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Monday, December 04, 2006

EMERSON, MY NEIGHBOR

“Our best & greatest American gone. The nearest & dearest friend father ever had, & the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society. I can never tell all he has been to me from the time I sang Mignon’s song under his window, a little girl and I wrote letters à la Bettine to him, my Goethe, at 15, up through my hard years when his essays on Self Reliance, Character, Compensation, Love & Friendship helped me to understand myself & life & God & Nature. Illustrious & beloved friend, good bye!” (Myerson, 234).

With these words in her journal entry of Thursday April 27th 1882, Louisa May Alcott bid farewell to Ralph Waldo Emerson, her neighbor and mentor, who had died at 9 p.m. The author of “Little Women” and the philosopher lived in Concord, Massachusetts, an extraordinary place in an extraordinary American time:

“ A century and a half ago, bucolic little Concord was a hub of the American literary and cultural universe, home to a small group of talented intellectuals, major figures in their own day who would go on to exert an incalculable influence on all subsequent American thought and culture. One could hardly think of a more illustrious circle of American writers than Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller. All of them knew one another, lived in or near Concord at roughly the same time, and wrote many of their most important works there. Indeed, all of them (with the exception of Fuller, who died in a shipwreck) are also buried there today. There is perhaps no single location in all of American literary history more weighty in literary lore and more alive with the sense of possibility- precisely the sense of possibility that has always been one of the chief glories in American life. “(Mc Clay).

Concord and the colored tissue woven by Emerson and his friends would be an invisible part of all the novels Alcott wrote, which were privileged for more than a century as one of the best children and young people literature, not only in the United States but in the rest of the Americas, where people on quest of their own American identity were avid for new local models. Alcott’s novels, with their moral example and their description of the spiritually rich New England life, are one of the best examples on how Emerson’s philosophy expanded beyond Concord to the rest of the country and of the continent. They stand as a beacon which signals by which roads Emerson’s words and teachings contributed to mold the Americas ‘soul. Emerson solved the American original identity before any other intellectual in the region. Because of this, Emerson represents a consistent original model of American intellectual, valid not only in the United States of America but in the Americas, and his influence can be measured on a continental scale.

Emerson, as a man from New England, inaugurated a new intellectual era. To trace his life as a man, his works, his message and his historic making of a role model, equals to define the qualities, history and destiny of America, understood not only as a country but as the first independent nation of a continent who would imitate its steps, in every progress toward freedom and self assertion. Henry Adams, a prominent Bostonian, recognized that there was a third force in America, besides politics and money, which “he called Concord, it was the influence upon the nation of Emerson’s example that man need not be the creature of his circumstances but could rise above his fate and work his way upon the world” (Ziff, 15). Emerson, who quit his Unitarian ministry to become a philosopher, a poet and a civilian preacher, invented a new category in history: the American intellectual. From Concord, his living example on what an American character was made of, would stand as that third force mentioned by Adams, and his literary work would reveal to the last minus details the pattern of an original American culture. Emerson was the hinge between a culture recreated from the leftovers of Europe and a brand new American philosophy, literature and national character.

Before him, an attempt of national literature was tried by Washington Irving in “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20)” which made him famous in Europe and America for his effort to create an image of a possible literary America:
“The rude American republic of unfinished manners, commercial instincts and awful art was not, after all, the hopelessly permanent home of aggressively practical mediocrity. Cultivation, Irving demonstrated, was possible. Its previous invisibility had been a matter only of immaturity, not as English critics would have had it, of the intrinsic nature of American society. Given time for further cultivation, America could be expected to produce more Geoffrey Crayons.”(Ziff, 8).

