For a few days after a lecture on Ralph Waldo Emerson at the Universalist Church last month, there was a brief local run on books by the Transcendentalists, chiefly Emerson, but also Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne et al. With the exception of Hawthorne, I have enjoyed these writers less and less over time.
It is probable that my initial infatuation had to do with the time and place of my exposure to them. It was in the 60s--of course--and the transcendental urgency to "go beyond the senses" and its emphasis on individuality and an intuitive spirituality had a kind of rock and roll state of mind about it that was a lot of fun. It didn't hurt that everybody was at least one toke over the line.
In his lecture in opposition to the Mexican War ("Resistance to Civil Government," later titled "Civil Disobedience") Thoreau wrote, "Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, or shall we obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them all at once? Men under a government such as this think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that if they should resist the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?"
This is marvelous stuff and there isn't a word with which I disagree. Certainly, Henry David could throw a hard true strike at the establishment. Yet one wonders if he, or any of the Transcendentalists for that matter, were at all prepared to catch and handle the ordinary stuff that most folks go through.
With the exception of Bronson Alcott (Louisa's dad), none married, none served in a war, and rarely did they leave the refined streets of Concord. Unlike Thoreau, and perhaps like you, I am related to no Aunt who will bail me out of jail, have no relative who will lend me money to build a pond-side shack, and have no friend who will grant me squatting rights to that shack by the pond. I have utterly failed my ambition to be a trust fund baby.
The day in and day out every dayness of life, to use Walker Percy's phrase, seems to call for a more nuanced argument than Thoreau seems willing to give. Right enough, the war against Mexico was all wrong, and right enough Christ, Copernicus, Luther, Franklin, and Washington were a wise minority and worth cherishing. But are all minorities wise and is every rebel worth cherishing?
Nathaniel Hawthorne thought not. In his Blightedale Romance, Hawthorne used the Transcendentalist utopian community Brook Farm as a model for how minorities can become as corrupt as majorities and as obsessive and grim as the most determined Puritan. Of Emerson, Hawthorne wrote, "He is a seeker for what he knows not." I am sure that we all know someone like that…and I am sure that special person believes that what they believe--whatever it might be at the moment--is so much better and truer than what you or I might believe.
A year before Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience," Frederick Douglas published a letter to his former master in The North Star, the newspaper he founded in Rochester, New York. "I intend to make use of you," Douglas wrote, "as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery…I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of America…and as a means of bringing this guilty nation, with yourself, to repentance. I am your fellowman but not your slave."
Frederick Douglas, born a slave in 1817 and escaping to freedom in 1838, was concerned about the same issues as were the Transcendentalists, but he was not one of them. He was able to live in his head as freely and creatively as any of the Transcendentalists, yet he also lived in the every day world with great courage and with utter conviction. He did not expect rain without thunder and lightning, and he did not expect crops without plowing. Frederick Douglas was a guy who could throw and catch.