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RALPH WALDO EMERSON VISITS CHARLESTON
Linda T. Prior begins her 1978 essay in South Carolina Historical Magazine, entitled “Ralph Waldo Emerson and South Carolina”:
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) lived during a period of intense antagonism between the North and the South, and he himself was involved in this sectional strife. Near the beginning of the Civil War, in 1857, Emerson referred to Southerners collectively as the “spider-man” [sic] and insisted that “they can be dealt with as all fanged animals must be.” [from Emerson’s Journals] There have been two views of Emerson’s antipathy for the South – the first that his increasing concern over slavery really engendered his dislike of the South, that “his antipathy for slavery came to include the whole region that practiced it.” [Philip Butcher in Emerson and the South] The other view posited by Jay B. Hubbell [in an article in South and Southwest, “Ralph Waldo Emerson and the South”], is more accurate – that Emerson’s prejudice against the South, which did grow deeper as he aligned himself with the abolitionist camp, was yet well established long before he considered slavery a personal issue. As early as 1837, for instance, he claimed that when a Southerner was introduced into polite company, he is “dumb and happy; like an Indian in Church….[his Journals]
In this sense Emerson was a product of his own time and geography; many New Englanders (some of them Emerson’s friends and literary contemporaries), even learned and sophisticated ones who had travelled in the South, continued to view the South with scorn. New Englanders, in the decades before the Civil War, tended to view Southern culture as a cross between depraved and deprived, and the Southerner was stereotyped, in Emerson’s words, as a “spoiled child” who spent too much time with “rifles, horses and dogs,” was generally ignorant and lacked a moral conscience. New Englanders, Emerson insisted, possessed “a thousand times more talent, more worth, more ability of every kind. [his Journals]
Actually Emerson knew quite a few accomplished Southerners during his lifetime, especially in the early years, but he seemingly forgot individual Southerners when he insisted on the stereotype. In this sense, as in many others, his attitude toward the South and Southerners remained ambivalent all of his life. What is most interesting for South Carolinians is that Emerson’s attitude toward and relationship with the South centered specifically around South Carolina, from his youth to his last years.
Emerson’s first close contacts with Southerners came while he was a student at Harvard from….Among his classmates and fellow students were John G. K. Goudin, Robert Marion Gourdin, Mellish Irving Motte, Robert Woodward Barnwell, William George Reed, Samuel Cordes Prileau, Allard Henry Belin, Andrew Turnbull, William Parker Coffin, and Henry M. Neyle – all South Carolinians, and most from the Charleston area. [his Letters]
From Henry Wilder Foote’s address at the 1916 dedication of the Gilman Memorial room at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, we know that Samuel Gilman, born in 1791, graduated from Harvard with the class of 1811. Quickly returning, by November, 1811, he was registered as a “resident graduate” to get a Masters degree which he received in 1814 [the Divinity School was not established until 1816]. A list of Harvard faculty in the North American Review, 1816, titles him as “Samuel Gilman, A.M., Proctor....candidate for the ministry”. Foote also tells us that Gilman served “from 1817-1819 as tutor in mathematics at Harvard.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803; Robert D. Richardson, Jr.’s biography, Emerson: the Mind on Fire, says that Emerson, graduating in 1821 at age 18,
…had decided that he wanted to be called Waldo. Graduation was set for August and he was to be class poet. The honor was less than meets the eye, for six other members of the class had already declined the post. And though he took poetry seriously enough, he was not otherwise a distinguished student. He ranked in the middle of his class; he was not elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was tall and thin and had reached his height of nearly six feet awkwardly early, at fourteen [on matriculation]. He had long arms and legs, a pale complexion, light sandy hair, a large roman nose, and blue eyes. He was full of high spirits and boyish silliness, but there was an odd self-possession about him….he was only a fair scholar. Like many another young person, Emerson did not shine in the things Harvard then knew how to measure. His extracurricular reading was at least three times as extensive as his reading for courses, and he was already in the habit of getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to tend his correspondence and write in his journals.
Richardson also says, “Emerson’s college writings show him for the most part to have been a surprisingly conventional young man. He hated mathematics and did poorly in the subject.”
Michael O’Brien, in Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life in the American South, 1810-1860, reveals that “Samuel Gilman (was) once his Harvard tutor…”
Perhaps Gilman saved Emerson academically.
