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It’s a story I never tired of telling, and it happened just last week–well, July 15, 1838 (and, no, I haven’t been telling it for that long). Ralph Waldo Emerson, a rising star in Massachusetts high culture, a young clergyman, a divine divine really, a man blessed with a gift for words, had been asked to speak to the young preachers-in-training at the seminary, the Harvard Divinity School.
He’d been asked because he was all of those things. Besides, he’d given a passionate speech to the Harvard students not that long before, something called “The American Scholar,” that had been wildly loved. What Emerson voiced in that stemwinder was the idea that America should no longer follow the courtly muses of Europe, no longer act as if it were some misbegotten ugly duckling, but rather stand on its own two feet and create its own art and poetry and science and just about everything. That speech lit up the congregation because it was a kind of cultural Declaration of Independence, America thumbing its nose at its storied ancestors, the Brits especially. It was time for an American Shakespeare.
It wasn’t exactly the shot heard round the world, but there was more heavy breathing in the hallowed courts of Harvard College after that performance than there likely had been for quite some time. And, let’s face it, what he’d sung was a chorus that a country loved, performed at a time when this newly sovereign-ed nation was beginning to look west with some seriousness, when the unimaginable riches of the what lay beyond was there for the taking (as long as you simply get rid of those disgusting aboriginals).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was piping a dream, and people sang along with his glorious aria.
“Let’s have that guy back again,” someone at Harvard must have said, so he was asked, he consented, he delivered.
And right about now, in 1838, some few days after the speech, the telephones were ringing off the hook, figuratively speaking. People weren’t just mad, they were livid. They wanted his hide. What he said got him tarred and feather, figuratively, and he wasn’t asked back to Harvard College or the Divinity School for almost forty years.
Poor Waldo didn’t really understand the uproar. After all, he said, he’d told them nothing at all that was any different from what he’d said in his Oscar-winning lecture to the college. He told them to stand on their own two feet, to break ties with tradition, to discover worlds they’d never dreamed of, to become something well, omnipotent.
At the Divinity School, he’d said Jesus Christ was divine, maybe the only divine soul in the history of man, but so could each of them be divine. They could all be replica Christs if they’d only discover the divine in themselves. He told them to forget the importance of scriptures and to create their own sacred writings by getting themselves in tune with the harmonic convergence then imminently available throughout Boston or anywhere else for that matter.
Something about that proclamation, to the profs at the seminary, was way over the line.
What mattered is that each of them touch that universal sort of thing that all of them have but few of them believe. You know–that thing that’s in all of us, whatever that is. This sort of eternal sweet spot that connects all of us, the soul, the soul that inhabits all of humanity, and everything else too, the over-soul–yeah, that’s it, “the oversoul.” You know.
Emerson was “new age” long before anyone had stuck those two words together. But his odd religion, something that came to be called “transcendentalism,” won the day among the intellectual elite even if it left its religious authorities boiling mad. Transcendentalism left its traces in just about every important writer of America’s own Romantic Era–Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson.
It proclaimed a radical optimism that harmonized with the aspiration of a new burgeoning (white) culture in a country that, in 1838, still really had no idea how much territory existed within its borders, how much wealth within its territories.
And it died a miserable death at Fort Sumter. It was hospitalized already with John Brown, when its own advocates determined that such unbridled optimism was, at best, a pipe dream.
It’s all there. You can read it for yourself in “The Divinity School Address.” Take it along on your next picnic and read it for yourself.
It’s a great essay, and an even greater story because Emerson was scribbling out the truth far better than he knew–truth about us, about the human character, about what we could become.
Seems we still do need a Savior.