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Emerson As An American

It is not with Americans as with other peoples. Our position is more vague
and difficult, because it is not primarily related to the senses. I can
easily find out where England or Prussia is, and recognize an Englishman
or German when we meet; but we Americans are not, to the same extent as
these, limited by geographical and physical boundaries. The origin of
America was not like that of the European nations; the latter were born
after the flesh, but we after the spirit. It is of the first consequence
to them that their frontiers should be defended, and their nationality
kept distinct. But, though I esteem highly all our innumerable square
miles of East and West, North and South, and our Pacific and Atlantic
coasts, I cannot help deeming them quite a secondary consideration. If
America is not a great deal more than these United States, then the United
States are no better than a penal colony. It is convenient, no doubt, for
a great idea to find a great embodiment--a suitable incarnation and stage;
but the idea does not depend upon these things. It is an accidental--or, I
would rather say, a Providential--matter that the Puritans came to New
England, or that Columbus discovered the continent in time for them; but
it has always happened that when a soul is born it finds a body ready
fitted to it. The body, however, is an instrument merely; it enables the
spirit to take hold of its mortal life, just as the hilt enables us to
grasp the sword. If the Puritans had not come to New England, still the
spirit that animated them would have lived, and made itself a place
somehow. And, in fact, how many Puritans, for how many ages previous, had
been trying to find standing-room in the world, and failed! They called
themselves by many names; their voices were heard in many countries; the
time had not yet come for them to be born--to touch their earthly
inheritance; but, meantime, the latent impetus was accumulating, and the
Mayflower was driven across the Atlantic by it at last. Nor is this all--
the Mayflower is sailing still between the old world and the new. Every
day it brings new settlers, if not to our material harbors--to our Boston
Bay, our Castle Garden, our Golden Gate--at any rate, to our mental ports
and wharves. We cannot take up a European newspaper without finding an
American idea in it. It is said that a great many of our countrymen take
the steamer to England every summer. But they come back again; and they
bring with them many who come to stay. I do not refer specially to the
occupants of the steerage--the literal emigrants. One cannot say much
about them--they may be Americans or not, as it turns out. But England and
the continent are full of Americans who were born there, and many of whom
will die there. Sometimes they are better Americans than the New Yorker or
the Bostonian who lives in Beacon Street or the Bowery and votes in the
elections. They may be born and reside where they please, but they belong
to us, and, in the better sense, they are among us. Broadway and
Washington Street, Vermont and Colorado extend all over Europe. Russia is
covered with them; she tries to shove them away to Siberia, but in vain.
We call mountains and prairies solid facts; but the geography of the mind
is infinitely more stubborn. I dare say there are a great many oblique-
eyed, pig-tailed New Englanders in the Celestial Empire. They may never
have visited these shores, or even heard of them; but what of that? They
think our thought--they have apprehended our idea, and, by and by, they or
their heirs will cause it to prevail.

It is useless for us to hide our heads in the grass and refuse to rise to
the height of our occasion. We are here as the realization of a truth--the
fulfilment of a prophecy; we must attest a new departure in the moral and
intellectual development of the human race; for whichever of us does not,
must suffer annihilation. If I deny my birthright as an American, I shall
disappear and not be missed, for an American will take my place. It is not
altogether a luxurious position to find yourself in. You cannot sit still
and hold your hands. All manner of hard and unpleasant things are expected
of you, which you neglect at your peril. It is like the old fable of the
mermaid. She loved a mortal youth, and, in order that she might win his
affection, she prayed that she might have the limbs and feet of a human
maiden. Her prayer was answered, and she met her prince; but every step
she took was as if she trod on razors. It is a fine thing to sit in your
chair and reflect on being an American; but when you have to rise up and
do an American's duty before the world--how sharp the razors are!

Of course, we do not always endure the test; the flesh and blood on this
side of the planet is not, so far as I have observed, of a quality
essentially different from that on the other. Possibly our population is
too many for us. Out of fifty million people it would be strange if here
and there one appeared who was not at all points a hero. Indeed, I am
sometimes tempted to think that that little band of original Mayflower
Pilgrims has not greatly multiplied since their disembarkation. However it
may be with their bodily offspring, their spiritual progeny are not
invariably found in the chair of the Governor or on the floor of the
Senate. What are these Irish fellow-creatures doing here? Well, Bridget
serves us in the kitchen; but Patrick is more helpful yet; he goes to the
legislature, and is the servant of the people at large. It is very
obliging of him; but turn and turn about is fair play; and it would be no
more than justice were we, once in a while, to take off our coat and serve
Patrick in the same way.

