Four Americans - Roosevelt, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman
by Henry A. Beers
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"And Alcott?" I ventured.

"Oh, Alcott! The best thing he ever did was his daughters."

This inn was gone, but the still more ancient one across the square remains, the tavern where Major Pitcairn dined on the day of the Lexington fight, and from whose windows or door steps he is alleged by the history books to have cried to a group of embattled farmers, "Disperse, ye Yankee rebels."

Concord is well preserved. Still there are subtle indications of the flight of time. For one thing, the literary pilgrimage business has increased, partly no doubt because trolleys, automobiles, and bicycles have made the town more accessible; but also because our literature is a generation older than it was in 1879. The study of American authors has been systematically introduced into the public schools. The men who made Concord famous are dead, but their habitat has become increasingly classic ground as they themselves have receded into a dignified, historic past. At any rate, the trail of the excursionist—the "cheap tripper," as he is called in England,—is over it all. Basket parties had evidently eaten many a luncheon on the first battle-field of the Revolution, and notices were posted about, asking the public not to deface the trees, and instructing them where to put their paper wrappers and fragmenta regalia. I could imagine Boston schoolma'ams pointing out to their classes, the minuteman, the monument, and other objects of interest, and calling for names and dates. The shores of Walden were trampled and worn in spots. There were springboards there for diving, and traces of the picnicker were everywhere. Trespassers were warned away from the grounds of the Old Manse and similar historic spots, by signs of "Private Property."

Concord has grown more self-conscious under the pressure of all this publicity and resort. Tablets and inscriptions have been put up at points of interest. As I was reading one of these on the square, I was approached by a man who handed me a business card with photographs of the monument, the Wayside, the four-hundred-year-old oak, with information to the effect that Mr. —— would furnish guides and livery teams about the town and to places as far distant as Walden Pond and Sudbury Inn. Thus poetry becomes an asset, and transcendentalism is exploited after the poet and the philosopher are dead. It took Emerson eleven years to sell five hundred copies of "Nature," and Thoreau's books came back upon his hands as unsalable and were piled up in the attic like cord-wood. I was impressed anew with the tameness of the Concord landscape. There is nothing salient about it: it is the average mean of New England nature. Berkshire is incomparably more beautiful. And yet those flat meadows and low hills and slow streams are dear to the imagination, since genius has looked upon them and made them its own. "The eye," said Emerson, "is the first circle: the horizon the second."

And the Concord books—how do they bear the test of revisitation? To me, at least, they have—even some of the second-rate papers in the "Dial" have—now nearly fifty years since I read them first, that freshness which is the mark of immortality.

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn: My oldest force is good as new; And the fresh rose on yonder thorn Gives back the bending heavens in dew.

I think I do not mistake, and confer upon them the youth which was then mine. No, the morning light had touched their foreheads: the youthfulness was in them.

Lately I saw a newspaper item about one of the thirty thousand literary pilgrims who are said to visit Concord annually. Calling upon Mr. Sanborn, he asked him which of the Concord authors he thought would last longest. The answer, somewhat to his surprise, was "Thoreau." I do not know whether this report is authentic; but supposing it true, it is not inexplicable. I will confess that, of recent years, I find myself reading Thoreau more and Emerson less. "Walden" seems to me more of a book than Emerson ever wrote. Emerson's was incomparably the larger nature, the more liberal and gracious soul. His, too, was the seminal mind; though Lowell was unfair to the disciple, when he described him as a pistillate blossom fertilized by the Emersonian pollen. For Thoreau had an originality of his own—a flavor as individual as the tang of the bog cranberry, or the wild apples which he loved. One secure advantage he possesses in the concreteness of his subject-matter. The master, with his abstract habit of mind and his view of the merely phenomenal character of the objects of sense, took up a somewhat incurious attitude towards details, not thinking it worth while to "examine too microscopically the universal tablet." The disciple, though he professed that the other world was all his art, had a sharp eye for this. Emerson was Nature's lover, but Thoreau was her scholar. Emerson's method was intuition, while Thoreau's was observation. He worked harder than Emerson and knew more,—that is, within certain defined limits. Thus he read the Greek poets in the original. Emerson, in whom there was a spice of indolence—due, say his biographers, to feeble health in early life, and the need of going slow,—read them in translations and excused himself on the ground that he liked to be beholden to the great English language.

Compare Hawthorne's description, in the "Mosses," of a day spent on the Assabeth with Ellery Channing, with any chapter in Thoreau's "Week." Moonlight and high noon! The great romancer gives a dreamy, poetic version of the river landscape, musically phrased, pictorially composed, dissolved in atmosphere—a lovely piece of literary art, with the soft blur of a mezzotint engraving, say, from the designs by Turner in Rogers's "Italy." Thoreau, equally imaginative in his way, writes like a botanist, naturalist, surveyor, and local antiquary; and in a pungent, practical, business-like style—a style, as was said of Dante, in which words are things. Yet which of these was the true transcendentalist?

