"I have the feeling that every man's biography is at his own expense. He furnishes not only the facts, but the report. I mean that all biography is autobiography. It is only what he tells of himself that comes to be known and believed."
So writes the man whose life we are to pass in review, and it is certainly as true of him as of any author we could name. He delineates himself so perfectly in his various writings that the careful reader sees his nature just as it was in all its essentials, and has little more to learn than those human accidents which individualize him in space and time. About all these accidents we have a natural and pardonable curiosity. We wish to know of what race he came, what were the conditions into which he was born, what educational and social influences helped to mould his character, and what new elements Nature added to make him Ralph Waldo Emerson.
He himself believes in the hereditary transmission of certain characteristics. Though Nature appears capricious, he says, "Some qualities she carefully fixes and transmits, but some, and those the finer, she exhales with the breath of the individual, as too costly to perpetuate. But I notice also that they may become fixed and permanent in any stock, by painting and repainting them on every individual, until at last Nature adopts them and bakes them in her porcelain."
* * * * * * *
We have in New England a certain number of families who constitute what may be called the Academic Races. Their names have been on college catalogues for generation after generation. They have filled the learned professions, more especially the ministry, from the old colonial days to our own time. If aptitudes for the acquisition of knowledge can be bred into a family as the qualities the sportsman wants in his dog are developed in pointers and setters, we know what we may expect of a descendant of one of the Academic Races. Other things being equal, he will take more naturally, more easily, to his books. His features will be more pliable, his voice will be more flexible, his whole nature more plastic than those of the youth with less favoring antecedents. The gift of genius is never to be reckoned upon beforehand, any more than a choice new variety of pear or peach in a seedling; it is always a surprise, but it is born with great advantages when the stock from which it springs has been long under cultivation.
These thoughts suggest themselves in looking back at the striking record of the family made historic by the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was remarkable for the long succession of clergymen in its genealogy, and for the large number of college graduates it counted on its rolls.
A genealogical table is very apt to illustrate the "survival of the fittest,"--in the estimate of the descendants. It is inclined to remember and record those ancestors who do most honor to the living heirs of the family name and traditions. As every man may count two grandfathers, four great-grandfathers, eight great-great-grandfathers, and so on, a few generations give him a good chance for selection. If he adds his distinguished grandmothers, he may double the number of personages to choose from. The great-grandfathers of Mr. Emerson at the sixth remove were thirty-two in number, unless the list was shortened by intermarriage of relatives. One of these, from whom the name descended, was Thomas Emerson of Ipswich, who furnished the staff of life to the people of that wonderfully interesting old town and its neighborhood.
His son, the Reverend Joseph Emerson, minister of the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, married Elizabeth, daughter of the Reverend Edward Bulkeley, who succeeded his father, the Reverend Peter Bulkeley, as Minister of Concord, Massachusetts.
Peter Bulkeley was therefore one of Emerson's sixty-four grandfathers at the seventh remove. We know the tenacity of certain family characteristics through long lines of descent, and it is not impossible that any one of a hundred and twenty-eight grandparents, if indeed the full number existed in spite of family admixtures, may have transmitted his or her distinguishing traits through a series of lives that cover more than two centuries, to our own contemporary. Inherited qualities move along their several paths not unlike the pieces in the game of chess. Sometimes the character of the son can be traced directly to that of the father or of the mother, as the pawn's move carries him from one square to the next. Sometimes a series of distinguished fathers follows in a line, or a succession of superior mothers, as the black or white bishop sweeps the board on his own color. Sometimes the distinguishing characters pass from one sex to the other indifferently, as the castle strides over the black and white squares. Sometimes an uncle or aunt lives over again in a nephew or niece, as if the knight's move were repeated on the squares of human individuality. It is not impossible, then, that some of the qualities we mark in Emerson may have come from the remote ancestor whose name figures with distinction in the early history of New England.
The Reverend Peter Bulkeley is honorably commemorated among the worthies consigned to immortality in that precious and entertaining medley of fact and fancy, enlivened by a wilderness of quotations at first or second hand, the Magnolia Christi Americana, of the Reverend Cotton Mather. The old chronicler tells his story so much better than any one can tell it for him that he must be allowed to speak for himself in a few extracts, transferred with all their typographical idiosyncrasies from the London-printed, folio of 1702.
"He was descended of an Honourable Family in Bedfordshire.--He was born at Woodhil (or Odel) in Bedfordshire, January 31st, 1582.
