A most quotable man. American poet, essayist, lecturer, philosopher and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrates 200.
Almost all post-Emersonian writers of real eminence in American literature are either passionately devoted to him or moved to negate him, rather ambiguously in the stances of Hawthorne and Melville, but fiercely in the case of Poe and most southerners after him. (Emerson shrugged off Poe as “the jingle man”.) At every lunch that I happily shared with the poet-novelist Robert Penn Warren, he would denounce Emerson as the devil. Warren was anything but dogmatic, whether on literary or spiritual matters, but he blamed Emerson for the murderous John Brown – whose violent crusade against slavery sparked the Civil war – and for most of what was destructive in American culture. C Vann Woodward, a historian of extraordinary distinction, told me many times that Emerson could not be forgiven for the essay “History”, which never ceases to give me joy with its opening sentence: “There is no history, only biography.” On the other side, there is the testimony of Whitman, celebrating Emerson as the explorer who led us all to “the shores of America”. Thoreau and Emily Dickinson can be said to evade Emerson, but only after absorbing him, while Robert Frost was the most exuberant of all affirmers of Emerson. There are too many to cite: no single sage in English literature, not Dr Johnson nor Coleridge, is as inescapable as Emerson goes on being for American poets and storytellers.