Friday, January 23, 2009

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day - I have been enjoying Emerson's journals

I have been reading more of Emerson than his journals - the second series of Essays, his poems, Representative Men - and I had some vague idea of writing a little about these books. The "Montaigne" essay in Representative Men, for example, is fantastic. But I seem to keep circling back to the journals, I think because they present a cogent, concise portrait of the true essence of Emerson.

No, what nonsense. It's because they're easier. More fun to read. Emerson is hard - "Nominalist and Realist," what am I doing reading something titled "Nominalist and Realist"? The essays are dense, rhetorically complex, deliberately contradictory, and long. The same ideas in the journal are bite-size and more easily digested. And if something is too baffling, just skip on; Emerson will be thinking about something else.

The biographical momentum helps, too. Emerson marries, loses his wife, marries again. He has crises of faith. He laments his interest in sex. He praise novels and gets worked up about politics and travels to England. He adores his children; he loses his son. Oh, that last one, almost too hard to read:

"Jan. 28, 1842
Yesterday night at 15 minutes after eight my little Waldo ended his life."

Waldo was five years old. "Every tramper that ever tramped is abroad but the little feet are still." He mourns and moves on, and writes about that, too.

Some Emersonian wisdom, or at least attempts at such:

"At Brook Farm one man ploughed all day, & one looked out of the window all day & drew his picture, and both received the same wages.

The one event which never loses its romance is the alighting of superior persons at my gate.

Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.

The old writers, such as Montaigne, Milton, Browne, when they had put down their thoughts, jumped into their book bodily temselves, so that we have all that is left of them in our shelves; there is not a pinch of dust beside."

The last one is from Aug. 1848; the others from mid-1847. Just a sample. The last one may be a tautology; the first may not make quite the point Emerson wants. Hardly relevant - when Emerson had a thought, he wrote it down. If, soon after, he thought the opposite, that went in the journal, too. Reading the journals is akin to watching Emerson think.

I have been reading the one volume Emerson in His Journals, and am vaguely tempted, just barely, to read the entire journal, all ten volumes or so.


  1. Beautiful post. I'm seduced back into Emerson after reading it. Your reaction to the writing is exactly what Emerson wanted. He didn't think you would need a college professor to explain it to you.

  2. Thanks, David. Emerson's relationship with scholarly authority has its funny side. On the one hand, "Self-Reliance", you bet. On the other hand, he spent most of his working time reading books on all subjects, largely written by scholars and experts.