"His Education was answerable unto his Original; it was Learned, it was Genteel, and, which was the top of all, it was very Pious: At length it made him a Batchellor of Divinity, and a Fellow of Saint John's Colledge in Cambridge.--
"When he came abroad into the World, a good benefice befel him, added unto the estate of a Gentleman, left him by his Father; whom he succeeded in his Ministry, at the place of his Nativity: Which one would imagine Temptations enough to keep him out of a Wilderness."
But he could not conscientiously conform to the ceremonies of the English Church, and so,--
"When Sir Nathaniel Brent was Arch-Bishop Laud's General, as Arch-Bishop Laud was another's, Complaints were made against Mr. Bulkly, for his Non-Conformity, and he was therefore Silenced.
"To New-England he therefore came, in the Year 1635; and there having been for a while, at Cambridge, he carried a good Number of Planters with him, up further into the Woods, where they gathered the Twelfth Church, then formed in the Colony, and call'd the Town by the Name of Concord.
"Here he buried a great Estate, while he raised one still, for almost every Person whom he employed in the Affairs of his Husbandry.--
"He was a most excellent Scholar, a very-well read Person, and one, who in his advice to young Students, gave Demonstrations, that he knew what would go to make a Scholar. But it being essential unto a Scholar to love a Scholar, so did he; and in Token thereof, endowed the Library of Harvard-Colledge with no small part of his own.
"And he was therewithal a most exalted Christian--In his Ministry he was another Farel, Quo nemo tonuit fortius--And the observance which his own People had for him, was also paid him from all sorts of People throughout the Land; but especially from the Ministers of the Country, who would still address him as a Father, a Prophet, a Counsellor, on all occasions."
These extracts may not quite satisfy the exacting reader, who must be referred to the old folio from which they were taken, where he will receive the following counsel:--
"If then any Person would know what Mr. Peter Bulkly was, let him read his Judicious and Savory Treatise of the Gospel Covenant, which has passed through several Editions, with much Acceptance among the People of God." It must be added that "he had a competently good Stroke at Latin Poetry; and even in his Old Age, affected sometimes to improve it. Many of his Composure are yet in our Hands."
It is pleasant to believe that some of the qualities of this distinguished scholar and Christian were reproduced in the descendant whose life we are studying. At his death in 1659 he was succeeded, as was mentioned, by his son Edward, whose daughter became the wife of the Reverend Joseph Emerson, the minister of Mendon who, when that village was destroyed by the Indians, removed to Concord, where he died in the year 1680. This is the first connection of the name of Emerson with Concord, with which it has since been so long associated.
Edward Emerson, son of the first and father of the second Reverend Joseph Emerson, though not a minister, was the next thing to being one, for on his gravestone he is thus recorded: "Mr. Edward Emerson, sometime Deacon of the first church in Newbury." He was noted for the virtue of patience, and it is a family tradition that he never complained but once, when he said mildly to his daughter that her dumplings were somewhat harder than needful,--"but not often." This same Edward was the only break in the line of ministers who descended from Thomas of Ipswich. He is remembered in the family as having been "a merchant in Charlestown."
Their son, the second Reverend Joseph Emerson, Minister of Malden for nearly half a century, married Mary, the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Moody,--Father Moody,--of York, Maine. Three of his sons were ministers, and one of these, William, was pastor of the church at Concord at the period of the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
As the successive generations narrow down towards the individual whose life we are recalling, the character of his progenitors becomes more and more important and interesting to the biographer. The Reverend William Emerson, grandfather of Ralph Waldo, was an excellent and popular preacher and an ardent and devoted patriot. He preached resistance to tyrants from the pulpit, he encouraged his townsmen and their allies to make a stand against the soldiers who had marched upon their peaceful village, and would have taken a part in the Fight at the Bridge, which he saw from his own house, had not the friends around him prevented his quitting his doorstep. He left Concord in 1776 to join the army at Ticonderoga, was taken with fever, was advised to return to Concord and set out on the journey, but died on his way. His wife was the daughter of the Reverend Daniel Bliss, his predecessor in the pulpit at Concord. This was another very noticeable personage in the line of Emerson's ancestors. His merits and abilities are described at great length on his tombstone in the Concord burial-ground. There is no reason to doubt that his epitaph was composed by one who knew him well. But the slabs which record the excellences of our New England clergymen of the past generations are so crowded with virtues that the reader can hardly help inquiring whether a sharp bargain was not driven with the stonecutter, like that which the good Vicar of Wakefield arranged with the portrait-painter. He was to represent Sophia as a shepherdess, it will be remembered, with as many sheep as he could afford to put in for nothing.