When we get into a tight place we are apt to try to slip out of it under
some plea of a European precedent. But it used to be supposed that it was
precisely European precedents that we came over here to avoid. I am not
profoundly versed in political economy, nor is this the time or place to
discuss its principles; but, as regards protection, for example, I can
conceive that there may be arguments against it as well as for it. Emerson
used to say that the way to conquer the foreign artisan was not to kill
him but to beat his work. He also pointed out that the money we made out
of the European wars, at the beginning of this century, had the result of
bringing the impoverished population of those countries down upon us in
the shape of emigrants. They shared our crops and went on the poor-rates,
and so we did not gain so much after all. One cannot help wishing that
America would assume the loftiest possible ground in her political and
commercial relations. With all due respect to the sagacity and ability of
our ruling demagogues, I should not wish them to be quoted as typical
Americans. The domination of such persons has an effect which is by no
means measurable by their personal acts. What they can do is of
infinitesimal importance. But the mischief is that they incline every one
of us to believe, as Emerson puts it, in two gods. They make the morality
of Wall Street and the White House seem to be a different thing from that
of our parlors and nurseries. "He may be a little shady on 'change," we
say, "but he is a capital fellow when you know him." But if he is a
capital fellow when I know him, then I shall never find much fault with
his professional operations, and shall end, perhaps, by allowing him to
make some investments for me. Why should not I be a capital fellow too--
and a fellow of capital, to boot! I can endure public opprobrium with
tolerable equanimity so long as it remains public. It is the private cold
looks that trouble me.

In short, we may speak of America in two senses--either meaning the
America that actually meets us at the street corners and in the
newspapers, or the ideal America--America as it ought to be. They are not
the same thing; and, at present, there seems to be a good deal more of the
former than of the latter. And yet, there is a connection between them;
the latter has made the former possible. We sometimes see a great crowd
drawn together by proclamation, for some noble purpose--to decide upon a
righteous war, or to pass a just decree. But the people on the outskirts
of the crowd, finding themselves unable to hear the orators, and their
time hanging idle on their hands, take to throwing stones, knocking off
hats, or, perhaps, picking pockets. They may have come to the meeting with
as patriotic or virtuous intentions as the promoters themselves; nay,
under more favorable circumstances, they might themselves have become
promoters. Virtue and patriotism are not private property; at certain
times any one may possess them. And, on the other hand, we have seen
examples enough, of late, of persons of the highest respectability and
trust turning out, all at once, to be very sorry scoundrels. A man changes
according to the person with whom he converses; and though the outlook is
rather sordid to-day, we have not forgotten that during the Civil War the
air seemed full of heroism. So that these two Americas--the real and the
ideal--far apart though they may be in one sense, may, in another sense,
be as near together as our right hand to our left. In a greater or less
degree, they exist side by side in each one of us. But civil wars do not
come every day; nor can we wish them to, even to show us once more that we
are worthy of our destiny. We must find some less expensive and quieter
method of reminding ourselves of that. And of such methods, none, perhaps,
is better than to review the lives of Americans who were truly great; to
ask what their country meant to them; what they wished her to become; what
virtues and what vices they detected in her. Passion may be generous, but
passion cannot last; and when it is over, we are cold and indifferent
again. But reason and example reach us when we are calm and passive; and
what they inculcate is more likely to abide. At least, it will be only
evil passion that can cast it out.

