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pg 39New England, Lecture III: "New England:Genius, Manners, and Customs"28 January 1843(1843–1844)——————————————————————————————

Emerson first delivered this lecture as "Manners and Customs of New England" on 28 January 1843 as the third of five lectures in a New England series at the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia, for which he received no more than $100 (Letters, 3: 139). He repeated this lecture as "New England: Genius, Manners, and Customs" on 17 February 1843 as the third of five lectures in a New England series at the New York Society Library in New York City. After expenses in New York, he was able to clear $9 per lecture (Letters, 3:150). Emerson received a favorable summary of his delivery before the New York Society Library in two full columns in the New-York Daily Tribune ("Mr. Emerson's Third Lecture," 18 February 1843, 2).

"New England: Genius, Manners, and Customs" was the most popular of the five lectures associated with the New England series, and on several occasions Emerson delivered it under various titles as a lecture independent of the series. He delivered this lecture as "The Genius, Manners and Character of the New England People" on 23 February 1843 before the Hamilton Society in South Brooklyn, New York, for which he received $10 (Letters, 3:150n); as "New England Character" on either 15 November 1843 or 4 January 1844 before the Concord Lyceum in Concord, Massachusetts (see Emerson and Thoreau Speak, 158); as "The Characteristics of New England" on 5 December 1843 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, for which he received $15; as "New England" on 6 December 1843 before the Franklin Lyceum in Providence, Rhode Island, for which he received $25; under an unknown title on 8 December 1843 before the Newburyport Lyceum in Newburyport, Rhode Island, for which he received $15; as "The New England Man" on 10 January 1844 before the Salem Lyceum in Salem, Massachusetts, for which he received $20; and as "New England Character" on 16 April 1844 before the Billerica Lyceum in Billerica, Massachusetts, for which he received $8 (except as noted, lecture fees are from the "Account Books"; for Emerson's lecture before the Billerica Lyceum, see Joel Myerson, "The Dating of Emerson's Lecture at Billerica in 1844," in Studies in English and American Literature: A Supplement to American Notes and Queries, ed. John L. Cutler and Lawrence S. Thompson [Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1978], 246; for additional details on all of these deliveries of "New England: Genius, Manners, and Customs" as a lecture independent of the New England series, see Simmons, "Emerson's 1843–1844 New England Lectures").

For the reasons given in the headnote to Emerson's New England series (see above), pg 40the title used for this lecture in this edition is taken from the title under which the lecture was advertised when Emerson delivered it on 17 February 1843 at the New York Society Library. The text of this lecture has never been published under any of the titles associated with it.

In my last lecture, I attempted to sketch some of the historical manifestations of the spirit of commerce which so strongly characterizes the English race in both hemispheres, and I enumerated the good results with their limitations which have flowed therefrom in New England. In the present lecture, I proceed to add some details that may still farther fill up the portrait of this race. Many of my remarks are of a miscellaneous character. I am not careful that they are not. A principal object with me is to name, (in any order), if I can, the chief facts in the recent literary and spiritual history of New England, believing that if we can rightly select those, we write the history of history: for it is to these that the mere recorder of facts must come at last. Neither is it to me of any importance to confine my sketches to a geographical section, for I am well aware that as soon as we say anything deep and true, it keeps no territorial limits. The heart is the citizen of every country, and so is strength of character. National characteristics, as soon as a man is well awake, give way to individual ones: as physicians say that fever in every new constitution is a new malady.

The national traits which have for ages distinguished the English race are for the most part very obvious in the New England character, only qualified by the new circumstances of a wide land, a sparse population, and a democratic government. The traits of the Englishman are found throughout America, so that to foreign nations it very naturally appears only an extension of the same people. In New England, where the population is most homogeneous and most English, they are very purely preserved, so as to give rise to the remark, that the Yankee is double distilled English. The British family is expanded, but not altered. The national traits are the same for centuries. We see at this moment only the demonstration of the thoughts which were already ripe in the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the Religious War drove the Puritans to America. The two main points by which the English nation was then distinguished, the two points by which they attached themselves to the heavens and the earth, to the mind and to matter, namely, Conscience and Common Sense, or, in view of their objects, the love of Religion and the love of Commerce,—Religion and Trade,—are still the two hands by which they hold the dominion of the globe.

I have elsewhere had occasion to speak at length of these two topics, the Religion and the Trade of New England; I shall not engage in their development this evening. My aim is to attempt some sketches of some remarkable particulars in the character and tendencies of the New England Man.

pg 41He is the old England man in a new place and new duties; and it is very easy to see the influence of his geographical position as a native of the seashore, and of a high latitude, in the modification of his character, distinguishing him not only from the European, but also from his fellow citizen of the interior and of the southern states.

