Conjunctions:29 Tributes

The Emerson Madrigal
I honor the man who wrote My cow milks me.

     I admire the youthful Emerson who proclaimed I will no longer confer, differ, refer, defer, prefer or suffer—the Emerson who with those words promised a lifelong resolve against indifference, dullness, detachment, disregard. The man who discovered early on that passionless thought builds the sepulchres of the fathers. He who asked Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? as fresh as that known to Plato and Pythagoras, Lucretius and Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus, Meng Tsu and Marcus Aurelius, Dante and Milton, Goethe and Kant who went before? The radical contrarian who, even as he read over the course of a long life through so much of the world’s literature, believed always that the journey is only in the footfall, that the masterpiece is only in the word read now, that all literature is yet to be written. 

I celebrate the humanist but exacting Emerson who would have read our present mudslide of exposés and confessions, and the same exacting but humanist Emerson who would have read our Gobi of newspaper critiques and academic deconstructions as simply more works by the dead for the dead. The man who proposed The real danger of American scholars is not analysis, but sleep. The man who thundered All this polemics, syllogism, and definition is so much wastepaper. The man who would clear his mind.

     I honor Emerson the botanist who took delight in the names of reeds and weeds and grasses, and Emerson the friend whose house was forever filled with the discourse of so many voices, and Emerson the doubting Thomas who often annotated his journals with outbursts of humorous self-deprecation, and Emerson the abolitionist who said in a blistering speech in Concord not only that black or white is an insignificance but that The negro has saved himself, and the white man very patronizingly says I have saved you (1844). Emerson whose wife Lidian was so ashamed of her country that she draped their front gate with black cambric cloth every Fourth of July until the emancipation was in sight. The Emerson family who were members of the underground railroad in Massachusetts. This same Emerson who protested the illegal removal of the Cherokees from their homeland, who wrote Van Buren that such a crime deprives us as well as the Cherokees! of a country—who when he recognized his remonstrations were in vain still concluded that The amount of it, be sure, is merely a scream, but sometimes a scream is better than a thesis. The angered Emerson who wrote Abolish kingcraft, slavery, feudalism, blackletter monopoly, pull down gallows, explode priestcraft, open the doors of the sea to all emigrants. The Emerson that Lincoln and John Brown had good reason to respect, and Polk and Webster to resent.

     I celebrate Emerson’s fundamental and sacramental congeniality with the earth and its inanimate and animate denizens, his genius for observing a moral precept in the shivering sunstruck needles of a pine, say, or the warm ashen path in the shadow of Etna. Admire him for seeing how nature’s individuals—plover, hawk, wood anemone, foxglove, otter, laurel—constitute the divine; how the starlight and wild strawberry are sources of comprehension and revelation in and of themselves. I commend the man who understood nature’s transformative clout as when Frogs pipe; waters far off trickle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles; and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, acqueous terraqueous, aerial etherial sympathy and existence. The man who learned his land and house were more than what was measured by the surveyor and stipulated in the deed. Who wrote When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, boblinks, and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. The thoughtful man who looked again and saw more than first met the eye, listened again and heard more than struck the ear. I honor him for his mastery of so many nonverbal and invisible languages, of the syntax of forests, of the grammar of birds and fish and flowers, the rhetoric of embryo and carrion.

     I applaud the audacity of the man who wrote Beware when the great God lets loose a new thinker on this planet, the same who deduced from Stoic and Quaker and Islamic thought the unhampered personal philosophy that insists the universe is the externization of the soul. He who would weave his own religion from the threads, the brambles, the seeded shafts of various others, looking less for differences among mankind’s doctrines than the convergences which he found everywhere. Synergies of spirit and thought were his focus, the world sans murs and history outside time: the American thinker not as isolationist, but in fact outward bound. And like the osprey willing to build with what is at hand. Writing of Goethe, Emerson revealed himself—where some saw only fragments he saw connections. Here is an Emerson I respect, and there are other Emersons, too.

     Such as the bemused Emerson who wrote that Pirates do not live on nuts and herbs. The grinning Emerson who admired Henry David Thoreau’s credo “If a man does not believe that he can thrive on board nails, I will not talk with him.” The scowling Emerson who loathed the faker, the flimsy, the mock, and was always alert to such weaknesses in himself, to such a degree that sometimes he discovered them when they were not there. The manifold Emerson who was private yet public, fond yet cross, discreet yet frank, religious yet antireligion. The Emerson who was compelled to write it all down and who would, despite the many days he spent reading, note once in his journal: It makes no difference what I read. If it is irrelevant, I read it deeper. I read it until it is pertinent to me and mine. Who in another year on another day laughed in the face of his very muse: Books,—yes, if worst comes to worst.

I honor the secular theology of the declaration To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Such is one of his many convictions that displays Character, which is to say a purity of ends realized by a rigor of means. Whenever I stumble either in choosing an imperfect means to an end, or perfect means to a flawed end, let me be reminded of the more perfect original thought I must have had, and work once more from the private heart to the better consequence: so I wrote in my own notes, a small prayer prompted by the son of a preacher who was himself a lapsed preacher.

     I admire the man who remarked of his sentences I am a rocket manufacturer.

I celebrate his impudence and his prudence, his certainty and doubt, his exultations and darknesses, his love of home and the exquisite impetuosity that led him to resign his ministry at the Second Church in Boston, give up his house, auction off most of his worldly effects and board the brig Jasper (sick with diarrhea) to sail away to Europe. I laud his decision to make the Grand Tour backwards—working his way from Italy through France to England—as he searched out new ideas, new images, new knowledge in the Old World. I am intrigued by his grudging respect for the art he saw in Rome, the gardens he rambled in Paris, the writers he met in London and Ecclefechan in Scotland—his unsentimental education and admission into the larger world of struggle and accomplishment. By the way in which no matter how far from Concord his travels took him (before he was done, Emerson would walk beneath the sequoias in California, touch the pillars of Stonehenge, behold the sphinx in Egypt) he was always renewed upon his return to wife, children, family, friends, even enemies.

     His brilliant unapologetic contradictoriness I celebrate. I revere this same wanderer who with customary cheek in the face of contradiction wrote Let us not rove; let us sit at home with the cause and wrote again The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still.

I celebrate the pure élan, the tenacity, the ferment and holy grit of the man!

     His dictum A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds with its clarion whoop of invitation to speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day inspired and freed, no doubt, the minds of many readers since it was first published a century and a half ago. I acclaim the simple complexity of such plain insight, the recognition of our mercurial humanity, the philharmonic nature of our lone voice. And acclaim that Emersonian rebelliousness which draws us to him when we are young, and carries forward into later years if our suppleness, wit and fire remain at work.

     The force of character is cumulative, he wrote, referring to women and men and the societies they build. Who but the Plato for an unfledged, immigrant nation would declare that the old institutions and their attendant rituals are stinking ghosts we drag behind us in an act whose only magnanimity is the lame aerobics of the backward glance?

     I love the Emerson who was unafraid of enthusiasm.

     The Emerson who wasn’t afraid of making mistakes.

     The Emerson who learned from the fieldhand Tarbox.

     The Emerson who knew the value of indignation.

     To conform or not to conform, this is the question I celebrate in him. For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure, and yet, isn’t it also true that contempt is the malign gift the public eventually bestows upon its conformers? Emerson who thus proposed you act as you will, and let the world go its own way: What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. What gives this intimate declaration of independence such greatness, though, is that it does not come with an invitation to retire from society, to seek hermitage, but to walk straight into society with your autonomous head held high. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. Walden Pond may serve as a kind of temporary seminary, a secluded lyceum where student and teacher are one and the same, but the moment comes when we must reenter the world. Walden Pond is a state of being, a grace that soon streams onward.

     I honor Emerson who was the first to translate Dante’s La vita nuova, that liturgy and analysis of love. I celebrate his own love for Ellen Tucker and Lidian Jackson and Margaret Fuller and Caroline Sturgis. And for Henry David Thoreau. I praise the authentic love of and taste for the world shimmering in a dream where he floated at will in the great Ether, and saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, “This thou must eat.” And I ate the world.

I toast the boundless appetite of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

     How I would like to think he would have embraced the newness of the music of Harry Partch, and that of Leadbelly, too, despite the fact that he seldom mentions music in his journals and essays (in one notebook he does bemoan prison melodies and Jim Crow songs, calling instead for the Godhead in music, as we have the Godhead in the sky and the creation). Coltrane? and Ives? and Amy Beach? Miles? Godhead is present in their measures. I celebrate the idea of Emerson down at the crossroads with Robert Johnson.

     His droll self-portrait I honor: I am awkward, sour, saturnine, lumpish, pedantic, and thoroughly disagreeable and oppressive to the people around me, just as I admire his response to someone who asked him to describe his life: I have no history, no fortunes that would make the smallest figure in a narrative. My course of life has been so routinary, that the keenest eye for point or picture would be at fault before such remediless commonplace. And concluded with the pronouncement We will really say no more on a topic so sterile.

