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  • Ralph Waldo Emerson is the father of American literature.

  • In a series of strikingly original essays, written in the mid-nineteenth century,

  • he fundamentally changed the way that America saw its cultural and artistic

  • possibilities, and he enabled a separation from transatlantic literary traditions.

  • "We have listened too long...", he wrote, "...to the Courtly muses of Europe."

  • Emerson's abjection of cultural traditions brought about what one

  • contemporary called: "America's intellectual declaration of independence."

  • and he established generational conflict and transformation as commanding ideas

  • in American literature.

  • Emerson himself hardly seemed destined to fit a revolutionary mold.

  • He was born in 1803, the son of a Boston preacher, and was descended from a line

  • of New England ministers that went back to the bedrock of seventeenth-century

  • Puritanism. When his father died in 1811, his mother took in boarders to pay the

  • rent.

  • Still, she sent her son to Harvard in 1817, and then Harvard divinity school to

  • train for the priesthood in 1825.

  • As a young man,

  • Emerson was strongly influenced by a remarkable aunt of his: Mary Moody Emerson,

  • who though self-taught, had read everything from Shakespeare to the

  • romantics and it formed a unique religious perspective based on piety

  • nature and literature, that would resonate powerfully in the life and work

  • of her nephew.

  • So when Emerson was ordained in 1829, marrying the love of his life

  • Ellen Tucker in the same year, he was already unsatisfied with the formal

  • nature of New England religious orthodoxy.

  • When Ellen died of tuberculosis just two years later, he resigned from the church

  • and soon after embarked on a trip to Europe.

  • Leaving on Christmas Day 1832, two crucial things happened to Emerson

  • on that tour of europe.

  • In Paris, he went to the famous "Jardin des Plantes",

  • a botanical and zoological garden.

  • There he had an epiphany.

  • Writing in his journal that: "I feel the centipede in me,

  • the Cayman, carp, eagle and Fox...

  • ...I am moved by strange sympathies. I say continually: I will be a naturalist.".

  • Emerson's insight was that nature is in us, a part of us,

  • and not just its higher forms,

  • but in all its grotesquerie and wildness.

  • The second thing that happened on that tour, was that Emerson met the English

  • romantic poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth,

  • and found them rather ordinary, dry and conservative men.

  • The insight that Emerson drew from this,

  • was that if great men could be so ordinary,

  • why should not ordinary men be great?

  • as he would write a few years later,

  • meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty, to accept the views which

  • Cicero, Locke, Bacon have given. Forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only

  • young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

  • Emerson had found two ideas that would guide his life's work.

  • That man and nature are one

  • and that everyone can recognize that they are

  • a uniquely, significant human being.

  • On his return to America in 1833, Emerson became a professional lecturer

  • giving talks on natural history and literature

  • in halls around New England.

  • He remarried and had several children,

  • presenting a stolid, bourgeois appearance to the world.

  • But his inner life was full of turbulence and originality.

  • In his 1836 essay, "Nature",

  • Emerson outlined the germ of a new philosophy, a key element of this, was the

  • importance of American originality. In its opening lines, Emerson wrote:

  • "Our age is retrospective, it builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies,

  • histories and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face;

  • we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?".

  • America, needed to stop looking back to its European heritage

  • and start looking about it self.

  • No past moment was more important, than the present moment.

  • No tradition was more important, than novelty.

  • No generation, was better than the current generation.

  • Everything that matters is here now insisted Emerson,

  • and that here was: America.

  • This was an extension of Emerson's ideas, about the significance of the individual

  • that came under the heading of what he called "self-reliance".

  • Everywhere Emerson looked, he saw people leading lives that were based on tradition,

  • that were limited by religious forms and social habits.

  • No one could be themselves, Emerson thought, because they were all too busy

  • being what they were supposed to be.

  • Emerson wanted to get rid of each of these burdens:

  • the past, religion and social forms,

  • so that each person could find out who they truly were.

  • As he put it:

  • "History is an impertinence and an injury;

  • Our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us...

  • And...

  • ...Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members."

  • We must, he argued, live from within trusting nothing but our own intuitions.

  • For, as he concluded...