A person of strong understanding, working to surround himself with defences against an extreme climate and a niggard soil, and gaining his victories over nature by successive expedients, as, by clothing, by warm building, by stove and furnace, and improved husbandry, his behaviour does not bely him. The Indian who puts out his fire, and hunts, eats, and sleeps in the snow; or the emigrant who quits a northern parallel and takes up his abode in a warmer clime,—these may be said each at a single stroke to relieve themselves of the long war with the elements, which the northern white man sustains. He, on the other hand, contests the field by inches, and his mind acquires the habit of detail, and his strength is that of caution, of forecast, of arithmetic, which accomplishes wonders, at last, by means of aggregation; builds a city, for example,—a noble and dazzling result, by a continual repetition of very easy acts. But the Indian who flings himself into the snow, or the Southerner who resigns himself to the grand influences of nature with boundless leisure to enjoy them, becomes more easily the home of great and generous sentiments. He is not accustomed to check his charitable or his romantic purpose by too narrow a computation of the methods, and he is a much more natural, graceful, and heroic actor, inasmuch as he is more impulsive. This contrast of character is exhibited very strongly every day wherever the Northerner and Southerner meet; not only in results—tabulated results of trade, manufactures, of civil and criminal legislation,—but especially where the races face each other, as in the northern colleges, where young men from different sections often meet; and, most of all, in the city of Washington, where they face each other full-grown, and these contrasts are seen in full breadth. The Southerner lives for the moment, relies on himself, and conquers by personal address. He is wholly there in that thing which is now to be done. The Northerner lives for the year, and does not rely on himself, but on the whole apparatus of means he is wont to employ, and is only half-present when he comes in person: he has a great reserved force which is coming up. The result corresponds. The Southerner is haughty, wilful, generous, unscrupulous,—who will have his way, and has it. The Northerner must think the thing over, and his conscience and his commonsense throw a thousand obstacles between him and his wishes, which perplex his decision and unsettle his behaviour. The Northerner always has the advantage of the Southerner at the end of ten years; and the Southerner always has the advantage today.

I am far from wishing to exaggerate the peculiarities of districts of the country; the grand principles of probity and of beauty are far deeper in man than that a line or two of latitude or a difference of employment will make any impor-pg 42tant change. They underlie the differences of habit I have spoken of, and the great ideas of modern times are equally honoured with slight differences of costume throughout the Republic.

The traits which I prefer to consider are those moral agents which have been of importance in the history of our people as restraints on the spirit of economy and commerce, which their position generated. The flagrant feature in our history down to a quite recent period, was its religious character, as indeed the planting of New England was the work of the most religious nation in their most religious epoch.

Beside the direct culture of the conscience and the general probity which this hereditary religious sentiment generates, I trace to this strong Calvinism other great and salutary results to the character of the New England people. First, namely, the culture of the intellect, which has always been found in the Calvinistic Church. The religious are always disposed to give to their children a more liberal discipline of books, of schools, and of liberal conversation, a fact borne out by all history—but especially by the history of New England. The Colony was planted in 1620: In 1638, Harvard College was founded.

The General Court of Massachusetts in 1647, "To the end that learning may not perish in the graves of our forefathers, Ordered; that every township after the Lord had increased them to the number of fifty householders shall appoint one to teach all children to write and read; and where any town shall increase to the number of one hundred families, they shall set up a grammar school, the masters thereof being able to instruct youth so far as they may be fitted for the university." Many and rich are the fruits of that simple statute. The universality of an elementary education in New England is her praise and her power in the whole world.

To the school succeeds the village Lyceum, now very general throughout the country towns, where every week through the winter lectures are read and debates sustained which prove a college for the young farmer. Hence, it happens that young farmers and mechanics who work all summer in the field or shop, in the winter often go into a neighbouring town to teach the district school arithmetic and grammar. As you know, New England supplies annually a large detachment of preachers, and schoolmasters, and private tutors to the interior of the South and West. Great numbers less critically instructed, yet still with some smattering of letters, are employed by the Connecticut bookdealers as book agents to travel in the interior and vend their editions. And it sometimes happens that a poor man's son in Connecticut, whose intellect is superior, who would fain go to college, but has not money, escapes from hard labour for which his finer organization unfits him, finds someone to trust him with wares, and goes as a pedlar into Virginia and Carolina that so he may, at a small expense, see the world, pg 43converse with men, and by intercourse with more polished persons than his native village can exhibit, supply the defects of his limited and humble training. One of the most intellectual men I have ever seen had his training so.1

It is a remark frequently made by those who are conversant with New England that such is the high value universally attached to a superior education, that no political or religious prejudices are suffered to stand in its way. If the Catholics have a good school, or if the Unitarians have a good college, the most devoted adherents of other and conflicting sects will send their daughters or sons to these seminaries. It only needs a confidence that a superior culture is really to be had there, to bring as many pupils as are desired.

This is precisely the most agreeable picture which the Northern portion of the country has to show, the universality of a good elementary culture. If you ask me for the best result in this region, compared with the best advantages of other nations, I shall point you to a very common but always affecting spectacle,—the poor but educated family. Who can see unmoved the eager blushing boys discharging, as they can, their household chores, and hastening into the sitting-room to the study of tomorrow's merciless lesson: yet stealing time to read a novel hardly smuggled into the tolerance of father and mother: atoning for the same by some pages of Plutarch or Goldsmith; the warm sympathy with which they kindle each other in schoolyard or in barn and wood-shed.

