From the section Emerson in Concord:
RALPH WALDO EMERSON had lived in Concord since 1834. The former pastor of a Boston church and a son of the Reverend William Emerson, he had withdrawn from the ministry. Having a little income, he had bought a house on the Boston turnpike, surrounded with pine and fir-trees. There was a garden by the brook, filled with roses and tulips. In the western window of his study, he placed an Aeolian harp. It sang in the spring and summer breezes, mingling with the voices of the birds, fitfully bringing to mind the ballads that he loved, the wild, melodious notes of the old bards and minstrels. He had been writing essays and giving addresses that grieved and vexed most of his older hearers. Dozens, even hundreds of the younger people, thinking of him, thought of Burns's phrase, Wi' sic as he, where'er he be, May I be saved or damned. But, although he had his followers in Boston, he was anathema to the pundits there. Everett sneered at Emer- son's "conceited, laborious nonsense. " John Quincy Adams and Andrews Norton thought he was an atheist and worse. The Cambridge theologians reviled him: he was a pantheist and a German mystic, and his style was a kind of neo-Platonic moonshine. The Concord prophet smiled at these accusations. He had the temerity to think
that the great Cambridge guns were merely popguns. There was nothing explosive in his own discourse. He was a flute-player, one who plucked his reeds in the Con- cord river. But when he began to play, one saw a beauti- ful portico, standing in a lovely scene of nature, covered with blossoms and vine-leaves ; and, at the strains of the flute, one felt impelled to enter the portico and explore the unknown region that lay beyond. It was an irresistible invitation. As for the smiling musician, he was a mystery still. One thought of him as the man in Plutarch's story who conversed with men one day only in the year and spent the rest of his days with the nymphs and demons. Everyone had heard of him in Boston, where he was giving lectures. His birthplace there was a kitestring's distance from the house where Franklin was born and the house where Edgar Allan Poe was born. But, although he belonged to one of the oldest scholarly families, with countless names in the college catalogues, most of the signs had been against him. Tall, excessively thin, so thin that, as Heine said of Wellington, his full face looked like a profile, pale, with a tomahawk nose, blond, with blue eyes and smiling, curved lips, he had none of the traits, aggressive or brilliant, that marked his brothers in various ways. At moments, on the platform, he spoke with a tranquil authority, but his usual demeanour was almost girlishly passive. He had not acquired the majes- tic air, as of a wise old eagle or Indian sachem, that marked his later years. He appeared to be easily discon- certed, for his self-reliance was a gradual conquest. He had drifted through many misfortunes, drifted into and out of tuberculosis, drifted into teaching and out of the Church, maturing very slowly. He had known dark hours, poverty, pain, fear, disease. His first wife had died; so had two of his brothers. The trouble with him was, his elders thought, that he seemed to like to drift. He had no sort of record as a student. At Harvard, even three gen
-erations later, when people spoke of Emerson's "educa- tion," they put the word in quotation-marks,* it was not that he did not know his Greek and Latin, but that he was never systematic. He had read, both then and later, for "lustres" mainly. He had drifted first to Florida and then to Europe, and finally settled at Concord, the home of his forbears, where he had often visited at the Manse. The minister there, Dr. Ezra Ripley, who was Emerson's step-grandfather and very fond of the young man, felt that he was obliged to warn the people against this leader of the Egomites, those who "sent themselves" on the Lord's errands, without any proper calling. As for the lectures that Emerson was giving in Boston, on great men, history, the present age, the famous lawyer, Jeremiah Mason, when he was asked if he could under- stand them, replied, "No, but my daughters can." To the outer eye, at least, Emerson's life was an aim- less jumble. He had ignored all the obvious chances, re- jected the palpable prizes, followed none of the rules of common sense. Was he pursuing some star of his own? No one else could see it. In later years, looking back, Emerson's friends, remembering him, thought of those quiet brown colts, unrecognized even by the trainers, that out-strip all the others on the race-course. He had had few doubts himself. He had edged along sideways towards everything that was good in his life, but he felt that he was born for victory. He had not chosen his course. It had sprung from a necessity of his nature, an inner logic that he scarcely questioned.
The above excerpt is one of my favourite passages in on of my favourite books of literary criticism - a book that was once famous (Pulitzer Prize, a year atop the Best Seller list) and highly prestigious; but is now neglected and deeply unfashionable.
Brooks wrote it (and the accompanying four volumes in the Makers and Finders series of the history of American Literature) by years of immersion in the primary texts (many of which he was the first to reread for many decades or centuries), and detailed note taking - then wrote the texts almost as a pastiche of the style of each author as he considered them - and without footnoting.
The vast primary scholarship was thus concealed, the style was made varied and vivid, and the book made accessible and appealing to a broad 'middlebrow' audience as well as to academics for whom this was, for a while, the only overview and the first point of reference to several authors.
About 15 years ago, the above passage was especially relevant for me - I found it intoxicating, a description of 'what life is about' - more Emersonian than Emerson himself, somehow.
It captures something of permanent value which Emerson brought to the West - that close-up Aeolian Harp sensitivity to the phenomena of the world.
Emerson broke away from Unitarianism, which was already a break from Christianity - and that was a terrible error; but I feel that if this Aeolian Harp sensitivity could be brought-back into Christianity - or rather, allowed to grow from the incompleteness of current mainstream Christian perspectives - it would be a wonderful thing!