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The great ‘ennobler’

May 23, 2003

The great ‘ennobler’

By Richard Higgins

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief in the ”infinitude” of the soul had an ”ennobling influence” on many people, as William James once observed.

James’s novelist brother, Henry, however, was not one of them. He depicted Emerson as a bloodless preacher whose ”eyes were thickly bandaged” to evil and who could not appreciate fine art nor fiction. ”There were certain chords in Emerson that did not vibrate at all,” he wrote in 1887. In fact, ”certain chords were wholly absent.”

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Remembering The Emerson Who Sought God

 

Remembering The Emerson Who Sought God

 by Richard Higgins

I

t is hard to overcome strong first impressions. This helps explain why, when it comes to religion, Ralph Waldo Emerson is often seen as a borderline atheist, a pantheist, a mystic who waltzed in the spiritual ether or, as Harold Bloom has argued, an American gnostic. The first view is just wrong, and the rest can be pressed only on flimsy, evanescent evidence. The bicentennial of Emerson’s birth offers an opportunity to consider why they miss the mark and to look at the religious legacy of the man John Dewey called America’s Plato.

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Emerson at 200

Cover Story

March/April 2003

Emerson at 200

Emerson’s Mirror What do we see in the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "the most recognized and revered figure in the Unitarian movement"? His two-hundredth birthday makes this a good time to ask.

by Richard Higgins

One of the most famous public speakers of his day, Ralph Waldo Emerson drew all sorts of listeners. A scrubwoman who went to his lyceum lectures is reported to have said that she didn’t really understand him, "but I like to go and see him stand up there and look as though he thought everyone else is as good as he is." A version of this story appears in most Emerson biographies. Sometimes it is a workman or farmer who braves a snowstorm to hear Emerson talk and explains his devotion by saying, "We don’t know what he said, but we’re sure he’s giving us the best there is." As Wesley Mott, the founder and president of the Emerson Society, puts it: "People went away tremendously uplifted — and had no idea what they just heard."

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Illuminating Emerson’s spiritual development

July 2, 2003

BOOK REVIEW
Illuminating Emerson’s spiritual development

The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings

by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edited by David M. Robinson

Beacon, 288 pp., $25

By Richard Higgins
Globe Correspondent

Even now, as we mark the 200th anniversary of his birth, people still believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry in 1832. He resigned the pastorate of the Second Church of Boston, yes, but as Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and others have noted, he took the pulpit with him and carted it around for 40 years. Emerson could no more have stopped being a minister than he could have stopped being Emerson.

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Getting to the Root of Bush

Getting to the Root of Bush: Nickname,
Metaphor and the Biblical “George Bush”

Reading and researching Emerson in preparation for the recent bicentennial filled many gaps, corrected mistakes and clarified at least some of the haze in my knowledge of this great American. But one puzzle that remained unsolved was how Bush, the Emerson House, got is name.

The consensus of the scholars and Emerson family members I asked was that it was either picked up from the Coolidges, which built the place, or that it was a sort eccentric family nickname, somewhat like Emerson referring to Lidia as “Queenie,’’ the origins of which (Bush, not Queenie, that is) were shrouded in mystery.