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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The Complete Works. 1904.
Vol. I. Nature, Addresses and Lectures

IX. Papers from the Dial. VII. A Letter

AS we are very liable, in common with the letter-writing world, to fall behind-hand in our correspondence; and a little more liable because in consequence of our editorial function we receive more epistles than our individual share, we have thought that we might clear our account by writing a quarterly catholic letter to all and several who have honored us, in verse or prose, with their confidence, and expressed a curiosity to know our opinion. We shall be compelled to dispose very rapidly of quite miscellaneous topics.

And first, in regard to the writer who has given us his speculations on Railroads and Air-roads, our correspondent shall have his own way. To the railway, we must say,—like the courageous lord mayor at his first hunting, when told the hare was coming,—“Let it come, in Heaven’s name, I am not afraid on ’t.” Very unlooked-for political and social effects of the iron road are fast appearing. It will require an expansion of the police of the old world. When a railroad train shoots through Europe every day from Brussels to Vienna, from Vienna to Constantinople, it cannot stop every twenty or thirty miles at a German custom-house, for examination of property and passports. But when our correspondent proceeds to flying-machines, we have no longer the smallest taper-light of credible information and experience left, and must speak on a priori grounds.

Shortly, then, we think the population is not yet quite fit for them, and therefore there will be none. Our friend suggests so many inconveniences from piracy out of the high air to orchards and lone houses, and also to other high fliers, and the total inadequacy of the present system of defence, that we have not the heart to break the sleep of the good public by the repetition of these details. When children come into the library, we put the inkstand and the watch on the high shelf until they be a little older; and Nature has set the sun and moon in plain sight and use, but laid them on the high shelf where her roystering boys may not in some mad Saturday afternoon pull them down or burn their fingers. The sea and the iron road are safer toys for such ungrown people; we are not yet ripe to be birds.

In the next place, to fifteen letters on Communities, and the Prospects of Culture, and the destinies of the cultivated class,—what answer? Excellent reasons have been shown us why the writers, obviously persons of sincerity and elegance, should be dissatisfied with the life they lead, and with their company. They have exhausted all its benefit, and will not bear it much longer. Excellent reasons they have shown why something better should be tried. They want a friend to whom they can speak and from whom they may hear now and then a reasonable word. They are willing to work, so it be with friends. They do not entertain anything absurd or even difficult. They do not wish to force society into hated reforms, nor to break with society. They do not wish a town-ship or any large expenditure or incorporated association, but simply a concentration of chosen people. By the slightest possible concert, persevered in through four or five years, they think that a neighborhood might be formed of friends who would provoke each other to the best activity. They believe that this society would fill up the terrific chasm of ennui, and would give their genius that inspiration which it seems to wait in vain.

But, ‘the selfishness!’ One of the writers relentingly says, “What shall my uncles and aunts do without me?” and desires distinctly to be understood not to propose the Indian mode of giving decrepit relatives as much of the mud of holy Ganges as they can swallow, and more, but to begin the enterprise of concentration by concentrating all uncles and aunts in one delightful village by themselves!—so heedless is our correspondent of putting all the dough into one pan, and all the leaven into another. Another objection seems to have occurred to a subtle but ardent advocate. Is it, he writes, a too great wilfulness and intermeddling with life,—which is better accepted than calculated? Perhaps so; but let us not be too curiously good. The Buddhist is a practical Necessitarian; the Yankee is not. We do a great many selfish things every day; among them all let us do one thing of enlightened selfishness. It were fit to forbid concert and calculation in this particular, if that were our system, if we were up to the mark of self-denial and faith in our general activity. But to be prudent in all the particulars of life, and in this one thing alone religiously forbearing; prudent to secure to ourselves an injurious society, temptations to folly and despair, degrading examples, and enemies; and only abstinent when it is proposed to provide ourselves with guides, examples, lovers!

