Chasing Smallwood — .34. Emerson’s message to youth

[A book with four interlocking themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

[Sunday, February 19, 2006]

Joseph, I don’t know if it was you planting ideas in my head – where do ideas come from, anyway? – but I thought today I would ask you to talk to me about Emerson in your life. That is the connection in which you first came to me, and for some reason I never pursued it. Because of my problems with R, I suppose.[R was a woman in my Gateway. The connection will become obvious as you read this.]  Talk to me of your relation to Emerson.

People in your day don’t think much about Emerson, not like in mine. When I was a boy he set us on fire with possibilities – our possibilities, you see – and his influence just kept growing. From your time looking backwards, your people are inclined to see him as the respectable elder statesman whose words seem stuffy and old-fashioned. Spencer and others used his thoughts like “compensation” to justify the worst kind of social robbery. And, Emerson is more English, more old-fashioned to you, so he’s almost needing a translator.

You yourself – Frank – know the difference in you between Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson is clearly an older man of an older time; Thoreau could be living next to you. Does, in fact. Of course that don’t mean that a man born 100 years after Henry Thoreau got thrown in jail overnight is as far from him as people born more than 125 years after he died. All I’m saying is, time moves on, people recede, and they need translating, and Henry will too. You’ve thought to do it. If you don’t – even if you do – someone else will, for he still has things to say.

It took my breath for a second – I thought – Henry too?

It would be a big thing to you, wouldn’t it? The only reason it ain’t on the program is it would make things too hard for you right now. But sure, if you can talk to Lincoln, it ought to show you you can talk to others. The thing is, have some reason to talk to them. You wouldn’t just call them on the phone without a reason – or if you did you’d embarrass yourself, maybe. But if you have something to say, or something to ask – well, the phone is free.

Perhaps at some point I will work up my nerve to do that. Meanwhile, Emerson?

Emerson, all right. Might as well start with why I visited his house, if I even knew why. I had read him while I was at Harvard – lots of us did – but certainly not as required reading! Not even as permitted reading, you might say – but we read him, and for just a couple of us, he was a whole new world opening up. I started to say, you –your time, I mean – thinks Emerson was sort of stuffy, sort of conservative and obscure. You ought to have read him with our eyes! Here was this man, had been a minister, was related to one of the oldest families in Massachusetts – ministers all the way back to the code of Hammurabi, as they say – and he says you don’t need ministers to bring you to God, God is all around you and within you. He says, you came into this life to be something: Be it. Don’t follow in some old mold just because it is expected; throw over the traces and see for yourself what you can be. Trust! Trust the universe, you people in your time say. Well, Emerson was saying it in my time.

I ain’t going to try to Explain Emerson. Anybody can read him, it just takes patience with the stuff you won’t find familiar. But I can tell you what his effect was. He was just dynamite to the young – and dynamite was what we needed. We were living in a new world, and in new country – for after all the frontier when I was born was in Ohio somewhere, or Illinois; you know what I mean. We were in a new political system – the first republic since the Dutch and to our mind the first republic since the Greeks and Romans. We had new careers, new opportunities, new political arrangements, new social arrangements – for the old-fashioned ways were breaking up, tainted with Tory-ism. And now here came Emerson with American versions of Carlyle and the Germans, the Transcendental Idealists, you know.

Remember, this was when romanticism was still new enough to be exciting. It was when we could see the steam engine changing everything around us day by day. Electricity! (The telegraph, you know.) Railroads! Steamboats, steam power equipment instead of river – well, you get the idea. Everything new, everything possible, and what were we waiting on?

And Emerson says, “hold on boys, with everything new and changing, hadn’t you ought to change how you think too? How you talk and write and see? Hadn’t you ought to start to be Americans instead of second-hand Europeans?

Now, I know that sounds different to you because in your time you’ve got tired of the everlasting bragging about America being the best at this, the strongest at that, the smartest, the bravest and all that. But, see, the difference is in the circumstances. You were born just at the time America had climbed to be cock of the hoop. In 1946 you could have beat the rest of the world put together, probably. (Not that it would have been a good thing, of course, it would have been a disaster for all everybody, but that ain’t the point.)

When Emerson started publishing, though, it was 1836. It was a whole different story. In 1836, England called the tune and sold you the fiddle too. America had enough people, and it was far enough away, on the other side of the ocean, that England couldn’t beat it in a war – 1812 had proved that – but when it came to world affairs, England was everything and America was just nowhere. The best fashions was English, the best books, the best education, the best culture. At least, for Americans it was – and that, even for people didn’t particularly like England. It was a lot like it was with America when you were born, or like it was inside America with New York for a while. If it came from there it was the best, because it came from there.

