“There is no question that the power to throw your sitter into a receptive mood by a pass or two which shall give you his virgin attention is necessary to any artist.”
John Jay Chapman’s literary essays bear relatively little resemblance to what now passes for literary criticism, at least as this is practiced in the academy. And yet we read his critical essays now as if on the morning of their first publication. Nothing about them is dated. Chapman’s essay on Emerson, for example—published first in two installments in the Atlantic Monthly and later collected in Emerson and Other Essays (1898)—answers all the necessities. He is acutely sensitive to the effect, on the reader, of Emerson’s remarkable style. “There is no question,” writes Chapman in a paragraph that might well describe his own writing, “that the power to throw your sitter into a receptive mood by a pass or two which shall give you his virgin attention is necessary to any artist. Nobody has the knack of this more strongly than Emerson in his prose writings. By a phrase or a common remark he creates an ideal atmosphere in which his thought has the directness of great poetry.”
Any good reader will recognize in this account of Emerson her own experience of (say) the following passage from “Experience,” which begins in platitude and ends in provocation: “Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today. Let us treat men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.” Or of this passage from “Fate,” whose queer glamor is by no means distinct from its cruelty: “How shall a man escape from his ancestors, or draw off from his veins the black drop which he drew from his father’s or his mother’s life? It often appears in a family, as if all the qualities of the progenitors were potted in several jars,—some ruling quality in each son or daughter of the house,—and sometimes the unmixed temperament, the rank unmitigated elixir, the family vice, is drawn off in a separate individual, and the others are proportionally relieved.” Chapman lays his finger precisely on the thing that connects the style to the thought, the medium to the message, as the better sort of literary critics do. He puts us in touch not merely with Emerson, but with Emerson thinking. “It is noticeable that in some of Emerson’s important lectures,” Chapman explains, “the logical scheme is more perfect than in his essays. The truth seems to be that in the process of working up and perfecting his writings, in revising and filing his sentences, the logical scheme became more and more obliterated. Another circumstance helped make his style fragmentary. He was by nature a man of inspirations and exalted moods. He was subject to ecstasies during which his mind worked with phenomenal brilliance. Throughout his works and in his diary [i.e., his journals] we find constant reference to these moods, and to his own inability to control or recover them.” Surely Chapman is correct, here, in finding the key to Emerson’s famously saltatory style in this peculiar feature of his temperament. Of course, strong criticism, of which this a fine example, always shows us how style emanates from character—or, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost, from the way a man generally “carries himself” in the world. Chapman is also a first-rate reader of Emerson’s poetry, which fact alone sets him in elect company. (Emerson’s poetry is far too seldom read, save for a few anthology pieces, though now, finally, we have fine edition of the poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Collected Poems and Translations ([Library of America, 1994].) Emerson, Chapman points out, is “never merely conventional, and his poetry, like his prose, is homespun and sound.” He “writes our domestic dialect,” Chapman suggests in a letter composed while he was at work on the essay; all other American writers are “Britannia ware and French kid.” Champman has mind such lines as these, from “Monadnock”:
I can spare the college-bell,
And the learned lecture, well;
Spare the clergy and libraries,
Institutes and dictionaries,
For the hardy English root
Thrives here, unvalued, underfoot.
Rude poets of the tavern hearth,
Squandering your unquoted mirth,
Which keeps the ground, and never soars,
While Jake retorts, and Reuben roars;
Tough and screaming, as birch-bark,
Goes like a bullet to its mark,
While the solid curse and jeer
Never balk the waiting ear.
And yet Emerson’s ear, Chapman points out, “was defective: his rhymes are crude, and his verse is often lame and unmusical, a fault which can be countervailed by nothing but force, and force he lacks.” Chapman continues with a devastating quotation:
To say that his ear was defective is hardly strong enough. Passages are not uncommon which hurt the reader and unfit him to proceed; as, for example:
Thorough a thousand voices
Spoke the universal dame:
“Who telleth one of my meanings
Is master of all I am.”
He himself has very well described the impression his verse is apt to make on a new reader when he says, “Poetry must not freeze, but flow.”