We shall hardly trust ourselves to reply to arguments by which we would gladly be persuaded. The more discontent, the better we like it. It is not for nothing, we assure ourselves, that our people are busied with these projects of a better social state, and that sincere persons of all parties are demanding somewhat vital and poetic of our stagnant society. How fantastic and unpresentable soever the theory has hitherto seemed, how swiftly shrinking from the examination of practical men, let us not lose the warning of that most significant dream. How joyfully we have felt the admonition of larger natures which despised our aims and pursuits, conscious that a voice out of heaven spoke to us in that scorn. But it would be unjust not to remind our younger friends that whilst this aspiration has always made its mark in the lives of men of thought, in vigorous individuals it does not remain a detached object, but is satisfied along with the satisfaction of other aims. To live solitary and unexpressed is painful,—painful in proportion to one’s consciousness of ripeness and equality to the offices of friendship. But herein we are never quite forsaken by the Divine Providence. The loneliest man, after twenty years, discovers that he stood in a circle of friends, who will then show like a close fraternity held by some masonic tie. But we are impatient of the tedious introductions of Destiny, and a little faithless, and would venture something to accelerate them. One thing is plain, that discontent and the luxury of tears will bring nothing to pass. Regrets and Bohemian castles and æsthetic villages are not a very self-helping class of productions, but are the voices of debility. Especially to one importunate correspondent we must say that there is no chance for the æsthetic village. Every one of the villagers has committed his several blunder; his genius was good, his stars consenting, but he was a marplot. And though the recuperative force in every man may be relied on infinitely, it must be relied on before it will exert itself. As long as he sleeps in the shade of the present error, the after-nature does not betray its resources. Whilst he dwells in the old sin, he will pay the old fine.

More letters we have on the subject of the position of young men, which accord well enough with what we see and hear. There is an American disease, a paralysis of the active faculties, which falls on young men of this country as soon as they have finished their college education, which strips them of all manly aims and bereaves them of animal spirits; so that the noblest youths are in a few years converted into pale Caryatides to uphold the temple of conventions. They are in the state of the young Persians, when “that mighty Yezdam prophet” addressed them and said, “Behold the signs of evil days are come; there is now no longer any right course of action, nor any self-devotion left among the Iranis.” As soon as they have arrived at this term, there are no employments to satisfy them, they are educated above the work of their times and country, and disdain it. Many of the more acute minds pass into a lofty criticism of these things, which only embitters their sensibility to the evil and widens the feeling of hostility between them and the citizens at large. From this cause, companies of the best-educated young men in the Atlantic states every week take their departure for Europe; for no business that they have in that country, but simply because they shall so be hid from the reproachful eyes of their countrymen and agreeably entertained for one or two years, with some lurking hope, no doubt, that something may turn up to give them a decided direction. It is easy to see that this is only a postponement of their proper work, with the additional disadvantage of a two years’ vacation. Add that this class is rapidly increasing by the infatuation of the active class, who, whilst they regard these young Athenians with suspicion and dislike, educate their own children in the same courses, and use all possible endeavors to secure to them the same result.