If in New England the climate and the commerce powerfully tended to generate that spirit of detail which is not grand and enlarging, but which goes rather to pinch the features and degrade the character, the religious spirit, always enlarging, firing man, prompting the pursuit of the vast, the beautiful, the unattainable, was especially necessary as an antidote. In the midst of our laborious, and economical, and rude, and awkward population, where is little elegance and no facility, with great accuracy in details, little spirit of society, or knowledge of the world, you shall yet not unfrequently meet that refinement which no education and no habit of society can confer, which makes the elegance of wealth look stupid, and which unites itself by natural affinity to the highest minds of the world, and nourishes itself on Plato and Dante, Michel Angelo and Milton; on whatever is pure and sublime in art, and I may say, which gave a hospitality in that country to the spirit of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and now to the music of Beethoven, before yet their genius had found a hearty welcome in Great Britain.

I pass now to a topic not remotely related to the last,—to consider, namely, the taste for eloquence, native to every people, and in which every man is a competitor, but always favoured by the institutions of republics.

The thirst of our people for eloquence is often remarked, and in the cities of pg 44New England it finds every year more opportunities of gratification. Faneuil Hall is one of our best schools. Join the dark and closing groups that gather in the old house when fate hangs on the vote of the morrow. As the crowd grows and the hall fills, behold that solid block of life,—few old men, mostly young and middle aged, with shining heads and swollen veins. Much of the speaking shall no doubt be slovenly and tiresome. Then, the excited multitude predominates, is all the time interlocutor, and the air grows electric, and the multitude appear or disappear according to the success of the speaker. The pinched, wedged, elbowed, sweltering assembly, as soon as the speaker loses their ear, by the tameness of his harangue, feel sorely how ill accommodated they are, forget all politics and patriotism, and attend only to themselves and the coarse outcries which are made all around them. They back, push, resist, and fill the hall with cries of tumult. The speaker stops; the moderator persuades, commands, entreats; the speaker at length gives way. At last, the chosen man rises, the soul of the people, in whose bosom beats audibly the common heart. With his first words he strikes a note which all know. As he catches the light spirit of the occasion, his voice alters, vibrates, pierces the private ear of everyone: the mob quiets itself somehow,—everyone being magnetized, and the house hangs waiting on the lips of one man. Each man whilst he hears, thinks he too can speak, and, in the pauses of the orator, bursts forth the splendid voice of four or five thousand men in full cry,—the grandest sound in nature. If a dull speaker come again, instantly our poor wedges begin to feel their pains, and strive and cry.

New England is faithfully represented in her orators. The person most dear to the Yankees, of course, must be a person of very commanding understanding with every talent for its adequate expression. 'The American,' foreigners say, 'always reasons,' and their orator is the most American of the Americans. He should be a man of great good sense, always pertinent to time and place, with an eye to the simple facts of nature, the hour of the day, the neighborhood of the mountains or the sea, yet with sparing notice of these things, whilst he clings closely to the business-part of his speech; a man of gravity who trusts to his plain strength of statement for the attention of his assembly; a man of great fairness in debate, and who deserves his success by always carrying his points from his adversary by really taking higher ground than he: "I do not inflame, I do not exaggerate, I avoid all incendiary allusion."2 He is one who is not at all magnetic, but the strongest intellect applied to business—intellect applied to affairs; the greatest of lawyers, and one who should rather carry points with the bench than with the jury or the caucus, and, therefore, carries points with a New England caucus. He shall have no puerilities, no tricks, no academical play in any of his speeches, but as it was pg 45said of the orations of Demosthenes that they were soldiers, so the speeches of the Yankee orator should all be men of business.3 No following shall this man have, no troop of friends except those whose intellect he fires. No sweaty mob will carry him on their shoulders. And, yet, all New England to the remotest farmhouse or lumberer's camp in the woods of Maine delights to tell and hear anecdotes of his forensic power.

But a new field for eloquence has been opened in the Lyceum, an institution not a quarter of a century old, yet singularly agreeable to the taste and habits of the New England people, and extending every year to the south and west. It is of so recent origin, that, although it is beginning already like the invention of railways, to make a new profession, we have most of us seen all the steps of its progress. In New England it had its origin in as marked a manner as such things admit of being marked, from the genius of one distinguished person, who, after his connexion with the University, read public courses of literary lectures in Boston. And as this was an epoch of much note in the recent literary history of all that portion of the country, I shall ask leave to pause a little on the recollection. That individual has passed long since into new employments, so that the influence he then exerted and which was a capital fact in the literary annals of the country, now fairly belongs to the past; and one of his old scholars will be indulged in recalling an image so pleasing.4

There was an influence on the young people from the genius of this eminent scholar which was almost comparable to that of Pericles in Athens.5 He had an inspiration which did not go beyond his head, but which made him the master of elegance. If any of my audience were at that period in Boston or Cambridge, they will easily remember, his radiant beauty of person, of a classic style; his heavy, large eye; marble lids, which gave the impression of mass which the slightness of his form needed; sculptured lips; a voice of such rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance, that, although slightly nasal, it was the most mellow, and beautiful, and correct of all the instruments of the time. The word that he spoke, in the manner in which he spoke it, became current and classical in New England.

