How to Grow Up

By Kenneth Sacks / November / December 2003
June 21st, 2007
May 25, 2003, marked the 200th birthday of the man generally considered the most important thinker in American history. All over the globe, celebrations commemorated the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet Emerson’s popularity is hardly limited to this special year. The small Massachusetts town of Concord draws a million visitors annually, largely to pay homage to him and the group of Transcendentalist geniuses he attracted. Coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and calendars bear the aphorisms of this extraordinarily quotable writer. When jockey Red Pollard of Seabiscuit fame wooed his future wife, he used the words of, as he put it, “old Waldo.”

What makes Emerson so important to us? The kitsch and the tourist traffic go to the very heart of his attraction. For Emerson is quintessentially American. He created what has been called the one true American religion—that of self-reliance. It was a great act of courage for this young minister, a descendant of Boston intellectual and religious aristocracy, to defy his patrimony, surrender his pulpit, and strike out in a new direction. Taking advantage of the new institution of the lyceum, Emerson reinvented himself as an orator, attacking the materialist culture spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Trying to live what he espoused, Emerson strove to be accountable only to himself, all the while hoping to achieve public acclaim. This was no simple balancing act. But in that struggle he fought the good fight between living a life of social conformity and exhibiting radical independence. Emerson wasn’t the first or only person to confront these challenges: we all do, and the degree to which we tilt to one side or the other largely defines who we are. Emerson is our eternal guide to becoming adults.

Emerson’s philosophy wasn’t always coherent or consistent. (“A foolish consistency,” he wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.”) Embracing the controversial thinking of Goethe, Carlyle, and Kant, Emerson believed that all humans are born with inherent moral sensibilities and that these common ideals and values unite us in ways far more important than the ways in which the material world divides us.

Though commonplace today, his ideas were startlingly new and disturbing to a New England that viewed economic success as a reflection of moral worth. In the end, however, it is not the intellectual originality that makes Emerson so important but his extraordinary passion for seeking fundamental truths and for acting on those truths, precisely because they are inherent within us all. Emerson became a feminist near the very beginning of that movement; he was among the first to appreciate the philosophical importance of nature, arguing for its essential unity with humanity; and, most importantly, although he struggled early on, he eventually became a most committed and influential abolitionist.

Emerson believed that principles count for everything and that an engaged life requires the constant search for the principles within. As he ended his great essay “Self-Reliance,” “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” Emerson had his share of private self-doubt and worried mightily about public criticism. But he never apologized or explained. He continued to maintain that “to be great is to be misunderstood.”

There were many professional conferences on Emerson this year, but I didn’t attend any of them. Instead, I prepared a new freshman course on Transcendentalism. I want to watch young people wrestle with the same issues of conformity and individuality so central to the work of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller. And I’m taking my students to Concord to experience that firsthand. I want to observe their reactions as we walk about the ponds and parks, the meeting places and houses where Emerson and friends lived and worked. I’ll gain more insight into life, I am sure, from these young people than from all the conferences and academic papers. Old Waldo wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Professor of History Kenneth Sacks is the author of Understanding Emerson.
What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 2003