But Irving was still depending on the European heritage and “Just as Europeans naturalist had hunted down and captured American flora…Washington Irving conducted a relentless search for those items of the European scene that spoke of the power of the past to dominate the present” (Ziff, 9). As Ziff also notes, the popularity of Irving’s books showed that Americans “were anxious to feel themselves a folk” (10). Irving opens the way to Emerson’s thinking who no longer would believe that “The superficiality of the American past meant that it must be assisted by the artist’s visiting legends upon the scene until the passage of time provided a memorable body of events” (Ziff, 11) but rather invent its own legend : “The needy European, emerging from tradition with an empty stomach, regarded America as the land of promise, but the native son, his stomach full and his imagination starved, reversed the application of the biblical phrase.” (Ziff, 9). The Americas, after their own wars of independence were immersed in their own similar identity quest and at different levels, faced the same creative struggle than Emerson with the same lack of civilization dilemma, the same questions face to nature and the same need of cutting the umbilical chord with Europe, even if every country had different European roots. If European Romantics praised a return to Nature and to the wild, seen as a return to a probable lost paradise, Emerson would retake this theme and rework it according to the American needs. Nature would be the main basis of American identity.

His first essay “Nature” still owes to the 18th Century French philosophers like Rousseau and the first Romantic writers, as Chateaubriand, Coleridge and Wordsworth, but introduces a new phenomenological approach to nature, seen more than a national geography as a territory of new dreams. “Why should not we enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us and not the history of theirs?” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 35) “Nature” was the first brick on the Transcendentalist philosophy building and it explored also the tension between solitude and society, individualism and freedom, which would make later famous a disciple of Emerson, Henry David Thoreau.
“Nature” constitutes the first step toward an American philosophical thought and as Ziff
remarks:

“The much lamented shallow past of America was, in fact, a strong enabler, and that nature could teach the American lessons of power unavailable to Europeans. In 1776, Americans had declared their political independence from Great Britain, but it was not until 1837 that they received from Emerson what Oliver Wendell Holmes called their ‘intellectual declaration of independence” (15-16)

It was “The American Scholar,” a lecture given in Harvard which “would in due course become the most celebrated academic lecture in American history” (McClay) and would frame Emerson as the leading mind in America. If “Nature” discovered where an American philosophy could find its own roots, “The American Scholar” enlightened Americans about the new era, in which the thought would be local and no longer a rumination of the European thought.

“Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close”(Emerson, Selected Essays, 83) stated Emerson, proposing also a destiny for America: “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 105). Emerson realized that such a destiny required high souls to be met, and the core of his lecture was based on a thorough definition of what an American intellectual should be. He lectured about the do and don’ts of that new class from which he was the founding father. “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst,” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 88) he said, reminding us of Cervantes and his Don Quixote, in an early intuition of the modern and renewed culture of the Americas, which would remain, mainly due to his own directions, pragmatic and full of good common sense acquired through the direct observation of nature: “Books are for the scholar’s idle time. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other’s men transcripts of their readings.” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 89). He would also point out to the need of joining action to thought: “Only so much do I know, as I have lived” (92) and then he would remark: “I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies and rubies to his discourse.”(92), also insist: “Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.” (91), underline: “Character is higher than intellect.” (94) and conclude: “The great man makes the great thing.” (98). He would finally set the supreme rule of the American scholar: “Free should the scholar be, -free and brave.” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 97).

Emerson was fully aware of the social importance of scholars as models and intellectual leaders in the America-on-the making. “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.”(Emerson, Selected Essays, 95). This idea of the intellectual as a civilian leader is impregnated of the Masonic tradition, which rejects churches of different origins and favors free thinking and independence. Almost all the American nations had these seeds of free thinking embedded in their conception, and Emerson expresses, at the time of defining an American scholar, a wider concept at a historical stage in which American nations were independent but had not reached yet their fullest national identity. Emerson reminded us: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 101) and, showing his esoteric penchant, he quoted Swedenborg: “The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledge.”….”The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of reason; it is for you to know all; it is for you to dare all.” And to then add: “This confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 35). Emerson had not only met America’s destiny but his own. The man who concluded his brilliant lecture with what would become one of the most famous quotes in America: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 104) had set for him a working agenda as a lecturer. After “Nature” and “The American Scholar” he would continue with his essay production. The market of lectures increased and replaced the pulpit he had resigned. After him, and in front of diverse audiences, cultured and uncultured, in Lyceums and associations, in the North East and the Middle West, he would name the American character, inspiring people and molding them at the same time. His ideas were engrained in the emerging community and he was the one who revealed them, in what wanted to be a poetical intuition. As Cayton notes: “He adapted his philosophy to the needs of popular audience” and his fame grew every day: “A passion for teaching self-trust drove Emerson through an astonishing public career, in which he became a kind of northern institution of one, rather than the icon of Transcendentalism. Though his books sold well, Emerson's fame and influence came as a popular lecturer, a kind of displacement of his earlier role as an exemplary Unitarian minister.” (Bloom) Emerson second travel to Europe in 1848 in a ship called, by those ironic turns of destiny, the “Washington Irving,” closed an era of self discovery, which would institute Emerson as “perhaps the single most influential member of the American literary community.” (Ziff, 26).