William Emerson left four children, a son bearing the same name, and three daughters, one of whom, Mary Moody Emerson, is well remembered as pictured for us by her nephew, Ralph Waldo. His widow became the wife of the Reverend Ezra Ripley, Doctor of Divinity, and his successor as Minister at Concord.
The Reverend William Emerson, the second of that name and profession, and the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in the year 1769, and graduated at Harvard College in 1789. He was settled as Minister in the town of Harvard in the year 1792, and in 1799 became Minister of the First Church in Boston. In 1796 he married Ruth Haskins of Boston. He died in 1811, leaving five sons, of whom Ralph Waldo was the second.
The interest which attaches itself to the immediate parentage of a man like Emerson leads us to inquire particularly about the characteristics of the Reverend William Emerson so far as we can learn them from his own writings and from the record of his contemporaries.
The Reverend Dr. Sprague's valuable and well-known work, "Annals of the American Pulpit," contains three letters from which we learn some of his leading characteristics. Dr. Pierce of Brookline, the faithful chronicler of his time, speaks of his pulpit talents as extraordinary, but thinks there was not a perfect sympathy between him and the people of the quiet little town of Harvard, while he was highly acceptable in the pulpits of the metropolis. In personal appearance he was attractive; his voice was melodious, his utterance distinct, his manner agreeable. "He was a faithful and generous friend and knew how to forgive an enemy.--In his theological views perhaps he went farther on the liberal side than most of his brethren with whom he was associated.--He was, however, perfectly tolerant towards those who differed from him most widely."
Dr. Charles Lowell, another brother minister, says of him, "Mr. Emerson was a handsome man, rather tall, with a fair complexion, his cheeks slightly tinted, his motions easy, graceful, and gentlemanlike, his manners bland and pleasant. He was an honest man, and expressed himself decidedly and emphatically, but never bluntly or vulgarly.--Mr. Emerson was a man of good sense. His conversation was edifying and useful; never foolish or undignified.--In his theological opinions he was, to say the least, far from having any sympathy with Calvinism. I have not supposed that he was, like Dr. Freeman, a Humanitarian, though he may have been so."
There was no honester chronicler than our clerical Pepys, good, hearty, sweet-souled, fact-loving Dr. John Pierce of Brookline, who knew the dates of birth and death of the graduates of Harvard, starred and unstarred, better, one is tempted to say (Hibernice), than they did themselves. There was not a nobler gentleman in charge of any Boston parish than Dr. Charles Lowell. But after the pulpit has said what it thinks of the pulpit, it is well to listen to what the pews have to say about it.
This is what the late Mr. George Ticknor said in an article in the Christian Examiner for September, 1849.
"Mr. Emerson, transplanted to the First Church in Boston six years before Mr. Buckminster's settlement, possessed, on the contrary, a graceful and dignified style of speaking, which was by no means without its attraction, but he lacked the fervor that could rouse the masses, and the original resources that could command the few."
As to his religious beliefs, Emerson writes to Dr. Sprague as follows: "I did not find in any manuscript or printed sermons that I looked at, any very explicit statement of opinion on the question between Calvinists and Socinians. He inclines obviously to what is ethical and universal in Christianity; very little to the personal and historical.--I think I observe in his writings, as in the writings of Unitarians down to a recent date, a studied reserve on the subject of the nature and offices of Jesus. They had not made up their own minds on it. It was a mystery to them, and they let it remain so."
Mr. William Emerson left, published, fifteen Sermons and Discourses, an Oration pronounced at Boston on the Fourth of July, 1802, a Collection of Psalms and Hymns, an Historical Sketch of the First Church in Boston, besides his contributions to the "Monthly Anthology," of which he was the Editor.
Ruth Haskins, the wife of William and the mother of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is spoken of by the late Dr. Frothingham, in an article in the "Christian Examiner," as a woman "of great patience and fortitude, of the serenest trust in God, of a discerning spirit, and a most courteous bearing, one who knew how to guide the affairs of her own house, as long as she was responsible for that, with the sweetest authority, and knew how to give the least trouble and the greatest happiness after that authority was resigned. Both her mind and her character were of a superior order, and they set their stamp upon manners of peculiar softness and natural grace and quiet dignity. Her sensible and kindly speech was always as good as the best instruction; her smile, though it was ever ready, was a reward."
The Reverend Dr. Furness of Philadelphia, who grew up with her son, says, "Waldo bore a strong resemblance to his father; the other children resembled their mother."
