Ralph Waldo Emerson, known as the Sage of Concord, stands today as one of the greatest influences in all of our American canon, setting the stage, more than any other, for a delineated map of letters in our country. His influence carries far and wide, and extends loudly into our present day, with any writer wishing to scribe his or her name onto our list of the greats, encountering him, or at least his influence, in some form or another.
This reviewer recently read a comprehensive compilation of the essays and poetry of the Sage of Concord and found them ringing with truth and beauty, the likes of which are rarely matched by writers such as Warren and McCarthy, Frost and Thoreau. In addition, he found himself greatly moved, disturbed, and intellectually matured by the great words of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
There is no more original thinker in the history of our America, and few in the world can match him. He speaks about his subjects as if he were familiar with everyone in the world, every thought and every thinker in the world. The power of his reading alone seems to have been unmatched, as he names and places a pantheon of critical thinkers from the time of Socrates on.
Three of his essays, “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar” are all unique in their breadth and depth and almost two hundred years after their authorship, stand now as our literary and aesthetic base and standard for what constitutes greatness in American letters.
One of the most quotable writers of all time, when Emerson said of great thoughts that when we read them they, “come back to us with their own alienated majesty,” he could have easily been referring to his own works, full of beauties like that, shimmering with elegance and descriptive wealth.
Thoreau, his spiritual younger brother, never quite matched up to Emerson where writing was concerned, although his admirable life does seem to have been more in accordance with the Transcendentalist philosophy they shared. When Thoreau built his cabin, where he would spend a couple years of his life, it was on Emerson’s property, and certainly under the influence of the man his pen looked up to.
What Emerson has in common with the modern day is a belief in the unity of man and God, the belief in a personal God, and the ability and wit to go against preconceived notions of church or religion and only to dedicate oneself to what is truly known by the private man. His shocking originality stands as he gives some of the greatest aesthetic surprises in all of American literature.
In his strange theological desires, made familiar by now due mostly to his mammoth influence, he opens up the widest swathes for future writers, wider than any other writer in our history. In terms of charting new ground for the succeeding philosopher or poet, he grants acres and acres of fertile land of the American sublime.
By Matthew C. Brock