Away from pre made European theories on life, Emerson trusted himself to discover the American reality as seen in its nature. Goethe, to whom he initiated Alcott, becomes a guide to creation. “The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the vulgar is fruitful in discoveries. Goethe, in this very thing the most modern of the moderns, has shown us, as none ever did, the genius of the ancients,” shared Emerson in “The American Scholar” (Selected Essays, 103) and his words still reach us with the power of a secret, for Goethe as Emerson were initiates in the knowledge of ancient sciences, something which can be also deducted by the lectures Emerson gave in the Masonic societies and from the essence of his most powerful creation, Transcendentalism, as a theory of man in the universe. “In ‘Nature,’ Emerson explains how every idea has its source in natural phenomena, and that the attentive person can ‘see’ those ideas in nature. Intuition allowed the transcendentalist to disregard external authority and to rely, instead on direct experience.” ( Brulatour).
In “The Transcendentalist,” a lecture read at the Masonic Temple in Boston, in January 1842, Emerson declared:
“What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842….As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealist; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say The senses give us representations of things, but what are things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insist on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture. These two modes of thinking are both natural, but the idealist contends that his way of thinking is in higher nature. He concedes all that the other affirms, admits the impressions of sense, admits the impression of sense, admits their coherency, their use and beauty, and then asks the materialist for his grounds of assurance that things are as senses represent them….Every materialist will be an idealist; but an idealist can never go backward to be a materialist.”(Emerson, Selected Essays, 239-240).

Independent from organized religion, Emerson and the Transcendentalists conveyed nonetheless an optimistic message on mankind and human destiny. “Transcendentalism declared meaning in everything, and in all meanings was good, part and connected by divine plan. Emerson refuted evil, insisting it was not an entity in itself, but simply the absence of good. If good introduces, evil dissipates.” (Brulatour).

This message of optimism was an echo of the 18th century Enlightenment as adapted to the novelty of America which, as a blank national slate, was seen by Emerson as a territory of hope, where all the ancient utopias of freedom could revive and prosper. Emerson found adherents and followers, sometimes people who couldn’t understand or explain Emerson’s deep thought but who felt an automatic empathy with his optimism, for it was also theirs. However, this thrust toward future had also its enemies. “Anti-transcendentalists rejected such an outlook on humanity. They declared such optimism naïve and unrealistic. The anti-transcendentalist reflected a more pessimistic attitude, focusing on man’s uncertainty and limited potential in the universe: Nature is vast and incomprehensible, a reflection of the struggle between good and evil.” (Brulatour). Incredibly, Poe, the only other equivalent writer of his time, the only one who had Emerson’s height and gave his measure, opposed him. He was fought back. As the writer John Updike pointed out:

“To someone of Emerson’s generation, European thought and writing was almost all there was; Puritan sermons, Benjamin Franklin’s blithe compositions, the Founding Fathers’ chiseled eloquence, Washington Irving’s sketches, and James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales—all were easily overlookable by a serious American aspirant to high thought and poetry in the early nineteenth century. To Emerson, Poe, his only peer as a homegrown critical and creative mind, was ‘the jingle man.’” (Updike).

