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

§ 7. Emerson’s Optimism

A third trip to Europe was made in 1872, when his central will was already loosening and his faculties were losing their edge. It was at this time that Charles Eliot Norton talked with Carlyle, and heard the old man, eight years older than Emerson, expatiate on the fundamental difference in their tempers. And on the voyage home in the same boat, Norton, who so fully represents the judgment of New England, had much conversation with Emerson, and recorded his opinion in words that, whether welcome or not, should not be forgotten:

  • Emerson was the greatest talker in the ship’s company. He talked with all men, and yet was fresh and zealous for talk at night. His serene sweetness, the pure whiteness of his soul, the reflection of his soul in his face, were never more apparent to me; but never before in intercourse with him had I been so impressed with the limits of his mind. His optimistic philosophy has hardened into a creed, with the usual effects of a creed in closing the avenues of truth. He can accept nothing as fact that tells against his dogma. His optimism becomes a bigotry, and, though of a nobler typethan the common American conceit of the preeminent excellence of American things as they are, has hardly less of the quality of fatalism. To him this is the best of all possible worlds, and the best of all possible times. He refuses to believe in disorder or evil.… But such inveterate and persistent optimism, though it may show only its pleasant side in such a character as Emerson’s, is dangerous doctrine for a people. It degenerates into fatalistic indifference to moral considerations, and to personal responsibilities; it is at the root of much of the irrational sentimentalism in our American politics, of much of our national disregard of honour in our public men, of much of our unwillingness to accept hard truths, and of much of the common tendency to disregard the distinctions between right and wrong, and to excuse guilt on the plea of good intentions or good nature.
  • For some time there had been a gradual relaxation of Emerson’s hold on life. Though always an approachable man and fond of conversation, there was in him a certain lack of human warmth, of “bottom,” to use his own word, which he recognized and deplored. Commenting in his Journal (24 May, 1864) on the burial of Hawthorne, he notes the statement of James Freeman Clarke that the novelist had “shown a sympathy with the crime in our nature,” and adds: “I thought there was a tragic element in the event, that might be more fully rendered,—in the painful solitude of the man, which, I suppose, could not longer be endured, and he died of it.” A touch of this romantic isolation, though never morose or “painful,” there was in himself, a failure to knit himself strongly into the bonds of society. “I have felt sure of him,” he says of Hawthorne in the same passage, “in his neighbourhood, and in his necessities of sympathy and intelligence,—that I could well wait his time,—his unwillingness and caprice,—and might one day conquer a friendship.… Now it appears that I waited too long.” Eighteen years later, standing by the body of Longfellow, he was heard to say: “That gentleman was a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name.” Such forgetfulness, like a serene and hazy cloud, hovered over Emerson’s brain in his closing years. A month afterwards, on 27 April, 1882, he himself faded away peacefully.