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I recently opened, for the first time, a volume of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson from the collection of old books in my library that I have never read. I was surprised to find that my father, whom I must’ve gotten the book from, noted on the title page that he had read it three times in his adolescence. I started to study the book, not to discover what Emerson’s thoughts were, but to learn more about my father.
When I have a client who needs to understand something about their father, I ask them to refer to the parent by name, not title. That’s because my father was a being who was born when I was born and had existence only in relation to me; whereas, Ray, which was my father’s name, lived about thirty years before I did, had experiences, thoughts, and feelings wholly apart from me, and died about twenty-five years ago, not much older than I am now. I knew him all my life as my father, and so, only knew him partially. I’d like to get to know more about him now, as a person, not just as a father; but alas, I cannot, except through Emerson.
A conscientious teenage boy might read an author like Emerson once if it was assigned. He might read it twice if he liked it, but he would not read it three times in three years if it didn’t make a profound impact on him. There had to be something about Emerson that would unlock the hidden parts of Ray to me. Emerson was the chief voice, if not the founder, of transcendentalism. Was Ray a closet transcendentalist?
These are some of Emerson’s words, taken from his essays, Nature, Self-Reliance, Circles, and The American Scholar, the anthems of transcendentalism:
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. [I think, by man, Emerson meant human.]
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds…A nation of men [and women] will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all …
Emerson lived and wrote in a country that had just freed itself from the domination of Europe. He advocated that Americans leave Europe and all its traditions behind and trust their instincts. Ray grew up the son of a house maid. His own father had gone off during the Great Depression to find work and never returned. His mother’s wealthy employers ruled in his father’s place: the autocratic and persnickety Old Lady Wightman, and Mr Wightman, an introverted man of letters. The Wightmans were British transplants.
It wouldn’t be hard for Ray, reading this book of essays, to imagine that when Emerson was addressing Americans to shake off the domination of Europe and trust themselves, that the author was addressing Ray directly, urging him to free himself from the control of the Wightmans. So, just as soon as Ray had an opportunity, he did so. At the tender age of seventeen, he joined the US Navy and went off to war. I’ve got to believe that seventeen year old boy, shipping halfway around the world to fight a desperate war, had to have a lot of Emerson inside him.
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Always do what you are afraid to do.
Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.
Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.
Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.
Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm.
World War II turned out to be a blast for Ray, tooling around the South Pacific island of Eniwetok in a patrol boat long after that island had been won from the Japanese. He returned a skilled mechanic and went to work fixing cars. Did he remember his Emerson then and regret specializing only in auto mechanics, cutting himself off from his full humanity?
You must take the whole society to find the whole man [human]. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all…In the divided or social state these functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work… the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters – a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.
I think he did. The evidence is that, later, about the time I was expected, he declared that he would build his own house, despite having no skills in the building trades. Everyone thought he was crazy, but he did it.
My father never talked about Emerson to me. Indeed, I rarely saw him read a book, although I always knew he held reading in high regard. I knew this because we had a lot of books in my home, many of which he had obtained from Mr Wightman, the shy man of letters. Ray, however, was an Emersonian man of action.
Emerson also had a complicated relationship towards books. He was, of course, an author and a very well read scholar, but one who valued action over analysis. I found it hard to read Emerson until I learned that his essays are best read aloud. I elected to have them read to me. He does not develop his points systematically, his writings are like a series of epigrams, nipping at his subject from a variety of angles. Listening to Emerson, it is possible to have your attention wander off for a few minutes and not miss anything because he will return to the point again and again in a new way. To Emerson, the important thing was not what he had to say, but the thoughts and actions that his words would awaken within you.
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.
Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.
Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.
I was a big reader when I was a kid and declared that I would grow up to be a writer. My father never pushed anything on me, but I could tell that, whatever I developed an enthusiasm for, he would delight in and support. Still, whenever there was some real work to do around the house, like when we built an addition, or the car needed something, I was right there with him, hammering and turning wrenches with him. I therefore learned to do a great many things and was never intimidated to try something new. When I, at the age of nineteen, said I would move to Western New York and build a house, everyone thought I was crazy, except my father. Ray had done something just like it. Ray was an Emersonian and he had raised an Emersonian without ever speaking a word of Emerson to me.
The secret in education lies in respecting the student.
All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.
Children are all foreigners.
Emerson is found in practically every idea that has come out of America since his time. Everyone from the Tea Party to the New Deal, from Environmentalism to Entrepreneurial Capitalism, from the Sixties Anti-War Movement to the Neo-Conservatives of the 1990s drew from Emerson. Melville’s Captain Ahab was a mad Emersonian, Gatsby a sad one. It’s in Thoreau, of course; he being a protege of Emerson; and, by way of Thoreau, he infused Martin Luther King and Gandhi. His influence is also found in William Burroughs, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and Barbara Kingsolver. The Dead Poet’s Society is chock full of Emerson. Dizzy Gillespie played transcendentalism with his horn. Louise Armstrong sang it. Read Emerson today and he sounds like a New Age Guru. He also sounds like half of the memes people post on Facebook. Emerson is in the very air we breath. He’s in the nutrients of the soil. You don’t have to read Emerson to be affected by him, or even have a father who read Emerson. He is a pervasive, inescapable, unconscious part of modern ideology.
To be great is to be misunderstood.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
Every hero becomes a bore at last.
A friend is one before whom I may think aloud.
A man of genius is privileged only as far as he is genius. His dullness is as insupportable as any other dullness.
I would urge you to read Emerson even if you aren’t looking to connect with your father. Read Emerson to understand something about yourself.