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but making of the victim the most benignant witch
ever equipped with that utensil.

These ladies, however, were very private persons
and not in the least of the reforming tribe : there are
others who would have peopled Mr. Cabot's page to
whom he gives no more than a mention. We must
add that it is open to him to say that their features
have become faint and indistinguishable to-day with-
out more research than the question is apt to be
worth : they are embalmed in a collective way
the apprehensible part of them, in Mr. Frothingham's
clever History of Transcendentalism in New England.
This must be admitted to be true of even so lively a
"factor," as we say nowadays, as the imaginative,
talkative, intelligent and finally Italianised and ship-
wrecked Margaret Fuller : she is now one of the
dim, one of Carlyle's " then-celebrated " at most. It
seemed indeed as if Mr. Cabot rather grudged her a
due place in the record of the company that Emerson
kept, until we came across the delightful letter he
quotes toward the end of his first volume a letter in-
teresting both as a specimen of inimitable, imperceptible
edging away, and as an illustration of the curiously
generalised way, as if with an implicit protest against
personalities, in which his intercourse, epistolary and
other, with his friends was conducted. There is an


extract from a letter to his aunt on the occasion
of the death of a deeply -loved brother (his own)
which reads like a passage from some fine old chas-
tened essay on the vanity of earthly hopes : strangely
unfamiliar, considering the circumstances. Courteous
and humane to the furthest possible point, to the
point of an almost profligate surrender of his atten-
tion, there was no familiarity in him, no personal
avidity. Even his letters to his wife are courtesies,
they are not familiarities. He had only one style,
one manner, and he had it for everything even for
himself, in his notes, in his journals. But he had it
in perfection for Miss Fuller; he retreats, smiling
and flattering, on tiptoe, as if he were advancing.
" She ever seems to crave," he says in his journal,
" something which I have not, or have not for her."
What he had was doubtless not what she craved, but
the letter in question should be read to see how the
modicum was administered. It is only between the
lines of such a production that we read that a part of
her effect upon him was to bore him ; for his system
was to practise a kind of universal passive hospitality
he aimed at nothing less. It was only because he
was so deferential that he could be so detached ; he
had polished his aloofness till it reflected the image
of his solicitor. And this was not because he was an
"uncommunicating egotist," though he amuses himself
with saying so to Miss Fuller : egotism is the strongest
of passions, and he was altogether passionless. It
was because he had no personal, just as he had almost


no physical wants. " Yet I plead not guilty to the
malice prepense. 'Tis imbecility, not contumacy,
though perhaps somewhat more odious. It seems
very just, the irony with which you ask whether you
may not be trusted and promise such docility. Alas,
we will all promise, but the prophet loiters." He
would not say even to himself that she bored him ;
he had denied himself the luxury of such easy and
obvious short cuts. There is a passage in the lecture
(1844) called "Man the Eeformer," in which he
hovers round and round the idea that the practice of
trade, in certain conditions likely to beget an under-
hand competition, does not draw forth the nobler
parts of character, till the reader is tempted to inter-
rupt him with, " Say at once that it is impossible for
a gentleman ! "

So he remained always, reading his lectures in the
winter, writing them in the summer, and at all
seasons taking wood-walks and looking for hints in
old books.

"Delicious summer stroll through the pastures. ... On
the steep park of Conantum I have the old regret is all this
beauty to perish ? Shall none re-make this sun and wind ; the
sky-blue river ; the river- blue sky ; the yellow meadow, spotted
with sacks and sheets of cranberry-gatherers ; the red bushes ;
the iron-gray house, just the colour of the granite rocks ; the
wild orchard ? "

His observation of Nature was exquisite always
the direct, irresistible impression.

"The hawking of the wild geese flying by night ; the thin
note of the companionable titmouse in the winter day ; the fall


of swarms of flies in autumn, from combats high in the air,
pattering down on the leaves like rain ; the angry hiss of the
wood-birds ; the pine throwing out its pollen for the benefit of
the next century. " . . . (Literary Ethics.)