If Emerson belittled Poe because of his predictable rhymes in his poem “The Bells,” Poe –who was the first to pick a quarrel with Emerson- laughed at the Transcendentalist for something that went beyond the literary style : “Poe attacked stylistic excesses, but his irreverence extended to the social philosophy of the Transcendentalists. Fashioning himself a member of the Virginia gentry, a social class to which he could only aspire, he objected to Transcendentalist views on abolition and reform. Adopting a hostile stance once again because of regional bias, he hardly discriminated among individual literary figures and social thinkers. He referred to Boston as Frogpond or as headquarters of ‘the humanity clique,’ and lumped together writers from this city with Transcendentalists and Socialists.” (Hayes, 15) Posing as the aristocrat he wanted to be and was not, Poe couldn’t but reject the democratic philosophy of Emerson, which went even beyond the Constitution to enhance the Supreme Freedom of man. Poe’s idea of the world had still some nostalgia of Europe, as he showed in his gothic stories set in Great Britain or in a Virginia still modeled after the British culture – something still perceptible in Richmond, for instance. Poe certainly couldn’t perceive the New World as a promise and less, enjoy in it. Poe’s own character signed by the death of his mother and other closer relatives would align him rather on the side of melancholy and, by his own nature, he would become a pessimist, skeptic on man’s power to overcome his destiny and succeed.

“During his lifetime, he [Poe] achieved only a modicum of the literary fame he so resented in writers such as Longfellow and the Concord transcendentalist whom Poe derisively referred to as “Frogpondians.” Writing in an age where America’s literary and national voices were shaped by Emersonian transcendentalism and its faith in nature, self-reliance and an expansionist philosophy, Poe offered a constant rebuttal by asserting that we inhabit a universe unfavorably disposed toward humankind, that human nature itself was simply untrustworthy. As the America of the 1840 looked brightly into a future of limitless possibilities, Poe’s work counterpointed the general spirit of American optimism by revealing the human propensity to seek pain rather than tranquility.” (Magistrale).

If Emerson can be seen today as the paradigm of a progressive mind, Poe remains as the perfect example of a “wannabe” conservatist, betrayed by his own chaotic exploration of life as an artist. His pessimism contrasts Emerson optimism and both stand as the two great literary models of the mid 19th century, who would inspire writers and artists across the Americas, in two different lineages: the optimists, always confident in the original destiny of America and relying in their own creativity to reach an every day better future; and the pessimists, attracted by the decadent Europe, always falling into the chasm of an unforgettable past, always bent to the unhappy facts of life, disease, decay, death.
“Poe and Emerson were both great poets of their time, contemplating the element of beauty, where it stems from, and how to relay that image through their poetry. Their ideals, however, were from different parts of the spectrum. Poe fixated himself on the beauty of melancholy and the mystery of the afterlife to the point of extreme emotion, while Emerson relayed beauty through the Oversoul.” (Ebeling).

If Emerson looked high, knowing man would reach the stars, Poe, in his story “The Balloon Hoax ,” a mystification about the first transatlantic crossing of a flying machine, describes “the rapturous delight of the crew annihilates the threat of the waters below, especially when elemental forces are subdued by human inventiveness. As far as the exhilarating adventure smacks of the Emersonian spiritual ambition to reach for a star, at least metaphorically, the ‘double entendre’ slyly associates the overstated enunciation with implicit ironic inflation.” (Hayes, 62). Poe believed in art and despised “the power of rhetoric among the Frogpondians and their total reliance on words and signs at the expense of shrewd thinking” (Hayes, 66) whereas Emerson relied on the power of his own speech which, he could see it, was molding America and Americans as a new cultural species with a new mission on earth.

The two lineages can be tracked at present times, for instance in the cultural roots of blue and red states, but no one would resign the property of any of the two authors. More than Poe, Emerson seems to be everywhere and to belong to the national heritage independently of intellectual affinities:
“In America, we continue to have Emersonians of the left (the post-pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the second). The Emersonian vision of self-reliance inspired both the humane philosopher, John Dewey, and the first Henry Ford (circulator of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion ). Emerson remains the central figure in American culture and informs our politics, as well as our unofficial religion, which I regard as more Emersonian than Christian, despite nearly all received opinion on this matter.”(Bloom).

