Maurice G. (Maurice Garland) Fulton.

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comparison. Emerson's observation has not the disinterested
quality of the observation of these masters. It is the observation
of a man systematically benevolent, as Hawthorne's observation
in Our Old Home is the work of a man chagrined. Hawthorne's
literary talent is of the first order. His subjects are generally
not to me subjects of the highest interest; but his literary tal-
ent is of the first order, the finest, I think, which America has
yet produced finer, by much, than Emerson's. Yet Our Old
Home is not a masterpiece any more than English Traits. In
neither of them is the observer disinterested enough. The
author's attitude in each of these cases can easily be under-
stood and defended. Hawthorne was a sensitive man, so situated
in England that he was perpetually in contact with the British
Philistine; and the British Philistine is a trying personage.
Emerson's systematic benevolence comes from what he himself
calls somewhere his "persistent optimism;" and his persistent
optimism is the root of his greatness and the source of his
charm. But "still let us keep our literary conscience true, and
judge every kind of literary work by the laws really proper to
it. The kind of work attempted in the English Traits and in
Our Old Home is work which cannot be done perfectly with a
bias such as that given by Emerson's optimism or by Haw-
thorne's chagrin. Consequently, neither English Traits nor Our
Old Home is a work of perfection in its kind.

Not with the Miltons and Grays, not with the Platos and
Spinozas, not with the Swifts and Voltaires, not with the
Montaignes and Addisons, can we rank Emerson. His work of
various kinds, when one compares it with the work done in a


corresponding kind by these masters, fails to stand the com-
parison. No man could see this clearer than Emerson himself.
It is hard not to feel despondency when we contemplate our
failures and shortcomings; and Emerson, the least self -nattering
and the most modest of men, saw so plainly what was lacking
to him that he had his moments of despondency. "Alas, my
friend," he writes in reply to Carlyle, who had exhorted him to
creative work "Alas, my friend, I can do no such gay thing as
you say. I do not belong to the poets, but only to a low depart-
ment of literature the reporters; suburban men." He dep-
recated his friend's praise; praise "generous to a fault," he calls
it; praise "generous to the shaming of me cold, fastidious,
ebbing person that I am. Already in a former letter you had
said too much good of my poor little arid book, which is as sand
to my eyes. I can only say that I heartily wish the book were
better; and I must try and deserve so much favor from the
kind gods by a bolder and truer living in the months to come
such as may perchance one day release and invigorate this
cramped hand of mine. When I see how much work is to be done;
what room for a poet, for any spiritualist, in this great intelli-
gent, sensual, and avaricious America I lament my fumbling
fingers and stammering tongue." Again, as late as 1870, he
writes to Carlyle: "There is no example of constancy like yours,
and it always stings my stupor into temporary recovery and
wonderful resolution to accept the noble challenge. But 'the
strong hours conquer us;' and I am the victim of miscellany
miscellany of designs, vast debility, and procrastination."
The forlorn note belonging to the phrase, "vast debility," recalls
that saddest and most discouraged of writers, the author of
Obermann, Senancour, with whom Emerson has in truth a cer-
tain kinship. He has, in common with Senancour, his pureness,
his passion for nature, his single eye; and here we find him con-
fessing, like Senancour, a sense in himself of sterility and im-

And now I think I have cleared the ground. I have given up
to envious Time as much of Emerson as Time can fairly expect ever


to obtain. We hgygjriotjn Emerson ft great. pnpt, a grrp-a>-writpT ;
a great phtiosophy maker, His relation to us is not that of one
of those personages; yet it is a relation of, I think, even superior
importance. His relation to us is more like that of the Roman
Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius is not a great
writer, a great philosophy maker; he is the friend and aider of
those who would live in the spirit. Emerson is the same. He is
the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit. All
the points in thinking which are necessary for this purpose he
takes; but he does not combine them into a system, nor present
them as a regular philosophy. Combined in a system by a man
with the requisite talent for this kind of thing, they would be
less useful than as Emerson gives them to us; and the man with
the talent so to systematize them would be less impressive
than Emerson. They do very well as they now stand like
"bowlders," as he says in "paragraphs incompressible, each
sentence an infinitely repellent particle." In such sentences his
main points recur again and again, and become fixed in the

