In the strange days since the election, everyone’s been talking about Thoreau, as so many of us carry on his legacy of civil disobedience. But it’s the other icon of American Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who’s come to my mind repeatedly since the presidential campaign.
Before I get into why, perhaps it’s worth saying a little about Emerson and his immense influence on American thought, literature, and life. As the preeminent critic Harold Bloom put it in an interview, “The whole phenomenon of American culture on every level … is a profoundly Emersonian affair.” Bloom added, “He is the mind of America.” An ardent individualist and stern optimist, Emerson has touched us all by helping to inspire and perpetuate America’s love of the maverick. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” he wrote in his stirring essay “Self-Reliance.” Emerson’s belief in the importance of refusing to conform to any standard but that of your deepest conscience fuels all of his writing—and helped to inspire his student Thoreau’s famous line about hearing a different drummer. “To read his essays is to see a nation discovering its intellectual identity,” writes scholar Larzer Ziff in the introduction to the Penguin Classics copy of Emerson’s essays that I have here.
Emerson’s work provided the foundation for the American school of philosophy that would be continued by pragmatist William James, educational reformer John Dewey, and, much later, post-pragmatist Richard Rorty. These days, thinkers left, right, and center point to Emerson to justify their beliefs.
Emerson also planted the seeds of the American environmental movement. While Thoreau tends to get all the credit, Emerson was concerned with the invaluable power of our forests nearly twenty years before Walden was published. As Emerson wrote in his 1836 essay, “Nature“:
In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.
But Emerson inspired his students not only to go into the woods to learn how to live, but also to pick up their notebooks; he was the giant on whose shoulders all American writers would thereafter stand. In his stirring 1844 essay “The Poet,” he urges Americans to bring themselves forth in original words; to give our new country a literature that would reflect all that was interesting and strange, unique and beautiful—even awful—about the nation:
We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer . . . Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries . . . our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.
Emerson’s clarion call directly inspired not only Thoreau but Herman Melville—who apparently frequently attended Emerson’s lectures and gave us one of the world’s most memorable literary originals in Captain Ahab. But Emerson’s influence might be seen most clearly in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As the Library of Congress web site points out:
Whitman began writing poetry that seemed to record everything Emerson called for, and his preface to the 1855 Leaves paraphrases Emerson: ‘The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.’ He sent a copy of his unsigned but registered book to Emerson and received in return the letter that launched his career as America’s premier poet.
Now, on to Trump. We can’t call him an environmentalist—not in the least. Nor can we describe him as a man of letters, nor even a reader. (Frankly, I can’t help but wonder now and then whether or not he can actually read, considering his impoverished vocabulary and how much trouble he seems to have speaking, especially in complete sentences. Bad! Very bad!)
But certainly, one thing we might call Trump is a nonconformist. Certainly, he refuses to conform to many fundamental obligations of his office—like having a working knowledge of the Constitution, for instance. But while no American can help being influenced by Emerson—because he has had so much influence on the way we think about and judge ourselves and our fellow Americans—I am sure Trump’s nonconformity is in no way a direct result of his appreciation for our country’s greatest philosopher. Surely, even if Trump can read, he doesn’t have the attention span—or the curiosity, or the interest in ethics—to read any philosopher, except maybe Machiavelli.
Nonetheless, a certain Trump behavior recently sent me back to “Self-Reliance”—that tic being our president’s persistent habit of contradicting himself. He did so in late February when he hinted at the possibility of an astounding reversal on immigration policy, only to seemingly back away from the reversal almost immediately. As the New York Times put it:
In the short space of a few hours, Mr. Trump veered back and forth on the immigration issue, sparking breaking news reports and incredulous postings on Twitter as he signaled moderation, then used his address to reassert his commitment to deportations . . . .
Another notable flip-flop came a week earlier, when Trump decided to rescind protections for transgender students—despite renewing his campaign promise, not even a month before, to protect them. Trump said he had “full confidence” in National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seven hours before he accepted Flynn’s resignation—and Trump has also said he has “total confidence” in embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Do a search on “Trump’s contradictions” and you’ll get a smorgasbord. Some of the top hits include a January Atlantic piece ranking Trump’s most significant foreign policy contradictions, a Guardian op-ed sarcastically calling his March 1 speech to Congress a “heroic effort in contradiction,” and an August post from Mother Jones titled “Watch Donald Trump Contradict Himself on Every Major Campaign Issue.”
A person should feel free to contradict himself, Emerson declared, only if he has spent enough time in solitude and introspection that he can hear an inner voice telling him a deep personal truth that is also a truth for all humankind—and only if that truth of today contradicts an old idea that seemed like truth yesterday.
Our country’s greatest philosopher would not have approved of Trump’s dramatic turnabouts, even though Emerson wrote these stirring lines: “Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.”
Why wouldn’t Emerson have approved?
Trump contradicts himself not according to any kind of principle, Emersonian or otherwise, but rather based on little more, it seems, than whim—or a new calculation about what will appeal to his “base.” Emerson, meanwhile, gave self-contradiction plenty of thought before he wrote so cogently in favor of it—under certain conditions. A person should feel free to contradict himself, Emerson declared, only if he has spent enough time in solitude and introspection that he can hear an inner voice telling him a deep personal truth that is also a truth for all humankind—and only if that truth of today (that “gleam of light“) contradicts an old idea that seemed like truth yesterday.
Our instincts for what is true and right “grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world,” Emerson wrote. So, too, when we sign on to Twitter, or spend our waking hours constantly monitoring the networks and newspapers.
Emerson also believed that only someone who has “put his heart into his work and done his best” will be able to hear that truthful voice within. And by that standard too, Trump doesn’t measure up. Here’s a person who barely prepared for his debates, refusing to so much as throw together some coherent talking points—to say nothing of his apparent disdain for studying policy or national security before answering questions about them. And as his chaotic transition showed, he also barely prepared for the role of president, and thereby has endangered and is endangering us all. If there’s any evidence that the man has done a truly hard or honest day’s work over the course his unfortunately lucky life, well, I’d like to see that evidence about as much as I’d like to see his tax returns.
So, look, Trump voters, if you’ve reflected and you’re feeling an urge to contradict yourself on a certain matter, bravo! Emerson would salute you. It would be such an American thing to do.
As for those of us who feel compelled to continue to point out Trump’s wrong-headed ideas and twisted remarks, going forward we can find inspiration and encouragement—and instructions for clear independent thinking—in Emerson.
Maura Jack Kelly is the author of Much Ado About Loving. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Press, Elle, