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The Reawakening of the American Soul: On the Bicentenary of Emerson's Birth

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The Reawakening of the American Soul  by Richard Geldard

This talk was delivered by Dr. Geldard in Faneuil Hall in Boston as part of the Emerson Bicentennial Celebrations in 2003. Also speaking on that occasion were Jacob Needleman and Robert Thurman. The entire program was recorded by WGBH Webcasts and can be heard on this site by clicking on Resources.


We are met in Emerson's Bicentennial year, here in Faneuil Hall, a famously public and wholly American building, where just three months ago we met to reflect on Emerson and the Examined Life. In this forum, we broaden our concerns to the precincts of the republic, outward to its place in the world and inward to its very soul. And because we are met in anniversary, I shall, in my introductory remarks, locate our concerns in relation to Emerson's milestones.

{mosimage}Emerson was born just one month after President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, effectively doubling the size of the country. As Ralph Waldo took his first steps, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the wilderness and report its wonders to a curious nation. As a new country, America was in its genesis, and its founding vision said more about its wilderness and vast spaces than any ideas or philosophy borrowed from John Locke. The American soul sank its roots deep in that vast wilderness and still possesses the memory of that first awakening. No one who has not experienced our wilderness, our vast horizons, our turbulent waters and skies, can possibly understand who we really are as a nation. When Emerson published Nature in 1836, he announced the American soul, its distinctive character, which he understood to embody the need for physical, intellectual and spiritual freedom, a restless power, and a yearning for transcendence. Emerson announced the primacy of nature and catalogued its deepest laws, firmly renouncing the fear of the wilderness so pervasively a part of his own Puritan ancestry. He rejected the witchcraft of the dark woods surrounding Salem, of a people huddled frightened on the verge of Dark regions of Hell. Emerson felt these forces coursing through his own veins because he could count among his relatives the banished Ann Hutchinson as well as the judge who condemned her. Calvin's guilt-ridden determinism had no place in his American landscape, just as it would not for those visionaries who followed him, explorers of land and spirit like Walt Whitman and John Muir, each indebted to Emerson's vision of transcendent nature. Just listen for a moment to the words that influenced them, as well as thousands of others in subsequent years: this from his essay "Nature".

"At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes.....Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures, and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature."

Through the years of Emerson's prime as a writer and lecturer, he faced the dominant issues of America's moral failures: treatment of the native population, slavery, and imperial ambitions. He argued for the salvation of the Cherokee nation in its efforts to remain in its home in Georgia. He joined the Abolitionists in their efforts to rid the nation of slavery, and he chastised the national leadership for its expansionist policies into Mexican territory. He became, in effect, the conscience of the nation.

By May 25, 1903, for the Centennial of Emerson's birth, when William James gave the keynote address in Concord, America had all but completed its westward expansion. The railroad had seen to it that most of our space was, if not settled, at least traversed. The fast disappearing wilderness led to a growing interest in conservation, resulting in the establishment of nearly fifty national parks over the next ten years. Millions carried their copies of Emerson's essays into these sanctuaries to find a momentary solitude, far from the madding crowds. In my own experience, the spires of Zion National Park became my cathedral and the high country of the Sierra Nevada my parish. It is within these solitudes that the conscience awakens and reflective skills develop to become an integral part of conscious life.

But conservation also meant that our wilderness became partitioned into small museums, sanctuaries to be visited by a few for only brief periods, not open spaces lived and truly experienced. The nation instead closed in and fell in love with industrialization and mass production. The nation's business, as Cal Coolidge said, was business, and Henry Ford's assembly line became the standard, even in education.

Listen to what one Elwood Cubberley, Dean of Stanford's School of Education during the 20s said in a guidebook for administrators: "Our schools are factories in which the raw products, the students, are to be shaped and fashioned according to the specifications laid down." He was serious! It was this kind of thinking that closed the independent one-room school house to build instead the massive unified school districts, or factories, we suffer our children to endure today. That thinking was in opposition to voices like Emerson's who pleaded with those charged with the education of our children to trust the student to discover his or her potential and develop from within.

Years before, in an 1850s speech to teachers in Providence, Emerson pleaded his case, as well as his vision of the inner life, to teachers: "I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and forordained that he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude."