So when Emerson said, let’s think our own thoughts and say them in our own way and not be looking over our shoulder at England all the time, and France – why, it was like nobody had ever thought it: He said the right thing at the right time, you see, and – bang! –the whole works went up.

But that was only for openers, as  they used to say, playing poker. If that had been all he had had to say, it would have been thank you very much and on to other things. No sir. The biggest thing – the thing his old connections never could forgive him for, because they could never understand it – was his saying that it is morally wrong to rely on outside authority over your own conscience.

He didn’t say it in so many words, but that is what it amounted to. You are on your own in this world, if you want to live in the truth. You can explore here and there, you can lean on this person and that one, but the minute you give your own conscience to the keeping of somebody else – or some thing else, like an institution, which is worse – why from that moment until you come to your senses and reform, you are dead.

What a sermon to preach to young men!

Now, it ain’t any use saying (not that you would, Frank, but some would) that you can make plenty of mistakes following your conscience. Sometimes you get the facts wrong, sometimes the implications, sometimes the moral of the story. But life is about mistakes; you can’t always get it right, and you can go a lot farther wrong following some code or some group thought than you can by trying to follow the guidance God gives you minute to minute if you will only just listen to it. What do you think Jesus meant by the blind following the blind and winding up in a ditch?

If you have got to make mistakes – and you do; you can’t help it; even doing nothing is sometimes a mistake – if you have got to make mistakes, make your own mistakes, that come out of your own nature, they come out of who you are, what you are – and ultimately if you faithfully listen even your own mistakes will turn out all right. But if you turn your back on your inner light, you are lost. Getting lost don’t mean you have to stay lost. But it does mean you wind up straggling around not knowing where you are for a time. It can be damned uncomfortable. You know, they asked Daniel Boone if he’d ever been lost in the woods and he allowed as how he’d never been exactly lost, but one time he was confused for three days. Make your own mistakes. At least you will know where you are.

Well, you can imagine the rest. I got out of school, went back to western Massachusetts where my brother was living, but then I took it in mind to go west, and before I did – because I didn’t figure to ever be back east again – I thought I’d try to tell Mr. Emerson thank you for what his words had meant to me. So I went to Concord and took a room at the Inn and walked over to Emerson’s. Couldn’t very well make a phone call, you know, they’d have been forty years putting in a line. (That’s a joke for you.)

The little girl opened the door and said she’d see if Mr. Emerson was in – which meant, was he open to visitors, you know – and next thing there he is, tall, thin, sort of stately. I don’t mean pompous; he wasn’t that. Dignified, sort of. Naturally a bit reserved. Shy, maybe, come to think of it. I was 20, 21 at the time, I didn’t think that this older man – he must have been about 40 – might be shy just meeting a young college graduate. He was courteous and friendly, invited me in, and instead of going to his study he walked me though the hallway that led down the middle and into the dining room – that’s what you’d call it – where he introduced me to his wife.

Well, Frank, you know this part of the story. This is how you and me got introduced, you might say, in your Gateway vision. I looked at her and I recognized her, and you in your vision recognized her too but we were recognizing different people, you might say.

She was surprised that I actually looked at her and saw her. She was used to young men coming to see her husband and thinking of her like the maid, you might say. But she saw that I actually saw her as a person. Of course, you know what was going on: John Cotten had been married to the woman who was – how shall we say this? – related to her. It was a “past life” as you say, though you know the difficulties with that way of thinking about it. She “was” John’s wife that had died, in the way that I “was” John. So there was that recognition that passed between us. And then on your end, you were dealing with the woman who “was” Lidian Emerson, and John’s wife, so the recognition was pretty powerful to you – a sort of three-way recognition – John and me and you, all dealing with the same “family” so to speak of identities. And of course that is why that moment was given to you – to wake you up. It took a lot!

Well, so I made polite noises, because of course I didn’t have any idea what was going on, just knew she seemed important somehow. And then at some point I got introduced to Henry Thoreau, who Emerson thought we’d get along being about the same age. And Henry was five years older than me, and he was living with Emerson, so it made for a little distance – as if his own personality with strangers wouldn’t have been distance enough! But we all  went off for a walk – walked down to Walden Pond, though none of us had any idea it would become famous, or why – and Emerson kindly tried to draw me out, and I tried to tell him what his ideas had meant to me, which wasn’t any easier for Henry being right there, prickly pear that he was. But after a while we left off talking and just went along enjoying the day, because we all three greatly liked walking in silence through the woods, listening. And that smoothed things out some, and after a while we sat by the side of the lake – well, Henry and I sat on stones, or a log or something, and Emerson stood, I remember that, benignly smiling down at us – and maybe we did exchange a few true words.

Not every communication takes place with words, you know. Ask “the guys” another time about people as sacred spots. But that’s enough for now. You’re tired.

Thank you my friend. It is always a pleasure.

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