Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Emerson in His Study
By James Elliot Cabot (18211903)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1821. Died in Brookline, Mass., 1903. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1887.]
THE WIDE range of Emersons quotations, and the unhesitating way in which he sometimes speaks upon subjects of learned investigation, have given impressions not altogether correct concerning the character of his reading. He had a quick eye for a good sentence, and never forgot one; but the quotations, I think, are sometimes all that he cared to know of the book; and he would have been partly amused, partly vexed, to hear himself described as a profound student, of the New Platonists, or of anything to be learned from books. He was a profound student,of impressions, sentiments, experiences; and was ready to receive them from any source. But of the disengaged curiosity, the readiness to enter into and pursue the ideas of others, that makes the student, the man of letters (or, again, the traveller, the man of the world), he had very little. He did not even pursue his own. He was ever on the watch for them, trying to render them without loss into words, but of their farther relations to each other or to the ideas of other people he was rather incurious. In his spiritual astronomy or search for stars he was the observer of single stars as they came into the field of his telescope; he was not making a map of the heavens, or even of a particular region; he had nothing to do with the results of other observers. Let each look for himself and report what he sees; then, if each has been faithful, they will all agree; meantime, if any correction be needed, it will be given by the fresh experience which life fails not to supply if we are heedful of its teachings. Books were for the scholars idle times: at such times Emerson welcomed them for the stimulus they gave him; to make my top spin, as he said; without much choice, but with an inclination towards memoirs and books abounding in anecdotes,Plutarch, Montaigne, Spence, Grimm, Saint-Simon, Roederer; books about the first Napoleon; latterly I remember his following Varnhagen von Enses voluminous memoirs, as the volumes came out. He read the Vestiges of Creation with much interest, and treasured in his memory from all kinds of sources many anecdotes and sayings of men of science. In his youth he seems to have read Berkeley and Hume with attention, also Coleridge and Lord Bacon; and he was a reader of English poetry from his early years. After his time of production began, books occupied him less; though at Carlyles urging, soon after his return from Europe, he made for once something of a study of Goethe, and read every volume, even the Theory of Colors.
He was not what one would call a critical reader. His likings and dislikings were very distinct and persistent, but he never troubled himself to account for them. He could see nothing in Shelley, Aristophanes, Don Quixote, Miss Austen, Dickens; he did not often read a novel, even the famous ones. Dante was a man to put in a museum, but not in your house: another Zerah Colburn; a prodigy of imaginative function, executive rather than contemplative or wise. French literature he did not love, though he was a reader of Sainte-Beuve and of George Sand. On a journey he liked to have Martial or a treatise of Cicero in his hand-bag, partly because he did not read them at home. At home he read no Latin or Greek, though he retained his knowledge of Greek sufficiently to be able, in his later years, to compare the old translation of Plutarchs Morals (a favorite book of his) with the original. Mystical writingsSwedenborg, Behmen, and the likecame always well recommended to him, though they did not engage him very deeply. The New Platonists (in Thomas Taylors translation) and the Oriental (particularly the Hindoo) religious books, the Bhagavat Gita, the Puranas, and Upanishads, were among his favorites. He often quotes the so-called Chaldæan Oracles, and the like, without troubling himself with any question of their authenticity; not caring, he said, whether they are genuine antiques or modern counterfeits, as I am only concerned with the good sentences, and it is indifferent how old a truth is.
He says in his journal in 1837: If you elect writing for your task in life, I believe you must renounce all pretensions to reading. Not as if learning were hostile to originality,the power to originate, he says, is commonly accompanied by assimilating power; he had great regard for scholarship, and lamented the want of it in this country; he was impatient of the self-made men whose originality rests on their ignorance. But he was thinking merely of his own case: learning, he felt, was not his affair; he was occupied with his own problems. I have long ago discovered that I have nothing to do with other peoples facts. It is enough for me if I can dispose of my own.
It was a maxim with him that power is not so much shown in talent or in successful performance as in tone; the absolute or the victorious tone, the tone of direct vision, disdaining all definitions. This had a special attraction for him, in a book or in a person, and may help to explain some predilections of his. He disliked limitations, and welcomed whatever promised to get rid of them, without always inquiring very closely what was left when they were removed.
On the whole, what is most noteworthy in Emersons relation to books is the slightness of his dependence on them. He lived among his books and was never comfortable away from them, yet they did not much enter into his life. They were pleasant companions, but not counsellors,hardly even intimates. His writings abound in quotations, and he valued highly the store of sentences laid up in his note-books for use in lecturing. But he quotes, as he himself says, in a way unflattering to his author; there is little trace of that most flattering kind of quotation which shows itself in assimilation of the thought .
In writing my thoughts I seek no order, or harmony, or result. I am not careful to see how they comport with other thoughts and other moods: I trust them for that. Any more than how any one minute of the year is related to any other remote minute, which yet I know is so related. The thoughts and the minutes obey their own magnetisms, and will certainly reveal them in time.
His practice was, when a sentence had taken shape, to write it out in his journal, and leave it to find its fellows afterwards. These journals, paged and indexed, were the quarry from which he built his lectures and essays. When he had a paper to get ready, he took the material collected under the particular heading and added whatever suggested itself at the moment. The proportion thus added seems to have varied considerably; it was large in the early time, say to about 1846, and sometimes very small in the later essays.
(Journal, 1854.) If Minerva offered me a gift and an option, I would say, Give me continuity. I am tired of scraps. I do not wish to be a literary or intellectual chiffonier. Away with this Jews rag-bag of ends and tufts of brocade, velvet, and cloth-of-gold, and let me spin some yards or miles of helpful twine; a clew to lead to one kingly truth; a cord to bind wholesome and belonging facts.