From: "Conway's 'Emerson at Home and
Abroad'," Century Illustrated
Magazine 25, no. 6 (1883): 954-956.
Emerson at Home and Abroad. By Moncure Daniel Conway. Boston: Jas.
R. Osgood & Co.
The numerous readers of Mr. Conway's earlier books are accustomed
to think of him as an insatiable explorer of facts and traditions,
an enthusiastic hero-worshipper, and a littérateur of unfailing
vivacity and almost unerring tact. His drawbacks have seemed to lie
in a certain exuberance of material, some neglect of arrangement, and
an occasional want of minute accuracy in details. It is pleasant to
see that, as time goes on, he gains more and more self-mastery, and
puts his faults behind him. In this book we find him at his best. Even
that which has been criticized as a slightly over-confidential and
too autobiographical tone, in the opening chapter, is so frank and
ardent as really to disarm all objection; and it has its peculiar value
as giving the key-note for the whole book. It is the tribute of a pupil
to the master, and it is essential to such a tribute that the pupil
should give some revelation of himself.
There is here and there a passage
in the book which suggests that it was written in England,—the
spelling of “favour” and “storeys,” the
estimate of Emerson’s early income in pounds sterling, and the pains
taken (p. 33) to explain that “it was the rule in the [Emerson] family
to distribute their possessions equally between the members of their family.” The
absence of an index is also a defect more common in English books than in American;
but the flavor of the book has that essential Americanism which Mr. Conway’s
long English residence has not at all impaired, and there is even a distinct
air of old-fashioned transcendentalism about the titles of the chapters. “Fore-runners,” “Sursum
Corda,” “Sangreal,” “Concordia,” and “The
Python” remind us anew of the ardent young prophet who once essayed to
give “The Dial” a new lease of life in Cincinnati, and still remains
true to his early visions.
It is in the story-telling faculty that we are chiefly reminded how the prophet
has become a magazinist; and certainly no single volume has yet brought together
so many fresh memorials of Emerson as are here combined. At the very outset,
with his wonted appetite for a good bit of symbolism, Mr. Conway emphasizes
the fact that the first American Emerson was a baker, and points out that his
great descendant furnished the bread of truth to men (p. 132). Probably, if
we looked far enough into the genealogy of any eminent person, we should come
to some such apt analogy; as in the fact lately brought to light by Mr. Kennedy,
that the pioneer Whittier’s chief outfit for America was a bee-hive.
Those who have visited the house of Goethe at Frankfort will remember the paternal
horse-shoes converted into lyres above the front door and our American bards
seem to be as neatly provided with appropriate emblems.
It was in a letter to Mr. Conway that Mr. Emerson wrote a sentence which has
already been widely circulated: “They say the ostrich hatches her egg
by standing off and looking at it, and that is my present secret of authorship” (p.
14). There is another charming letter to him on the birth of a child (p. 15).
Mr. Emerson told Mr. Conway that no early intellectual experience had ever
so influenced him as Wordsworth’s description of the effect of nature
on the mind of a boy (p. 50); that he had used his sermons as material for
his essays (p.65); and many other private confidences. There are also very
interesting statements illustrative of Emerson’s influence in England,-the
best of these being the fact that Professor Tyndall wrote “Purchased
by Inspiration” in his copy of Emerson’s “Nature” as
being the book which first gave an active impulse to his mind.
Mr. Conway has also had access to some peculiarly valuable unpublished materials,
apart from his own recollections; as in the case of an important correspondance
between Mr. Emerson and the late Mrs. Lyman of Northampton (pp. 59-60); of
a letter from Emerson to Mr. Ireland, describing his first visit to Carlyle
(p. 75); and of an exquisite letter by Emerson to a youth who had sent him
some verses. “They have truth and earnestness, and a happier hour may
add that external perfection which can neither be commanded nor described” (p.
124),—which last phrase sums up all the canons of criticism in ten words.
But perhaps the best of all the new matter in the book is the description by
Miss Sarah Hennell of a visit made to her family by Emerson in 1848, where
he saw “George Eliot,” then Miss Marian Evans, and so remote from
fame as to be mentioned by Miss Hennell as “Mary Ann.” “He
was much struck with Mary Ann (Miss Evans); expressed his admiration many times
to Charles—‘That young lady has a calm, serious soul’” (p.
338). It seems quite characteristic of both that, when Emerson asked her “What
one book do you like best?” she answered, “Rousseau’s Confessions,” and
he said, “So do I. There is a point of sympathy between us” (p.
We find some errors in Mr. Conway’s book, but they are mostly such as
would naturally be made by one writing in England about American affairs, after
slight points of time and locality had grown dim in memory. Rev. James Freeman
Clarke did not “surrender his pulpit rather than exclude Theodore Parker
from it” (p. 9), but he merely endangered it. Some of his influential
parishioners left him, but he and his church went on. It is not “a mistake” (p.
86) to attribute to the New England Quakers the naked exhibition several times
charged upon them, nor has Mr. Whittier proved that this was merely the reaction
from Puritan whippings. Southey’s “Commonplace Books” contain
a long extract from the diary of an English Quaker of that period, who vindicates
these naked performances as proper symbolical acts, without resorting to any
such justification as Mr. Whittier has offered. The “Boston Museum” (mentioned
on p. 160) is not a systematic collection of natural history, but is mainly
a theater; Mr. Conway must mean the “Museum of Comparative Zoology” at
Cambridge. Emerson was not made LL. D. at Harvard in 1867, but in 1866 (p.
162). Mr. George William Curtis was not graduated at Harvard, but at Brown
University (p. 237). Mr. Alcott’s twenty-dollar gold piece (p. 247) is
reduced by several narrators to five or ten dollars. The name of George Searle
Phillips is curtailed to “George Searle Phil” (p. 329), probably
through some typographical misfortune. It was not at Longfellow’s funeral,
but on the way home from it, that Emerson spoke of having forgotten that poet’s
name (p. 382).
Exception might be taken to some of Mr. Conway’s points
of criticism or description. When he says of Emerson (p. 136): “He studied
the sciences carefully, always keeping abreast of their vanguard,” he
goes too far. Emerson, after all, approached science as a literary man, not
as a scientist,
and simply read about it instead of studying it. There is sometimes a little
inconsistency, as where Mr. Conway says (p. 112) that, from the time Emerson
began to read “Landor,” “his tone became less fervid and
prophetic, and more secular,” and then afterward remarks (p. 123): “In
the first discoverable scrap of Emerson’s writing there is to be found
nearly the same literary style as in his last. The only authors whose influence
seems traceable are Shakespere and Montaigue.” On the other hand, some
of his remarks are singularly acute and valuable, as this: “It would
be difficult to cite from any generation authors so various in air and style
as those whose minds have been personally and strongly influenced by Emerson” (p.
297). Mr. Conway is himself conspicuously one of these minds, and the “personal
equation” of his book is not a thing which we should wish to eliminate,
but, indeed, contributes to give it a distinct and probably a permanent value
as a part of the Emerson literature.