I have said there was no familiarity in him, but he
was familiar with woodland creatures and sounds.
Certainly, too, he was on terms of free association
with his books, which were numerous and dear to
him ; though Mr. Cabot says, doubtless with justice,
that his dependence on them was slight and that he
was not " intimate " with his authors. They did not
feed him but they stimulated ; they were not his
meat but his wine he took them in sips. But he
needed them and liked them ; he had volumes of
notes from his reading, and he could not have pro-
duced his lectures without them. He liked literature
as a thing to refer to, liked the very names of which
it is full, and used them, especially in his later
writings, for purposes of ornament, to dress the dish,
sometimes with an unmeasured profusion. I open
The Conditct of Life and find a dozen on the page.
He mentions more authorities than is the fashion
to-day. He can easily say, of course, that he follows
a better one that of his well-loved and irrepressibly
allusive Montaigne. In his own bookishness there
is a certain contradiction, just as there is a latent
incompleteness in his whole literary side. Inde-
pendence, the return to nature, the finding out and
doing for one's self, was ever what he most highly
recommended ; and yet he is constantly reminding his


readers of the conventional signs and consecrations
of what other men have done. This was partly
because the independence that he had in his eye was
an independence without ill-nature, without rudeness
(though he likes that word), and full of gentle
amiabilities, curiosities and tolerances ; and partly
it is a simple matter of form, a literary expedient,
confessing its character on the part of one who had
never really mastered the art of composition of
continuous expression. Charming to many a reader,
charming yet ever slightly droll, will remain Emerson's
frequent invocation of the " scholar " : there is such
a friendly vagueness and convenience in it. It is of
the scholar that he expects all the heroic and uncom-
fortable things, the concentrations and relinquish-
ments, that make up the noble life. We fancy this
personage looking up from his book and arm-chair a
little ruefully and saying, "Ah, but why me always
and only 1 Why so much of me, and is there no one
else to share the responsibility ? " " Neither years
nor books have yet availed to extirpate a prejudice
then rooted in me [when as a boy he first saw the
graduates of his college assembled at their anniver-
sary], that a scholar is the favourite of heaven and
earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of

In truth, by this term he means simply the culti-
vated man, the man who has had a liberal education,
and there is a voluntary plainness in his use of it
speaking of such people as the rustic, or the


vulgar, speak of those who have a tincture of
books. This is characteristic of his humility that
humility which was nine-tenths a plain fact (for it is
easy for persons who have at bottom a great fund of
indifference to be humble), and the remaining tenth
a literary habit. Moreover an American reader may
be excused for finding in it a pleasant sign of that
prestige, often so quaintly and indeed so extravagantly
acknowledged, which a connection with literature
carries with it among the people of the United
States. There is no country in which it is more
freely admitted to be a distinction the distinction ;
or in which so many persons have become eminent
for showing it even in a slight degree. Gentlemen
and ladies are celebrated there on this ground who
would not on the same ground, though they might
on another, be celebrated anywhere else. Emerson's
own tone is an echo of that, when he speaks of the
scholar not of the banker, the great merchant, the
legislator, the artist as the most distinguished figure
in the society about him. It is because he has most
to give up that he is appealed to for efforts and
sacrifices. " Meantime I know that a very different
estimate of the scholar's profession prevails in this
country," he goes on to say in the address from which
I last quoted (the Literary Ethics), " and the impor-
tunity with which society presses its claim upon
young men tends to pervert the views of the youth
in respect to the culture of the intellect." The
manner in which that is said represents, surely, a