The voice hardly knows what to do with this quatrain. Four three-stress lines were never more uncertainly joined, though we in the General English Department of America—anyway, back in the 1990s, when I first began my work in it full-time—have by now rather lost the habit of attending to such matters as the freeze and flow of a line of verse. But even were his sensibility not so nuanced and receptive as to be “hurt” by a halting meter, and even were he not gifted with an astonishing knack for apt quotation, Chapman’s essay on Emerson still would be indispensable, if only because it so tellingly links both the style and the thought of Emerson to the history of the decades in which he wrote his best work. His is a literary criticism always inflected by a more or less “historical” concern. “Let us remember the world upon which the young Emerson’s eyes opened,” Chapman explains. “The South was a plantation. The North crooked the hinges of the knee where thrift might follow fawning,” he says, borrowing a few perfectly apt phrases from Hamlet (cf. 3.ii of the play, or click on the sentence just highlighted). “This time of humiliation,” Chapman continues, “when there was no free speech, no literature, little manliness, no reality, no simplicity, no accomplishment, was the era of American brag. We flattered the foreigner and we boasted of ourselves. We were over-sensitive, insolent, and cringing.” And “underneath everything lay a feeling of unrest, an instinct—`this country cannot permanently endure half slave and half free’—which was the truth, but which could not be uttered.”
Such was the temper of the nation from about the date of the Missouri Compromise in 1820—or, say, the Nullification Crisis of 1832 that John C. Calhoun fomented—down to 1861, when war came along with its terrific release. In this context Emerson’s mercurial, experimental style was itself a revolution. “Open his works at a hazard,” says Chapman. “You hear a man talking”—a very rare thing in antebellum America, with its well-nigh totalitarian drift, gripped, as it was, by what used to called (with justice) “The Slaveocracy,” or “The Slave Power.” Chapman’s Emerson is insurgent, a hater of tyranny of any sort, but a hater most of what Chapman calls “the tyranny of democracy.” “The merit of Emerson was that he felt the atmospheric pressure” of all the timidity and cowardice and temporizing of the antebellum years without ever quite knowing its reason: “He felt he was a cabined, cribbed, confined creature, although every man about him was celebrating Liberty and Democracy, and every day was Fourth of July. He taxes language to its limits in order to express his revolt.” (The allusion here—”a cabined, cribbed, confined creature”—is to a a passage from Trollope’s Phineas Finn, serialized from 1867-69.) Chapman sums it all up with perfect éclat: Emerson, he says, teaches us “that every man will write well in proportion as he has contempt for the public.” Something of Chapman’s own situation in the 1890s, when he wrote this essay, enters into this, because, as he suggests, “much of what Emerson wrote about the United States in 1850 is true of the United States to-day. It would be hard to find a civilized people who are more timid, more cowed in spirit, more illiberal than we are.” The great advances toward real liberty made, if only awkwardly, between 1863 and 1876—and most especially during Grant’s first administration—had been in full retreat since the collapse of Reconstruction. Chapman’s essay on Emerson is, among many other things, an effort to evoke a radical, clarifying spirit that seemed to have passed utterly from the American scene as the Radical Republicans were displaced by the likes of William McKinley and Mark Hanna (the capitalist king-maker of the 1880s & 1890s, and a U.S. Senator).
So much for Emerson’s strengths, and for what share in them Chapman himself took with him into the 1890s. Chapman apprehends so perfectly Emerson’s weaknesses as to disconcert (and also preempt) the most debunking of contemporary adversarial—or, as I prefer to say, “Roundhead”—literary critics, as distinct from critics more “Cavalier” in their sensibilities, and rather more concerned (say) with The Beautiful than with The Good, with Aesthetics more than with History. (“The Era of Casual Fridays,” the web-log you are now reading, aspires to be at once Roundhead and Cavalier in disposition; it equivocates.) Nothing escapes Chapman, as when he speaks tellingly of “a certain lack of historic sense” in all that Emerson wrote. “The ethical assumption that all men are exactly alike permeates his work,” says Chapman. “In his mind, Socrates, Marco Polo, and General Jackson stand surrounded by the same atmosphere, or rather stand as mere naked characters surrounded by no atmosphere at all. He is probably the last great writer who will fling about classic anecdotes as if they were club gossip.” As for the habit of abstraction that early on mitigated Emerson’s commitment to abolition, Chapman has this to say: “Not pity for the slave, but indignation at the violation of the Moral Law by Daniel Webster, was at the bottom of Emerson’s anger. His abolitionism was secondary to his main mission, his main enthusiasm.” (Chapman is thinking, among other things, of such remarks as these, from “Spiritual Laws“: “The face of external nature teaches the same lesson. Nature will not have us fret and fume. She does not like our benevolence or our learning much better than she likes our frauds and wars. When we come out of the caucus, or the bank, or the Abolition-convention, or the Temperance-meeting, or the Transcendental club, into the fields and woods, she says to us, `So hot? my little Sir.’)