  • ...nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

  • This leaves open a vital question: What is your nature...

  • ...once you've rid yourself of history, tradition and religion?

  • What can be said is that it isn't necessarily self-indulgence, haterism

  • or narcissism.

  • Rather, it's the surrender to that force which Emerson recognized back in the

  • Jardin des Plantes.

  • An obedience to nature itself.

  • By nature, Emerson seem to mean the natural world: plants, animals, rocks and sky,

  • but what he really meant was God.

  • Emerson was a "Pantheist". That is, someone who believe that God exists in every

  • part of creation, from the smallest grain of sand to the stars.

  • But also crucially that the divine spark is in each of us.

  • In following ourselves,

  • we are therefore not merely being fickle or selfish,

  • we are rather, releasing a divine will,

  • that history, society and organized religion normally hide from us.

  • The individual as Emerson writes "is a God in ruins".

  • But we have it within us, by casting off all custom to rebuild ourselves

  • Emerson makes this Pantheist connection, explicit in what are perhaps his most

  • famous lines.

  • "Crossing a bear common, in snow puddles at twilight under a clouded sky,

  • without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune,

  • I've enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear,

  • standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blythe air and uplifted

  • into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes...

  • ...I become a transparent eyeball...

  • ...I am nothing...

  • ...I see all. The currents of the universal being circulate through me...

  • ...I am part or particle of God!

  • In the Romantic tradition on which Emerson draws, it is the sublime,

  • great mountains, rushing torrance, dark forests,

  • which releases the inner vision as we find ourselves in all of them.

  • For Emerson,

  • it's a perfectly dull walk across an ordinary common on a dark winter's evening

  • that brings him, to the brink of fear.

  • Emerson's God, is in the snow puddles too.

  • Stood there on the common,

  • he disappears, becoming nothing as the currents of God flow through him.

  • What is left is just, a transparent eyeball.

  • Such transcendent moments are rare,

  • but they reveal an essential connection between nature, God and man.

  • They are one.

  • They also give Emerson a proper sense of each individual's importance,

  • as a part of God.

  • Transcendentalism became the name of the movement that grew up around Emerson,

  • at this time.

  • Another aspect of the epiphany that was to have a profound

  • effect on American literature, was the emphasis on the value of the ordinary.

  • What Emerson put forward in essays like "The American scholar" and "the poet",

  • was that the American every day, was a proper subject for literature.

  • This was because for Emerson, the transcendentalist God is everywhere,

  • and it's the poet's job to reveal this.

  • "There is no object...", he wrote, "...so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful."

  • "...Even a corpse has its own beauty." This coming from a man who had opened his

  • first wife's tomb a year after her death...

  • ...to take a look!

  • The great American writers, who followed Emerson,

  • were liberated by his work to look around and write about what they

  • saw and how they lived,

  • transforming the everyday into a vital symbol of something higher and more elusive.

  • Henry David Thoreau's two years at Walden Pond, became a book that showed

  • the cosmos reflected in the depths of the waters of a mere pond.

  • The poet Walt Whitman said: "I was simmering, simmering, simmering...

  • ...Emerson brought me to a boil."

  • Emily Dickinson heard a fly and could write of the other side of death.

  • The novelist Herman Melville, took a whaling voyage,

  • and made it an allegory of American imperialism and the defiance of nature.

  • In the 20th century, the American critic Harold Bloom looked back

  • at Emerson's originality and saw in it the origin of:

  • "The strong tradition of American poets."

  • From Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens to John Ashbery,

  • Emerson's legacy to american literature and culture and indeed to the world,

  • was one of ceaseless invention and forward momentum.

  • As he put it: "I unsettle all things...

  • ...no facts are to me sacred, none are profane...

  • ...I simply experiment an endless seeker with no past at my back."

  • people of

  • Paul pronouncing his name if you don't speak German it's not at all obvious how

  • you're supposed to say it a safe bet is to start with a hard was a great check

  • writer who has come to own a part of the human emotional spectrum which we can

  • now call the casket desk and which thanks to him

  • where

Ralph Waldo Emerson is the father of American literature.

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LITERATURE - Ralph Waldo Emerson

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    JessieW   posted on 2020/05/18
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