He had in common with other distinguished members of his family, a great talent for collecting facts, and for bringing those he had to bear with ingenious felicity on the topic of the moment. Let him rise to speak on what occasion soever, a fact had always just transpired which composed with some other fact well known to the audience the most pregnant and happy coincidence. It was remarked that for a man who threw out so many facts, he was seldom convicted of a blunder.

pg 46He had a good deal of special learning, and all his learning was available for purposes of the hour. It was all new learning, that wonderfully took and stimulated the young men. It was so coldly and weightily communicated from so commanding a platform,—as if in the consciousness and consideration of all history and all learning,—adorned with so many simple and austere beauties of expression, and enriched with so many excellent digressions and significant quotations, that, though nothing could be conceived beforehand less attractive or, indeed, less fit for green boys from Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, with their unripe Latin and Greek reading, than exegetical discourses in the style of Hug, and Wolf, and Ruhnken on the Orphic and Ante-Homeric remains, yet this learning instantly took the highest place to our imagination in our unoccupied American Parnassus.6 All his auditors felt the extreme beauty and dignity of the manner, and even the coarsest were contented to go punctually to listen for the manner, when they had found out that the subject matter was not for them. In the lecture room, he abstained from all ornament and pleased himself with the play of detailing erudition in a style of perfect simplicity. In the pulpit, for he was then a clergyman, he made amends to himself and his auditor for the self-denial of the professor's chair, and with an infantine simplicity still of manner, he gave the reins to his florid, quaint, and affluent fancy.

Then was exhibited all the richness of a rhetoric which we have never seen rivalled in this country. Wonderful, how memorable were words made which were only pleasing pictures, and covered no new or valid thoughts. He abounded in sentences, in wit, in satire, in splendid allusion, in quotation impossible to forget, in daring imagery, in parable, and even in a sort of defying experiment of his own wit and skill in giving an oracular weight to Hebrew or Rabbinical words, as Selah, Ichabod, Tekel, Mene, Upharsin, and the like—feats which no man could better accomplish, such was his self-command and the security of his manner. All his speech was music, and with such variety and invention, that the ear was never tired. Especially beautiful were his poetic quotations. He delighted in Milton, more rarely in Byron, and sometimes in a verse from Watts, and with such sweet modulation, that he seemed to give as much beauty as he borrowed; and whatever he has quoted will be remembered by any who heard him with inseparable association with his voice and genius.7 This eminently beautiful person was followed from church to church, wherever the fame that he would preach led, by all the most cultivated and intelligent youths with grateful admiration. He had nothing in common with vulgarity and infirmity, but speaking, walking, sitting was pg 47as much aloof and uncommon as a star. The smallest anecdote of his behaviour or conversation was eagerly caught and repeated; and every young scholar could recite brilliant sentences from his sermons with mimicry good or bad of his voice. This influence went much farther; for he who was heard with such throbbing hearts and sparkling eyes, in the lighted and crowded churches, did not let go his hearer when the church was dismissed; but the bright image of that eloquent form followed the boy home to his bed chamber; and not a sentence was written in academic exercises, not a declamation attempted in the college chapel, but showed omnipresence of his genius to youthful heads. He thus raised the standard of writing and speaking in New England. This made every youth his defender, and boys filled their mouths with arguments to prove that the orator had a heart.

This was a triumph of Rhetoric. It was not the intellectual or the moral principles which he had to teach. It was not thoughts. When Massachusetts was full of his fame, it was not contended that he had thrown any truths into circulation. But his power lay in the magic of form; it was in the graces of manner, in a new perception of Grecian Beauty to which he had opened our eyes. And it was commonly said that he would be willing that every hearer should have a copy of his speech in his pocket: he would still be just as secure of their attention.

There was that finish about this person which is about women, and which distinguishes every piece of genius from the works of talent: that these last are more or less matured in every degree of completeness according to the time bestowed on them, but works of genius in their first and slightest form are still wholes. In every public discourse, there was nothing left for the indulgence of his hearer, no marks of late hours and anxious unfinished study, but the goddess of grace had breathed on the work a last fragrancy and glitter.

By a series of lectures largely and fashionably attended for two winters in Boston, this individual made a beginning of popular literary and miscellaneous lectures which in that region, at least, had important results. It is acquiring greater importance every day and becoming a national institution.

But a field for eloquence higher and deeper seems to me already opened in the Lyceum, an institution now in its infancy, yet growing every year into use and favor in the Atlantic cities, as our present meeting bears witness. It answers the purpose of a social meeting for both sexes in a very convenient manner, involving no expense, and no dissipation, and especially of giving an evening occupation to young men in the counting house, and so supplants the theatre and the ballroom. It gives an hour's discourse on some topic not far from the ordinary range, and by continually introducing new speakers, furnishes new topics to conversation with new means of comparison, every week. But these are the beginnings of its use. I set a higher value on it than amusement or the statement of pg 48valuable facts. I look upon it as a vent for new and higher communications than any to which we have been wont to listen. I see with pleasure that the first men in the country are put under contribution by this institution, for services which they cheerfully render, led, as I believe, by an instinct of its importance.