Such was the descent of Ralph Waldo Emerson. If the ideas of parents survive as impressions or tendencies in their descendants, no man had a better right to an inheritance of theological instincts than this representative of a long line of ministers. The same trains of thought and feeling might naturally gain in force from another association of near family relationship, though not of blood. After the death of the first William Emerson, the Concord minister, his widow, Mr. Emerson's grandmother, married, as has been mentioned, his successor, Dr. Ezra Ripley. The grandson spent much time in the family of Dr. Ripley, whose character he has drawn with exquisite felicity in a sketch read before The Social Circle of Concord, and published in the "Atlantic Monthly" for November, 1883. Mr. Emerson says of him: "He was identified with the ideas and forms of the New England Church, which expired about the same time with him, so that he and his coevals seemed the rear guard of the great camp and army of the Puritans, which, however in its last days declining into formalism, in the heyday of its strength had planted and liberated America.... The same faith made what was strong and what was weak in Dr. Ripley." It would be hard to find a more perfect sketch of character than Mr. Emerson's living picture of Dr. Ripley. I myself remember him as a comely little old gentleman, but he was not so communicative in a strange household as his clerical brethren, smiling John Foster of Brighton and chatty Jonathan Homer of Newton. Mr. Emerson says, "He was a natural gentleman; no dandy, but courtly, hospitable, manly, and public-spirited; his nature social, his house open to all men.--His brow was serene and open to his visitor, for he loved men, and he had no studies, no occupations, which company could interrupt. His friends were his study, and to see them loosened his talents and his tongue. In his house dwelt order and prudence and plenty. There was no waste and no stint. He was open-handed and just and generous. Ingratitude and meanness in his beneficiaries did not wear out his compassion; he bore the insult, and the next day his basket for the beggar, his horse and chaise for the cripple, were at their door." How like Goldsmith's good Dr. Primrose! I do not know any writing of Mr. Emerson which brings out more fully his sense of humor,--of the picturesque in character,--and as a piece of composition, continuous, fluid, transparent, with a playful ripple here and there, it is admirable and delightful.
Another of his early companionships must have exercised a still more powerful influence on his character,--that of his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. He gave an account of her in a paper read before the Woman's Club several years ago, and published in the "Atlantic Monthly" for December, 1883. Far more of Mr. Emerson is to be found in this aunt of his than in any other of his relations in the ascending series, with whose history we are acquainted. Her story is an interesting one, but for that I must refer the reader to the article mentioned. Her character and intellectual traits are what we are most concerned with. "Her early reading was Milton, Young, Akenside, Samuel Clarke, Jonathan Edwards, and always the Bible. Later, Plato, Plotinus, Marcus Antoninus, Stewart, Coleridge, Herder, Locke, Madam De StaŽl, Channing, Mackintosh, Byron. Nobody can read in her manuscript, or recall the conversation of old-school people, without seeing that Milton and Young had a religious authority in their minds, and nowise the slight merely entertaining quality of modern bards. And Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus,--how venerable and organic as Nature they are in her mind!"
There are many sentences cited by Mr. Emerson which remind us very strongly of his own writings. Such a passage as the following might have come from his Essay, "Nature," but it was written when her nephew was only four years old.
"Malden, 1807, September.--The rapture of feeling I would part from for days devoted to higher discipline. But when Nature beams with such excess of beauty, when the heart thrills with hope in its Author,--feels it is related to Him more than by any ties of creation,--it exults, too fondly, perhaps, for a state of trial. But in dead of night, nearer morning, when the eastern stars glow, or appear to glow, with more indescribable lustre, a lustre which penetrates the spirits with wonder and curiosity,--then, however awed, who can fear?"--"A few pulsations of created beings, a few successions of acts, a few lamps held out in the firmament, enable us to talk of Time, make epochs, write histories,--to do more,--to date the revelations of God to man. But these lamps are held to measure out some of the moments of eternity, to divide the history of God's operations in the birth and death of nations, of worlds. It is a goodly name for our notions of breathing, suffering, enjoying, acting. We personify it. We call it by every name of fleeting, dreaming, vaporing imagery. Yet it is nothing. We exist in eternity. Dissolve the body and the night is gone; the stars are extinguished, and we measure duration by the number of our thoughts, by the activity of reason, the discovery of truths, the acquirement of virtue, the approval of God."
Miss Mary Emerson showed something of the same feeling towards natural science which may be noted in her nephews Waldo and Charles. After speaking of "the poor old earth's chaotic state, brought so near in its long and gloomy transmutings by the geologist," she says:--
"Yet its youthful charms, as decked by the hand of Moses' Cosmogony, will linger about the heart, while Poetry succumbs to science."--"And the bare bones of this poor embryo earth may give the idea of the Infinite, far, far better than when dignified with arts and industry; its oceans, when beating the symbols of countless ages, than when covered with cargoes of war and oppression. How grand its preparation for souls, souls who were to feel the Divinity, before Science had dissected the emotions and applied its steely analysis to that state of being which recognizes neither psychology nor element."--"Usefulness, if it requires action, seems less like existence than the desire of being absorbed in God, retaining consciousness.... Scorn trifles, lift your aims; do what you are afraid to do. Sublimity of character must come from sublimity of motive."