serious mistake : with the estimate of the scholar's
profession which then prevailed in New England
Emerson could have had no quarrel ; the ground of
his lamentation was another side of the matter. It
was not a question of estimate, but of accidental
practice. In 1838 there were still so many things of
prime material necessity to be done that reading was
driven to the wall ; but the reader was still thought
the cleverest, for he found time as well as intelligence.
Emerson's own situation sufficiently indicates it. In
what other country, on sleety winter nights, would
provincial and bucolic populations have gone forth in
hundreds for the cold comfort of a literary discourse 1
The distillation anywhere else would certainly have
appeared too thin, the appeal too special. But for
many years the American people of the middle
regions, outside of a few cities, had in the most
rigorous seasons no other recreation. A gentleman,
grave or gay, in a bare room, with a manuscript,
before a desk, offered the reward of toil, the refresh-
ment of pleasure, to the young, the middle-aged and
the old of both sexes. The hour was brightest,
doubtless, when the gentleman was gay, like Doctor
Oliver Wendell Holmes. But Emerson's gravity
never sapped his career, any more than it chilled the
regard in which he was held among those who were
particularly his own people. It was impossible to be
more honoured and cherished, far and near, than he
was during his long residence in Concord, or more
looked upon as the principal gentleman in the place.


This was conspicuous to the writer of these remarks
on the occasion of the curious, sociable, cheerful
public funeral made for him in 1883 by all the
countryside, arriving, as for the last honours to the
first citizen, in trains in waggons, on foot, in multi-
tudes. It was a popular manifestation, the most
striking I have ever seen provoked by the death of a
man of letters.

If a picture of that singular and very illustrative
institution the old American lecture -system would
have constituted a part of the filling-in of the ideal
memoir of Emerson, I may further say, returning to
the matter for a moment, that such a memoir would
also have had a chapter for some of those Concord-
haunting figures which are not so much interesting
in themselves as interesting because for a season
Emerson thought them so. And the pleasure of
that would be partly that it would push us to inquire
how interesting he did really think them. That is,
it would bring up the question of his inner reserves
and scepticisms, his secret ennuis and ironies, the
way he sympathised for courtesy and then, with his
delicacy and generosity, in a world after all given
much to the literal, let his courtesy pass for adhesion
a question particularly attractive to those for whom
he has, in general, a fascination. Many entertaining
problems of that sort present themselves for such
readers : there is something indefinable for them in
the mixture of which he was made his fidelity as
an interpreter of the so-called transcendental spirit


and his freedom from all wish for any personal share
in the effect of his ideas. He drops them, sheds
them, diffuses them, and we feel as if there would be
a grossness in holding him to anything so temporal
as a responsibility. He had the advantage, for many
years, of having the question of application assumed for
him by Thoreau, who took upon himself to be, in the
concrete, the sort of person that Emerson's " scholar "
was in the abstract, and who paid for it by having a
shorter life than that fine adumbration. The appli-
cation, with Thoreau, was violent and limited (it
became a matter of prosaic detail, the non-payment
of taxes, the non-wearing of a necktie, the prepara-
tion of one's food one's self, the practice of a rude
sincerity all things not of the essence), so that,
though he wrote some beautiful pages, which read
like a translation of Emerson into the sounds of the
field and forest and which no one who has ever loved
nature in New England, or indeed anywhere, can
fail to love, he suffers something of the amoindrisse-
ment of eccentricity. His master escapes that reduc-
tion altogether. I call it an advantage to have had
such a pupil as Thoreau; because for a mind so
much made up of reflection as Emerson's everything
comes under that head which prolongs and reani-
mates the process produces the return, again and
yet again, on one's impressions. Thoreau must have
had this moderating and even chastening effect. It
did not rest, moreover, with him alone ; the advan-
tage of which I speak was not confined to Thoreau's


case, In 1837 Emerson (in his journal) pronounced
Mr. Bronson Alcott the most extraordinary man and
the highest genius of his time : the sequence of which
was that for more than forty years after that he had the
gentleman living but half a mile away. The opportunity
for the return, as I have called it, was not wanting.

His detachment is shown in his whole attitude
toward the transcendental movement that remark-
able outburst of Romanticism on Puritan ground, as
Mr. Cabot very well names it. Nothing can be more
ingenious, more sympathetic and charming, than
Emerson's account and definition of the matter in his
lecture (of 18 42) called "TheTranscendentalist"; and
yet nothing is more apparent from his letters and
journals than that he regarded any such label or
banner as a mere tiresome flutter. He liked to taste
but not to drink least of all to become intoxicated.
He liked to explain the transcendentalists but did
not care at all to be explained by them : a doctrine
" whereof you know I am wholly guiltless," he says
to his wife in 1842, "and which is spoken of as a
known and fixed element, like salt or meal. So that
I have to begin with endless disclaimers and explana-
tions: 'I am not the man you take me for.'" He
was never the man any one took him for, for the
simple reason that no one could possibly take him for
the elusive, irreducible, merely gustatory spirit for
which he took himself.

