The Man Who Invented America

In 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 followers. He is The Hobbit rather than The Lord of the Rings. Disneyland instead of Disney World. Emerson fails to stand alongside giants like Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, and instead belongs to a second tier of writers who survive as historical footnotes. The funny thing is, Emerson himself likely wouldn’t mind. “Each age,” he writes, “must write its own books… The books of an older period will not fit this.”

Well then, you might say, there it is. We don’t even need to feel guilty about ignoring the man. As our Western Canon continues to grow and resort itself, loosing lesser titans as it adds new ones, we no longer need Emerson, we only need to know what came after him.

But that isn’t exactly true. The Concord Sage has more value than just being a starting point for better things. I say we need to read Emerson to see the birth of the American Idea.

Taken together, Emerson’s three best essays, Nature, The American Scholar, and Self Reliance, are, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, the United States’ Declaration of Intellectual Independence. It is in the wake of these essays that Europe and America split along a cultural axis, and America began to invent its own philosophy. Before Emerson, America was a moody colony, literally a “New England.” After Emerson, it became something entirely new. For that reason alone, we should read what he has to say.

You have to remember that in the 1830s Americans were still thinking like Europeans. Not only thinking like them, they were catering to them. Artistic styles mimicked the European courts and salons. There was no “American style,” just a rehashed version of European tastes. But despite their old political ties, Europe and America couldn’t be more different. In the Old World, nations were small and borders were fixed. Nature, as an idea, was generally limited in scope to John Locke’s theory of property. What lay beyond the outer door was not an “enchantment,” as Emerson saw it, but a source of grain, game, and timber. America, by comparison, was terra incognita. That notion of a new, mysterious world, called up questions for Emerson that had not been asked since Aristotle’s time.

There is throughout nature something mocking, something that leads us on and on, but arrives nowhere, keeps no faith with us. All promise outruns the performance.

Europe, Emerson thought, had a smug sense of order. Its masters felt all the important mysteries had been solved. Americans, by comparison, had a chance to break new ground. As he writes in American Scholar:

Perhaps the time is already come when it ought to be, and will be, something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions that around us are rushing into life cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests. Events, actions arise that must be sung, that will sing themselves.

The summation of Emerson’s American Idea comes in the essay Self Reliance. Given that the nation’s borders and destiny remain unfixed, and its philosophies not yet written, Self Reliance comes to the natural conclusion: the American must be a self-made man. Emerson’s argument is beautiful at times, such as when he praises the creative potential of the individual:

The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.

And this delightfully knotty line in praise of the entrepreneur:

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

Self Reliance also shines when it cheers for the lone voice, calling to mind, at least for me, Rockwell’s painting, Freedom of Speech:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.

But by lighting the American Idea, Emerson ignites both the best and worst of what would make America.

Take, for example, a particularly humorless and mean-spirited New York Times piece by writer Benjamin Anastas that bemoans the ugly side of Emersonian self-reliance:

The excessive love of individual liberty that debases our national politics? It found its original poet in Ralph Waldo. The plague of devices that keep us staring into the shallow puddle of our dopamine reactions, caressing our touch screens for another fix of our own importance? That’s right: it all started with Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

Perhaps that’s too heavy handed. But only just. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Emerson would have called Chief Justice Roberts a traitorbut it is fair to say he would have rancorous opinions of the welfare state. He writes

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. …though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar.

Depending on your political stripe, those lines fills you with either glee or disgust. Either way, you have to admit they sound very familiar these days.

So there it is. In this one author we find the perverse and wonderful, the sui generis American Idea. Here is a nation where in one moment we weep for “the softness and beauty of the summer clouds” and in another condemn any move toward charity or compromise:

A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.

Perhaps the best thing we can say about Emerson, like the American Idea he birthed, is that he is impossible to nail down. As he expresses himself in his most famous line:

Suppose you should contradict yourself; what then? A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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