So far as hereditary and family influences can account for the character and intellect of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we could hardly ask for a better inborn inheritance, or better counsels and examples.
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Having traced some of the distinguishing traits which belong by descent to Mr. Emerson to those who were before him, it is interesting to note how far they showed themselves in those of his own generation, his brothers. Of these I will mention two, one of whom I knew personally.
Edward Bliss Emerson, who graduated at Harvard College in 1824, three years after Ralph Waldo, held the first place in his class. He began the study of the law with Daniel Webster, but overworked himself and suffered a temporary disturbance of his reason. After this he made another attempt, but found his health unequal to the task and exiled himself to Porto Rico, where, in 1834, he died. Two poems preserve his memory, one that of Ralph Waldo, in which he addresses his memory,--
"Ah, brother of the brief but blazing star,"the other his own "Last Farewell," written in 1832, whilst sailing out of Boston Harbor. The lines are unaffected and very touching, full of that deep affection which united the brothers in the closest intimacy, and of the tenderest love for the mother whom he was leaving to see no more.
I had in my early youth a key furnished me to some of the leading traits which were in due time to develop themselves in Emerson's character and intelligence. As on the wall of some great artist's studio one may find unfinished sketches which he recognizes as the first growing conceptions of pictures painted in after years, so we see that Nature often sketches, as it were, a living portrait, which she leaves in its rudimentary condition, perhaps for the reason that earth has no colors which can worthily fill in an outline too perfect for humanity. The sketch is left in its consummate incompleteness because this mortal life is not rich enough to carry out the Divine idea.
Such an unfinished but unmatched outline is that which I find in the long portrait-gallery of memory, recalled by the name of Charles Chauncy Emerson. Save for a few brief glimpses of another, almost lost among my life's early shadows, this youth was the most angelic adolescent my eyes ever beheld. Remembering what well-filtered blood it was that ran in the veins of the race from which he was descended, those who knew him in life might well say with Dryden,--
"If by traduction came thy mind Our wonder is the less to find A soul so charming from a stock so good."His image is with me in its immortal youth as when, almost fifty years ago, I spoke of him in these lines, which I may venture to quote from myself, since others have quoted them before me.
Thou calm, chaste scholar! I can see thee now, The first young laurels on thy pallid brow, O'er thy slight figure floating lightly down In graceful folds the academic gown, On thy curled lip the classic lines that taught How nice the mind that sculptured them with thought, And triumph glistening in the clear blue eye, Too bright to live,--but O, too fair to die.Being about seven years younger than Waldo, he must have received much of his intellectual and moral guidance at his elder brother's hands. I told the story at a meeting of our Historical Society of Charles Emerson's coming into my study,--this was probably in 1826 or 1827,--taking up Hazlitt's "British Poets" and turning at once to a poem of Marvell's, which he read with his entrancing voice and manner. The influence of this poet is plain to every reader in some of Emerson's poems, and Charles' liking for him was very probably caught from Waldo. When Charles was nearly through college, a periodical called "The Harvard Register" was published by students and recent graduates. Three articles were contributed by him to this periodical. Two of them have the titles "Conversation," "Friendship." His quotations are from Horace and Juvenal, Plato, Plutarch, Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, Shakespeare, and Scott. There are passages in these Essays which remind one strongly of his brother, the Lecturer of twenty-five or thirty years later. Take this as an example:--
"Men and mind are my studies. I need no observatory high in air to aid my perceptions or enlarge my prospect. I do not want a costly apparatus to give pomp to my pursuit or to disguise its inutility. I do not desire to travel and see foreign lands and learn all knowledge and speak with all tongues, before I am prepared for my employment. I have merely to go out of my door; nay, I may stay at home at my chambers, and I shall have enough to do and enjoy."
The feeling of this sentence shows itself constantly in Emerson's poems. He finds his inspiration in the objects about him, the forest in which he walks; the sheet of water which the hermit of a couple of seasons made famous; the lazy Musketaquid; the titmouse that mocked his weakness in the bitter cold winter's day; the mountain that rose in the horizon; the lofty pines; the lowly flowers. All talked with him as brothers and sisters, and he with them as of his own household.