The Historical Introduction written by David M. Robinson which introduces The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 1, Albert J. von Frank, ed., reports that after graduation Emerson:
…began a difficult period of transition in which he inched toward the ministry. His father…had died a decade earlier, leaving his family nearly destitute. Emerson was obliged to finance his younger brothers’ education and so took up schoolkeeping for several years in the early 1820s. It was a chore that, on the whole, he did not enjoy, but it bought him time as he considered entering the ministry….By 1825 his family’s financial situation had improved enough to allow him to cease schoolkeeping [and begin further studies for the ministry]….But almost immediately, Emerson’s escape was cut short by a swelling and inflammation of the eye, which impaired his vision and made prolonged study impossible.
Richardson outlines the health reasons that led Emerson to take a trip south to St. Augustine, Florida, stopping on the way down and back in Charleston. “The eye disease that struck Emerson in early 1825 was most certainly uveitis, a rheumatic inflammation of the eye that gave the sufferer headaches and was often linked with rheumatism. The underlying cause was probably tuberculosis, which was pandemic at the time. Half the adults in Boston had it; one third of all deaths were from it.” It also ran in his family: an older brother died of it, his father contracted the disease which along with stomach cancer killed him when Waldo was eight, and his two youngest brothers both died of it in the 1830s; as did Waldo’s first wife.
Emerson: The Roots of Prophesy, by Evelyn Barish, Princeton University Press, 1989, adds further detail on Emerson’s health. In 1825,
Waldo permitted a Dr. Reynolds…to ‘operate’ in some undefined and apparently experimental way on one of his eyes. Then according to a letter written in January 1826 by [his mother] to [her sister], ‘Dr. R. said it would not be a fair trial unless he performed the operation on both eyes.’ The ‘experiment’ was repeated the day after Thanksgiving, 1825.
This helped somewhat. Waldo, however, must have been virtually blind before that…[since] by mid-December, he had recovered only enough sight to ‘read a sentence or two,’ but ‘gradually (by January 1826) his sight had returned.’ The operations, however, although apparently not harmful, made only a temporary difference….But now a new malady had suddenly appeared. By December 20  he was writing to his [older] brother [William] of ‘that same lame hip of mine,’ as if William had already heard of it, and reporting that he was cosseting it, though ‘Dr. Dalton nicknames it rheumatism’….To top it all off, Emerson soon became too crippled at times to walk.
Barish then gives us the present-day opinion on Waldo’s ailments. “Modern medicine would agree that in view of his other symptoms, Emerson’s uveitis may have been aroused as a tubercular allergic reaction, probably to stress.” Dr. Dalton seems to have recognized that; Dr. Reynolds, hardly a quack, had been trained in England under an ophthalmic expert and was considered the father of American eye surgery.
It was not Emerson’s eye or joint trouble, however, which caused his southern journey, but the outbreak of pulmonary symptoms and an apparently alarming loss of weight. Oddly, he denied that his complaints had been diagnosed, and minimized them in his only specific description of his symptoms, written to [brother] William in early January 1827: ‘I beseech you however not to be in any particular alarm on my account. I am not sick; I am not well; but luke-sick [sic] – and as in my other complaints, so in this, have no symptom that any physician extant can recognize or understand.’ Waldo then gave a precise description of his ailment: ‘I have but a single complaint, – a certain stricture on the right side of the chest, which always makes itself felt when the air is cold or damp, and the attempt to preach or [any] exertion of the lungs is followed by an aching. The worst part of it is the deferring of hopes – & who can help but being heart sick?’
His disclaimers to the contrary, Emerson “had related to his brother, as he must have done to his doctors the classic symptoms of pleurisy. Then as now pleurisy was understood to be a sign of mild, chronic, or ‘indolent’ tuberculosis. Technically an inflammation of the serious membrane enveloping the lungs, pleurisy is not a disease in itself but the name of the chronic chest pain that is made worse by bad weather and exertion of the voice.” Pleuritic pain was described in the nineteenth century “precisely because it was known to be a feature of many cases of consumption….aggravated by every motion of the body, but especially by coughing, speaking, and efforts at full respiration.”
Richardson, writing about the lead up to his health crisis, tells us that:
The timing of the Emerson’s bouts of illness has suggested that his problems may have been psychosomatic, that he may have been blinded by rationalism and crippled by doubt, but it seems more likely that both his eyes and his hip were suffering tuberculosis-related attacks. The stress of study made matters worse and may have triggered the attacks….His illness depressed him. He complained in March  that ‘my years are passing away.’ This almost despairing mood of self-accusation was never to leave him entirely….In June Emerson wrote his first sermon, ‘Pray without Ceasing’….Sick as he might be…this summer of 1826 was a turning point, a time of affirmation, when the pendulum of doubt had swung as far as it could go and was beginning to swing back….[although] In the fall of 1826 things were not going smoothly….He was indeed approved – or, in the bureaucratic language of the Middlesex [Massachusetts] Minister’s Association, ‘approbated’ – to preach in October, and he did in fact preach his first sermon, ‘Pray without Ceasing,’ in his uncle Samuel Ripley’s church in Waltham, Mass. But now to the problem of his eyes and his hip was added a painful ‘stricture’ in the chest, almost certainly an attack of pleurisy….’the summer is past, the harvest is ended, and we are not saved,’ he mourned in his journal, quoting Jeremiah. But he was able to read, [and] he plunged into a [reading] program….[however] With winter coming on and his health deteriorating, Emerson borrowed seventy dollars from uncle Samuel Ripley and set out for a warmer climate [following doctors’ orders]. On November 24, 1826, he sailed from Boston…bound for Charleston, South Carolina. The trip from Boston to Charleston in the 105-foot sailing ship Clematis took fourteen days....This was Emerson’s first trip outside his native New England and it was full of wonders. He remarked on the power of the sea, and he brooded, like a young Henry Adams, on power itself. He marveled at how the ‘men of this age work and play between steam engines of tremendous force’ and how the sailors ‘brave the incalculable forces of the storm.’
From Barish: “The journey had not been auspicious. He had delayed sailing until just after Thanksgiving….Two weeks later, bypassing New York and [brother] William, he had arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, seeking contact with one or two of his former classmates.”
Perhaps a sign of his depression or even an indication that the “cure” is beginning to take place is this entry in his journal from Emerson and His Journals, Joel Porte, ed., Harvard University Press, 1982:
Dec. 13, 1826 Charleston, S.C.
I have for a fortnight past writ nothing. My bosom’s lord sits somewhat drowsily on his throne. It is because I think not at all that I write not at all. There is to me something alarming in these periods of mentality. One day I am a doctor, & the next I am a dunce, that is so far as relates to my own resources….The true account of the scarecrow is this. At sea a fortnight elapses in which I always remember myself to have been in times past a channel thro which flowed bright and lofty thought. But I find in me no disposition, no power to recreate for myself the brilliant entertainment. I come to land and the weary days succeed each other as on the desolate sea, but this coveted power does not return, & every attempt to force the soul is heavily baffled. Now suppose it should never return; the causes are concealed, the sun and the moon are hidden which affect the ebbs and flowings of the intellectual tides. They are determined by something out of me & higher than me….
From Conjectures of Order: Once in Charleston, “Emerson seems to have browsed through the streets, was impressed by the good manners of both black and white, but made no connection with the city’s life. His journals, not unusually, have rapt reflections on God and himself, but bear little impress of the place. He felt himself at the ends of the earth. To his brother, he pleaded, ‘Edward Edward why don’t you write. Why one wd. [would] think I was in the same country with you & not as I am beyond the farthest islands mountains swamps in these offscourings of the world.’”
And from Gay Wilson Allen in Waldo Emerson: “Finally on December 7 Waldo landed and found a boarding place with a Mrs. Fisher on East Bay Street at six dollars a week. The trip had been ‘the most extraordinary event’ he had ever experienced, and Charleston was like a foreign country to him. To combat loneliness he wrote in his journal, started new sermons which he did not finish, and wrote letters to his family and friends.
And from Prior: He renewed his association with [his Harvard classmate, Mellish] Motte who ‘shewed me much kindness, & introducing me to the Charleston Library Society has furnished me with occupation for my reading hours [his Letters]. In December (and again the following April) Emerson preached at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, at the invitation of the minister, Dr. Samuel Gilman” [His old tutor; one must question if they were “friends” or did they still retain a tutor/student, senior/junior relationship. Gilman was now 35 years old and firmly situated in a promising career. Emerson, only 23, had just barely begun to write sermons.]
Emerson was impressed by how much better southern manners were than northern. From Emerson’s Letters:
Dec. 16? 1826 Charleston, S.C.
Manners seem to be more closely [sic] under the influence of the sun. They belong more to the body than the soul, & so come under the influence of the sun. They are accommodations of the motions of the body to moods of the mind. In Lapland men are savage; in Norway they are plain spoken and use no ceremony; in England some; in France much; in Spain more. In like manner no man has traveled in the United States from the North to the South without observing the change & amelioration of manners. In this city, it is most observable, the use of the conventions of address among the lowest classes which are coarsely neglected by the laboring classes at the North. Two negroes recognize each other in the street tho’ both in rags & both it may be a burden on their heads with the same graduated advances of salutation, that well bred men who are strangers to each other would use in Boston. They do not part before they have shaken hands and bid Goodbye with an inclination of the head. There is a grace & perfection too about these courtesies which could not be imitated by a northern labourer were he designed to be extremely civil. Indeed I have never seen and awkward Carolinian.