Matthew Arnold's discourse on Emerson was received with strong dissent in Boston, where it was delivered, and in Concord, where it was read with indignation. The critic seemed to be taking away, one after another, our venerated master's claims as a poet, a man of letters, and a philosopher. What! Gray a great poet, and Emerson not! Addison a great writer, and Emerson not! Surely there are heights and depths in Emerson, an inspiring power, an originality and force of thought which are neither in Gray nor in Addison. And how can these denials be consistent with the sentence near the end of the discourse, pronouncing Emerson's essays the most important work done in English prose during the nineteenth century—more important than Carlyle's? A truly enormous concession this; how to reconcile it with those preceding blasphemies?

Let not the lightning strike me if I say that I think Arnold was right—as he usually was right in a question of taste or critical discernment. For Emerson was essentially a prophet and theosophist, and not a man of letters, or creative artist. He could not have written a song or a story or a play. Arnold complains of his want of concreteness. The essay was his chosen medium, well-nigh the least concrete, the least literary of forms. And it was not even the personal essay, like Elia's, that he practised, but an abstract variety, a lyceum lecture, a moralizing discourse or sermon. For the clerical virus was strong in Emerson, and it was not for nothing that he was descended from eight generations of preachers. His concern was primarily with religion and ethics, not with the tragedy and comedy of personal lives, this motley face of things, das bunte Menschenleben. Anecdotes and testimonies abound to illustrate this. See him on his travels in Europe, least picturesque of tourists, hastening with almost comic precipitation past galleries, cathedrals, ancient ruins, Swiss alps, Como lakes, Rhine castles, Venetian lagoons, costumed peasants, "the great sinful streets of Naples"—and of Paris,—and all manner and description of local color and historic associations; hastening to meet and talk with "a few minds"—Landor, Wordsworth, Carlyle. Here he was in line, indeed, with his great friend, impatiently waving aside the art patter, with which Sterling filled his letters from Italy. "Among the windy gospels," complains Carlyle, "addressed to our poor Century there are few louder than this of Art.... It is a subject on which earnest men ... had better ... 'perambulate their picture-gallery with little or no speech.'" "Emerson has never in his life," affirms Mr. John Jay Chapman, "felt the normal appeal of any painting, or any sculpture, or any architecture, or any music. These things, of which he does not know the meaning in real life, he yet uses, and uses constantly, as symbols to convey ethical truths. The result is that his books are full of blind places, like the notes which will not strike on a sick piano." The biographers tell us that he had no ear for music and could not distinguish one tune from another; did not care for pictures nor for garden flowers; could see nothing in Dante's poetry nor in Shelley's, nor in Hawthorne's romances, nor in the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen. Edgar Poe was to him "the jingle man." Poe, of course, had no "message."

I read, a number of years ago, some impressions of Concord by Roger Riordan, the poet and art critic. I cannot now put my hand, for purposes of quotation, upon the title of the periodical in which these appeared; but I remember that the writer was greatly amused, as well as somewhat provoked, by his inability to get any of the philosophers with whom he sought interviews to take an aesthetic view of any poem, or painting, or other art product. They would talk of its "message" or its "ethical content"; but as to questions of technique or beauty, they gently put them one side as unworthy to engage the attention of earnest souls.

At the symposium which I have mentioned in Emerson's library, was present a young philosopher who had had the advantage of reading—perhaps in proof sheets—a book about Shakespeare by Mr. Denton J. Snider. He was questioned by some of the guests as to the character of the work, but modestly declined to essay a description of it in the presence of such eminent persons; venturing only to say that it "gave the ethical view of Shakespeare," information which was received by the company with silent but manifest approval.

Yet, after all, what does it matter whether Emerson was singly any one of those things which Matthew Arnold says he was not—great poet, great writer, great philosophical thinker? These are matters of classification and definition. We know well enough the rare combination of qualities which made him our Emerson. Let us leave it there. Even as a formal verse-writer, when he does emerge from his cloud of encumbrances, it is in some supernal phrase such as only the great poets have the secret of:

Music pours on mortals its beautiful disdain;


Have I a lover who is noble and free? I would he were nobler than to love me.


In this year many fames have come of age; among them, Lowell's and Walt Whitman's. As we read their centenary tributes, we are reminded that Lowell never accepted Whitman, who was piqued by the fact and referred to it a number of times in the conversations reported by the Boswellian Traubel. Whitmanites explain this want of appreciation as owing to Lowell's conventional literary standards.

