The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library Classics)

The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Oliver, Brooks Atkinson American philosopher and Harvard professor Stanley Cavell claims "Emerson and Thoreau... are the founding philosophers of America" and comparable to Plato. Before reading this I tackled Thoreau. Emerson was his mentor, and they were both considered part of the Transcendental circle in mid-Century America. I found Emerson less irritating than Thoreau, but less readable and challenging. By challenging I don't mean less difficult, but less thought-provoking. I think Emerson is harder to parse, to "get." From what I've read elsewhere even many of his contemporaries found Emerson impenetrable and at times even incoherent. Thoreau on the other hand is easily understandable--and often provocative. So even while I hated what Thoreau had to say in "Living Without Principle" or "A Plea for Captain John Brown" I was engaged and I could see how his thinking tied in with various schools of thought and movements and the history of the era. I seldom felt that way about Emerson. And most of the essays were originally lectures and it shows. I often felt "talked at" from a height in a way I didn't feel with Thoreau. I got a sense of just how far apart we are in his essay "Transcendentalism" where he divides people into "Idealists" and "Materialists." He's definitely the first, and I'm definitely the second. I value being grounded in the senses and reason and science--I'm a fan of reality. I find nature more harsh and cruel than beautiful and pure. I'm not much interested in doctrinal issues in Christianity such as examined in "An Address to Harvard Divinity School" and "The Lord's Supper" or such spiritual essays as "The Over-Soul," which I found about as relevant to reality as a horoscope. And for a quintessential American philosopher (not that Thoreau was much better in this) I couldn't help but note that Emerson pretty much ignores any American intellectuals such as Franklin, Paine, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson et al to pretty much load up instead on classical allusions. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. called Emerson's address "The American Scholar" America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence," but I couldn't see it in that essay. European thinkers alluded to in the article? Plato, Cicero, Chaucer, Bacon, Shakespeare, Marvell, Dryden, Locke, Pope, Swedenborg, Linnaeus, Johnson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Gibbon, Goethe, Burns, Cuvier, Wordsworth, Davy, and Carlyle. Americans? None. Admittedly in 1837 writers such as Poe, Longfellow, Melville and Hawthorne had yet to make their mark, but I can't for the life of me see anything in the address that has American roots and his philosophy in general obviously owes huge debts to Plato, Descartes and Kant. The density of classical and topical allusion made much of what he wrote about in these works obscure to me. I also think there are some thinkers where you're just fine on your own--that they can be sophisticated yet accessible. Plato for one. Even Thoreau. With Emerson I did miss not reading this book as part of a college class or well-educated reading group. I suspect with Emerson that there was a lot that may have passed over my head. He's long-winded, rambling, pedantic and very abstract. That said, there was hardly one essay in the book where I didn't find insightful and striking passages in the essays. I suspect that one thing that made Emerson so difficult is so much insight and wisdom is so densely packed in that you hardly have time to take in one idea before another hits you. He was hard to absorb and I admit some essays I just skimmed over, but even the earlier ones that I determinedly tackled word for word I wouldn't say I understood completely. If I had to pick a favorite essay, it would be "Self-Reliance" with that famous passage about consistency being "the hobgoblin of little minds" and "Friendship" with just so many passages that stuck out to me ("A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud." "Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo.") I didn't care much for English Traits, his reflections on England after visiting there. There was a lot of talk of Englishmen as a race here--common to the time but still disconcerting, and a lot of unsourced data and abstract speculation, where I would have found more specifics of what in his visit led to his conclusions more valuable. As for the poetry included, I was underwhelmed, perhaps because I recently read poetry by John Donne, William Blake and John Keats and in comparison I found Emerson mediocre. So, bottom line, I think this collection is worth at least browsing through. I'm not likely to revisit any but a very few of the essays however.