I have said that many a true American is doubtless born, and lives,
abroad; but that does not prevent Emerson from having been born here. So
far as the outward accidents of generation and descent go, he could not
have been more American than he was. Of course, one prefers that it should
be so. A rare gem should be fitly set. A noble poem should be printed with
the fairest type of the Riverside Press, and upon fine paper with wide
margins. It helps us to believe in ourselves to be told that Emerson's
ancestry was not only Puritan, but clerical; that the central and vital
thread of the idea that created us, ran through his heart. The nation, and
even New England, Massachusetts, Boston, have many traits that are not
found in him; but there is nothing in him that is not a refinement, a
sublimation and concentration of what is good in them; and the selection
and grouping of the elements are such that he is a typical figure. Indeed,
he is all type; which is the same as saying that there is nobody like him.
And, mentally, he produces the impression of being all force; in his
writings, his mind seems to have acted immediately, without natural
impediment or friction; as if a machine should be run that was not
hindered by the contact of its parts. As he was physically lean and narrow
of figure, and his face nothing but so many features welded together, so
there was no adipose tissue in his thought. It is pure, clear, and
accurate, and has the fault of dryness; but often moves in forms of
exquisite beauty. It is not adhesive; it sticks to nothing, nor anything
to it; after ranging through all the various philosophies of the world, it
comes out as clean and characteristic as ever. It has numberless
affinities, but no adhesion; it does not even adhere to itself. There are
many separate statements in any one of his essays which present no logical
continuity; but although this fact has caused great anxiety to many
disciples of Emerson, it never troubled him. It was the inevitable result
of his method of thought. Wandering at will in the flower-garden of
religious and moral philosophy, it was his part to pluck such blossoms as
he saw were beautiful; not to find out their botanical interconnection. He
would afterward arrange them, for art or harmony's sake, according to
their color or their fragrance; but it was not his affair to go any
farther in their classification.

This intuitive method of his, however little it may satisfy those who wish
to have all their thinking done for them, who desire not only to have
given to them all the cities of the earth, but also to have straight roads
built for them from one to the other, carries with it its own
justification. "There is but one reason," is Emerson's saying; and again
and again does he prove without proving it. We confess, over and over,
that the truth which he asserts is indeed a truth. Even his own variations
from the truth, when he is betrayed into them, serve to confirm the rule.
For these are seldom or never intuitions at first hand--pure intuitions;
but, as it were, intuitions from previous intuitions--deductions. The form
of statement is the same, but the source is different; they are from
Emerson, instead of from the Absolute; tinted, not colorless. They show a
mental bias, very slight, but redeeming him back to humanity. We love him
the more for them, because they indicate that for him, too, there was a
choice of ways, and that he must struggle and watch to choose the right.

We are so much wedded to systems, and so accustomed to connect a system
with a man, that the absence of system, either explicit or implicit, in
Emerson, strikes us as a defect. And yet truth has no system, nor the
human mind. This philosopher maintains one, that another thesis. Both are
true essentially, and yet there seems a contradiction between them. We
cannot bear to be illogical, and so we enlist some under this banner, some
under that. By so doing we sacrifice to consistency at least the half of
truth. Thence we come to examine our intuitions, and ask them, not whether
they are true in themselves, but what are their tendencies. If it turn out
that they will lead us to stultify some past conclusion to which we stand
committed, we drop them like hot coals. To Emerson, this behavior appeared
the nakedest personal vanity. Recognizing that he was finite, he could not
desire to be consistent. If he saw to-day that one thing was true, and to-
morrow that its opposite was true, was it for him to elect which of the
two truths should have his preference? No; to reject either would be to
reject all; it belonged to God alone to reconcile these contradictious.
Between infinite and finite can be no ratio; and the consistency of the
Creator implies the inconsistency of the creature.

Emerson's Americanism, therefore, was Americanism in its last and purest
analysis, which is giving him high praise, and to America great hope. But
I do not mean to pay him, who was so full of modesty and humility, the
ungrateful compliment of holding him up as the permanent American ideal.
It is his tendencies, his quality, that are valuable, and only in a minor,
incipient degree his actual results. All human results must be strictly
limited, and according to the epoch and outlook. Emerson does not solve
for all time the problem of the universe; he solves nothing; but he does
what is far more useful--he gives a direction and an impetus to lofty
human endeavor. He does not anticipate the lessons and the discipline of
the ages, but he shows us how to deal with circumstances in such a manner
as to secure the good instead of the evil influence. New conditions, fresh
discoveries, unexpected horizons opening before us, will, no doubt, soon
carry us beyond the scope of Emerson's surmise; but we shall not so easily
improve upon his aim and attitude. In the spaces beyond the stars there
may be marvels such as it has not entered into the mind of man to
conceive; but there, as here, the right way to look will still be upward,
and the right aspiration be still toward humbleness and charity. I have
just spoken of Emerson's absence of system; but his writings have
nevertheless a singular coherence, by virtue of the single-hearted motive
that has inspired them. Many will, doubtless, have noticed, as I have
done, how the whole of Emerson illustrates every aspect of him.