" It is a sort of maxim with me never to harp on the omni-
potence of limitations. Least of all do we need any suggestion


of checks and measures ; as if New England were anything else.
... Of so many fine people it is true that being so much
they ought to be a little more, and missing that are naught.
It is a sort of King Rene period ; there is no doing, but rare
thrilling prophecy from bands of competing minstrels."

That is his private expression about a large part of
a ferment in regard to which his public judgment
was that

"That indeed constitutes a new feature in their portrait,
that they are the most exacting and extortionate critics. . . .
These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no
compliment, no smooth speech with them ; they pay you only
this one compliment of insatiable expectation ; they aspire, they
severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watch-tower,
and stand fast unto the end, and without end, then they are
terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot but stand in
awe ; and what if they eat clouds and drink wind, they have
not been without service to the race of man."

That was saying the best for them, as he always
said it for everything ; but it was the sense of their
being "bands of competing minstrels" and their
camp being only a " measure and check," in a society
too sparse for a synthesis, that kept him from wishing
to don their uniform. This was after all but a mis-
fitting imitation of his natural wear, and what he
would have liked was to put that off he did not
wish to button it tighter. He said the best for his
friends of the Dial, of Fruitlands and Brook Farm, in
saying that they were fastidious and critical ; but he
was conscious in the next breath that what there was
around them to be criticised was mainly a negative
Nothing is more perceptible to-day than that their


criticism produced no fruit that it was little else
than a very decent and innocent recreation a kind
of Puritan carnival. The New England world was
for much the most part very busy, but the Dial and
Fruitlands and Brook Farm were the amusement of
the leisure-class. Extremes meet, and as in older
societies that class is known principally by its con-
nection with castles and carriages, so at Concord it
came, with Thoreau and Mr. W. H. Channing, out
of the cabin and the wood-lot.

Emerson was not moved to believe in their fas-
tidiousness as a productive principle even when they
directed it upon abuses which he abundantly recog-
nised. Mr. Cabot shows that he was by no means
one of the professional abolitionists or philanthro-
pists never an enrolled " humanitarian."

" We talk frigidly of Reform until the walls mock us. It is
that of which a man should never speak, but if he have cherished
it in his bosom he should steal to it in darkness, as an Indian
to his bride. . . . Does he not do more to abolish slavery who
works all day steadily in his own garden, than he who goes to
the abolition meeting and makes a speech ? He who does his
own work frees a slave."

I must add that even while I transcribe these words
there comes to me the recollection of the great meet-
ing in the Boston Music Hall, on the first day of
1863, to celebrate the signing by Mr. Lincoln of the
proclamation freeing the Southern slaves of the
momentousness of the occasion, the vast excited mul-
titude, the crowded platform and the tall, spare figure
of Emerson, in the midst, reading out the stanzas


that were published under the name of the Boston
Hymn. They are not the happiest he produced for
an occasion they do not compare with the verses on
the "embattled farmers," read at Concord in 1857,
and there is a certain awkwardness in some of them.
But I well remember the immense effect with which
his beautiful voice pronounced the lines

' ' Pay ransom to the owner
And fill the bag to the brim.
Who is the owner ? The slave is owner,
And ever was. Pay him !"

And Mr. Cabot chronicles the fact that the gran'
rifiuto the great backsliding of Mr. Webster when
he cast his vote in Congress for the Fugitive Slave
Law of 1850 was the one thing that ever moved
him to heated denunciation. He felt Webster's
apostasy as strongly as he had admired his genius.
"Who has not helped to praise him? Simply he
was the one American of our time whom we could
produce as a finished work of nature." There is a
passage in his journal (not a rough jotting, but, like
most of the entries in it, a finished piece of writing),
which is admirably descriptive of the wonderful
orator and is moreover one of the very few portraits,
or even personal sketches, yielded by Mr. Cabot's
selections. It shows that he could observe the
human figure and " render " it to good purpose.

