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Flies In Amber
by [?]

It has been the fashion among our younger writers to speak slightingly and flippantly of Emerson, referring to him as outworn, and as the apostle of the obvious. This view is more discreditable to the young people than is their criticism damaging to Emerson. It can make little difference to Emerson’s fame, but it would be much more becoming in our young writers to garland his name with flowers than to utter these harsh verdicts.

It is undoubtedly true that Emerson entered into and influenced the lives of more choice spirits, both men and women, during the past generation than did any other American author. Whether he still does so would be interesting to know. We who have felt his tonic and inspiring influence can but hope so. Yet how impossible he seems in times like these in which we live, when the stars of the highest heaven of the spirit which illumine his page are so obscured or blotted out by the dust and the fog of our hurrying, materialistic age! Try to think of Emerson spending a winter going about the Western States reading to miscellaneous audiences essays like those that now make up his later volumes. What chance would he stand, even in university towns, as against the “movies” (a word so ugly I hesitate to write it) in the next street?

I once defended Emerson against a criticism of Matthew Arnold’s. It is true, as Arnold says, that Emerson is not a great writer, except on rare occasions. Now and then, especially in his earlier essays, there is logical texture and cohesion in his pages; development, evolution, growth; one thing follows another naturally, and each paragraph follows from what went before. But most of his later writings are a kind of patchwork; unrelated ideas are in juxtaposition; the incongruities are startling. All those chapters, I suppose, were read as lectures to miscellaneous audiences in which the attention soon became tired or blunted if required to follow a closely reasoned argument. Pictures and parables and startling affirmations suited better. Emerson did not stoop to his audience; there was no condescension in him. The last time I heard him, which was in Washington in the early seventies, his theme was “Manners,” and much of it passed over the heads of his audience.

Certain of Emerson’s works must strike the average reader, when he first looks into them, as a curious medley of sense and wild extravagance, utterly lacking in the logical sequence of the best prose, and often verging on the futile and the absurd. Yet if one does not get discouraged, one will soon see running through them veins of the purest gold of the spirit, and insight into Nature’s ways, that redeem and more than redeem them.

I recall that when, as a young man, I looked into them the first time, I could make nothing of them. I was fresh from reading the standard essayists and philosophers of English literature–Addison, Steele, Cowley, Johnson, Locke–and the poems of Pope, Young, and Cowper, all of ethical import and value, and sometimes didactic, but never mystical and transcendental, and the plunge into Emerson was a leap into a strange world. But a few years later, when I opened his essays again, they were like spring-water to parched lips. Now, in my old age, I go back to him with a half-sad pleasure, as one goes back to the scenes of one’s youth.

Emerson taught us a mingled poetic and prophetic way of looking at things that stays with us. The talented English woman Anne Gilchrist said we had outgrown Emerson; had absorbed all he had to give us; and were leaving him behind. Of course he was always a teacher and preacher, in the thrall of his priestly inheritance, and to that extent we leave him behind as we do not leave behind works of pure literature.