As we saw, neither the nation nor its teachers listened. The efficient factory model won out, to be replaced in the 1970s and 80s with the corporate model, still huge and impersonal but now filled with long-term plans, product (student) testing and now, the latest buzz words: uniform standards of accountability. To study Emerson in this environment is like introducing meditation to workers as they work on the assembly line. By 1982, the Centennial of Emerson's death, the republic had suffered through the debilitating moral failures of Vietnam and Watergate and was searching for some genuine redemption.. That memorial observance for Emerson momentarily reawakened the spirit of his vision. Academic departments of philosophy, literature and history reassessed Emerson's place in American culture, and publishers poured biographies, analyses and fresh editions of his work onto the nation's bookshelves. It is my belief that the remarkable rebirth of interest in Emerson during those years took place as a direct result of the perceived moral crisis in American life, the crisis Jimmy Carter was derided for by when he told us we were in the midst of a spiritual malaise. He was, of course, correct. And now, here in 2003, in the light of 9/11 and the growing crisis in American credibility both here and abroad, Emerson steps forward again, this time to raise pointed questions and perhaps offer a renewed vision. Facing this task, I was drawn again to his famous question from "Experience" and to direct it to the nation as a whole. "Where do we find ourselves?" Only this time, the question turns away from its more psychological underpinnings to broader, more historical, moral and spiritual concerns.

Let's rephrase it for this occasion. Where does this nation find itself now? And, where in the wilderness of our experience, within reach of our own conscious faculties, do we discover the means of renewing the promise we made to ourselves in the founding of our republic? And by extension, how do we awaken the conscience of the republic? The soul of this nation finds its tap root in the human instinct to be free from oppression. The Declaration and the Constitution are instruments of personal and collective liberation from the oppressions of body, mind and spirit experienced and resisted by our forebears. We began with that impulse and with varying devotion have cherished it ever since. What we need to recognize now is the global nature of the principle.

But what we call the soul, as distinct from spirit, is a more personal, discreet human faculty, and it can be withdrawn from the horizon of our lives. The symbol we employ to express that withdrawal is sleep, a falling from awareness, a force missing from the company of faculties we employ to address the world. The question, then, becomes, what can we do to awaken that force, to array it against the new oppressions of the body, mind and spirit which daily confront us? If we fail to awaken this force, we are fated to succumb and be buried in our comforts and entertainments while the republic we have inherited disintegrates before our eyes.

Freedom from oppression has given us, as Americans, our buoyancy of spirit and sense of optimism, that is, until recent events here and abroad. Since then we have experienced a collective despondency, Carter's malaise. On the psychological level, this condition manifests itself as fear. On the psychic level, oppression leads to feelings of emptiness and an absence of self-worth. Philosophically, oppression leads to an abdication of wholesale categories of meaning. Spiritually, it leads to a cynical withdrawal and separation from our ground of being.

Emerson's response to this dilemma was years in the making and appropriately complex. In his lecture on "Fate," he gives us a hint of the ambiguities and pitfalls involved. In response to the question of what measures can be taken to apply a philosophical ideal to the soul of the nation, he said "I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought. Many eager persons successively make an experiment in this way, and make themselves ridiculous.....I confess that I think we can as yet discern no social measures adapted to this end. We are instantly embarrassed when we attempt to apply a reform to societies of men. Societies are not convertible; to the highest ends societies cannot act."

What then are we to do? Emerson's eloquence seldom leaves us despairing of solution. Although he warned against programmatic or manipular solutions, declaring that there was little we could do to solve the times, he did offer sound advice to the would-be reformer. "I speak to the individual heart," he said. "I throw myself on the noble hope that struggles up through obstruction and perplexity in the private soul." We say in response, "Yes, sir, we know this and we try but is there no collective response, nothing to be applied to the community, to an assembly of seekers such as this one?"

It is a question which haunted Emerson as well, and here is his offering for our consideration, beginning with that one private soul.

I seek to show to one man his possible attainment and to bring to his ear the solicitations of a fairer earth and heaven than that he now inhabits --him to possess and use it. In the presence of the assembly, he has the desire, perhaps for the first time, to express himself largely, symmetrically, gigantically, not in fragments and miniatures.....[It is] a universal skill, a taking sovereign possession of the audience.

I see no other solution but Emerson's, that is, a reawakening of conscience in the individual act of remembrance, accomplished in solitude and then applied in community. You will recognize such a reawakening in yourself through a combination of clarity, coherence and moral conviction, which in turn will result in a consistency of thought, feeling and action in the world. That consistency will be the proof you require that the soul has indeed awakened and taken its proper place in the hierarchy.

Richard Geldard is the author of six books, including studies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Greek philosophy and culture. He is also a frequent lecturer. A forthcoming book, A Life Examined: A Personal Journey in Quest of the Ground of Being, will be published in the fall of 2003.

This article is adapted from a talk given at Faneuil Hall in Boston in September at a forum celebrating Emerson's bicentenary with Jacob Needleman and Robert Thurman.

The whole program can be viewed on WGBH Webcast:

 Reawakening the American Soul
September 20, 2003, Faneuil Hall, Boston 

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