March 29, 2012

The Wisdom of Emerson

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Hitch your wagon to a star.
All mankind loves a lover.
If you write a better book, or preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to your door.
These concise sentences are embedded in our culture; they seem to be old proverbs, yet they came from the pen of one man, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson (1803 - 1882) was an essayist, lecturer, and poet, a Transcendentalist who can be thought of as one of the founding fathers of American letters. Emerson's essays are a tough slog, the prose dense and difficult, some of the ideas hard to fathom. But there are gems within them, as I wrote in the blog post "Build therefore your own world". In the essay "Nature" is this:
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. 
Robert D. Richardson points out in his richly rewarding small book, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process that for Emerson "the the main formal and structural unit".  I first read this book a couple of years ago and decided to reread it to bring back to my mind Emerson's insights on reading and writing, many of which have been helpful to me, such as:
The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.
All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.
All that can be thought can be written. 
In his first chapter, "Reading", Richardson points out how reading was a foundational creative act for Emerson. He read very widely, but what is most interesting to me is that he grazed; he looked for understanding that echoed his own thoughts:
What can we see, read, acquire but what we are?
The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.
This seems so true to me as I dip into books that become festooned with little colored stickers as they send arrows straight to my heart. I find that I am losing patience with reading books that don't in some way deepen my understanding of the world, or provide aesthetic pleasure. Yes, sometimes I read just to be entertained (I love a good mystery), but I have little patience for bad prose. Richardson guides us through the thickets of Emerson's prose and gathers its nuts and berries and flowers. He finds the practical advice and descriptions of writing in Emerson that are helpful, encouraging, and inspiring.
 Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work.
It is the best part of each writer which has nothing private in it.
Art lies not in making your object prominent, but in choosing objects that are prominent.
Literature is a heap of nouns and verbs enclosing an intuition or two.
The poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.
The last quote above shows Emerson to have, as Richardson put it, an "anti-elitist view of the artist". For him, nature was the great teacher and the origin of language, not learned men. And though he thought about his audience, he was aware of the single reader. He offers this very valuable advice for all artists:
Happy is he who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale––who writes always to the unknown friend


  1. I adore Emerson! thank you for this wonderful blog post.

    1. You're welcome, Jan, I'm glad you liked it.

  2. That books sounds like a real boon to anyone interested in Emerson. So many 19th century authors have lots to say to us — if only we can find it!

    1. Linda, entering the literary world of the 19th century takes some concentration, but as you say, there is so much there to say to us. I went through years of reading almost every novel written in the 19th century: English, French, Russian, American.