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Mr. Emerson and the Critics


The scene:  A Cambridge lecture hall, July 16, 1838. On the previous night, Emerson has just addressed the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School, and his critics take this opportunity to challenge him and the newfangled transcendentalist ideas that he espouses.

His audience is a cadre of newspaper reporters (and a surprise visitor), some hostile, some amused, and all stunned by the daring sentiments he has voiced in "The Divinity School Address."  They decide to question him further on all of what they see as his half-baked ideas from Nature, "The American Scholar," and "Hamatreya," the religious-minded among them hoping that he will renounce some of what they see as his apostasy, the more cynical of them hoping to trick him into a more extreme position.

Your task is to identify a "Mr. Emerson" for your group as well as the newspaper reporters who will question him.  The whole group (especially those without speaking roles) should work with the essays and poems in the book to give "Mr. Emerson" ammunition to answer his critics.

The questions below suggest some possibilities, but you may also write your own.  You have about 15 minutes to put together the presentation for the class.

1.  Mr. Emerson, your shocking performance last night simply confirms what many of us know about your beliefs: you, sir, are not a Christian at all but are nothing more or less than a pantheist!  Explain yourself!

2.  Mr. Emerson, you profess yourself to be a scholar, yet you would have scholars disregard their books in favor of action!  Would you have us disregard the past entirely and ignore the wisdom of the ages?  Is this not arrant foolishness?

3. If a man trusts himself as much as you suggest that he should (in describing what you are pleased to call the "duties" of a scholar), would he then not fail in humility?  If he trusts only himself, can he not fall into error too readily?  Can you possibly believe that all men should place self-trust as preeminent among the virtues?

4.  Mr. Emerson, your comment that art should look at the "low, the common" instead of the sublime and beautiful is simply inexcusable.  How can you say, as you do, "I embrace the common," when such masters as  Alexander Pope and Dr. Johnson--indeed, the sublime Bard of Avon himself--have all recognized that the aim of art is to elevate and celebrate the ideal?  If I write an "Ode to a Pan of Milk," am I to be celebrated as a poet? (much laughter)

5.  You say that we have "listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe."  If Europe were not our model, sir, we should indeed have no culture in this country at all.  Indeed, Mr. Sydney Smith wrote an essay not twenty years ago titled "Who Reads an American Book?"  What muses must we follow, then--surely not American ones, for what would they be?

6.  Mr. Emerson, you know me as the reporter from the Christian Examiner, and we have published a great deal by your fellow transcendentalists Orestes Brownson, Frederic Henry Hedge, and George Ripley.  But you can expect no more support from us after writing this:
 "He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and that all man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as man is the diviner.  But the very word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster.  It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain."

If you did not intend to insult true religion, sir, would you please explain exactly what you mean by such a statement?

7.  Mr. Emerson, you claim to be breaking free from old forms and traditions, yet at points your thoughts seem positively stolen from those of the late divine Jonathan Edwards.   I ask you this: are you or are you not a free-thinker?  Are you or are you not a plagiarist?

8.  Without the churches, Mr. Emerson, what glue will hold society together?  What shall prevent complete anarchy, especially as you seem to hint in Nature and "Hamatreya" that ownership is an illusion at best?

9.  Have you not also stolen from Mr. Bryant's immortal "Thanatopsis" in creating your own poem "Hamatreya"?   How are your sentiments different from his?

10. Mr. Emerson, you may know me as a fellow poet, critic, and editor (of the Southern Literary Messenger and Burton's Gentleman's Magazine).  I was born in Boston but claim no sympathy with your Northern sentiments, especially your haphazard vision of the poet's methods of creation and your misguided belief that both truth and beauty are the aim of poetry (like the unfortunate Mr. Keats).  I also would like to hear more about your vision of life and death, or life after or within death, since it is a particular interest of my own.

Comments to D. Campbell.

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