Many readers of Emerson have noted a strangely inhuman chill at the heart of his writings, but none has expressed the problem so well as Chapman. “Human sentiment,” he says, “was known to Emerson mainly in the form of pain. His nature shunned it; he cast it off as quickly as possible. There is a word or two in the essay on Love which seems to show that the inner and diaphanous core of this seraph had once, but not for long, been shot with blood: he recalls only the pain of it.” Chapman probably has in mind such passages as this, from “Love“:
Let any man go back to those delicious relations which make the beauty of his life, which have given him sincerest instruction and nourishment, he will shrink and moan. Alas! I know not why, but infinite compunctions embitter in mature life the remembrances of budding joy, and cover every beloved name. Every thing is beautiful seen from the point of the intellect, or as truth. But all is sour, if seen as experience. Details are melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble. In the actual world—the painful kingdom of time and place—dwell care, and canker, and fear. With thought, with the ideal, is immortal hilarity, the rose of joy. Round it all the Muses sing. But grief cleaves to names, and persons, and the partial interests of to-day and yesterday.
Emerson, Chapman concludes, “makes us clutch about us to catch hold, if we somehow may, of the hand of a man.” The problem appears to have been that “the sensuous and ready contact with nature which more carnal people enjoy was unknown” to Emerson: “His eyes saw nothing; his ears heard nothing. He believed that men traveled for distraction and to kill time. The most vulgar plutocrat could not be blinder to beauty nor bring home less from Athens than this cultivated man.” Even more devastating is the following:
If an inhabitant of another planet should visit the earth, he would receive, on the whole, a truer notion of human life by attending an Italian opera than he would by reading Emerson’s volumes. He would learn from the Italian opera that there were two sexes; and this, after all, is probably the fact with which the education of such a stranger ought to begin.
Whereupon Chapman continues:
In a review of Emerson’s personal character and opinions, we are thus led to see that his philosophy, which finds no room for the emotions, is a faithful exponent of his own and of the New England temperament, which distrusts and dreads the emotions. Regarded as a sole guide to life for a young person of strong conscience and undeveloped affections, his works might conceivably be even harmful because of their unexampled power of purely intellectual stimulation.
Literary critics seldom have the courage to say, at least to the purposes Chapman has in view here, that a great writer’s works might possibly be “harmful” in a strong sense. To say so credits literary writing with real power, and it does this in such a way as always to indicate that the critic himself is susceptible to that power. By comparison to what Chapman gives us, the cynicism of so much literary criticism of the last twenty years—criticism that never tires of showing the reader that the monumental writers of the past had feet of clay—seems almost to proceed from weakness, if not from insensibility. The wary condescension many of our better “Roundhead” critics display toward literature has more to do with an abiding suspicion that great writing might actually have real power over someone than with the conviction that it has had power over them. “I scarcely know,” writes Chapman in an essay on Hamlet, “what it is that puts the critic above the author, and provides him with his historic and invulnerable complacency; but I think it is due to leisure and the cheapness of writing materials.” The charge is as contemporary as today’s news, and we in the Greater English Department of America perhaps ought to heed it, lest our complacencies grow invulnerable.
N.B. For the text of Chapman’s Emerson & Other Essays at Project Gutenberg, click here. For a number of other works by Chapman, readily down-loadable at the Internet Archive, click here. Finally, I want to thank, here, the poet Mark Scott, who first got me reading John Jay Chapman, back in 1989; buy his two volumes of poetry, Tactile Values and A Bedroom Occupation. Cf. the first comment below for a few examples of Emerson’s best poetry. Click here for other entries in “The Era of Casual Fridays” pertaining to John Jay Chapman.