We all know them. First and foremost, character. Character
is everything. "That which all things tend to educe which
freedom, cultivation, intercourse, revolutions, go to form and
deliver is character." Character and self-reliance. "Trust
thyself! every heart vibrates to that iron string." And yet we
have our being in a not ourselves. "There is a power above and
behind us, and we are the channels of its communications." But
our lives must be pitched higher. "Life must be lived on a higher
plane; we must go up to a higher platform, to which we are
always invited to ascend; there the whole scene changes." The
good we need is forever close to us, though we attain it not.
"On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably
dying." This good is close to us, moreover, in our daily life,
and in the familiar, homely places. "The unremitting retention
of simple and high sentiments in obscure duties that is the
maximum for us. Let us be poised and wise, and our own today.
Let us treat the men and women well treat them as if they were
real; perhaps they are. Men live in their fancy, like drunkards


whose hands are too soft and tremulous for successful labor. I
settle myself ever firmer hi the creed, that we should not post-
pone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by
whomsoever we deal with; accepting our actual companions and
circumstances, however humble or odious, as the mystic officials
to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us.
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 come to learn that here is best. See to it only that thyself
is here." Furthermore, the good is close to us all. "I resist the
skepticism of our education and of our educated men. I do not
believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are
organic. I do not recognize, besides the class of the good and
the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conserva-
tives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in
the classes. Every man has a call of the power to do something
unique." Exclusiveness is deadly. "The exclusive hi social life
does not see that he excludes himself from enjoyment in the
attempt to appropriate it. The exclusionist in religion does not
see that he shuts the door of Heaven on himself in striving to
shut out others. Treat men as pawns and ninepins, and you
shall suffer as well as they. If you leave out their heart you
shall lose your own. The selfish man suffers more from his
selfishness than he from whom that selfishness withholds some
important benefit." A sound nature will be inclined to refuse
ease and self-indulgence. "To live with some rigor of temperance,
or some extreme of generosity, seems to be an asceticism which
common good-nature would appoint to those who are at ease
and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the
great multitude of suffering men." Compensation, finally, is the
great law of life; it is everywhere, it is sure, and there is no
escape from it. This is that "law alive and beautiful, which
works over our heads and under our feet. Pitiless, it avails
itself of our success when we obey it, and of our ruin when we
contravene it. We are all secret believers in it. It rewards actions
after their nature. The reward of a thing well done is to have


done it. The thief steals from himself, the swindler swindles
himself. You must pay at last your own debt."

This is tonic indeed! And let no one object that it is too
general; that more practical, positive direction is what we mean;
that Emerson's optimism, self-reliance, and indifference to favor-
able conditions for our life and growth have in them something
of danger. "Trust thyself;" "what attracts my attention shall
have it;" "though thou shouldest walk the world over thou
shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble;"
"what we call vulgar society is that society whose poetry is not
yet written, but which you shall presently make as enviable
and renowed as any." With maxims like these, we surely, it
may be said, run some risk of being made too well satisfied with
our own actual self and state, however crude and imperfect
they may be. "Trust thyself?" It may be said that the common
American or Englishman is more than enough disposed already
to trust himself. I often reply, when our sectarians are praised
for following conscience: Our people are very good in following
their conscience; where they are not so good is in ascertaining
whether their conscience tells them right. "What attracts my
attention shall have it?" Well, that is our people's plea when
they run after the Salvation Army, and desire Messrs. Moody
and Sankey. "Thou shalt not be able to find a condition in-
opportune or ignoble?" But think of the turn of the good people
of our race for producing a life of hideousness and immense
ennui; think of that specimen of your own New England life
which Mr. Howells gives us in one of his charming stories which
I was reading lately; think of the life of that ragged New England
farm in the Lady of the Aroostook; think of Deacon Blood, and
Aunt Maria, and the straight-backed chairs with black horse-
hair seats, and Ezra Perkins with perfect self-reliance depositing
his travelers in the snow ! I can truly say that hi the little which
I have seen of the life of New England, I am more struck with
what has been achieved than with the crudeness and failure.
But no doubt there is still a great deal of crudeness also. Your
own novelists say there is, and I suppose they say true. In the
New England, as hi the Old, our people have to learn, I suppose,