This opinion has more than one follower: “Bloom finds Emerson popping up in so many places…that his vast claims begin to sound meaningless. Where isn’t Emerson? Yet one sympathizes with Bloom. There is something undeniably large and at the same time ineffable about Emerson’s status in our culture, a quality of both being everywhere and nowhere that is somehow reinforced by his way of doing things: his defiance of conventional categories, and the flowing amorphousness of his highly quotable but rambling and unsystematic style.” (McClay). Not everybody agrees on what Emerson’s word stands for: “It is not easy to know whether Emerson is best understood as the inspirational poet and prophet of a robustly independent American intellectual life, or as the spiritual father of contemporary narcissism, the uber-Protestant who greased the skids from ‘Here I Stand’(Martin Luther, 1521) to ‘I’ve Gotta Be Me”(Sammy Davis Jr.,1969)” (Mc Clay). The only sure thing about Emerson seems to be that he was the first American intellectual worth this name and that, as such, he is still a inspiring model for intellectuals in the United States and the rest of America, where despair has always found comfort and a powerful example in what the United States had experimented and learned before.

When Emerson’s first son, Waldo, died at age five, he showed through his own life example what it meant to be an optimist. Margaret Fuller, editor of ‘The Dial’ and close Emerson’s friend, was visiting him and his wife Lidian, who were mourning their child in a very different way; she was destroyed, he wouldn’t lose his faith in life, working and writing. “She [Margaret Fuller] was especially struck by one of the couplets in the “Saadi” poem: ‘An yet it doth not seem to me/ That the high gods love tragedy.’ This meant to her that, unlike Lidian, he had ‘entirely dismissed’ the idea of personal tragedy.” (Baker,197). Emerson had a clear idea about how to deal with tragedy: “Tragedy is in the eye of the observer, and not in the heart of the sufferer.” (Emerson, The Tragic) and also knew of to organize his life independently of fate: “The bitterest tragic element in life to be derived from an intellectual source is the belief in a brute Fate or Destiny; the belief that the order of nature and events is controlled by a law not adapted to man, nor man to that, but which holds on its way to the end, serving him if his wishes chance to lie in the same course, -crushing him if his wishes lie contrary to it,- and heedless whether it serves or crushes him.” (Emerson, The Tragic).These ideas, borne through his own experience of life, dyed his philosophy and his optimism, was not as Poe believed, a product of rhetoric, but a deduction from his own nature and feelings. He had learned that “the spirit is true to itself and finds its own support in any condition, learns to live in what is called calamity, as easily as in what is called felicity, as the frailest glass-bell will support a weight of a thousand pounds at the bottom of a river or sea, if filled with the same” (Emerson, The Tragic) and that, whatever happened in one man’s life, the power of hope and life would take the lead: “How fast we forget the blow that threatened to cripple us. Nature will not sit still; the faculties will do somewhat; new hopes spring, new affections twine, and the broken is whole again.” (Emerson, The Tragic) In Emerson, grief and sorrow transmuted into optimism, and that’s how the model was cast in iron for the generations to follow, leaving an unforgettable motto: “Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.” (Richardson, 390).

