The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

IX. Emerson

§ 3. His Journals

Meanwhile, by the medium of lectures delivered here and there and by printed essays, he was making of himself a kind of lay preacher to the world. His method of working out the more characteristic of these discourses has long been known: he would commonly select a theme, and then ransack his notebooks for pertinent passages which could be strung together with the addition of such developing and connecting material as was necessary. But since the publication of his Journals it has been possible to follow him more precisely in this procedure and to see more clearly how it conforms with the inmost structure of his mind. These remarkable records were begun in early youth and continued, though at the close in the form of brief memoranda, to the end of his life. The first entry preserved (not the first written, for it is from Blotting Book No. XVII) dates from his junior year at college and contains notes for a prize dissertation on the Character of Socrates. Among the sentences is this:

  • What is God? said the disciples, and Plato replied, It is hard to learn and impossible to divulge.
  • And the last page of the record, in the twelfth volume, repeats what is really the same thought:
  • The best part of truth is certainly that which hovers in gleams and suggestions unpossessed before man. His recorded knowledge is dead and cold. But this chorus of thoughts and hopes, these dawning truths, like great stars just lifting themselves into his horizon, they are his future, and console him for the ridiculous brevity and meanness of his civic life.
  • There is of course much variety of matter in the Journals—shrewd observations on men and books, chronicles of the day’s events, etc.—but through it all runs this thread of self-communion, the poetry, it might be called, of the New England conscience deprived of its concrete deity and buoying itself on gleams and suggestions of eternal beauty and holiness. Of the same stuff, not seldom indeed of the same words, are those essays of his that have deeply counted; they are but a repetition to the world of fragments of this long inner conversation. Where they fail to reach the reader’s heart, it is not because they are fundamentally disjointed, as if made up of sentences jostled together like so many mutually repellent particles; but because from the manner of his composition Emerson often missed what he might have learned from Plato’s Phaedrus was the essence of good rhetoric, that is to say, the consciousness of his hearer’s mind as well as of his own. We hear him, as it were, talking to himself, with no attempt to convince by argument or enlighten by analysis. If our dormant intuition answers to his, we are profoundly kindled and confirmed; otherwise his sentences may rattle ineffectually about our ears.