not that their modes of life are beautiful and excellent already;
they have rather to learn that they must transform them.

To adopt this line of objection to Emerson's deliverances
would, however, be unjust. In the first place, Emerson's points
are in themselves true, if understood in a certain high sense;
they are true and fruitful. And the right work to be done, at
the hour when he appeared, was to affirm them generally and
absolutely. Only thus could he break through the hard and
fast barrier of narrow, fixed ideas, which he found confronting
him, and win an entrance for new ideas. Had he attempted
developments which may now strike us as expedient, he would
have excited fierce antagonism, and probably effected little or
nothing. The time might come for doing other work later, but
the work which Emerson did was the right work to be done then.

In the second place, strong as was Emerson's optimism, and
unconquerable as was his belief in a good result to emerge from
all which he saw going on around him, no misanthropical satirist
ever saw shortcomings and absurdities more clearly than he did,
or exposed them more 1 courageously. When he sees "the mean-
ness," as he calls it, "of American politics," he congratulates
Washington on being "long already happily dead," on being
"wrapt in his shroud and forever safe." With how firm a
touch he delineates the faults of your two great political parties
of forty years ago ! The Democrats, he says, "have not at heart
the ends which give to the name of democracy what hope and
virtue are in it. The spirit of our American radicalism is de-
structive and aimless; it is not loving; it has no ulterior and divine
ends, but is destructive only out of hatred and selfishness. On
the other side, the conservative party, composed of the most
moderate, able, and cultivated part of the population, is timid,
and merely defensive of property. It vindicates no right, it
aspires to no real good, it brands no crime, it proposes no generous
policy. From neither party, when in power, has the world any
benefit to expect in science, art, or humanity, at all commen-
surate with the resources of the nation." Then with what subtle
though kindly irony he follows the gradual withdrawal in New
England, hi the last half century, of tender consciences from the


social organizations the bent for experiments such as that of
Brook Farm and the like follows it in all its "dissidence of
dissent and Protestantism of the Protestant religion!" He even
loves to rally the New Englander on his philanthropical activity,
and to find his beneficence and its institutions a bore! "Your
miscellaneous popular charities, the education at college of fools,
the building of meetinghouses to the vain end to which many of
these now stand, alms to sots, and the thousandfold relief
societies though I confess with shame that I sometimes suc-
cumb and give the dollar, yet it is a wicked dollar, which by and
by I shall have the manhood to withhold." "Our Sunday
schools and churches and pauper societies are yokes to the neck.
We pain ourselves to please nobody. There are natural ways of
arriving at the same ends at which these ami, but do not arrive."
"Nature does not like our benevolence or our learning much
better than she likes our frauds and wars. When we come out
of the caucus, or the bank, or the Abolition convention, or the
Temperance meeting, or the Transcendental club, into the fields
and woods, she says to us: 'So hot, my little sir?' ' :

Yes, truly, his insight is admirable ; his truth is precious. Yet
the secret of his effect is not even in these; it is in his temper.
It is in the hopeful, serene beautiful temper wherewith these, in
Emerson, are indissolubly joined; in which they work, and have
then- being. He says himself : "We judge of a man's wisdom by
his hope, knowing that the perception of the inexhaustibleness of
nature is an immortal youth." If this be so, how wise is Emer-
son ! for never had man such a sense of the inexhaustibleness of
nature, and such hope. It was the ground of his being; it never
failed him. Even when he is sadly avowing the imperfection of
his literary power and resources, lamenting his fumbling fingers
and stammering tongue, he adds: "Yet, as I tell you, I am very
easy in my mind and never dream of suicide. My whole philos-
ophy which is very real teaches acquiescence and optimism.
Sure I am that the right word will be spoken, though I cut out
my tongue." In his old age, with friends dying and life failing,
his note of cheerful, forward-looking hope is still the same. "A
multitude of young men are growing up here of high promise,


