Reading Emerson, writer, with Emerson, dog

There is a concept in statistics called the alignment of random points, where a series of lines and points will randomly intersect, sometimes with multiple ones meeting in the same place. Mathematicians cite this phenomenon when arguing that random chance can produce startling coincidences that would otherwise be attributed to divine providence or magic.

Looking at the example of random point alignment at left, you can see several places where lines and dots are tightly clumped. Suppose each of those lines and dots represents the utterance of a word or the appearance of a particle. Stumbling upon an unusual grouping may prompt paranoia (such as here) or perhaps a breakthrough (like here).

I had my own encounter with random point alignment last week when, only days after picking Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays as the next book for Letters Republic, I found myself bringing home a puppy named Emerson from an animal rescue shelter.

Emerson Hall at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

First, the dog. We didn’t name him Emerson. I think that’s important to point out. He is a rescue from Kentucky, and my guess is he is more likely named after a local hamlet than the Concord transcendentalist. Since getting this dirty snowball I’ve found most folks’ reaction to hearing his name is, “Oh, that sounds like a name you’d give a dog.”

Ouch.

I wanted to name him Tuckerman (which is a really cool, non-smarmy name for a dog), but renaming a pet felt wrong. So he’ll stay as Emerson. That has its drawbacks. Having a dog named Emerson in the vicinity of Harvard Yard, where I live, is the equivalent of having a dog named Palin in Wasilla, Alaska. It makes the locals cringe. But in spite of that, I take Emerson the dog’s coincidental connection to a local literary hero in stride.

Emerson, man

The Concord writers have had a peripheral  but ever-present place in our family’s life. My father was born in Concord, a quarter mile from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house. Growing up, we always visited grammy on Patriot’s Day and would walk down the hill to see the Minutemen whup the Red Coats (every time!). In high school I once swam Walden Pond. I remember thinking as I passed through warm spots that it must be Thoreau’s pee. Big readers of my generation grew up knowing Emerson was a great thinker, but we never actually read anything by him. That likely bothers old Lit geeks who think poorly of anything written post-To Kill a Mockingbird. But literature didn’t end after 1965. Some old favorites fade to the background, replaced by modern masterpieces like Beloved, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Blood Meridian, and Auster’s New York Trilogy.

So what Great Books have been shuffled to the side? Just scroll a little deeper down the Master List ordered by popularity. Some of the authors with dimming stars are elder darlings (Rabelais, Elizabeth Gaskall, Samuel Richardson) and fading 20th Century icons (let me know the last time you saw someone under the age of 40 reading Muriel Spark or John O’Hara). Ralph Waldo Emerson, I believe, is one of these wilting stalks. Today we read Thoreau, but only name-drop Emerson. So picking up his essays did not feel like returning to an old friend, but rather like a fresh discovery.

Emerson, dog

Reading Emerson, the man, I can’t help but think of Emerson, the dog. I really do. In “Nature” and “The American Scholar,perhaps his most famous two essays, you find an innocent and awestruck reaction to the outer world. In that famous line from American Scholar, he writes:

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good?

Walking with Emerson the dog, both of us are starting to see the world with new eyes. What would otherwise be a mindless march to the library is now an obstacle course for me as I dodge telephone poles and children. For my dog it is a daily discovery. Everything is new. When it rains the world is cast in a fresh coat of smells. Every crack in the pavement and every tree root interests him. As Emerson, author, writes in “Nature”:

To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.

Today, talking about reawakening your childlike wonder is, at best, cliche. But reading Emerson — and walking with Emerson — you tend to forget that.

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  1. […] a previous post, I argued that nobody reads Ralph Waldo Emerson anymore. I stand by that, sort of. As a literary milepost, Emerson has largely been overshadowed by his […]



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