Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Some reviews of Emerson’s Essays: First Series

Some reviews of Emerson’s Essays: First Series

Having completed Emerson’s first series of essays, I thought it might be interesting to read contemporary reviews of it. I already looked at two, and briefly at a third, in my post on Emerson’s long logic. Here I want to finish reading through the reviews collected in this volume.

Orestes Brownson. Boston Quarterly Review. July 1841.

Brownson’s review is particularly interesting. Unlike the first two reviews in the collection, this one is quite long and predominantly praising. Where the first two reviewers did not reach much beyond the surface of Emerson’s work, and where their criticisms stem from fear more than anything else, Brownson has clearly read Emerson carefully. As I read it, I was struck by how much he understood in Emerson. While he doesn’t quite fully grasp the essays’ unity (as I discussed in my earlier post, linked above), he does see that they have “unity and coherence, but of the transcendental sort.” He recognizes too that their value lies not in their solving of intellectual problems, but in “the incentives to thought they furnish, and the life they kindle up within us.” Moreover, apropos of the post I just wrote, he notes that it would be mistaken to treat them as beautiful only, and not also as useful. Late in the essay, he gives a remarkably Emersonian justification for why he doesn’t quote from the volume. He further gives an interesting account of the essays’ relation to Unitarianism, one that I think says more about Brownson’s concerns than Emerson’s, but which shows nonetheless a commitment to making good sense of Emerson.

All of these make the review quite good… but then Brownson makes a somewhat baffling move: he examines the work for its metaphysics. He takes great care to show how Emerson is a pantheist, and argues that this is as dangerous as atheism or deism. This is the basis of his main critique of Emerson. (He also makes the move, common to each review I’ve read so far, of praising the beauty of Emerson’s language but criticizing its “affectation of quaintness.” Was there some king who decreed each review should use this exact word to criticize Emerson?) His arguments are not particularly interesting, though they do give insight into why he explains Emerson’s relation to Unitarianism. And all of a sudden it seems like his apparent understanding of Emerson is something of a sham: he is more concerned that people take the right view of nature and God than that they be goaded to action. He recognizes what Emerson is doing, but he reverses Emerson’s value judgment, and so marginalizes Emerson’s project.

But Emerson perhaps gets the last laugh. For one justification Brownson gives for examining Emerson’s metaphysics is that “it will, moreover, be ultimately drawn out and formally taught by his disciples. His book will give it currency, and be appealed to as its authority. There can, then, be no impropriety in asking if it be true or false, complete or incomplete.” This has, so far as I can tell, not come true. Sympathetic readers of Emerson have recognized what matters in his work, and have made use of it. It is really no surprise that Emerson’s greatest reader, Nietzsche, was an atheist.

Two reviews from England, late 1841.

What is most interesting about both of these reviews is that both anchor their criticism in a consideration of Thomas Carlyle’s preface. They are concerned to show that Emerson is a pale imitation of Carlyle—“[This volume] ought to occupy a shelf in the case assigned especially to Thomas Carlyle, although Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson will have no right to complain should he be shoved into the darkest or least inviting corner of the mahogany.”—and thus to explain away Carlyle’s praise as simple self-love. The first essay shows that Emerson is a “circular philosopher” in a very cursory way; the second is more diligent, but no more understanding. What else of interest in these two reviews? The first review does not call Emerson’s language quaint, so there is that. The second review does get in a reference to “sterling and original thoughts, admirably though quaintly framed.” Beyond this, not much. The two reviews are interesting cases of people reading Emerson through a known quantity, and seeing in him only what conforms to that known quantity, and not what sets him apart.

A third anonymous review from England, October 1841.

This reviewer makes a move that sounds like it could be promising: he attempts to plunge below the chaotic surface of Emerson’s essays to find Emerson’s system, his method. This sounds promising, viewed in one light, because Emerson does have a method and thus a system of sorts—it is exactly his method that I have tried to trace out in many of my posts, and in my posts on philosophy of experiment I have sought the system reached via this method, if such deserves the name system. But, alas, for this author a system must be a creed of some sort, even if it is arrived at by reasoning. And so he sees Emerson as “rigorously attached to a few first principles” by a priori reasoning, and for this reason finds that Emerson seems “to be absolutely the slave of a system.” Throughout, he reaffirms Emerson’s commitment to a system, showing how it leads to absurd consequences—all while showing no indication of possessing any of the “sensibility” that he thinks Emerson so thoroughly over looks. He perceives none of the nuances of Emerson’s work—how else could he arrive at the insane view that Emerson “is forced to deny man’s individuality”! — This reviewer does not call Emerson’s essay quaint, which is no surprise, since that term seems to be reserved for appending a criticism to general praise for Emerson’s language, whereas this reviewer thinks Emerson’s style utterly without merit.

John Heraud. Monthly Magazine [England]. November 1841.

The final review of Emerson’s essays collected in this volume is more interesting than the three that preceded it. Like the others, he first relates Emerson to Carlyle, and then remarks on Emerson’s lack of a well-worked out system—even the third English reviewer would not deny that Emerson’s system, however real, is not well-developed! And here he makes a fascinating comment: “Emerson just give us the materials of thought, and then leaves us to work out a further road by ourselves.” This is just right, if one replaces “thought” with “life”—but, alas, the reviewer does not. Like Brownson, though to a lesser extent, Heraud has an intimation of what Emerson is up to, but not a clear perception, because he wants from the book what it cannot give. Heraud is to be commended for avoiding reading “Self-Reliance” as mere egoism, though by reading it as simply asserting the supremacy of conscience he marginalizes its experimental aspects. — The end of this review is of particular interest: Heraud ends with a sustained discussion of the ineffability of the ideas Emerson is trying to convey. Once again, he has an intimation of what Emerson is up to, but filters it in the wrong way and so misperceives it: Emerson’s relation with the ineffable stems from nothing else than his inability to live for another, not from the obscurity of his ideas.

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