The same lofty idea of friendship which we find in the man in his maturity, we recognize in one of the Essays of the youth.
"All men of gifted intellect and fine genius," says Charles Emerson, "must entertain a noble idea of friendship. Our reverence we are constrained to yield where it is due,--to rank, merit, talents. But our affections we give not thus easily.
'The hand of Douglas is his own.'"
--"I am willing to lose an hour in gossip with persons whom good men hold cheap. All this I will do out of regard to the decent conventions of polite life. But my friends I must know, and, knowing, I must love. There must be a daily beauty in their life that shall secure my constant attachment. I cannot stand upon the footing of ordinary acquaintance. Friendship is aristocratical--the affections which are prostituted to every suitor I will not accept."
Here are glimpses of what the youth was to be, of what the man who long outlived him became. Here is the dignity which commands reverence,--a dignity which, with all Ralph Waldo Emerson's sweetness of manner and expression, rose almost to majesty in his serene presence. There was something about Charles Emerson which lifted those he was with into a lofty and pure region of thought and feeling. A vulgar soul stood abashed in his presence. I could never think of him in the presence of such, listening to a paltry sentiment or witnessing a mean action without recalling Milton's line,
"Back stepped those two fair angels half amazed,"and thinking how he might well have been taken for a celestial messenger.
No doubt there is something of idealization in all these reminiscences, and of that exaggeration which belongs to the laudator temporis acti. But Charles Emerson was idolized in his own time by many in college and out of college. George Stillman Hillard was his rival. Neck and neck they ran the race for the enviable position of first scholar in the class of 1828, and when Hillard was announced as having the first part assigned to him, the excitement within the college walls, and to some extent outside of them, was like that when the telegraph proclaims the result of a Presidential election,--or the Winner of the Derby. But Hillard honestly admired his brilliant rival. "Who has a part with ---- at this next exhibition?" I asked him one day, as I met him in the college yard. "---- the Post," answered Hillard. "Why call him the Post?" said I. "He is a wooden creature," said Hillard. "Hear him and Charles Emerson translating from the Latin Domus tota inflammata erat. The Post will render the words, 'The whole house was on fire.' Charles Emerson will translate the sentence 'The entire edifice was wrapped in flames.'" It was natural enough that a young admirer should prefer the Bernini drapery of Charles Emerson's version to the simple nudity of "the Post's" rendering.
* * * * * * *
The nest is made ready long beforehand for the bird which is to be bred in it and to fly from it. The intellectual atmosphere into which a scholar is born, and from which he draws the breath of his early mental life, must be studied if we would hope to understand him thoroughly.
When the present century began, the elements, thrown into confusion by the long struggle for Independence, had not had time to arrange themselves in new combinations. The active intellects of the country had found enough to keep them busy in creating and organizing a new order of political and social life. Whatever purely literary talent existed was as yet in the nebular condition, a diffused luminous spot here and there, waiting to form centres of condensation.
Such a nebular spot had been brightening in and about Boston for a number of years, when, in the year 1804, a small cluster of names became visible as representing a modest constellation of literary luminaries: John Thornton Kirkland, afterwards President of Harvard University; Joseph Stevens Buckminster; John Sylvester John Gardiner; William Tudor; Samuel Cooper Thacher; William Emerson. These were the chief stars of the new cluster, and their light reached the world, or a small part of it, as reflected from the pages of "The Monthly Anthology," which very soon came under the editorship of the Reverend William Emerson.
The father of Ralph Waldo Emerson may be judged of in good measure by the associates with whom he was thus connected. A brief sketch of these friends and fellow-workers of his may not be out of place, for these men made the local sphere of thought into which Ralph Waldo Emerson was born.
John Thornton Kirkland should have been seen and heard as he is remembered by old graduates of Harvard, sitting in the ancient Presidential Chair, on Commencement Day, and calling in his penetrating but musical accents: "Expectatur Oratio in Lingua Latina" or "Vernacula," if the "First Scholar" was about to deliver the English oration. It was a presence not to be forgotten. His "shining morning face" was round as a baby's, and talked as pleasantly as his voice did, with smiles for accents and dimples for punctuation. Mr. Ticknor speaks of his sermons as "full of intellectual wealth and practical wisdom, with sometimes a quaintness that bordered on humor." It was of him that the story was always told,--it may be as old as the invention of printing,--that he threw his sermons into a barrel, where they went to pieces and got mixed up, and that when he was going to preach he fished out what he thought would be about enough for a sermon, and patched the leaves together as he best might. The Reverend Dr. Lowell says: "He always found the right piece, and that was better than almost any of his brethren could have found in what they had written with twice the labor." Mr. Cabot, who knew all Emerson's literary habits, says he used to fish out the number of leaves he wanted for a lecture in somewhat the same way. Emerson's father, however, was very methodical, according to Dr. Lowell, and had "a place for everything, and everything in its place." Dr. Kirkland left little to be remembered by, and like many of the most interesting personalities we have met with, has become a very thin ghost to the grandchildren of his contemporaries.
