I can’t accept Emerson whole, wheat and chaff, burning images and hot air, as I can Thoreau and Whitman. No single essay – not even his most deeply felt, “Experience” -- is satisfactory, as Walden and “Song of Myself” are satisfactory. Emerson’s unit of composition, and probably of thought, is the word. From there he builds with accelerating rightness to the phrase and sentence. At that level he is frequently inspired and wild, but after that he begins to fall apart, though we ought to recall that most writers never succeed beyond a word or two.
Dave Lull has passed along a review by Dale Salwak of First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson, who has already given us splendid biographies of Emerson, Thoreau and William James. Salwak rightly identifies Emerson as author of “some of the most remarkable sentences in English,” then quotes some of them on the subject of writing, without citing sources. He includes one of my favorites, from Charles J. Woodbury’s seldom-read Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1890), based on conversations they had in Williamstown, Mass., in 1865:
“The most interesting writing is that which does not quite satisfy the reader. Try and leave a little thinking for him; that will be better for both . . . A little guessing does him no harm, so I would assist him with no connections.”
This constitutes a healthy antidote to earnest, overly emphatic sermonizing, and nicely characterizes Emerson’s own best work, in particular the early essays in Nature (1836). It sounds a distinctly American democratic note, an endorsement of jazz-like improvisation, open-endedness and comradely respect for the reader. In “Nature,” in a passage not cited by Salwak, Emerson writes:
“Every surmise and vaticination of the mind is entitled to a certain respect, and we learn to prefer imperfect theories, and sentences which contain glimpses of the truth, to digested systems which have no one valuable suggestion. A wise writer will feel that the ends of study and composition are best answered by announcing undiscovered regions of thought, and so communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit.”
“Sentences which contain glimpses of the truth” amounts to a description of Emerson’s compositional method. His best work is fragmentary in the best sense – aphoristically distilled. One sentence will not predict the next – usually. I’ve posted before about Emerson’s heartbreaking “Experience,” written after the death of his son Waldo. On Jan. 30, 1842, two days after the boy died, Emerson wrote this bleak dialogue in his journal:
“Mamma, may I have this bell which I have been making, to stand by the side of my bed.
“Yes it may stand there.
“But Mamma I am afraid it will alarm you. It may sound in the middle of the night and it will be heard over the whole town, it will be louder than ten thousand hawks all over the world.
“It will sound like some great glass thing which falls down & breaks all to pieces.”
This might be Kafka transcribing a dream. The passage has a dreamlike inevitability rare in Emerson. The prose is straightforward and clear. “Some great glass thing” has, after all, shattered.