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Wednesday, October 13, 2004
emersoniana negativa
some older reviews
I've been saying bad things about Ralph Waldo Emerson lately, and I plan to cast many more slurs in his direction, seeing his famous essay on "Self Reliance" as perhaps the definitive kick-off and ultimate rationale for cultivate-your-own garden new-age solipsism. So imagine my joy at finding these bits in an article I searched up on Highbeam...
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose friendship Emerson tried to cultivate, wrote in his 1842 journal that Emerson was "that everlasting rejecter of all that is, and seeker for he knows not what."
  • After he heard Emerson lecture in 1849, Melville wrote in a letter to a friend (E.A. Duyckinck) that this "Plato who talks through his nose "was "a humbug," though "no common humbug." Melville claimed some years later that Emerson's vision of the world "proceeded from a defect in the region of the heart." He also satirized Emerson's Transcendental philosophy in the character of Plotinus Plinlimmon in his novel Pierre (1852).
  • Although often called the father of New England Transcendentalism and the Sage of Concord, Emerson came under attack by the distinguished professor of philosophy at Emerson's alma mater, George Santayana of Harvard University:
    At bottom [Emerson] had no doctrine at all. The deeper he went and the more he tried to grapple with fundamental conceptions, the vaguer and more elusive they became in his hands. Did he know what he meant by Spirit or the "Over-Soul"? Could he say what he understood by the terms, so constantly on his lips, Nature, Law, God, Benefit, or Beauty? He could not, and the consciousness of that incapacity was so lively within him that he never attempted to give articulation to his philosophy.
  • As if this attack from Santayana were not enough, there was an even more scathing attack by a president of Yale University (A. Bartlett Giamatti), made to the senior class in his baccalaureate address in 1982. President Giamatti claimed that Emerson "freed our politics and our politicians from any sense of restraint by extolling self-generated, unaffiliated power as the best foot to place in the small of the back of the man in front of him."
  • The seed which James Russell Lowell's satiric references to Emerson's apparent yen for both Olympian and Stock Exchange achievements grew into a full--fledged anti-Emerson attack in Kenneth Lynn's review of Gay Wilson's 1981 biography of Emerson. In that review (in Commentary, March 1982), Professor Lynn alleges that there was something coarsely materialistic in Emerson's pursuit of his first wife, Ellen Tucker -- and, even more so, in his pursuit of her wealth. When she died after eighteen months of marriage to Emerson, it was his inheritance of her property which enabled him, according to Lynn, to make and enjoy his first trip to Europe, and, from his "comfortable assurance of an annual income," to urge others to shun vulgar materialism.
There is so much unalloyed praise floating about for Ralph Waldo Emerson these days that it was good to find these deliciously dissenting opinions of the man.

from: The Kaleidoscopic Emerson by Milton Birnbaum
source: Modern Age, 1/1/2003
via: Highbeam Research
Copyright © 2003 Intercollegiate Studies Institute Inc.

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"RageBoy: Giving being fucking nuts a good name since 1985."
~D. Weinberger
28 October 2004

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