Joseph Stevens Buckminster was the pulpit darling of his day, in Boston. The beauty of his person, the perfection of his oratory, the finish of his style, added to the sweetness of his character, made him one of those living idols which seem to be as necessary to Protestantism as images and pictures are to Romanism.
John Sylvester John Gardiner, once a pupil of the famous Dr. Parr, was then the leading Episcopal clergyman of Boston. Him I reconstruct from scattered hints I have met with as a scholarly, social man, with a sanguine temperament and the cheerful ways of a wholesome English parson, blest with a good constitution and a comfortable benefice. Mild Orthodoxy, ripened in Unitarian sunshine, is a very agreeable aspect of Christianity, and none was readier than Dr. Gardiner, if the voice of tradition may be trusted, to fraternize with his brothers of the liberal persuasion, and to make common cause with them in all that related to the interests of learning.
William Tudor was a chief connecting link between the period of the "Monthly Anthology," and that of the "North American Review," for he was a frequent contributor to the first of these periodicals, and he was the founder of the second. Edward Everett characterizes him, in speaking of his "Letters on the Eastern States," as a scholar and a gentleman, an impartial observer, a temperate champion, a liberal opponent, and a correct writer. Daniel Webster bore similar testimony to his talents and character.
Samuel Cooper Thacher was hardly twenty years old when the "Anthology" was founded, and died when he was only a little more than thirty. He contributed largely to that periodical, besides publishing various controversial sermons, and writing the "Memoir of Buckminster."
There was no more brilliant circle than this in any of our cities. There was none where so much freedom of thought was united to so much scholarship. The "Anthology" was the literary precursor of the "North American Review," and the theological herald of the "Christian Examiner." Like all first beginnings it showed many marks of immaturity. It mingled extracts and original contributions, theology and medicine, with all manner of literary chips and shavings. It had Magazine ways that smacked of Sylvanus Urban; leading articles with balanced paragraphs which recalled the marching tramp of Johnson; translations that might have been signed with the name of Creech, and Odes to Sensibility, and the like, which recalled the syrupy sweetness and languid trickle of Laura Matilda's sentimentalities. It talked about "the London Reviewers" with a kind of provincial deference. It printed articles with quite too much of the license of Swift and Prior for the Magazines of to-day. But it had opinions of its own, and would compare well enough with the "Gentleman's Magazine," to say nothing of "My Grandmother's Review, the British." A writer in the third volume (1806) says: "A taste for the belles lettres is rapidly spreading in our country. I believe that, fifty years ago, England had never seen a Miscellany or a Review so well conducted as our 'Anthology,' however superior such publications may now be in that kingdom."
It is well worth one's while to look over the volumes of the "Anthology" to see what our fathers and grandfathers were thinking about, and how they expressed themselves. The stiffness of Puritanism was pretty well relaxed when a Magazine conducted by clergymen could say that "The child,"--meaning the new periodical,--"shall not be destitute of the manners of a gentleman, nor a stranger to genteel amusements. He shall attend Theatres, Museums, Balls, and whatever polite diversions the town shall furnish." The reader of the "Anthology" will find for his reward an improving discourse on "Ambition," and a commendable schoolboy's "theme" on "Inebriation." He will learn something which may be for his advantage about the "Anjou Cabbage," and may profit by a "Remedy for Asthma." A controversy respecting the merits of Sir Richard Blackmore may prove too little exciting at the present time, and he can turn for relief to the epistle "Studiosus" addresses to "Alcander." If the lines of "The Minstrel" who hails, like Longfellow in later years, from "The District of Main," fail to satisfy him, he cannot accuse "R.T. Paine, Jr., Esq.," of tameness when he exclaims:--
"Rise Columbia, brave and free, Poise the globe and bound the sea!"But the writers did not confine themselves to native or even to English literature, for there is a distinct mention of "Mr. Goethe's new novel," and an explicit reference to "Dante Aligheri, an Italian bard." But let the smiling reader go a little farther and he will find Mr. Buckminster's most interesting account of the destruction of Goldau. And in one of these same volumes he will find the article, by Dr. Jacob Bigelow, doubtless, which was the first hint of our rural cemeteries, and foreshadowed that new era in our underground civilization which is sweetening our atmospheric existence.