Whether your discourse be of his religion, of his ethics, of his relation
to society, or what not, the picture that you draw will have gained color
and form from every page that he has written. He does not lie in strata;
all that he is permeates all that he has done. His books cannot be
indexed, unless you would refer every subject to each paragraph. And so he
cannot treat, no matter what subject, without incorporating in his
statement the germs at least of all that he has thought and believed. In
this respect he is like light--the presence of the general at the
particular. And, to confess the truth, I find myself somewhat loath to
diffract this pure ray to the arbitrary end of my special topic. Why
should I speak of him as an American? That is not his definition. He was
an American because he was himself. America, however, gives less
limitation than any other nationality to a generous and serene

I am sometimes disposed to think that Emerson's "English Traits" reveal
his American traits more than anything else he has written. We are
described by our own criticisms of others, and especially by our
criticisms of another nation; the exceptions we take are the mould of our
own figures. So we have valuable glimpses of Emerson's contours throughout
this volume. And it is in all respects a fortunate work; as remarkable a
one almost for him to write as a volume of his essays for any one else.
Comparatively to his other books, it is as flesh and blood to spirit;
Emersonian flesh and blood, it is true, and semi-translucent; but still it
completes the man for us: he would have remained too problematical without
it. Those who have never personally known him may finish and solidify
their impressions of him here. He likes England and the English, too; and
that sympathy is beyond our expectation of the mind that evolved "Nature"
and "The Over-Soul." The grasp of his hand, I remember, was firm and
stout, and we perceive those qualities in the descriptions and cordiality
of "English Traits." Then, it is an objective book; the eye looks outward,
not inward; these pages afford a basis not elsewhere obtainable of
comparing his general human faculty with that of other men. Here he
descends from the airy heights he treads so easily and, standing foot to
foot with his peers, measures himself against them. He intends only to
report their stature, and to leave himself out of the story; but their
answers to his questions show what the questions were, and what the
questioner. And we cannot help suspecting, though he did not, that the
Englishmen were not a little put to it to keep pace with their clear-
faced, penetrating, attentive visitor.

He has never said of his own countrymen the comfortable things that he
tells of the English; but we need not grumble at that. The father who is
severe with his own children will freely admire those of others, for whom
he is not responsible. Emerson is stern toward what we are, and arduous
indeed in his estimate of what we ought to be. He intimates that we are
not quite worthy of our continent; that we have not as yet lived up to our
blue china. "In America the geography is sublime, but the men are not."
And he adds that even our more presentable public acts are due to a money-
making spirit: "The benefaction derived in Illinois and the great West
from railroads is inestimable, and vastly exceeding any intentional
philanthropy on record." He does not think very respectfully of the
designs or the doings of the people who went to California in 1849, though
he admits that "California gets civilized in this immoral way," and is
fain to suppose that, "as there is use in the world for poisons, so the
world cannot move without rogues," and that, in respect of America, "the
huge animals nourish huge parasites, and the rancor of the disease attests
the strength of the constitution." He ridicules our unsuspecting
provincialism: "Have you seen the dozen great men of New York and Boston?
Then you may as well die!" He does not spare our tendency to spread-
eagleism and declamation, and having quoted a shrewd foreigner as saying
of Americans that, "Whatever they say has a little the air of a speech,"
he proceeds to speculate whether "the American forest has refreshed some
weeds of old Pictish barbarism just ready to die out?" He finds the foible
especially of American youth to be--pretension; and remarks, suggestively,
that we talk much about the key of the age, but "the key to all ages is
imbecility!" He cannot reconcile himself to the mania for going abroad.
"There is a restlessness in our people that argues want of character....
Can we never extract this tapeworm of Europe from the brain of our
countrymen?" He finds, however, this involuntary compensation in the
practice--that, practically "we go to Europe to be Americanized," and has
faith that "one day we shall cast out the passion for Europe by the
passion for America." As to our political doings, he can never regard them
with complacency. "Politics is an afterword," he declares--"a poor
patching. We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education." He
sympathizes with Lovelace's theory as to iron bars and stone walls, and
holds that freedom and slavery are inward, not outward conditions. Slavery
is not in circumstance, but in feeling; you cannot eradicate the irons by
external restrictions; and the truest way to emancipate the slave would be
to educate him to a comprehension of his inviolable dignity and freedom as
a human being. Amelioration of outward circumstances will be the effect,
but can never be the means of mental and moral improvement. "Nothing is
more disgusting," he affirms, generalizing the theme, "than the crowing
about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for
freedom of some paper preamble like a 'Declaration of Independence' or the
statute right to vote." But, "Our America has a bad name for
superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and
buffoons, but perceivers of the terrors of life, and have nerved
themselves to face it." He will not be deceived by the clamor of blatant
reformers. "If an angry bigot assumes the bountiful cause of abolition,
and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say
to him: 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and
modest; have that grace, and never varnish your hard, uncharitable
ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles

He does not shrink from questioning the validity of some of our pet
institutions, as, for instance, universal suffrage. He reminds us that in
old Egypt the vote of a prophet was reckoned equal to one hundred hands,
and records his opinion that it was much underestimated. "Shall we, then,"
he asks, "judge a country by the majority or by the minority? By the
minority, surely! 'Tis pedantry to estimate nations by the census, or by
square miles of land, or other than by their importance to the mind of the
time." The majority are unripe, and do not yet know their own opinion. He
would not, however, counsel an organic alteration in this respect,
believing that, with the progress of enlightenment, such coarse
constructions of human rights will adjust themselves. He concedes the
sagacity of the Fultons and Watts of politics, who, noticing that the
opinion of the million was the terror of the world, grouped it on a level,
instead of piling it into a mountain, and so contrived to make of this
terror the most harmless and energetic form of a State. But, again, he
would not have us regard the State as a finality, or as relieving any man
of his individual responsibility for his actions and purposes. We are to
confide in God--and not in our money, and in the State because it is guard
of it. The Union itself has no basis but the good pleasure of the majority
to be united. The wise and just men impart strength to the State, not
receive it; and, if all went down, they and their like would soon combine
in a new and better constitution. Yet he will not have us forget that only
by the supernatural is a man strong; nothing so weak as an egotist. We are
mighty only as vehicles of a truth before which State and individual are
alike ephemeral. In this sense we, like other nations, shall have our
kings and nobles--the leading and inspiration of the best; and he who
would become a member of that nobility must obey his heart.

Government, he observes, has been a fossil--it should be a plant; statute
law should express, not impede, the mind of mankind. In tracing the course
of human political institutions, he finds feudalism succeeding monarchy,
and this again followed by trade, the good and evil of which is that it
would put everything in the market, talent, beauty, virtue, and man
himself. By this means it has done its work; it has faults and will end as
the others. Its aristocracy need not be feared, for it can have no
permanence, it is not entailed. In the time to come, he hopes to see us
less anxious to be governed, in the technical sense; each man shall govern
himself in the interests of all; government without any governor will be,
for the first time, adamantine. Is not every man sometimes a radical in
politics? Men are conservatives when they are least vigorous, or when they
are most luxurious; conservatism stands on man's limitations, reform on
his infinitude. The age of the quadruped is to go out; the age of the
brain and the heart is to come in. We are too pettifogging and imitative
in our legislative conceptions; the Legislature of this country should
become more catholic and cosmopolitan than any other. Let us be brave and
strong enough to trust in humanity; strong natures are inevitable
patriots. The time, the age, what is that, but a few prominent persons and
a few active persons who epitomize the times? There is a bribe possible
for any finite will; but the pure sympathy with universal ends is an
infinite force, and cannot be bribed or bent. The world wants saviors and
religions; society is servile from want of will; but there is a Destiny by
which the human race is guided, the race never dying, the individual never
spared; its law is, you shall have everything as a member, nothing to
yourself. Referring to the communities of various kinds, which were so
much in vogue some years ago, he holds such to be valuable, not for what
they have done, but for the indication they give of the revolution that is
on the way. They place great faith in mutual support, but it is only as a
man puts off from himself all external support and stands alone, that he
is strong and will prevail. He is weaker by every recruit to his banner. A
man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain.
He must not shun whatever comes to him in the way of duty; the only path
of escape is--performance. He must rely on Providence, but not in a timid
or ecclesiastical spirit; it is no use to dress up that terrific
benefactor in a clean shirt and white neckcloth of a student of divinity.
We shall come out well, whatever personal or political disasters may
intervene. For here in America is the home of man. After deducting our
pitiful politics--shall John or Jonathan sit in the chair and hold the
purse?--and making due allowance for our frivolities and insanities, there
still remains an organic simplicity and liberty, which, when it loses its
balance, redresses itself presently, and which offers to the human mind
opportunities not known elsewhere.