For this is precisely the most elastic and capacious theatre of eloquence,—absolutely unrestricted. Is it not plain that not in senates and courts, which only treat of a very narrow range of external rights, but in the depths of philosophy and poetry, the eloquence must be found that can agitate, convict, inspire, and possess us and guide men to a true peace? I look on the Lecture Room as the true Church of the coming time, and as the home of a richer eloquence than Faneuil Hall or the Capitol ever knew. For here is all that the true orator will ask, namely, a convertible audience,—an audience coming up to the house, not knowing what shall befall them there, but uncommitted and willing victims to reason and love. There is no topic that may not be treated, and no method excluded. Here, everything is admissible, philosophy, ethics, divinity, criticism, poetry, humor, anecdote, mimicry,—ventriloquism almost,—all the breadth and versatility of the most liberal conversation, and of the highest, lowest, personal, and local topics—all are permitted, and all may be combined in one speech. It is a panharmonicon combining every note on the longest gamut, from the explosion of cannon to the tinkle of a guitar.

It deserves the attention of such as have any truth to offer to men and will soon draw the best powers of the country to its aid. Let us, if we have any thought in our mind, try if Folly, Custom, Convention, and Phlegm cannot hear our sharp artillery. Here is a pulpit that makes the other chairs of instruction cold and ineffectual with their customary preparation for a delivery: the most decorous with fine things, pretty things, wise things, but no arrows, no axes, no nectar, no transpiercing, no loving, no enchantment. Here, the American orator shall find the theatre he needs; here, he may lay himself out utterly large, prodigal, enormous, on the subject of the hour. Here, he may dare to hope for the higher inspiration and a total transfusion of himself into the minds of men.

I please myself with the thought that this may yet be an organ of unparalleled power for the elevation of sentiment and enlargement of knowledge. Why should it not be capable of all the range whereof music is capable, and, as other nations have each their favorite instrument, as Spain her guitar, and Scotland her pibroch, and Italy a viol, and as we go eastward, cymbals and song, let the reasoning, fact loving, and moral American, not by nature a musician, yet with a hunger for eloquence, find his national music in halls opened for discourse and debate, the one leading to the other? Will you let me say that I think the country will so give hospitality and hearing to its men of thought; and, as in former periods, the poet travelled as a harper from town to town, and from castle to pg 49castle, the bearer of thought and exhilaration, so now, in a manner fitting the habit of our institutions, the man of ideas and lover of beauty shall find a ready ear from his countrymen for those secrets which in the solitudes of nature the muse whispered in his walks? The lover of men shall find his office foreshown by the master of English song:

  • Before the starry threshold of Jove's Court
  • My mansion is, where those immortal shapes
  • Of bright aerial spirits live insphered
  • In regions mild of calm and serene air,
  • Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot
  • Which men call Earth, and with low thoughted care
  • Confined and pestered in this pinfold here
  • Strive to keep up a frail and feverish being,
  • Unmindful of the crown that virtue gives,
  • After this mortal change, to her true servants
  • Amongst the enthroned gods on sainted seats.
  • Yet some there be, that by due steps aspire
  • To lay their just hands on the golden key
  • That opes the palace of eternity;
  • To such my errand is.8

It will use less strict conventions than other assemblies or pulpits,—and invite, perhaps a bolder exercise of thought; for, with all deference to the lovers of precision and method, I think that the best method will always be a new one, new with each speaker, and proper to that which he has to say. There are, as I think, greatly higher merits than easiness of being reported. The great merit is power to excite the slumbering intellect, make it a party to the speaker's thought, and by hints and whispers even, if no more can be, from a great interior world, leave it with a renewed assurance that that world exists—and for him.

This institution, as a school of thought and reason, has vast importance as a check on the vices and insanities of the time. I have said that from the planting of New England down to a recent period, this country has been tinged with a religious spirit. But the boundless opportunity of labor and the rewards of labor opened before us have rapidly changed the genius of the people.

There is in the Anglo-Saxon race a great power of labor, and no country exhibits more results of incessant labor than New England. But is it climate, or is it hereditary temperament—the love of labour becomes usually in our people a certain fury, a storm of activity, and a necessity of excitement. Unhappily, the feature of the times seems to be a great sensualism, a headlong devotion to trade pg 50and to the conquest of the continent, and to each man as large a share of the same as he can carve for himself, and an extravagant confidence in our gregarious activity which becomes, whilst successful, a scornful materialism, but with the fatal fault of that habitude, of course, that it has no depth, no reserved force whereon to fall back when a reverse comes.

Our countrymen love intoxication of some sort. There is no repose in their character. All foreigners and we ourselves observe the sort of hunger, the voracity for excitement, which haunts us. Is it for food? Is it for news? Is it for money? Is it for stimulation in any form? One is drunk with rum, and one with politics, and one with barter, and one with impossible projects. Our trade is wild and incalculable. Our people are wide travellers; our steamboats explode; our ships are known at sea by the quantity of canvass they carry; our people eat fast; our houses tumble; our enterprizes are rash; our legislation fluctuating. The cases of insanity in this country are said greatly to outnumber the patients in Europe. The last President could not stand the excitement of seventeen millions of people, but died of the presidency in one month.9 A man should have a heart and a trunk vascular and on the scale of the Croton Aqueducts or the Cloaca Maxima at Rome to bear the friction of such a Mississippi stream.10

We want steadiness and repose. We are too rash and sanguine to the verge of insanity. We are all resting our confidence on new arts which have been invented: on new machinery, on steam, on the glimpses of mechanical power to be derived from electricity or galvanism; on photogenic drawing, on india-rubber clothing, on lamps that shine without shadow, on stoves that burn without fuel; on clocks to be wound by the tide; on iron boats; and cast steel tools; on steam batteries, life-preservers, and diving bells.

