Monday, April 27, 2009

Emerson, Transcendentalism, and Poe

Ralph Waldo Emerson has become the figurehead of American Transcendentalism. Even in his lifetime, he was the face of the movement, even though several others were important participants; many of those names are not commonly known today (anyone remember Orestes Brownson, Christopher Pearse Cranch, Frederick Henry Hedge, Sylvester Judd, Jones Very...?). Emerson was considered to be one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. However, when he died on April 27, 1882, not much of that mind was left.

Emerson suffered from some form of dementia, speculated by some to be Alzheimer's. He certainly had aphasia — his memory could no longer find the words for simple objects and concepts. When he attended the funeral of his good friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow only a month before his own death, Emerson reportedly said something to the effect of: "Today we bury a great man. I do not remember his name." Emerson was also forgetting his own name. When asked how he felt around this time, he once answered: ""Quite well; I have lost my mental faculties, but am perfectly well."

These final years of Emerson aren't often discussed.* Of course, Edgar A. Poe never knew Emerson at this late stage in his life. Poe knew of Emerson when he was in his prime. Poe, just like people today, saw Emerson as the icon of Transcendentalism - and that made him a target.

Poe's utter dislike of Transcendentalism was no secret (he once took a swipe at Nathaniel Hawthorne, who he otherwise respected, simply for living in Concord, Massachusetts — the seat of the movement), and his particular disgust with Emerson was equally well-known. Poe chided the Concord Sage for writing that was purposely difficult to understand — "mysticism for mysticism's sake," as Poe referred to it. Poe also identified (and he was a bit right) that Emerson was "little more than a respectful imitation of [Thomas] Carlyle."

Overall, Transcendentalism and its avowed idealism didn't make sense to Poe (nor does it make sense to most high schoolers introduced to it). As he wrote, "They could not define their own position & cannot be expected that I can define them exactly." However, he noted that their philosophy wasn't inherently bad. "You mistake me in supposing I dislike the transcendentalists," he wrote to friend Thomas Holley Chivers. "It is only the pretenders and sophists among them." When the Transcendental community at Brook Farm began publishing their journal, The Harbinger, to promote their worldview, Poe wrote it was "conducted by an assemblage of well-read persons who mean no harm—and who, perhaps, can do no less." True enough.

Eventually, Poe looped all of the Boston area with Transcendentalism (and a general Longfellow-like lack of originality). So, feel free to blame Emerson for at least part of Poe's distaste for Boston in his adult years. Next month (May 25), I'll follow up with a battle of poetry, Emerson vs. Poe.

Perhaps ironically, today, the City of Boston dedicates "Edgar Allan Poe Square" at the intersection of Charles St. and Boylston St. near his original birthplace, directly across from the Boston Common. I'm sure the ceremony was scheduled on the anniversary of Emerson's death by mere coincidence.

*I am of the opinion that Emersonians have, for years, been cleaning up his image. Hiding his struggle with dimentia - or the fact that he was not perfect - does not help him. It would be better to humanize him, rather than try to deify him.


Anonymous said...

I agree that Emerson is cleaned up a lot. The more I read about him the more convinced I am that he was a dick.

Thanks for the info on Poe's stance on transcendentalism. I always just took for granted that Poe simply hated them all but these quotes complicate that generalization.

Gina said...

I look forward to the poetry slam -- and I have little doubt who'll win, in both my judgment and yours. :-) To my mind, Emerson was way overrated.

Rob Velella said...

Well, Anonymous, those might be strong words. I think that, like most canonical individuals from the 19th century, Emerson is just more complicated than is often assumed. The depleting mental faculty at the end of his life was an example of that.

Gina, Emerson as a thinker is one thing, Emerson as a poet is another. As a philosopher, he's fascinating, sometimes innovative, occasionally endearing. As for his poetry, well...