and I compare gladly the social poverty of my youth with the
power on which these draw." His abiding word for us, the word
by which being dead he yet speaks to us, is this: "That which
befits us, embosomed hi beauty and wonder as we are, is cheer-
fulness and courage, and the endeavor to realize our aspirations.
Shall not the heart, which has received so much, trust the Power
by which it lives?"

One can scarcely overrate the importance of thus holding
fast to happiness and hope. It gives to Emerson's work an in-
valuable virtue. As Wordsworth's poetry is, in my judgment,
the most important work done in verse, in our language, during
the present century, so Emerson's Essays are, I think, the most
important work done in prose. His work is more jmpQitant than
Carlyle S. Let us be just to Carlyle, provoking though he often
is. Not only has he that genius of his which makes Emerson say
truly of his letters, that "they savor always of eternity." More
than this may be said of him. The scope and upshot of his
teaching are true; "his guiding genius," to quote Emerson
again, is really "his moral sense, his perception of the sole im-
portance of truth and justice." But consider Carlyle's temper,
as we have been considering Emerson's ! take his own account of
it! "Perhaps London is the proper place for me after all, seeing
all places are improper: who knows? Meanwhile, I lead a most
dyspeptic, solitary, self -shrouded life; consuming, if possible in
silence, my considerable daily allotment of pain; glad when any
strength is left in me for writing, which is the only use I can see
in myself too rare a case of late. The ground of my existence
is black as death; too black, when all void too; but at times there
paint themselves on it pictures of gold, and rainbow, and light-
ning; all the brighter for the black ground, I suppose. Withal,
I am very much of a fool." No, not a fool, but turbid and mor-
bid, willful and perverse. "We judge of a man's wisdom by
his hope."

Carlyle's perverse attitude towards happiness cuts him off
from hope. He fiercely attacks the desire for happiness; his
grand point in Sartor, his secret in which the soul may find rest,
is that one shall cease to desire happiness, that one should learn


to say to oneself: "What if thou wert born and predestined not
to be happy, but to be unhappy !" He is wrong; Saint Augustine
is the better philosopher, who says: "Act we must in pursuance
of what gives us most delight." Epictetus and Augustine can
be severe moralists enough; but both of them know and frankly
say that the desire for happiness is the root and ground of man's
being. Tell him and show him that he places his happiness
wrong, that he seeks for delight where delight will never be
really found; then you illumine and further him. But you
only confuse him by telling him to cease to desire happiness:
and you will not tell him this unless you are already confused

Carlyle preached the dignity of labor, the necessity of right-
eousness, the love of veracity, the hatred of shams. He is said
by many people to be a great teacher, a great helper for us, be-
cause he does so. But what is the due and eternal result of labor,
righteousness, veracity? Happiness. And how are we drawn
to them by one who, instead of making us feel that with them is
happiness, tells us that perhaps we were predestined not to be
happy but to be unhappy?

You will find, in especial, many earnest preachers of our
popular religion to be fervent in their praise and admiration of
Carlyle. His insistence on labor, righteousness, and veracity,
pleases them; his contempt for happiness pleases them too. I
read the other day a tract against smoking, although I do not
happen to be a smoker myself. "Smoking," said the tract, "is
liked because it gives agreeable sensations. Now it is a positive
objection to a thing that it gives agreeable sensations. An
earnest man will expressly avoid what gives agreeable sensations."
Shortly afterwards I was inspecting a school, and I found the
children reading a piece of poetry on the common theme that
were are here today and gone tomorrow. I shall soon be gone,
the speaker in this poem was made to say

"And I shall be glad to go,
For the world at best is a dreary place,
And my life is getting low."