Whenever he touches upon the fundamental elements of social and rational
life, it is always to enlarge and illuminate our conception of them. We
are not wont to question the propriety of the sentiment of patriotism, for
instance. We are to swear by our own _lares_ and _penates_, and stand up
for the American eagle, right or wrong. But Emerson instantly goes beneath
this interpretation and exposes its crudity. The true sense of patriotism,
according to him, is almost the reverse of its popular sense. He has no
sympathy with that boyish egotism, hoarse with cheering for our side, for
our State, for our town; the right patriotism consists in the delight
which springs from contributing our peculiar and legitimate advantages to
the benefit of humanity. Every foot of soil has its proper quality; the
grape on two sides of the fence has new flavors; and so every acre on the
globe, every family of men, every point of climate, has its distinguishing
virtues. This being admitted, however, Emerson will yield in patriotism to
no one; his only concern is that the advantages we contribute shall be the
most instead of the least possible. "This country," he says, "does not lie
here in the sun causeless, and though it may not be easy to define its
influence, men feel already its emancipating quality in the careless self-
reliance of the manners, in the freedom of thought, in the direct roads by
which grievances are reached and redressed, and even in the reckless and
sinister politics, not less than in purer expressions. Bad as it is, this
freedom leads onward and upward to a Columbia of thought and art, which is
the last and endless end of Columbus's adventure." Nor is this poet of
virtue and philosophy ever more truly patriotic, from his spiritual
standpoint, than when he throws scorn and indignation upon his country's
sins and frailties. "But who is he that prates of the culture of mankind,
of better arts and life? Go, blind worm, go--behold the famous States
harrying Mexico with rifle and with knife! Or who, with accent bolder,
dare praise the freedom-loving mountaineer? I found by thee, O rushing
Contoocook! and in thy valleys, Agiochook! the jackals of the negro-
holder.... What boots thy zeal, O glowing friend, that would indignant
rend the northland from the South? Wherefore? To what good end? Boston Bay
and Bunker Hill would serve things still--things are of the snake. The
horseman serves the horse, the neat-herd serves the neat, the merchant
serves the purse, the eater serves his meat; 'tis the day of the chattel,
web to weave, and corn to grind; things are in the saddle, and ride

But I must not begin to quote Emerson's poetry; only it is worth noting
that he, whose verse is uniformly so abstractly and intellectually
beautiful, kindles to passion whenever his theme is of America. The
loftiest patriotism never found more ardent and eloquent expression than
in the hymn sung at the completion of the Concord monument, on the 19th of
April, 1836. There is no rancor in it; no taunt of triumph; "the foe long
since in silence slept"; but throughout there resounds a note of pure and
deep rejoicing at the victory of justice over oppression, which Concord
fight so aptly symbolized. In "Hamatreya" and "The Earth Song," another
chord is struck, of calm, laconic irony. Shall we too, he asks, we Yankee
farmers, descendants of the men who gave up all for freedom, go back to
the creed outworn of medieval feudalism and aristocracy, and say, of the
land that yields us its produce, "'Tis mine, my children's, and my
name's"? Earth laughs in flowers at our boyish boastfulness, and asks "How
am I theirs if they cannot hold me, but I hold them?" "When I heard 'The
Earth Song,' I was no longer brave; my avarice cooled, like lust in the
child of the grave" Or read "Monadnoc," and mark the insight and the power
with which the significance and worth of the great facts of nature are
interpreted and stated. "Complement of human kind, having us at vantage
still, our sumptuous indigence, oh, barren mound, thy plenties fill! We
fool and prate; thou art silent and sedate. To myriad kinds and times one
sense the constant mountain doth dispense; shedding on all its snows and
leaves, one joy it joys, one grief it grieves. Thou seest, oh, watchman
tall, our towns and races grow and fall, and imagest the stable good for
which we all our lifetime grope; and though the substance us elude, we in
thee the shadow find." ... "Thou dost supply the shortness of our days,
and promise, on thy Founder's truth, long morrow to this mortal youth!" I
have ignored the versified form in these extracts, in order to bring them
into more direct contrast with the writer's prose, and show that the
poetry is inherent. No other poet, with whom I am acquainted, has caused
the very spirit of a land, the mother of men, to express itself so
adequately as Emerson has done in these pieces. Whitman falls short of
them, it seems to me, though his effort is greater.

