Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Swan Songs X--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once upon a time in Lynden, Washington, I met a woman who read Ralph Waldo Emerson for fun. That was new to me. I'd always had fun reading Emerson, but I knew no one who would willfully draw out a volume of Emerson's essays and just read, as one might read, say, Michael Crichton or Stephen King. A wonderful collection of Emerson's works stood proudly on a shelf in the living room of the bed-and-breakfast she owned and operated, "the Mayor's House." She was from Seattle, really, and not a native. No right-thinking Dutch Calvinist could really love Emerson, after all.
My own mad tryst with the man began in college. It was on the way to an American lit class, years ago--I remember where I was walking, on what sidewalk in fact--when suddenly I told myself that I ought to major in English because it would be a gas, a blessing even, to get paid to think and talk about writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson. I didn't love him then, and I swear I never have. But I've always fun with him. In a way, because of him, I've spent the last 40 years in a literature classroom.
What was the attraction? Simple. It was the late 60s and I found myself woefully at odds with every major institution of my life--my family, my church, and my school. The times were a'changin', and, for better or for worse, I started to believe that I was aboard the wrong train, heading woefully in the wrong direction. Just about everyone I knew thought Vietnam was a righteous cause, thought Nixon was chosen by God to be our leader, thought Martin Luther King was an evil communist-like agitator, and that flower children--sweet, peace-loving hippies--were the Devil's spawn. At the college I attended, beards were outlawed because even the look was too counter-cultural, and none of our students, praise the Lord, were going to be counter-cultural.
Along came this dreamer Emerson, a kind of spiritual guru for the times: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness," he wrote in "Self-Reliance." After all, he proclaimed right into my ear, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."
Heresy, of course, but beautiful, game-changing heresy.
To call me a disciple would go too far, but he was the bromide I was looking for--he and his gardener, a fellow named Henry David Thoreau. I found in him--and them--the scripture I was looking for; after all, to my knowledge the old one belonged to the bigots.
I'm not really mystical enough to buy all the transcendentalist hooey. I've spent hours and hours along the Big Sioux River and a hundred glorious mornings on country roads with nothing but the dawn as a companion. But I've never been mystically transformed into a "transparent eyeball." I've never felt lifted from my considerable corporal self into some giddy transcendent state.
But way back when, I found "Self-Reliance" almost scriptural. "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." That's the stuff I read. "With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.. . .'Ah, so you shall be misunderstood," he wrote; "Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh." And then, "To be great is to be misunderstood."
That was a Jesus I'd never seen or heard of in Sioux Center, Iowa, a Jesus whose singular redeeming quality, whose genius, was being misunderstood. And look at the gang he hung with. I wanted to be on that team.
When I got my first teaching job, there he was in an old brown anthology of American literature; and what faced me in class was 25 rural Wisconsin kids, sons and daughters of cheese-makers, deer-hunting dairymen. I was less than six weeks into my first year of teaching when the anthology we used made clear I had to haul "Self-Reliance" into my classroom, and I remember being up all night trying to figure out how on earth I was going to make the transparent eyeball interesting.
It didn't take much. Maybe it's just my prejudiced memory, but one of the only classes I remember from way back then--the fall of 1970--was the class on Emerson, high school juniors, Lafayette County, Wisconsin. We had a great time. I've always had fun with Emerson.
Today, once more, we'll open the book to that goofy transparent eyeball. For me, it'll be the last time.
I probably won't pick him up again. I'm not in love. I'll never take Waldo to the beach.
But one of these days when I start throwing books away, my old grad school anthology of collected works of Ralph Waldo Emerson won't be among the ones that get tossed. It's dog-eared and red-lined and ruthlessly scribbled in. I'm not really sure how much of that transcendentalism found its way into my soul--someone else might be a better judge of that than I am.
What I do know is that I'm in that book on just about every page.