Monday, May 9, 2016

Van Wyck Brooks’ “The Life of Emerson”


It’s one of the most remembered phrases of American literature (even if we don’t remember exactly where it came from) – “the shot heard round the world.” It refers to the beginning of the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and it was written some 60 years after the battle.

The poet was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1830-1882). The poem was “Concord Hymn,” written in 1836 for spoken delivery in 1837 for the dedication of the Concord monument to the American Revolution (full text of the poem is below).

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today, Emerson is less known as a poet and more as the philosopher who articulated transcendentalism, with its core belief that man (and nature) were inherently good. In many ways, it was a reaction to the religion of New England, both in its Calvinist and Unitarian forms. Emerson, raised in the Calvinist church (with at least one aunt hoping he would become a minister), rejected religion and embraced natural man and nature.

In 1932, the literary historian Van Wyck Brooks wrote a biography of Emerson, simply titled The Life of Emerson. It’s written in the Brooks style – rather breathless prose, plenty of exclamation marks, and an emphasis upon understanding the emotion and the context of the subject’s life (Brooks was more traditional in how he approached his own autobiography). The work was part of Brooks’ career-long project of writing about American writers and American literature, and the details he provides make a work like one both informative and entertaining.

Emerson had an aunt, for example, who had a powerful influence on his life; she was best known for already wearing a funeral shroud, as if she couldn’t wait to greet death (she lived to a very old age). She even wore a shroud when she went rode her horse.

Brooks argues that Emerson was not a scholar; his performance at school and Harvard University was lackluster if acceptable. What he loved was writing, and writing poetry.

Emerson’s career was helped mightily by the creation of the Lyceum movement. The first lyceum was organized and held at Millburn, near Worcester, Massachusetts, and grew to more than 100 places in New England alone. Lyceums provided entertainment in the forms of speakers, who subjects included everything from philosophy and religion to history and current events. Lyceums attracted laborers and the well-to-do alike. Emerson became a familiar on the lyceum circuit, with Brooks suggesting it offered him an alternative pulpit.

In 1836, Emerson published his famous essay “Nature,” in which he articulated the tenets of transcendentalism. The essay helped catapult him to fame, a fame that was forever fixed the following year when he spoke to a packed audience at the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He enthralled his listeners. “At a stroke,” Brooks says, “Emerson had become the prophet of the new age.” (This was the same year he delivered the poem at Concord.)

Emerson’s fame was lifelong. In 1850, appalled by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, he hitched himself to the cause of abolition, becoming as ardent a foe of slavery as could be found anywhere.

Van Wyck and Gladys Brooks about 1960
The list of his friends and acquaintances reads like a Who’s Who of 19th century American and British letters – William Wordsworth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman (Emerson’s championing of Whitman and his poetry helped make the poet’s reputation).

The Emerson that Brooks describes in his biography is Emerson the very human being who, while he became the first man of American letters, remained a very human being. His fame would reach around the world (and he was especially influential in Europe) and yet he remained that citizen of Concord, a man who cared about his extended family and the people in his day-to-day circles.

The Life of Emerson is an enjoyable biography, very true to the period in which it was published, and it is vintage Van Wyck Brooks.

Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1836)

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

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Top photograph: The Emerson House in Concord.

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