The late President Josiah Quincy, in his "History of the Boston Athenaeum," pays a high tribute of respect to the memory and the labors of the gentlemen who founded that institution and conducted the "Anthology." A literary journal had already been published in Boston, but very soon failed for want of patronage. An enterprising firm of publishers, "being desirous that the work should be continued, applied to the Reverend William Emerson, a clergyman of the place, distinguished for energy and literary taste; and by his exertions several gentlemen of Boston and its vicinity, conspicuous for talent and zealous for literature, were induced to engage in conducting the work, and for this purpose they formed themselves into a Society. This Society was not completely organized until the year 1805, when Dr. Gardiner was elected President, and William Emerson Vice-President. The Society thus formed maintained its existence with reputation for about six years, and issued ten octavo volumes from the press, constituting one of the most lasting and honorable monuments of the literature of the period, and may be considered as a true revival of polite learning in this country after that decay and neglect which resulted from the distractions of the Revolutionary War, and as forming an epoch in the intellectual history of the United States. Its records yet remain, an evidence that it was a pleasant, active, high-principled association of literary men, laboring harmoniously to elevate the literary standard of the time, and with a success which may well be regarded as remarkable, considering the little sympathy they received from the community, and the many difficulties with which they had to struggle."
The publication of the "Anthology" began in 1804, when Mr. William Emerson was thirty-four years of age, and it ceased to be published in the year of his death, 1811. Ralph Waldo Emerson was eight years old at that time. His intellectual life began, we may say, while the somewhat obscure afterglow of the "Anthology" was in the western horizon of the New England sky.
The nebula which was to form a cluster about the "North American Review" did not take definite shape until 1815. There is no such memorial of the growth of American literature as is to be found in the first half century of that periodical. It is easy to find fault with it for uniform respectability and occasional dulness. But take the names of its contributors during its first fifty years from the literary record of that period, and we should have but a meagre list of mediocrities, saved from absolute poverty by the genius of two or three writers like Irving and Cooper. Strike out the names of Webster, Everett, Story, Sumner, and Cushing; of Bryant, Dana, Longfellow, and Lowell; of Prescott, Ticknor, Motley, Sparks, and Bancroft; of Verplanck, Hillard, and Whipple; of Stuart and Robinson; of Norton, Palfrey, Peabody, and Bowen; and, lastly, that of Emerson himself, and how much American classic literature would be left for a new edition of "Miller's Retrospect"?
These were the writers who helped to make the "North American Review" what it was during the period of Emerson's youth and early manhood. These, and men like them, gave Boston its intellectual character. We may count as symbols the three hills of "this darling town of ours," as Emerson called it, and say that each had its beacon. Civil liberty lighted the torch on one summit, religious freedom caught the flame and shone from the second, and the lamp of the scholar has burned steadily on the third from the days when John Cotton preached his first sermon to those in which we are living.
The social religious influences of the first part of the century must not be forgotten. The two high-caste religions of that day were white-handed Unitarianism and ruffled-shirt Episcopalianism. What called itself "society" was chiefly distributed between them. Within less than fifty years a social revolution has taken place which has somewhat changed the relation between these and other worshipping bodies. This movement is the general withdrawal of the native New Englanders of both sexes from domestic service. A large part of the "hired help,"--for the word servant was commonly repudiated,--worshipped, not with their employers, but at churches where few or no well-appointed carriages stood at the doors. The congregations that went chiefly from the drawing-room and those which were largely made up of dwellers in the culinary studio were naturally separated by a very distinct line of social cleavage. A certain exclusiveness and fastidiousness, not reminding us exactly of primitive Christianity, was the inevitable result. This must always be remembered in judging the men and women of that day and their immediate descendants, as much as the surviving prejudices of those whose parents were born subjects of King George in the days when loyalty to the crown was a virtue. The line of social separation was more marked, probably, in Boston, the headquarters of Unitarianism, than in the other large cities; and even at the present day our Jerusalem and Samaria, though they by no means refuse dealing with each other, do not exchange so many cards as they do checks and dollars. The exodus of those children of Israel from the house of bondage, as they chose to consider it, and their fusion with the mass of independent citizens, got rid of a class distinction which was felt even in the sanctuary. True religious equality is harder to establish than civil liberty. No man has done more for spiritual republicanism than Emerson, though he came from the daintiest sectarian circle of the time in the whole country.
Such were Emerson's intellectual and moral parentage, nurture, and environment; such was the atmosphere in which he grew up from youth to manhood.
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