Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The angel would eat too much gingerbread - Emerson cracks a joke

Somewhere on Wuthering Expectations, although heck if I can remember where, I included Ralph Waldo Emerson in a list of writers I considered humorless. Having read more deeply - or more shallowly? - anyway, more something - in Emerson, I am happy to retract the charge.

In his essay "Nominalist and Realist" (1844), Emerson reminds us that even Great Men are imperfect: "I verily believe if an angel should come to chaunt the chorus of the moral law, he would eat too much gingerbread, or take liberties with private letters, or do some precious atrocity."

That's, I say, that's a joke, son. I didn't say it was necessarily funny, but an angel stuffing himself with gingerbread is comic. Still deflating the Great Men, he varies the joke in the "Napoleon" chapter of Representative Men (1850) when listing Napoleon's bad qualities:

"He treated women with low familiarity. He had the habit of pulling their ears, and pinching their cheeks, when he was in good humor, and of pulling the ears and whiskers of men, and of striking and horse-play with them, to his last days. It does not appear that he listened at key-holes, or, at least, that he was caught at it."

OK, "that he was caught at it," not bad.

I have been reading Emerson in something like chronological order. I think he gets funnier as he ages, although I may have only now learned to identify his comic tone. He becomes a bit sour, even, but there's an accompanying recognition of the ridiculousness of things that is very genial. This is easier to see in his journal than in his essays, but traces begin to appear everywhere.

Don't get me wrong - the default Emerson style is "earnest gasbag", but there's a lot of variation around that. Look at this defense of earnestness, in "Montaigne; or the Skeptic":

"The first dangerous symptom I report, is, the levity of intellect; as if it were fatal to earnestness to know much. Knowledge is the knowing that we cannot know. The dull pray; the geniuses are light mockers."

This is immediately followed by a parody of his "subtle and admirable friend" Thomas Carlyle, a heavy mocker, who becomes "San Carlo." Again, not exactly funny, but comic, and the only example of Emersonian parody that I have come across, or anyway recognized.

As enjoyable as it is to find this side of Emerson, there is no excuse for this journal entry from December 1850:

"How could the children of Israel sustain themselves for forty days in the desart?
Because of the sand-which-is there."


  1. I popped over from CB's and am in love with your blog title. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books (just wrote a post kind of about it, actually) and one of my favorite editions is the one with Heathcliff by the tree. Too cool.

  2. The sand-which-is is the only bit of Emerson's comic side which actually made me laugh. Not that it is funny, but it IS funny that EMERSON wrote that.

  3. At least it's not the alleged humor of Thoreau, who at the end of his life goes on and on making jokes about skunk cabbages and types of moss and quantities of rainfall. Not exactly a knee-slapper, our Hank. Now, Bronson Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne --those guys were stand-up comics in comparison.

  4. Thoreau remains on my short list of humorless writers. As you can see, though, it doesn't take that much to get off the list. But I do think that Emerson's sense of the ridiculous changed - improved - in his middle age.

    As for the pun, I'll just point out here that he was living with an 11 year old girl. Still, wherever he got it, the funny thing, like you said, is that for some reason he thought he needed to write it down, near a note on aesthetics that includes the phrase "florid petulant anthropomorphism" and a chracter sketch of an old neighbor.

    Trish, I love your photo of the two Brontë novels (and the story). I should look for that edition of Jane Eyre - I've never seen it.