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

§ 6. Representative Men; English Traits

Of the events of these years there is not much to relate. A journey to Europe, in 1847, resulted in the only two of his books which may be said to have been composed as units: Representative Men (published in 1850, from a series of lectures delivered in London), which displays Emerson’s great powers as an ethical critic, in the larger use of that phrase, and English Traits (1856), which proves that his eyes were observing the world about him with Yankee shrewdness all the while that he seemed to be gazing into transcendental clouds. Into the question of slavery and disunion which was now agitating the country, he entered slowly. It was natural that one to whom the power and meaning of institutions had little appeal and to whom liberty was the all-including virtue, should have been drawn to the side of the Abolitionists, but at first there was a philosophical aloofness in his attitude. Only after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law and Webster’s defection were his passions deeply engaged. Then he spoke ringing words:

  • There is infamy in the air. I have a new experience. I awake in the mornign with a painful sensation, which I carry about all day, and which, when traced home, is the odious remembrance of that ignominy which has fallen on Massachusetts, which robs the landscape of beauty, and takes the sunshine out of every hour.
  • And the war came to him as a welcome relief from a situation which had grown intolerable.