Thursday, January 22, 2009

His only illustration is his own biography - Emerson criticizes his friends

Emerson's journals - most of his writings - are an enormous project of self-criticism and self-improvement. No surprise than that they also contain criticisms of his friends, a central part of his life, criticisms that are constructive and penetrating:

"Henry Thoreau is like the woodgod who solicits the wandering poet & draws him into antres vast & desarts idle, & bereaves him of his memory, & leaves him naked, plaiting vines & with twigs in his hand. Very seductive are the first steps from the town to the woods, but the End is want & madness." August 1848, p. 391.

And here's the most famous knock on Thoreau:

"Thoreau wants a little ambition in his nature. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American Engineers, he is captain of a huckleberry party." July 1851, p. 426.

Emerson constantly doubts and questions the value of his own work, and you can see the element of self-criticism in his portraits of Thoreau. And I should point out that Emerson considered Thoreau something like the Greatest Man Alive. I've misplaced the reference, but somewhere in his journal he describes Thoreau as the only man who actually lives by Emerson's ideals. Not the only other man - Emerson excludes himself. But then there's Emerson's frustration - if you're so smart and talented, get out of your canoe and do something.

Thomas Carlyle, Branson Alcott, Margaret Fuller - along with his barbs, Emerson occasionally expresses amazement that he has been able to associate with these people, great intellects, original thinnkers, brilliant weirdos. But here he is on Alcott:

"Unhappily, his conversation never loses sight of his own personality. He never quotes; he never refers; his only illustration is his own biography. His topic yesterday is Alcott on the 17 October; today, Alcott on the 18 October; tomorrow, on the 19th. So will it be always... this noble genius discredits genius to me." April 1842, p. 281.

This counts as Emerson humor, at least the middle part. Is it also a bit mean? True, but mean? I'm not sure I have the strength of character to hear this sort of thing about myself. When, up above, I called his criticisms "constructive", I meant theoretically. Heard and understood in the proper spirit. How that would actually work, even, or especially, coming from one's closest friends, I have no idea.

This was all private, of course, just for Emerson and posterity. Emerson could be kind of a cold fish, but was not actually cruel, I don't think. It all slept in the journal.

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