I celebrate a mind this rich and unremedial and admire his preference for the tough edge, in himself and in others, to any sophisticated suave: Hard clouds, and hard expressions, and hard manners, I love. Emerson was tough on himself even as he allowed himself to ramble and digress, and recognized that such dignified and unadorned hardness was the best way to make the mind limber and the spirit serene.

     I celebrate the man who early on championed Walt Whitman.

     And the mad Jones Very and unlucky Bronson Alcott.

     The Emerson who was admired by Emily Dickinson.

     His assiduous routine that began before dawn with hot coffee and cold pie, then the invariable steps to his desk where for seven hours he would work, I admire, and that he attempted to maintain this habit no matter what circumstances of disaster fate visited upon him, I admire—work in the face of a fate which often was truly cruel to Emerson. His life was boundary-stoned by deaths. His first wife he married likely in the knowledge she was dying of tuberculosis (they had three indelible years). His son, Waldo, born to his second wife, Lidian, died young of scarlet fever. He gave up his innocent little breath like a bird, Emerson wrote in his journal that winter. His brothers, so promising, met with professional disappointment, or else died young—John Clarke aged eight, Edward aged twenty-nine, his beloved Charles but twenty-eight. And his sisters mostly fared no better—Phebe lived two years, never having met her brother-to-be, and Mary Caroline just three. Sorrow makes us all children again,—destroys all differences of intellect, he noted. The wisest knows nothing. I honor him in his anguish and his phoenixlike response, his understanding of the value of the tragic flame, his earned words about the enrichments attendant to disaster: He has seen but half the universe who never has been shown the House of Pain.

I celebrate the Emerson who might lose this or fail at that, but note the very next day with superb delicacy: This morn the air smells of vanilla and oranges.

I celebrate the writer who said outright what most writers think: No man can be criticised but by a greater than he. Do not, then, read the reviews.

The Emerson who at once displayed majesty and aloofness and engagement and human-kindness and pluck and flamboyance and knotty radiance and the one who regretted he didn’t possess a greater knowledge in the fields of geography, mathematics, astronomy and who wished his German was better, and his Greek.

     I celebrate the photographs of him so sadly joyful, so sternly charitable, with almost always the same expression in every frame, a firmness of spirit in the eyes and on the brow but with the mouth drawn out not quite into a smile, nor quite into a frown, but rather toward a magnificent variance of thought. His I must be myself—yawping forward toward Whitman and the century of thinkers who had not yet been born—I celebrate not only for the sheer classic weight of the charge, but for how the very proverb formed itself in the countenance of the man who made it. Both Emersons always there in the visage: the Emerson who wrote I enjoy all the hours of life, and the Emerson who wrote The badness of the times is making death attractive. His face which wore a similar serious benevolence at seventy-four and forty-three and fifty. Scholar, husband, father, friend—the look of one who rarely if ever bothered to invent an excuse. 

     Emerson the stylist I honor, the maker of phrases immaculate and sound. Emerson the etymologist who proposed that Every word was once a poem. Emerson with his unfailing bias for developing an argument through apothegm, pith, maxim, a flurry of gists. I admire Emerson for his knowledge that utterance is place enough and how he accorded language its rightful physicality and elemental power. And how his essays are like growing organisms that respond, word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, now to this barrier, now to some other, drawing the reader into the spell, seducing us by narrative unpredictability: what facet will be cut next? We cannot guess; we press on. Emerson’s great exemplars from Plutarch to Empedocles and Heraclitus, from Eckermann and Dugald Stewart to Montaigne and the Upanishads, from de Staël to Hafez and Swedenborg, had all been gleaned so thoroughly that their necessary ideas and forms became a part of Emerson; or rather blended, coalesced into Emerson, so that they were less referents than reflexes, less without or within than of. Like a Monroe Doctrine of the mind: You who would have that idea or image, take it, for it is your own to begin with. Whoever would simply say what he thinks, name what he knows, is sovereign, and stands at the centre. If words are stones that we arrange into cairns and columns and palaces of thought, then Emerson was a master mason.