"His splendid wrath, when his eyes become fire, is good to
see, so intellectual it is the wrath of the fact and the cause he
espouses, and not at all personal to himself. . . . These village


parties must be dish-water to him, yet he shows himself just
good-natured, just nonchalant enough ; and he has his own
way, without offending any one or losing any ground. . . . His
expensiveness seems necessary to him ; were he too prudent a
Yankee it would be a sad deduction from his magnificence. I
only wish he would not truckle [to the slave-holders]. I do
not care how much he spends."

I doubtless appear to have said more than enough,
yet I have passed by many of the passages I had
marked for transcription from Mr. Cabot's volumes.
There is one, in the first, that makes us stare as we
come upon it, to the effect that Emerson "could see
nothing in Shelley, Aristophanes, Don Quixote, Miss
Austen, Dickens." Mr. Cabot adds that he rarely
read a novel, even the famous ones (he has a point
of contact here as well as, strangely enough, on two
or three other sides with that distinguished moralist
M. Ernest Eenan, who, like Emerson, was originally
a dissident priest and cannot imagine why people
should write works of fiction) ; and thought Dante " a
man to put into a museum, but not into your house ;
another Zerah Colburn ; a prodigy of imaginative
function, executive rather than contemplative or
wise." The confession of an insensibility ranging
from Shelley to Dickens and from Dante to Miss
Austen and taking Don Quixote and Aristophanes
on the way, is a large allowance to have to make for
a man of letters, and may appear to confirm but
slightly any claim of intellectual hospitality and
general curiosity put forth for him. The truth was
that, sparely constructed as he was and formed not


wastefully, not with material left over, as it were,
for a special function, there were certain chords in
Emerson that did not vibrate at all. I well remem-
ber my impression of this on walking with him in
the autumn of 1872 through the galleries of the
Louvre and, later that winter, through those of the
Vatican : his perception of the objects contained in
these collections was of the most general order. I
was struck with the anomaly of a man so refined and
intelligent being so little spoken to by works of art.
It would be more exact to say that certain chords
were wholly absent ; the tune was played, the tune
of life and literature, altogether on those that re-
mained. They had every wish to be equal to their
office, but one feels that the number was short that
some notes could not be given. Mr. Cabot makes
use of a singular phrase when he says, in speaking
of Hawthorne, for several years our author's neigh-
bour at Concord and a little a very little we gather
his companion, that Emerson was unable to read
his novels he thought them " not worthy of him."
This is a judgment odd almost to fascination we
circle round it and turn it over and over ; it contains
so elusive an ambiguity. How highly he must have
esteemed the man of whose genius The House of the
Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter gave imperfectly
the measure, and how strange that he should not
have been eager to read almost anything that such a
gifted being might have let fall ! It was a rare accident
that made them live almost side by side so long in


the same small New England town, each a fruit of a
long Puritan stem, yet with such a difference of
taste. Hawthorne's vision was all for the evil and
sin of the world ; a side of life as to which Emerson's
eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as
to which the latter's conception of right could be
violated, but he had no great sense of wrong a
strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist no
sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were
certain complications in life which he never sus-
pected. One asks one's self whether that is why he
did not care for Dante and Shelley and Aristophanes
and Dickens, their works containing a considerable
reflection of human perversity. But that still leaves
the indifference to Cervantes and Miss Austen un-
accounted for.

It has not, however, been the ambition of these
remarks to account for everything, and I have arrived
at the end without even pointing to the grounds on
which Emerson justifies the honours of biography,
discussion and illustration. I have assumed his
importance and continuance, and shall probably not
be gainsaid by those who read him. Those who do
not will hardly rub him out. Such a book as Mr.

Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 2 of 24)