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Emerson's Prose and Poetry

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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One of the odd things about good literary critics is that they often help you most when they say something absurd. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe that Harold Bloom is our greatest living literary critic, but I never read anything he’s written without concluding that he is hopelessly misguided about twenty different things. It is all I can do to keep myself from writing him letters.

Happily, though, when a critic like Bloom is wrong it helps crystallize your own ideas about an author. Bloom makes his case, you “see” a book through his eyes, and that seeing helps you to remember what you understood about the reading.

Which leads us to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bloom calls him “the sage I attempt to follow” and says that “Emerson’s own genius was so large that he plausibly could preach Self-Reliance.” The truth is, Emerson is a period piece—a snapshot of American history when clever lecturers toured like rock bands and convinced large audiences that their vision was new and it would help shape the country. Worse, Emerson is something of a fuss-budget. You get the feeling that he felt, in his grandmotherly way, that he was a genius and you should acknowledge it.

The final nail in the coffin for Emerson is his worldview. With a personality already too prone to take itself seriously, he should beware grandiose worldviews. But Emerson falls for transcendentalism—a vague precursor to the New Age movement—and allows it to carry him away. What results, for students, is a textbook example of fuzzy worldview thinking.

The following example is typical of Emerson, but what brought it to my attention was that Bloom actually cites it as an indication of Emerson’s wisdom:

“Were you ever instructed by a wise and eloquent man? Remember then, were not the words that made your blood run cold, that brought the blood to your cheeks, that made you tremble or delighted you,—did they not sound to you as old as yourself? Was it not truth that you knew before, or do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms his own words trembling on the lips of another.”

This is the “wisdom” you can expect from Emerson—delivered with a flourish, no doubt, but hardly worthy of the exalted rhetoric.

by Jeff Baldwin