Albert J. von Frank’s The Complete Sermons reprints in full all of Emerson’s sermons in their chronological order and provides a brief history of each one. Personally, the most interesting learning from this is the fact that he preached this first effort fourteen times in the next few years and that in Charleston, “sometime in December” he presented it [this was the fourth time]. Here is von Frank’s history of the sermon:
Pray without Ceasing: Completed and dated July 25, 1826. Preached fourteen times: October 10, 1826, before the Middlesex Association of Ministers; October 15, in Waltham; November 12 at the First Church, Boston; sometime in December in Charleston, S.C.; March 11, 1827, in St. Augustine, Fla.; May 13 in Washington, D.C.; May 27 in Philadelphia; June 3 in New York; Sept. 25 before the Franklin Evangelical Association in Northampton; November 20 in new Bedford; January 6, 1828, in Concord, N.H.; April 3 in Lexington [Fast Day]; April 20 in Concord, Mass.; and November 9, 1828, at the Second Church, Boston. The subject and the text [I Thessalonians 5:17] were apparently suggested by a Methodist laborer named Tarbox, who worked on the farm of Emerson’s uncle John Ladd in Newton. Emerson spent some time at the Ladd farm in the summer of 1825.
Waldo found Charleston’s winter to be a chilly climate that January. Prior writes: “Ironically the weather was bad there too and he was often miserable; he was depressed, primarily about the precarious state of his health…” And from Barish: “But although he lingered there for most of a month, the weather was unrelentingly cold, and the pain in his chest, which he felt ‘chiefly by night’, continued to worry him. By early January he had realized that if he were to recover he would have to sever even his tenuous ties [to the few people he knew in Charleston] and go further south, where he would be a complete stranger.”
Again from Emerson’s Journals [Joel Porte]:
Jan. 4, 1827 Charleston, S.C.
A new year has opened its bitter cold eye upon me, here where I sought warm weather. A new year has opened & found my best hopes set aside, my projects all suspended. A new year has found me perchance no more fit to live & no more fit to die than the last. But the eye of the mind has at least grown richer in its hoard of observations. It has detected some more of the darkling lines that connect past events to the present, and the present to the future.
Gilman and his city could not provide the warmth Waldo needed.
So he embarked on a ship in Charleston for St. Augustine, Florida on January 10, 1827.
According to Richardson: “Florida was stranger than Charleston and made a deeper impression on Emerson.” Spain had ceded Florida to the United States in 1819, it became a territory in 1822, not a state until 1845. In 1824, its congressional delegate called it a “tangled mass of vines and a labyrinth of undergrowth.” Another opinion was also given, that “no man would immigrate into Florida – not even from hell itself.” As his ship approached St. Augustine, Emerson said they ‘heard the roaring on the beach long before we saw land, and the sea was full of green twigs and feathers.’ Emerson had little to do in St. Augustine. He complained a good deal, but he grew fond of the place before he left. He even wrote verses praising the ‘little city of the deep’ and its warm sun and simple hospitality.
Barish says that Emerson found Florida:
...unlike anything he had known. Instead of polar skies and lung-piercing winds of Boston, there were gentle air, short shadows, and a sense of ease. Water stretched to the low horizon; light was everywhere….In reaching this southernmost point of the country, Emerson had gone as far as he could in every sense. Only twenty-three but heartsore and uncertain, he was a minister whose aching lungs impeded him when he tried to preach. His difficulties, he acknowledged, were ‘physical and metaphysical’ both….What he needed for a while was a place not only where the air was warm, but where things mattered less. In St. Augustine, he found it. Where life had changed little, metamorphosis began.
You may see from von Frank’s description above that Emerson preached his Sermon 1 in St. Augustine on March 11, 1827.
Barish describes his waxing physical condition: “[I]n February , three months after he had embarked, he weighed only 141½ pounds, a low figure for a man of six feet, and he reported that he had been gaining. In mid-March, three weeks later, he had gained almost ten pounds. If 152 were closer to a normal weight for him, a reasonable estimate of his weight loss by November, the month he had left Boston, might be fifteen to twenty pounds, or even more.” Barish describes the causes and cures for Emerson’s disease: “It is virtually certain that Emerson’s doctors would have both diagnosed and informed him of his pleuritic consumption. In traveling South, Emerson was following the treatment of choice for cure of the disease, which was absence of stress and the passive exercise afforded by an ocean voyage. Even early in the century there was a consensus that stress – called by various names – was a predisposing factor that must be eliminated for a good prognosis.”