Certainly we are not insensible to this calamity, as described by the observers or witnessed by ourselves. It is not quite new and peculiar; though we should not know where to find in literature any record of so much unbalanced intellectuality, such undeniable apprehension without talent, so much power without equal applicability, as our young men pretend to. Yet in Theodore Mundt’s account of Frederic Hölderlin’s Hyperion, we were not a little struck with the following Jeremiad of the despair of Germany, whose tone is still so familiar that we were somewhat mortified to find that it was written in 1799. “Then came I to the Germans. I cannot conceive of a people more disjoined than the Germans. Mechanics you shall see, but no man. Is it not like some battle-field, where hands and arms and all members lie scattered about, whilst the life-blood runs away into the sand? Let every man mind his own, you say, and I say the same. Only let him mind it with all his heart, and not with this cold study,—literally, hypocritically, to appear that which he passes for,—but in good earnest, and in all love, let him be that which he is; then there is a soul in his deed. And is he driven into a circumstance where the spirit must not live? Let him thrust it from him with scorn, and learn to dig and plough. There is nothing holy which is not desecrated, which is not degraded to a mean end among this people. It is heartrending to see your poet, your artist, and all who still revere genius, who love and foster the Beautiful. The Good! They live in the world as strangers in their own house; they are like the patient Ulysses whilst he sat in the guise of a beggar at his own door, whilst shameless rioters shouted in the hall and asked, Who brought the ragamuffin here? Full of love, talent and hope spring up the darlings of the muse among the Germans; some seven years later, and they flit about like ghosts, cold and silent; they are like a soil which an enemy has sown with poison, that it will not bear a blade of grass. On earth all is imperfect! is the old proverb of the German. Aye, but if one should say to these God-forsaken, that with them all is imperfect only because they leave nothing pure which they do not pollute, nothing holy which they do not defile with their fumbling hands; that with them nothing prospers because the godlike nature which is the root of all prosperity they do not revere; that with them, truly, life is shallow and anxious and full of discord, because they despise genius, which brings power and nobleness into manly action, cheerfulness into endurance, and love and brotherhood into towns and houses. Where a people honors genius in its artists, there breathes like an atmosphere a universal soul, to which the shy sensibility opens, which melts self-conceit,—all hearts become pious and great, and it adds fire to heroes. The home of all men is with such a people, and there will the stranger gladly abide. But where the divine nature and the artist is crushed, the sweetness of life is gone, and every other planet is better than the earth. Men deteriorate, folly increases, and a gross mind with it; drunkenness comes with a disaster; with the wantonness of the tongue and with the anxiety for a livelihood the blessing of every year becomes a curse, and all the gods depart.”

The steep antagonism between the money-getting and the academic class must be freely admitted, and perhaps is the more violent that whilst our work is imposed by the soil and the sea, our culture is the tradition of Europe. But we cannot share the desperation of our contemporaries; least of all should we think a preternatural enlargement of the intellect a calamity. A new perception, the smallest new activity given to the perceptive power, is a victory won to the living universe from Chaos and old Night, and cheaply bought by any amounts of hard fare and false social position. The balance of mind and body will redress itself fast enough. Superficialness is the real distemper. In all the cases we have ever seen where people were supposed to suffer from too much wit, or, as men said, from a blade too sharp for the scabbard, it turned out that they had not wit enough. It may easily happen that we are grown very idle, and must go to work, and that the times must be worse before they are better. It is very certain that speculation is no succedaneum for life. What we would know, we must do. As if any taste or imagination could take the place of fidelity! The old Duty is the old God. And we may come to this by the rudest teaching. A friend of ours went five years ago to Illinois to buy a farm for his son. Though there were crowds of emigrants in the roads, the country was open on both sides, and long intervals between hamlets and houses. Now after five years he has just been to visit the young farmer and see how he prospered, and reports that a miracle had been wrought. From Massachusetts to Illinois the land is fenced in and builded over, almost like New England itself, and the proofs of thrifty cultivation abound;—a result not so much owing to the natural increase of population as to the hard times, which, driving men out of cities and trade, forced them to take off their coats and go to work on the land; which has rewarded them not only with wheat but with habits of labor. Perhaps the adversities of our commerce have not yet been pushed to the wholesomest degree of severity. Apathies and total want of work, and reflection on the imaginative character of American life, etc., etc., are like sea-sickness, and never will obtain any sympathy if there is a wood-pile in the yard, or an unweeded patch in the garden; not to mention the graver absurdity of a youth of noble aims who can find no field for his energies, whilst the colossal wrongs of the Indian, of the Negro, of the emigrant, remain unmitigated, and the religious, civil and judicial forms of the country are confessedly effete and offensive. We must refer our clients back to themselves, believing that every man knows in his heart the cure for the disease he so ostentatiously bewails.

As far as our correspondents have entangled their private griefs with the cause of American Literature, we counsel them to disengage themselves as fast as possible. In Cambridge orations and elsewhere there is much inquiry for that great absentee American Literature. What can have become of it? The least said is best. A literature is no man’s private concern, but a secular and generic result, and is the affair of a power which works by a prodigality of life and force very dismaying to behold,—every trait of beauty purchased by hecatombs of private tragedy. The pruning in the wild gardens of Nature is never forborne. Many of the best must die of consumption, many of despair, and many be stupid and insane, before the one great and fortunate life which they each predicted can shoot up into a thrifty and beneficent existence.