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Tyrannosaurus Ralph

SELECTED LETTERS OF RALPH WALDO EMERSON.\o7 Edited by Joel Myerson (Columbia University Press: 469 pp., $35)\f7

May 03, 1998|CRISTINA NEHRING | Cristina Nehring is writing a study of the essay, "Those Who Knew It All and Said So: Essayists in English and American Literature."

These are the dog days for Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Is there not," asks John Updike of the man who inaugurated American literature, "something fatally faded in the works he has left us?" Is there not, demands Joseph Epstein in his introduction to the "Norton Book of Personal Essays," something "bloated, vatic, never less than pompous" about the "Sage of Concord"?

The history of Emerson's reception in America and England is a history of increasingly uncanny underestimation. In the preface to the first British edition of the 1841 "Essays," we find Emerson lauded for having retained "amid the all-pervading jingle of dollars in such a locomotive country as America . . . the invaluable talent of sitting still" long enough to blacken so many pages. "This," Thomas Carlyle impresses upon his English audience, "is the thing really worth noting."

Prostrated by faint praise at the beginning of his career, Emerson, who was born in 1803, was whipped to the status of National Philosopher in the last half of the 19th century only to be canonized out of corporeal existence: submerged by "inscriptions, invocations, obeisances--in that form of greeting from posterity which," as a critic knew as early as 1915, "combines salutation with dismissal." Having blown him up, we burst him and hung nostalgically onto the skin. Emerson became an object of museum interest--America's own private dinosaur.

The reasons for this transmutation are many, but none arguably entails the discovery of any overlooked lack in Emerson's work, which is as dense as ever with aphoristic thought, eloquent skepticism, brave and biting observation of human limits and what a recent critic has called "demanding optimism." What has changed is the intellectual environment.

Emerson's genre has lost prestige. Essays, writes William Gass (himself a practitioner), are written by those who "have failed in the larger roles, the finer forms, and could not populate a page with people, with passionate poetry." That prose can be as "passionate" as verse, ideas as inventive as plots, philosophies as valuable to the mind as stories and strong writers consequently drawn to them by choice rather than desperation is a fact that seems to have slipped into oblivion in our day.

But if Emerson suffers from the ill repute of his genre, he ironically suffers even more from the popularity of his ideas. So thoroughly has American society imbibed some of his simpler instructions that its most vulgar mouths foam with them. The self-help industry croons at us to "have confidence" and to "love ourselves"; so many parties have told us to "just say no" we no longer recall whether it applies to sex, cigarettes, gang membership, marriage, abortion, drugs or the draft. Who needs "Self-Reliance" in the age of assertiveness tapes, essays when we have T-shirts and billboards blaring some of the (supposedly) same messages at us? Emerson's "demanding optimism" has been assimilated, caricatured and trivialized by the forces of self-help and advertising.

People who have no clear knowledge of his work (and some who do) confuse his points with their current public distortions. Hence the occasional labeling of his essays as "happiness pills"--a term that ill suits the stormy interplays of dark and light, bitter realism and often bitterer courage that animate them. ("Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. . . . Know that thy life is . . . a tent for the night, and do thou, sick or well, finish your stint." If these are "happiness pills," they taste oddly of ashes.)

Emerson does, to be sure, do something unusual by today's standards in his essays: He struggles overtly with the question "How shall we live?" It is a problem that--at least in its explicit formulation--has been banished from contemporary intellectual discourse and left largely to the commercial and religious sectors of society. But Emerson is the man who denies that anyone "can afford for the sake of his nerves and his nap to relinquish any action." He is not content to move exclusively among the furniture of his mind.

Not only does he address the problem of practical life; he attempts--over his acute perception of the world's pain--to offer solutions at once tough and somehow transcendent. This does not make his writing or philosophy fluff; it grants it, rather, a mineral solidity, a groundedness that much academic discourse today lacks. At the same time, it sets him up before the light mockers as a naif, a literary Candide. In a critical community in which solutions are regarded with suspicion, in which "theories of undecidability have changed the interpretive practices" of literary scholars, in which "instead of looking for unities, they look for disunities, contradictions," as the literary critic Steven Mailloux observes, it is no wonder that a man like Emerson, who thought to live, rather than lived to think, is easily patronized.

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