Emerson is continually urging us to give heed to this grand voice of hills
and streams, and to mould ourselves upon its suggestions. The difficulty
and the anomaly are that we are not native; that England is our mother,
quite as much as Monadnoc; that we are heirs of memories and traditions
reaching far beyond the times and the confines of the Republic. We cannot
assume the splendid childlikeness of the great primitive races, and
exhibit the hairy strength and unconscious genius that the poet longs to
find in us. He remarks somewhere that the culminating period of good in
nature and the world is in just that moment of transition, when the
swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency
or acidity is got out by ethics and humanity.

It was at such a period that Greece attained her apogee; but our
experience, it seems to me, must needs be different. Our story is not of
birth, but of regeneration, a far more subtle and less obvious
transaction. The Homeric California of which Bret Harte is the reporter
does not seem to me in the closest sense American. It is a comparatively
superficial matter--this savage freedom and raw poetry; it belongs to all
pioneering life, where every man must stand for himself, and Judge Lynch
strings up the defaulter to the nearest tree. But we are only incidentally
pioneers in this sense; and the characteristics thus impressed upon us
will leave no traces in the completed American. "A sturdy lad from New
Hampshire or Vermont," says Emerson, "who in turn tries all the
professions--who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches,
edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in
successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet--is worth a
hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no
shame in not studying a 'profession,' for he does not postpone his life,
but lives already." That is stirringly said: but, as a matter of fact,
most of the Americans whom we recognize as great did not have such a
history; nor, if they had it, would they be on that account more American.
On the other hand, the careers of men like Jim Fiske and Commodore
Vanderbilt might serve very well as illustrations of the above sketch. If
we must wait for our character until our geographical advantages and the
absence of social distinctions manufacture it for us, we are likely to
remain a long while in suspense. When our foreign visitors begin to evince
a more poignant interest in Concord and Fifth Avenue than in the
Mississippi and the Yellowstone, it may be an indication to us that we are
assuming our proper position relative to our physical environment. "The
_land_," says Emerson, "is a sanative and Americanizing influence which
promises to disclose new virtues for ages to come." Well, when we are
virtuous, we may, perhaps, spare our own blushes by allowing our
topography, symbolically, to celebrate us, and when our admirers would
worship the purity of our intentions, refer them to Walden Pond; or to
Mount Shasta, when they would expatiate upon our lofty generosity. It is,
perhaps, true, meanwhile, that the chances of a man's leading a decent
life are greater in a palace than in a pigsty.

But this is holding our author too strictly to the letter of his message.
And, at any rate, the Americanism of Emerson is better than anything that
he has said in vindication of it. He is the champion of this commonwealth;
he is our future, living in our present, and showing the world, by
anticipation, as it were, what sort of excellence we are capable of
attaining. A nation that has produced Emerson, and can recognize in him
bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh--and, still more, spirit of her
spirit--that nation may look toward the coming age with security. But he
has done more than thus to prophesy of his country; he is electric and
stimulates us to fulfil our destiny. To use a phrase of his own, we
"cannot hear of personal vigor of any kind, great power of performance,
without fresh resolution." Emerson, helps us most in provoking us to help
ourselves. The pleasantest revenge is that which we can sometimes take
upon our great men in quoting of themselves what they have said of others.

It is easy to be so revenged upon Emerson, because he, more than most
persons of such eminence, has been generous and cordial in his
appreciation of all human worth. "If there should appear in the company,"
he observes, "some gentle soul who knows little of persons and parties, of
Carolina or Cuba, but who announces a law that disposes these particulars,
and so certifies me of the equity which checkmates every false player,
bankrupts every self-seeker, and apprises me of my independence on any
conditions of country, or time, or human body, that man liberates me....
I am made immortal by apprehending my possession of incorruptible goods."
Who can state the mission and effect of Emerson more tersely and aptly
than those words do it?

But, once more, he does not desire eulogiums, and it seems half ungenerous
to force them upon him now that he can no longer defend himself. I prefer
to conclude by repeating a passage characteristic of him both as a man and
as an American, and which, perhaps, conveys a sounder and healthier
criticism, both for us and for him, than any mere abject and nerveless
admiration; for great men are great only in so far as they liberate us,
and we undo their work in courting their tyranny. The passage runs thus:--

"Let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the
least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I
pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No
facts to me are sacred; none are profane. I simply experiment--an endless
seeker, with no Past at my back!"

Julian Hawthorne

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