Nineteenth century experts “arrived at a great fact that depressing mental influences are a ‘cause’ of consumption: hopeless, sad, silent, listless solitary, musing” were descriptions used. Barish continues:
Stress, of course, had been a major factor in Emerson’s condition [and the above adjectives] echo Waldo‘s own just before the outbreak of his disease.
Given this and other afflictions, Emerson’s joint pains were probably tubercular in origin. Tuberculosis of the bones and joints was very common, and the hip was the second most frequent site for its occurrence….The basic treatment in Emerson’s day and afterward until the advent of drugs and safe surgical conditions was the same as for consumption: rest, good nutrition, and a worry-free environment.
What is now clear, at any rate, is not only that Emerson suffered from a lazy or “indolent” form of tuberculosis, but that it was also almost certainly the cause of his other afflictions of eyesight and joints – all of which were chronic, lasted well into his life with a body riddled by a frequently mortal disease. Yet this is not the most important fact about it. A deeper truth lies in what it taught him: that talent and energy would count for nothing without patience, self-discipline, a persevering will, and lucidity. Most of all, he learned that these moral qualities would be useless until he could exert a centripetal force powerful enough to separate himself from a destructive environment, draw a magic circle around consciousness, and create a space in which his inner life could grow. Within such a field, insight and the lyric power of his work would take root.
According to von Frank, Waldo sailed back north on March 28, 1827, arriving again in Charleston on April 6, where he preached his second written sermon [unlike Sermon 1 above, von Frank makes special note that it is “for Samuel Gilman”] on April 15. Here is von Frank’s history of that sermon:
Sermon 2, I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content; the text is from Philippians 4:11. This sermon was “[p]reached eight times: October 15, 1826 [at uncle Samuel Ripley’s church] in Waltham; April 15, 1827 in Charleston, S.C.; May 27, in Philadelphia; June 3, in New York [the last two on his way home from Florida]; June 24 at the First Church, Boston; October 28 in Northampton; July 27, 1828, at the Second Church, Boston; and March 29, 1829, again at the Second Church.
Later, von Frank summarizes Emerson’s own feelings about his illness[es] and his active role in the rehabilitation: “[W]hen Emerson preached his first sermon in the fall of 1826, his future was much in doubt. Even after his stay in Florida, he still felt the verdict on his health was not determined, ‘I am living cautiously yea treading on eggs to strengthen my constitution. It is a long battle this of mine betwixt life & death & tis wholly uncertain to whom the game belongs’”….Barish has made the severity of Emerson’s tubercular condition clear, demonstrating “how he emerged from the crisis stronger and healthier in many ways than before….Although Emerson was a long time overcoming his disease, his winter retreat was a turning point. The record of his preaching engagements shows an almost steady round of supply preaching beginning in the spring of 1827 on his return from Florida.” [Emerson arrived back in Boston after June 3].
Linda Prior tells of Emerson’s now growing antipathy to the South:
After his trip to Charleston was past, and his close associations with his Southern classmates were ended, Emerson continued to think of South Carolina as a kind of enigmatic symbol…[He writes of the] association of South Carolina with high drama (bombast is implied)…South Carolina had become (and was to remain) for Emerson a symbol of the exotic decadence which he associated with the whole South.
She devotes much of the last third of her article revealing Emerson’s mostly failed attempts to mend connections with his former classmates in the South after the Civil War, offering this theory:
We see then three general but distinct “periods” of Emerson’s thought centering around South Carolina. During his youth, especially the years spent at Harvard, he had close and pleasant associations with young South Carolinians whom he admired; he observed at first hand Charleston and its people.
[Emerson spent perhaps ten weeks here in Charleston, coming and going, in a physically and mentally impaired condition; Prior seems to place a great deal of weight on those seventy days in Charleston as a foundation for his lifetime of negative attitudes toward the South]
Then in the next four decades he moved to a distant and impersonal view and came to associate South Carolina, especially in the years preceding the Civil War, with what he felt were the worst qualities of the South. During those years Emerson seems almost to have forgotten that he knew any South Carolinians personally. Finally, after the war, he attempted once more to re-establish those lost personal ties. It is ironic, yet altogether fitting, that it was in the state which he disliked most of all that he sought to make his eventual peace. Emerson’s mind and personality were multi-dimensioned, and in a sense his relationship with South Carolina, demonstrates this paradoxical and ambivalent quality, just as his great philosophical ideals do.
Dave Elder, Docent
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