Emerson walked for the first time the creative road every intellectual would later, both in the United States and the Americas. The young man who at 18 wrote in his journal: ‘I dedicate my book to the Spirit of America’ (Perry, The Heart of Emerson’s Journals, 11) had soon heard the call of his homeland and had a glimpse on how his own life had a meaning in the building of America as a nation. From the very beginning he understood that his authenticity and intellectual honesty should be at the basis of his work and he would write later in his essay “Self- Reliance”: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”(Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series, 29). His intelligence and his intuition, oriented to the creation of an original thought, didn’t follow the pattern of the traditional European philosopher. “When he began to write to explain himself to Lydia Jackson, when they were courting, he made a point of telling her: ‘I am born a poet, of a low class without doubt yet a poet. That is my nature and vocation.’” (Richardson, 177). The romantic model of the thinker as a poet, represented by Emerson for the first time in America, would also expand, as a continental particularity, to the rest of the Americas: Emerson is the first intellectual-thinker-poet of a long lineage which goes from him to the Comandante Marcos, from Alberdi to Chico Buarque, from Sarmiento to Robert Frost. Involved in politics as well as in poetry, in philosophy as in art and religion, the American and Latin American intellectuals owe to Emerson that first unconventional model. Present Latin American intellectuals, who face in their nations uncertain institutional conditions very much alike those in the 19th century United States and who are still in the need of leading unorganized masses to a better knowledge of themselves, follow in an unconscious way Emerson’s pattern for a free creativity. Referring to the highest minds of the world, Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg and the masters of sculpture, picture and poetry, Emerson said: “For we are not pans and barrows, not even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, an at two or three removes, when we know least about it.” (Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series, 217). Seen as “children of the fire,” intellectuals have no other choice than becoming poets: “He [the Poet] stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.” (Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series, 218). Emerson understood as anybody else how those who embraced this path, as Transcendentalists in his time, were singled out from the rest of society: “They are lonely; the spirit of their writing and conversation is lonely; they repel influences; they shun general society; they incline to shut themselves in their chamber in the house, to live in the country rather than in the town, and to find their tasks and amusements in solitude. Society, to be sure, does not like this very well.” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 247). With a great sense of humor about the intimate fabric of intellectuals, artists and poets he would add: “For these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial, -they are not stockfish or brute- but joyous, susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. Like the young Mozart, they are ready to cry ten times a day, ‘But are you sure you love me?’” (Emerson, Selected Essays, 248).

Since the independence in almost every country in the Americas was shaped by the Masonic societies which saw in America as a continent, the Promised Land for freedom and progress, Emerson’s message of optimism and his own model of intellectual would make a long way, not always through the conventional means. In the United States, his idea of America permeated into the public not only through his books but through his lectures. He influenced directly major writers who had their ideas shaped by what they learned from him, like Thoreau and Whitman, but also indirectly in that “he stands as the representation of thought of American identity and so provides the cornerstone for the words and deeds of many who may not know his work but who when they believe themselves to be influenced by America are actually responding to what Emerson said America meant.”(Ziff, Emerson, Selected Essays, 26). Bloom pointed out: “Emerson's mind has become the mind of America.” America, as the master experience of freedom in the world, was meant to be shown as a model and Emerson would reach the Americas through his own work but, in a more permanent way, through the Americans molded by his thought. Some characteristics of his progressive mind have gained steady followers in the Americas, such as his defense of freedom, democracy, and commerce, “The historian of the world will see that trade was the principle of liberty, that trade planted America and destroyed feudalism, that it makes peace and keeps peace, and it will abolish slavery,” an Emerson sentence quoted by Richardson who also observes that “Emerson is virtually alone among American writers in his endorsement of the principle of commerce.”(Richardson, 394). Emerson’s position against war: “A peaceful nation is protected by its spiritual power because everyone is its friend”(Beck) reminds us of the most progressive tendencies crossing the whole continent from the USA to Argentina during the 60’s and as Beck says: “For Emerson the soul transcends all conflicts and has no enemies; soldiers he considered to be ridiculous. War is ‘abhorrent to all right reason’ and against human progress. Form the perspective of spiritual oneness he spoke of ‘the blazing truth that he who kills his brother commits suicide’” (Beck). Emerson position against war would be consistent with his position on slavery: “In an address in Concord on August 1, 1844, the tenth anniversary of the slaves’ emancipation in the British West Indies, he [Emerson] suggested that the United States could follow the British example by buying the freedom of their slaves from their plantation owners.”(Beck).

