Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Morning with Emerson

We never met much in college—very surprising, I know, for an English major. I do remember running into you briefly, that one time in junior year AP English. Ms. Williams was it? I think I hated you. We were preparing for the AP exam and you were getting in the way.

Was it because we ran in different circles, Emerson? You with your philosophy majors, me, taking classes on the American Novel and aestheticism. I read Pater, Ruskin, and Henry James; you met with Hawthorne, Alcott, and Thoreau.

But I think we would have gotten along quite well, Emerson. As our recent reprint of A Year With Emerson: A Daybook tells me in the title, we need a full year to get acquainted. I’ve got until lunch.

So diving in, I had to see what Emerson said on my birthday:

While on his trip to the Southern states in an attempt to improve his health (he was showing signs of the weak lungs that were common in the family), Emerson writes from St. Augustine on February 23, 1827, to his brother Charles. 

Dear Charles,

            You are in the heyday of youth when time is marked not by numbering days but by the intervals of mentality the flux & reflux of the soul. One day has a solemn complexion, the next is cheerful, the south wind makes a third poetic, and another is “sicklied o’er with a pale cast of thought,” but all are redolent of knowledge & joy. The river of life with you is yet in its mountains and sources bounding & shouting on its way & has not settled down into the monotony of the deep & silent stream. Vouchsafe then to give to your poor patriarchal exhorting brother some of the sweet waters. Write, write. I have heard men say (heaven help their poor wits,) they had rather have ten words viva voce from a man than volumes of letters for getting at his opinion. – I had rather converse with them by the interpreter. Politeness ruins conversation.

Feeling a bit homesick, Emerson expresses feelings about the letter itself. In writing, man “divests himself of his manner & all physical imperfects” and speaks “pure intellect.” This is more interesting when we consider Emerson not just as a writer, but as a famous orator who dominated the lecture circuit, a feat highlighted most recently in The New Yorker. “Instead of the old verse, "Speak that I may know thee," I write 'Speak, that I may suspect thee; write, that I may know thee.'”

Perhaps the authenticity of the written word explains why we at Godine still use typewriters. Something about it just feels nice. It’s thoughtful; it’s cool. This book gives a bit of that authenticity in short, daily glimpses that are easily digested and remembered. If you and Emerson haven’t spoken since high school, or if, like me, you should have met but never did, this is what you need.

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