabin. It
was Mercury, shivering in a mackintosh, bearing
nectar and ambrosia to the gods whom he wished
those who lived in cabins to endeavour to feel that
they might be.

I have hinted that the will, in the old New Eng-
land society, was a clue without a labyrinth ; but it
had its use, nevertheless, in helping the young talent
to find its mould. There were few or none ready-
made : tradition was certainly not so oppressive as
might have been inferred from the fact that the air
swarmed with reformers and improvers. Of the
patient, philosophic manner in which Emerson groped
and waited, through teaching the young and preaching
to the adult, for his particular vocation, Mr. Cabot's
first volume gives a full and orderly account. His
passage from the Unitarian pulpit to the lecture-desk
was a step which at this distance of time can hardly
help appearing to us short, though he was long in
making it, for even after ceasing to have a parish of
his own he freely confounded the two, or willingly,
at least, treated the pulpit as a platform. " The
young people and the mature hint at odium and
the aversion of faces, to be presently encountered in
society," he writes in his journal in 1838; but in
point of fact the quiet drama of his abdication was
not to include the note of suffering. The Boston
world might feel disapproval, but it was far too kindly
to make this sentiment felt as a weight : every element


of martyrdom was there but the important ones of
the cause and the persecutors. Mr. Cabot marks the
lightness of the penalties of dissent; if they were
light in somewhat later years for the transcendenta-
lists and fruit-eaters they could press but little on a
man of Emerson's distinction, to whom, all his life,
people went not to carry but to ask the right word.
There was no consideration to give up, he could not
have been one of the dingy if he had tried ; but what
he did renounce in 1838 was a material profession.
He was " settled," and his indisposition to administer
the communion unsettled him. He calls the whole
business, in writing to Carlyle, "a tempest in our
washbowl " ; but it had the effect of forcing him to
seek a new source of income. His wants were few
and his view of life severe, and this came to him,
little by little, as he was able to extend the field in
which he read his discourses. In 1835, upon his
second marriage, he took up his habitation at Con-
cord, and his life fell into the shape it was, in a
general way, to keep for the next half-century. It
is here that we cannot help regretting that Mr. Cabot
had not found it possible to treat his career a little
more pictorially. Those fifty years of Concord at
least the earlier part of them would have been a
siibject bringing into play many odd figures, many
human incongruities : they would have abounded in
illustrations of the primitive New England character,
especially during the time of its queer search for
something to expend itself upon. Objects and occu-


pations have multiplied since then, and now there is
no lack ; but fifty years ago the expanse was wide
and free, and we get the impression of a conscience
gasping in the void, panting for sensations, with some-
thing of the movement of the gills of a landed fish.
It would take a very fine point to sketch Emerson's
benignant, patient, inscrutable countenance during
the various phases of this democratic communion ;
but the picture, when complete, would be one of the
portraits, half a revelation and half an enigma, that
suggest and fascinate. Such a striking personage as
old Miss Mary Emerson, our author's aunt, whose
high intelligence and temper were much of an in-
fluence in his earlier years, has a kind of tormenting
representative value : we want to see her from head
to foot, with her frame and her background ; having
(for we happen to have it), an impression that she
was a very remarkable specimen of the transatlantic
Puritan stock, a spirit that would have dared the
devil. We miss a more liberal handling, are tempted
to add touches of our own, and end by convincing
ourselves that Miss Mary Moody Emerson, grim in-
tellectual virgin and daughter of a hundred ministers,
with her local traditions and her combined love of
empire and of speculation, would have been an in-
spiration for a novelist. Hardly less so the charming
Mrs. Eipley, Emerson's life-long friend and neighbour,
most delicate and accomplished of women, devoted to
Greek and to her house, studious, simple and dainty
an admirable example of the old-fashioned New


England lady. It was a freak of Miss Emerson's
somewhat sardonic humour to give her once a broom-
stick to carry across Boston Common (under the
pretext of a " moving "), a task accepted with docility

Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 1 of 24)