This fury is heated by the peculiar skill and genius of the time. The great achievements that distinguish this age are its mechanical inventions. It is the age of tools. Now, the standing topic in all stage coaches and railroad cars, is the improved means of conveyance; and continual impatience is expressed at the slow rate of travelling; twenty five miles the hour is mere creeping; the travelling public will not long submit to such baggage-wagon pace, and wonderful are the plans of the projectors which fill the columns of the daily press.

The men and women shall be galvanically conveyed, or may be put in large quills and propelled across the Atlantic by the pressure of the atmosphere; or dressed in diving-suits manufactured (No. 6 Tremont Street, Boston) by the pg 51Roxbury Company, and conveyed by submarine siphons, and come up near Liverpool in fountains spouting men and women; or a tunnel may run under the sea, and they may go dry-shod. In order to avoid the danger of submarine volcanoes, strenuous measures are to be adopted by the countries abutting on the two ends of the canal. It is disgraceful that every few years an earthquake should be allowed from mere want of proper ventilation to swallow a town like a custard. It only needs timely and vigorous attention from the Congress of Nations. Every boy can take out the pulp and seeds of a pumpkin and make a useful lanthorn of the same. The earth should be properly bored with an artesian well of five hundred miles diameter at the mouth and running down to the depth of three thousand, then by means of steam excavator, the mephitic gases and whatever combustibles, should be brought to the surface and sold to the gas company. And a wholesome and agreeable circulation of air should be kept up.

It may hereafter be found best, when the structure of the human body is better understood and the science of anatomy is perfect, to take passengers to pieces and transport them in the air or under the sea in parts chemically packed to be put together by the Transportation Company on the other side at the depot, and the greatest care given to keep the packages identical. These marvellous expedients are but a specimen or symbol. In like manner, a certain hurry and impatience leads our people to short ways in every department of life: in short ways to science, to religion, to literature. The race of scholars, of laborious investigators will come to an end. Our people are insatiable readers of newspapers. What acres of these sheets they run through and spend several months of the year in that pastime. And so in their intellectual and scientific training. The vice of the American is that he is too easily pleased. A curious fact in the last ten or twelve years has been the dedication of this country to the study of phrenology, proved by its modification of the language and introduction into general use of as many words as the use of steam by land and water has added.11 I do not think this is to be wholly attributed to the facility of our people and their deceivability, but partly to the fact that the system, however rudely and coarsely, was a return to a natural instinct; it brought observation to a noble and fit object, to which too much study cannot be given. It betrayed the instinctive belief that under all these dismal masks of men, masks which we wear and which we meet, the form of man was something sacred and beautiful which should yet appear; and it showed the thirst of men for a teaching nearer to their business and bosom than any they enjoyed. Had it confined itself to a reverent accumulation of the facts, it would have been a good hint, but would have had no world's renown; but now with its speedy pg 52ascent by one jump into the chair of science, it has become a symbol of the times. Is it that we have found quicker than others the real poverty at the bottom of all this seeming affluence of life; the headlong speed with which each seeing soul comes straight through all the thin masquerade on the old fact; is it the disgust at this indigence of nature which makes these raging livers drive their steeds so hard, in the fury of living to forget the soup maigre of life?

Phrenology especially seems to have been invented for the American people with its swift and shallow mode of disposing of the sacred secrets of nature: a man shall be a mystery no more; let me put my hand on his forehead and his hindhead; give me a pair of dividers and a foot rule, and nature cannot hide his genius where I cannot find it by inches and seconds; the recesses of human power and probity are laid open to my fingers. Character is as easily read as a placard, and the fortunes of a man are reduced to an arithmetic problem. Genius is an inflammation of the brain and conscience, a secretion of the left lobe of the heart.

Yet phrenology was modest compared with the pretensions of mesmerism.12 The ignorant are always on the watch how to cheat nature, and, if all the stories are true, here seemed a chance to occur. Mankind were no longer to labor to come at their ends, nor to abridge their labor by dexterous physical combinations, nor to overpower physical opposition by moral force, but by a third power, by gentle touching of the knuckles, and by persuasive passes, and by coaxing, beckoning, and ogling of fingers, we could hope to raise the state of man to rare and transcendant degrees. The most stupid and perverse man when awake, once get him fast asleep in his chair, shall become an angel of light, a learned physician, a surpassing astronomer, and a telegraph so subtle and swift that he is the Paul Pry of the universe.13

And this is the way we will outwit the laws of Nature. With unwashed hands, and our whole day's task unattempted before us, we are grasping after new powers like some Aesop's dog snatching at the shadow of our bone.14 We would be magians and somnambulists and see with elbows, and know the architecture in Orion, and tunnel the earth to come into pagodas of Pekin. And on the first hint of such powers being attained, we will enter heaven and enter hell, go to the poles and the antipodes so, and dodge the laws and the Fates, the powers of perseverance, the graces, the virtues, all angels, all heroes, all qualities, all gods, and pierce pg 53to the courts of power and light by this dull trick. The wise gods must needs laugh heartily this once.