In every nation in the Americas, the reflection about each own identity was, as we have seen for Emerson and Poe, around the acceptance of the new reality in the continent, the untamed nature and the somewhat barbaric people, and the nostalgia of the European civilization. Sarmiento, the great Argentine writer, author of “Facundo, Civilization and Barbarism,“ and a great admirer of the United States, visited Emerson in Concord around Thanksgiving, in 1865, and had the occasion to discuss with him his book (Vellerman, 5), very much praised by the widow of the educator Horace Mann, Mary Mann, who would eventually translate the book and help Sarmiento to bring American teachers to Argentina to improve education. They had to speak in French and Emerson complained, as Mary Mann reports: “I do not think we shall allow you to speak French when you visit Concord again- you just talk American, as Mr. Emerson said, no matter how many blunders you make.” (Vellerman, 61). Sarmiento wanted cities there where Argentina only had wild pampas, and he wanted educated Europeans as citizens there where he only had half savage gauchos. We have no record of what Emerson told Sarmiento, besides his wise request of leaving France behind, but he probably advised him in the sense of accepting what the Americas reality yielded and to transform it from there, what Sarmiento did as a President a couple of years later, creating the first public school system. We can have an idea of Emerson’s thought regarding “barbarians,” through a couple of passages quoted by Bloom: “In his essay Power, Emerson says “Power educates the potentate. As long as our people quote English standards they dwarf their own proportions,” and also: "In history, the great moment is, when the savage is just ceasing to be a savage, with all his hairy Pelagic strength directed on his opening sense of beauty - and you have Pericles and Phidias - not yet passed over into the Corinthian civility. Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity." Emerson’s direct influence in Sarmiento can also be measured by the value Sarmiento gave to the single Emerson’s sentence from that meeting he used to quote. Emerson stated that the snow was a great teacher (García Hamilton, 277) and this made Sarmiento daydream about how he could reproduce in the wild Argentina, the life as lived in New England, where people stayed home during the terrible winters, reading and deepening their education. Besides Sarmiento, other patriots, intellectuals, and writers in the 19th century Americas were inspired by Emerson, as the Cuban José Martí. Even in the 20th century Borges would recognize a direct influence in his work, notably through the greatest Emerson American follower, Walt Whitman who would give birth to the first continental poetry, defined by –what could be more American and Emersonian?- its free verse. Whitman embraced the whole world, pampas included, in his poem “Salut au monde” (Whitman, 118) but, as Borges pointed out, Whitman was aware that “America represents a new event which has to be celebrated by poets, whereas Poe and poets of his kind saw America as a mere continuity of Europe.”(Borges, 51). This opposition explains the problem Emerson solved for all the American intellectuals to come and who would find in Emerson’s thought an answer to their solitude in the emptiness of a void territory, with no tradition of its own, with no “civilization” as the one so missed by Sarmiento. Emerson enabled for them the possibility of creating, in that void, a new philosophy of nature as well as, later, like in Borges, a fictional world always metaphysical, which is the main characteristic of Latin American literature and which had in Emerson its hidden promoter. All the American countries had the same dilemma, of having to give a name to everything in the new culture, as Whitman observed :“The act of poetry was the act of naming the parts of his unrealized America.” (Ziff, 23). No matter if roots were British, French or Spanish, the Americas were all on the same quest of cultural identity and faced the same challenge “We yet have had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer…Yet America is a poem in our eyes.” (Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series, 235). The most important gift Emerson gave to his peers in the Americas was a sense of trust and self-reliance. He had done his work; others could do so: “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.”(Emerson, Essays: First and Second Series, 236).

