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Book Review

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. 339).

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.

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