Saturday, June 27, 2020

'The Voices of the Distant and the Dead'

People throw around quotations on the internet as though they were used tissue, with absent or mistaken attributions, misquotation and no context.  When I quote a writer, I try to let you know where you can find the passage, short of a cumbersome bibliography. The Quote Investigator is on the case, with mixed results. Still, the quotations arrive, floating without tether like the Hindenburg. A reader sent me this, attributing it only to William Ellery Channing:

“It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds, and these invaluable means of communication are in the reach of all. In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours. God be thanked for books. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are the true levellers.”
A little fulsome in a distinctly nineteenth-century New England manner, but I sort of like it. An essentially American sensibility is at work here, echoing Jefferson. Free access to books, without question, can promote democracy. Censorship, de jure or otherwise, is the first tool of dictatorial regimes. But is the Channing quote accurate and where did he say it? A brief search turned up the source: “Self Culture,” a lecture Channing delivered in Boston in 1838. His prose tends to a gassiness not unlike Emerson’s – high-minded, over-reliant on the third-person singular and redolent of the pulpit. In We Are Doomed (2009), John Derbyshire characterizes Emerson as “a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism,” and I hear a similar strain in Channing, who defines self-culture as “the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature.”

Henry James writes in an 1887 review of A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson by James Eliot Cabot: “He has no great sense of wrong – a strangely limited one, indeed for a moralist – no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected.” Channing is given to earnest happy talk and seems not to recognize the persistence of human evil. Here is how he continues the passage quoted above:

"[Books] give to all, who will faithfully use them, the society, the spiritual presence, of the best and greatest of our race. No matter how poor I am. No matter though the prosperous of my own time will not enter my obscure dwelling. If the Sacred Writers will enter and take up their abode under my roof, if Milton will cross my threshold to sing to me of Paradise, and Shakspeare to open to me the worlds of imagination and the workings of the human heart, and Franklin to enrich me with his practical wisdom, I shall not pine for want of intellectual companionship, and I may become a cultivated man though excluded from what is called the best society in the place where I live.”

Read this and Channing's earlier celebration of books sounds less convincing.

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

James is referring to Emerson, not Channing, right?

Emerson and Thoreau are spoken of in the same breath, and without doubt similarities exist, but much of Thoreau remains worth reading because he seeks to know real places, Transcendentalizing notwithstanding.

Hawthorne liked Thoreau but was wary of Emerson, I believe. There's the passage in Hawthorne's American Notebooks describing the day H. and Thoreau floated downriver on a floe. I wouldn't particularly have wanted to have Emerson in a voluble mood as my companion on an ice floe.

Dale Nelson