That nature should have subtile compensations for infirmity, and morbid actions of natural organs, and even from all this profuse treasure house of power and organization some overflowings of light and vitality into crevices and chinks, is not to be doubted; but for men to choose these exceptions and anomalies instead of the law, and prefer these haloes and meteors to the sun and moon, does not do them much honor. By Lake Winnepesaukee, a man lost his feet and learned to walk on his thumbs, and now all New Hampshire is learning to walk on its thumbs, and it will presently take a great genius to convince men that feet were made to walk with.

What is most noticeable is that men who never wondered at anything, who had thought it the most natural thing in the world that they should exist in this orderly and replenished world, have been unable to suppress their amazement at the disclosures of the somnambulist. The peculiarity of mesmerism is that it drew in as inquirers and students a class of persons never on any other occasion known as students and inquirers. Of course, the inquiry is pursued on low principles. Mesmerism peeps. It becomes a black art. The uses of the thing, the commodity, the power, at once come to mind and direct the course of inquiry. It seemed to open again that door which was open to the fancy of childhood: of magicians, and faeries, and lamps of Aladdin and travelling cloaks that were to satisfy the utmost wish of the senses without danger or one drop of sweat. But as Nature can never be outwitted, as no man was ever known to get a cent's worth without paying in some form or other the cent, so this prodigious promiser ends always, and always will, as sorcery and alchemy have done before, in very small and smoky performance.

It is so wonderful that a man can see without his eyes, that it never occurs to the adept that it is just as wonderful that he should see with them. And that is ever the difference between the wise and the unwise: the latter wonders at what is unusual; the wise man wonders at the usual. Well, these things are only symptomatic of the disease of the people. That repose which is the ornament and the ripeness of man is not in New England, is not in America, but hurry, and partiality, and impatience are in its room.

The whole generation is discontented with the tardy rate of growth which contents every European community. America is, therefore, the country of small adventures, of short plans, of daring risks—not of patience, not of great combinations, not of long, persistent, close-woven schemes demanding the utmost fortitude, temper, faith, and poverty. Our books are fast changing to newspapers; our reformers are slight and wearisome talkers, not man-subduing, immutable—all attracting their own task, and so charming the eye with dread and persuading pg 54without knowing that they do so. We have no Duke Wellingtons, no George Washingtons, no Miltons, Bentleys, or Seldens among our rapid and dashing race, but abundance of Murats, of Rienzis, of Wallers, and that slight race who put their whole stake on the first die they cast.15 The great men bequeath never their projects to their sons to finish. These eat too much pound cake. Wordsworth said,

  • 'Tis the most difficult of tasks to keep
  • Heights which the soul is competent to gain,

and these lines are a sort of elegy on these times, and hardly less in the clerisy or scholastic class than in the practical.16 If we read in the books of one of the great masters of thought, in Plato, in Aristotle, or in the great thinkers of the age of Elizabeth, we are astonished at the vigor and breadth of the performance. Here is no short breath and short flight, but an Atlantic strength which is everywhere equal to itself and dares great attempts because of the life with which it feels itself filled.

See the impatience of our people to rush into the lists without enduring the training. The Americans are too easily pleased and remind us of what was said of the Empire of Russia: that it was a fine fruit spoiled before it had ripened. Our people are too slight and vain. They are easily elated and easily depressed. See how fast they extend the fleeting fabric of their trade, not at all considering the remote reaction and bankruptcy, but with the same abandonment to the moment and the facts of the hour as the Esquimaux when he offers to sell his bed in the morning. An old merchant said to me that he had learned that he could not learn by experience; for, ten times he had been taught by hard times not to extend himself again, yet always a new crisis took him by surprise, and he was as unprepared as ever. They act on the moment and from external impulse. They all lean on some other, and this superstitiously and not from insight of his merit. They follow a fact, they follow success, and not skill. Therefore, as soon as the success stops, fails, and the admirable man blunders, they quit him; already they remember that long ago they suspected his judgment, and they transfer the repute of judgment to the next prosperous person who has not yet blundered. Of course, this levity makes them as easily despond. It seems as if history gave no account of any society in which despondency came so readily to heart as we see it and feel pg 55it in ours. Young men at thirty, and even earlier, lose all spring and vivacity, and if they fail in their first enterprize, throw up the game.

I think we have no worse trait, as far as it is a national one, than this levity, than this idolatry of success, this fear to fail. We shall never have heroes, until we have learned that it is impossible to fail. Of course, this timidity about reputation, this terror of a disaster comes of looking at opinion as the measure of character, instead of seeing that character judges opinion. In the brave West, I rejoice to see symptoms of a more man-like sentiment than this timid asking leave to live of other men. The frank Kentuckian has a way of thinking concerning his reception by his friend that makes him whole: Here I am. If you do not appreciate me, the worse for you. And the great Indian sages had a lesson for the Bramin which every day returns to mind: "All that depends on another gives pain. All that depends on himself gives pleasure. In these few words is the definition of pleasure and of pain."17 We must learn, too, failure is a part of success. Prosperity and pound cake are for very young gentlemen whom such things content: but a hero's, a man's success is made up of failures, because he experiments and ventures every day, and the more falls he gets, moves faster on: defeated all the time, and yet to victory born. I have heard that in horsemanship he is not the good rider who never was thrown, but that, rather, a man never will be a good rider until he is thrown; then, he will not be haunted any longer by the terror that he shall tumble, and will ride,—that is his business, to ride, whether with falls, or whether with none, to ride unto the place whither he is bound.