Not only Sarmiento was fascinated by New England life, generations of female readers who would avidly scan Alcott’s novels for a new model of woman would meet without knowing Emerson lesson on self reliance as adapted to working and struggling women, who could be nurses, teachers, and, yes, writers, as Jo in “Little Women,” allowing any and all women readers in the Continent to become in an indirect way his neighbor and receive a lesson on how life was meant to be lived, as Louisa May did.
Emerson poured his ideas and feelings about life into the minds of Americans through his books and lectures and his influence progressed exponentially and with those Americans shaped by him, and their new works and enterprises, he crossed the border toward the rest of American nations. Through other writers and artists, his message of optimism and self reliance, his confidence that America and the Americas expressed the new and that the new could only be better than the past, attained multitudes. Books, cartoons –the American Dream as expressed by Walt Disney is as Emersonian as the Hollywood happy endings- and films would transfer Emerson’s optimism into the souls of people who have never heard his name. His idea of America became America, even if some don’t totally agree with this reduction, as Mc Clay says:

“For many Americans, educated an uneducated alike, something like the Transcendentalist vision of reality forms the core of what America is all about as a nation. That doesn’t mean they are right, however, And that’s precisely the nub of the problem with Emerson, It is one thing to acknowledge his influence. It is quite another to propose that, in some sense, he is America, a proposition that is not only demonstrably false, but one that should arouse our suspicions, since it is an effort not only to define Emerson, but to define America, Anyone who proposes it needs to be reminded of the commanding presence in American life of a set of very different, and more sober, assumptions about liberty, moral authority, sin, human nature, and national identity. Assumptions contained, among other places, in the theory and structure of the Constitution, and woven into the nation’s Christian, republican and liberal traditions.”

If it is true that the idea of America has more than one father, it is no less true that Emerson, as a thinker poet, seized and defined America in its most important meaning for the rest of the American nations, always a step behind in their own progress, coming as they were from the losing Spanish Empire and not from the victorious British Lion which gave Emerson, as his heir, a sharp lance and an efficient shield.

The bicentennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth on May 25, 1803 was celebrated with a “flurry of local celebrations…But this admiring sentiment does not seem to have spread much beyond the region or stimulated a more sustained national reflection on his larger legacy. Americans know they are expected to revere Emerson. But they are not sure quite why. Some are not even sure if they should. The eminent literary scholar Harold Bloom has few doubts on that score. He did his bit for the bicentennial by proclaiming Emerson to be ‘the dominant sage of the American imagination,’ ‘the central figure in American culture,’ a thinker who, far from being a faded tintyped stowed away in the national attic, is ‘closer to us than ever on his two-hundredth birthday.” (McClay). The “us” includes Americans from the whole continent who can agree with Harold Bloom in that “No one, after Emerson, has taken up the burden of the literary representation of Americanness or Americans without returning to Emerson, frequently without knowing it.” Emerson’s legacy includes the trust in the perpetual renewal of the American culture, which in the 21st century embraces the whole continent, at least two main languages and an evolving interchange and mutual influence.

Robert Frost, the 20th century direct heir of Emerson as a poet observed that: “Emerson supplies the emancipating formula for giving an attachment up for an attraction, one nationality for another nationality, one love for another love. If you must break free, ‘Heartily know/ When half-gods go/ The gods arrive.’” (Frost) The old worn out goddess Europe was replaced, in the hearts of the born free Americans of the whole continent, by goddess America. Emerson may be soon forgotten again, or not duly measured in what he accomplished in the history of America as a whole continental nation. But, as Americans of the Americas, we can always look inside ourselves and see where Emerson left his imprint. With Frost, I say: “Emerson’s name has gone as a poetic philosopher or as a philosophical poet, my favorite kind of both.” I remember also that Louisa May Alcott and her Jo represented the powerful model of woman writer I received as a child and I could make my own her words when herself a child she wrote: “I have been reading today Bettine’s correspondence with Goethe. She calls herself a child, and writes about the lovely things she saw and heard, and felt and did. I liked it much. “(Sunday, Oct.9, 1847) (Myerson, 60). Behind Bettine and Goethe stands Emerson, her mentor, and mine, behind Alcott, my mentor. He still is in the Americas a Halloween friendly ghost who, unlike the raven, keeps saying “always” instead of “nevermore;” an eternal host in a Thanksgiving dinner where Sarmiento listens and plans how to change my life according to the idea of snow; Alcott’s neighbor in Concord; Emerson, anywhere in the Americas, my neighbor.



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