     I cherish the Emerson who found his exemplary self-reliant man in Henry Thoreau. Insist on yourself; never imitate—this his confrere Thoreau embodied to a fault. Writing of Plato, Emerson unwittingly sketched Thoreau: He said, Culture; he said, Nature; and he failed not to add, ‘There is also the divine.’ And, in yet another context, not long after meeting this son of a pencil maker, he noted The one thing of value in the world is the active soul; in Henry he had his vivid model—nature vivre—and rampant doppelgänger from whom he could take his measure, and against whose works and manner he could refine his concept of nature itself, and of wisdom, purity of will, defiance, justice, destiny, health, value, life, death, the rigorous universe in toto. His moving elegy for Thoreau exfoliates by its own rationale, just as did the man himself. No opposition or ridicule had any weight with him, Emerson remembered. He remarked how Thoreau chose to be rich by making his wants few. He even insisted, with a straight face, that as an ichthyologist Henry was so skilled that the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water. The wonder is he didn’t claim that they conversed in watery whispers. Thoreau was Emerson’s most true brother, and harshest mirror. When they argued they argued with the full force of their affections, and they held each other to high standards of honesty and kinship. I know not any genius who so swiftly inferred universal law from the single fact ... wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

I celebrate, then, the Emerson who said that friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed, and who realized All lives, all friendships are momentary and therefore pitched himself heart and soul into the lives of those who called him friend.

     I celebrate the man who so simply proposed Show us an arc of the curve, and a good mathematician will find out the whole figure. Meaning: We are always reasoning from the seen to the unseen.

I celebrate the curiosity that led Emerson, on one of his daily walks to Roxbury to visit the grave of his first wife, to open her coffin and look at her perished body. If thoughts are actions, actions are externalized thoughts. How did what he saw there in the dwarf wooden ketch direct his intellectual voyage thereafter? I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin is what he recorded. Was it morbidity, curiosity? Emerson himself, the great analyst of gesture and philosopher of synecdoche, offers no commentary on this singular moment. He wanted to know something. And presumably he found out. If you celebrate asset, you celebrate method. Commentators have, over the years, viewed this incident with solemn disbelief. Some have proposed it never happened, that it was a dream, a nightmare even. It was not a dream. It was a loving scientist gazing upon an undeniable truth in his search for freedom and its own undeniable truths. Of lovers he wrote, When alone, they solace themselves with the remembered image of the other. I honor Emerson’s breaching the coffin and fathoming Ellen Tucker’s corpse.

     I celebrate the man who wrote I admire answers to which no answer can be made.

The man who wrote Pretension never wrote an Iliad. Who wrote of one of his friends who had difficulty writing with any concision that he should be made effective by being tapped by a good suction-pump.

The man who predicted When the rudder is invented for the balloon, railroads will be superceded.

The man who knew that envy is ignorance.

I celebrate his common human fear of being a fraud and that they would find me out. The raw mind of the man, its spontaneous sincerity. His vulnerability so tersely bared. I take my hat off to the Emerson who endured unheated winter lecture halls and the sometimes indifferent, hostile and even hissing audiences, as he traveled the circuit for months on end, presenting his talks, reading his work, assaying his ideas before whoever would come to listen. Who carried on despite the mixed notices. Whose physical strength against the witless, withering rigors of the road was admirable. Who asked What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice? Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble. I honor the depths of his depressions which made his moments of ecstasy that much more elevated.

     The primary wisdom is intuition, whilst all subordinate teachings are tuition, he stated; one of his unveering convictions was that all we can truly know is understood through experience, gathered from the visceral engagement, learned from watching the peony explode into June whiteness and then wither brown under the July sun, eventually to be buried under December snow, and from that seen sequence infer one’s own process, mortality, lot. I celebrate Emerson the intuitionist, the man of seasoned instinct. The man who considered most universities hostile to the development of the minds of the young, insofar as they kept those minds away from primary experience, from the field, where things are really realized.

     I respect his Pythagoreanist proposal that fundamental truths cannot finally be stated, but are discovered only through nuance, through metaphor, through natural emblem. In so many of his greatest essays the truth comes forth in this manner: between the hard rocky truisms, between the immaculate verities, between the disparate lines. Emerson who understood that in the synapse the blaze of electric transfer happens.

     I commemorate 25th May 1803 when he was born and 27th April 1882 when, having taken his daily constitutional though ailing from a chest cold, and being caught in a sudden rainshower, he arrived home drenched, a fever ensuing, and though his son pled with him to rest in bed he continued to work in his study during the days that followed, maintaining the same unswayable routine by which he’d led his entire remarkable life, until the pneumonia bested him. The bell in the Unitarian Church of Concord tolled seventy-nine times that night, one stroke for each of his generous years, a death-knell embodying the fused contradictories of grief and revelry.

     I celebrate the many Emersons and the one Emerson. What is life, but the angle of vision? he asked himself. I celebrate the man who would always ask.  

Bradford Morrow is the founding editor of Conjunctions. He is the author of ten books of fiction, including Trinity Fields, Giovanni’s Gift, The Forgers, and The Prague Sonata. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction, an Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Nora Magid Award for excellence in editing a literary journal. A Bard Center Fellow and professor of literature at Bard College, he lives in New York City.