The noble Phocion, him of whom it has been so truly said, that, "Phocion haranguing the Athenian Demos was as solitary as a ship on the stormy Atlantic," was afraid of applause.18 For a true man feels that he has quite another office than to tickle or flatter. He is here to bite and to stab, to inflict wounds on self-love and easy, prosperous falsehood, which shall not quickly heal. Demosthenes, when the people hissed him for his ragged and untuneable voice, cried out, "You are to judge players, indeed, by their sweet voices, but orators by the gravity and power of their sentences."

It would seem as if history were full of tributes to the unrivalled ascendency of personal qualities. He is the hero who conquers alone.

"In that immense crowd which throngs the avenues to power in the United States, I found very few men who displayed any of that manly candor and that masculine independence of opinion which frequently distinguished the Americans in former times, and which constitute the leading feature in distinguished charac-pg 56ters wherever they may be found. It seems at first sight as if all the minds of the Americans were formed on one model, so accurately do they correspond in their manner of judging.

A stranger does indeed sometimes meet with Americans who dissent from these rigorous formularies; with men who deplore the defects of the laws, the mutability and the ignorance of democracy; who even go so far as to observe the evil tendencies which impair the national character and to point out such remedies as it might be possible to apply: but no one is there to hear these things beside yourself, and you to whom these secret reflections are confided, are a stranger and a bird of passage."19

Is not this tragic in so far as it is true, that this great country, hospitable to all nations, opened for the experiment of new ideas, now in the decrepitude and downfall of the old mythologies of church and state in Asia and Europe,—should be a country of dwarfs; cities and nations of democrats, and never an upright man? That our famous Equality should be a fear of all men; and our famous Liberty should be a servitude to millions; a despicable, skipping expediency; a base availableness, ducking with servile cap to the lowest and worst? I do not wonder that the well-disposed but slow of faith begin to look with wishful eyes to the decorum and police of monarchy, as the poetic and imaginative but drowsy mind is driven by the cold disputation of the Protestant to the stability and veneration of the Roman Church. Some of the most intelligent and virtuous foreigners who have been among us, and those who have surveyed us from afar, have expressed the feeling that the antidote to our excessive spirit of socialism must be found in a class of gentlemen or men of honor,—which, yet, they thought, our institutions did not go to form.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1. This is Amos Bronson Alcott.
Editor’s Note
2. Emerson quotes Daniel Webster (1782–1852), statesman and orator.
Editor’s Note
3. Demosthenes (b. ca. 385–322 b.c.), the most famous of the Greek orators.
Editor’s Note
4. Emerson refers to Edward Everett (see W, 10:330).
Editor’s Note
5. Pericles (ca. 495–429 b.c.), Athenian statesman and orator.
Editor’s Note
6. Johann Leonhard Hug (1765–1846), German biblical scholar; Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824), German philologist; David Ruhnken (1723–98), German classical scholar.
Editor’s Note
7. George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), English Romantic poet; Isaac Watts (1674–1748), English hymnologist.
Editor’s Note
8. John Milton, "Comus," ll. 1–15.
Editor’s Note
9. William Henry Harrison (1773–1841), ninth American president, did die within a month of taking office.
Editor’s Note
10. The Croton Aqueduct (built 1834–42) extended from southeastern New York State into New York City and brought in approximately 70 million gallons of water daily; the Cloaca Maxima was the primary drainage system of ancient Rome.
Editor’s Note
11. Phrenology, a popular pseudo-science that held that a person's character could be "read" by examining the bumps on his or her head. These bumps corresponded to areas of "influence" in the brain.
Editor’s Note
12. Mesmerism is a type of hypnotism.
Editor’s Note
13. Paul Pry is the title character of a play (produced in 1825) by the English dramatist John Poole (ca. 1786–1872); his name came to stand for a troublesome adventurer.
Editor’s Note
14. Aesop, a legendary Greek fabulist of the sixth century b.c. In his fable of the dog and the shadow, a dog crossed a bridge over a stream with a piece of meat in his mouth, saw his own shadow in the water, and thought it another dog with a piece of meat double his own in size. Immediately letting go of his own and fiercely attacking the other dog to get his larger piece from him, he thus lost both, because the dog in the water was a reflection, and his own meat was swept away by the stream.
Editor’s Note
15. Arthur Wellesley, first duke of Wellington (1769–1852), served in Britain's armies for nearly fifty years; Richard Bentley (1664–1742), English cleric and classical scholar; John Selden (1584–1654), English jurist, historian, and author; Joachim Murat (1771–1815), king of Naples and brother-in-law of Napoleon; Cola di Rienzi (ca. 1313–54), Italian popular leader and patriot; William Waller (ca. 1597–1668), English general in the Thirty Years War.
Editor’s Note
16. William Wordsworth, The Excursion, IV, 138–39.
Editor’s Note
17. Attributed to The Laws of Menu (or Manu), Indian commentaries on religious laws and social obligations, compiled between 200 b.c. and a.d. 200 (see TN, 3:269).
Editor’s Note
18. Phocion (ca. 402–317 b.c.), Athenian general and statesman.
Editor’s Note
19. Quoted from Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
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