How usual a language of popular religion that is, on our side of
the Atlantic at any rate ! But then our popular religion, in dis-
paraging happiness here below, knows very well what it is after.
It has its eye on a happiness in a future life above the clouds, in
the New Jerusalem, to be won by disliking and rejecting
happiness here on earth. And so long as this ideal stands fast,
it is very well. But for very many it now stands fast no longer;
for Carlyle, at any rate, it had failed and vanished. Happiness
in labor, righteousness, and veracity in the life of the spirit
here was a gospel still for Carlyle to preach, and to help others
by preaching. But he baffled them and himself by preferring
the paradox that we are not born for happiness at all.

Happiness in labor, righteousness, and veracity; in all the
life of the spirit; happiness and eternal hope; that was Emer-
son's gospel. I hear it said that Emerson was too sanguine; that
the actual generation in America is not turning out so well as
he expected. Very likely he was too sanguine as to the near
future; in this country it is difficult not to be too sanguine. Very
possibly the present generation may prove unworthy of his
high hopes; even several generations succeeding this may prove
unworthy of them. But by his conviction that in the life of the
spirit is happiness, and by his hope that this life of the spirit
will come more and more to be sanely understood, and to pre-
vail, and to work for happiness by this conviction and hope
Emerson was great, and he will surely prove in the end to have
been right in them. In this country it is difficult, as I said, not
to be sanguine. Very many of your writers are over-sanguine,
and on the wrong grounds. But you have two men who in
what they have written show their sanguineness in a line where
courage and hope are just, where they are also infinitely im-
portant, but where they are not easy. The two men are Franklin
and Emerson. 1 These two are, I think, the most distinctively
and honorably American of your writers; they are the most orig-
inal and the most valuable. Wise men everywhere know that

l l found with pleasure that this conjunction of Emerson's name with
Franklin's had already occurred to an accomplished writer and a delightful
man, a friend of Emerson, left almost the sole survivor, alas ! of the famous


we must keep up our courage and hope; they know that hope is,
as Wordsworth well says

"The paramount duty which heaven lays,
For its own honor, on man's suffering heart."

But the very word duty points to an effort and a struggle to
maintain our hope unbroken. Franklin and Emerson maintained
theirs with a convincing ease, an inspiring joy. Franklin's con-
fidence hi the happiness with which industry, honesty, and
economy will crown the Life of this work-day world, is such that
he runs over with felicity. With a like felicity does Emerson run
over, when he contemplates the happiness eternally attached to
the true Life in the spirit. You cannot prize him too much, nor
heed him too diligently. He has lessons for both the branches
of our race. I figure him to my mind as visible upon earth still,
as still standing here by Boston Bay, or at his own Concord, in
his habit as he lived, but of heightened stature and shining fea-
ture, with one hand stretched out toward the East, to our laden
and laboring England; the other toward the ever-growing West,
to his own dearly-loved America, "great, intelligent, sensual,
avaricious America." To us he shows for guidance his lucid
freedom, his cheerfulness and hope; to you his dignity, delicacy,
serenity, elevation.

literary generation of Boston Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Dr. Holmes
has kindly allowed me to print here the ingenious and interesting lines,
hitherto unpublished, in which he speaks of Emerson thus:

"Where in the realm of thought, whose air is song,
Does he, the Buddha of the West, belong?
He seems a winged Franklin, sweetly wise,
Born to unlock the secret of the skies;
And which the nobler calling if 'tis fair
Terrestrial with celestial to compare
To guide the storm-cloud's elemental Same,
Or walk the chambers whence the lightning came
Amidst the sources of its subtile fire,
And steal their effluence for his lips and lyre?"

[Arnold's Note.]




[Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States,
was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. He was graduated from William
and Mary College, admitted to the bar, and began his long public career as

Online LibraryMaurice G. (Maurice Garland) FultonNational ideals and problems; essays for college English → online text (page 10 of 39)