Now convention is one of the things that distinguish man from the inferior animals. Language is a convention, law is a convention; and so are the church and the state, morals, manners, clothing—teste "Sartor Resartus." Shame is a convention: it is human. The animals are without shame, and so is Whitman. His "Children of Adam" are the children of our common father before he had tasted the forbidden fruit and discovered that he was naked.

Poetry, too, has its conventions, among them, metre, rhythm, and rhyme, the choice of certain words, phrases, images, and topics, and the rejection of certain others. Lowell was conservative by nature and thoroughly steeped in the tradition of letters. Perhaps he was too tightly bound by these fetters of convention to relish their sudden loosening. I wonder what he would have thought of his kinswoman Amy's free verses if he had lived to read them.

If a large, good-natured, clean, healthy animal could write poetry, it would write much such poetry as the "Leaves of Grass." It would tell how good it is to lie and bask in the warm sun; to stand in cool, flowing water, to be naked in the fresh air; to troop with friendly companions and embrace one's mate. "Leaves of Grass" is the poetry of pure sensation, and mainly, though not wholly, of physical sensation. In a famous passage the poet says that he wants to go away and live with the animals. Not one of them is respectable or sorry or conscientious or worried about its sins.

But his poetry, though animal to a degree, is not unhuman. We do not know enough about the psychology of the animals to be sure whether, or not, they have any sense of the world as a whole. Does an elephant or an eagle perhaps, viewing some immense landscape, catch any glimpse of the universe, as an object of contemplation, apart from the satisfaction of his own sensual needs? Probably not. But Whitman, as has been said a hundred times, was "cosmic." He had an unequalled sense of the bigness of creation and of "these States." He owned a panoramic eye and a large passive imagination, and did well to loaf and let the tides of sensation flow over his soul, drawing out what music was in him without much care for arrangement or selection.

I once heard an admirer of Walt challenged to name a single masterpiece of his production. Where was his perfect poem, his gem of flawless workmanship? He answered, in effect, that he didn't make masterpieces. His poetry was diffused, like the grass blades that symbolized for him our democratic masses.

Of course, the man in the street thinks that Walt Whitman's stuff is not poetry at all, but just bad prose. He acknowledges that there are splendid lines, phrases, and whole passages. There is that one beginning, "I open my scuttle at night," and that glorious apostrophe to the summer night, "Night of south winds, night of the large, few stars." But, as a whole, his work is tiresome and without art. It is alive, to be sure, but so is protoplasm. Life is the first thing and form is secondary; yet form, too, is important. The musician, too lazy or too impatient to master his instrument, breaks it, and seizes a megaphone. Shall we call that originality or failure?

It is also a commonplace that the democratic masses of America have never accepted Walt Whitman as their spokesman. They do not read him, do not understand or care for him. They like Longfellow, Whittier, and James Whitcomb Riley, poets of sentiment and domestic life, truly poets of the people. No man can be a spokesman for America who lacks a sense of humor, and Whitman was utterly devoid of it, took himself most seriously, posed as a prophet. I do not say that humor is a desirable quality. The thesis may even be maintained that it is a disease of the mind, a false way of looking at things. Many great poets have been without it—Milton for example. Shelley used to speak of "the withering and perverting power of comedy." But Shelley was slightly mad. At all events, our really democratic writers have been such as Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley. I do not know what Mark Twain thought of Walt, but I know what Riley thought of him. He thought him a grand humbug. Certainly if he had had any sense of humor he would not have peppered his poems so naively with foreign words, calling out "Camerado!" ever and anon, and speaking of a perfectly good American sidewalk as a "trottoir" quasi Lutetia Parisii. And if he had not had a streak of humbug in him, he would hardly have written anonymous puffs of his own poetry.

But I am far from thinking Walt Whitman a humbug. He was a man of genius whose work had a very solid core of genuine meaning. It is good to read him in spots—he is so big and friendly and wholesome; he feels so good, like a man who has just had a cold bath and tingles with the joy of existence.

Whitman was no humbug, but there is surely some humbug about the Whitman culte. The Whitmanites deify him. They speak of him constantly as a seer, a man of exalted intellect. I do not believe that he was a great thinker, but only a great feeler. Was he the great poet of America, or even a great poet at all? A great poet includes a great artist, and "Leaves of Grass," as has been pointed out times without number, is the raw material of poetry rather than the finished product.

A friend of mine once wrote an article about Whitman, favorable on the whole, but with qualifications. He got back a copy of it through the mail, with the word "Jackass!" pencilled on the margin by some outraged Whitmaniac. I know what has been said and written in praise of old Walt by critics of high authority, and I go along with them a part of the way, but only a part. And I do not stand in terror of any critics, however authoritative; remembering how even the great Goethe was taken in by Macpherson's "Ossian." A very interesting paper might be written on what illustrious authors have said of each other: what Carlyle said of Newman, for instance; or what Walter Scott said of Joanna Baillie and the like.



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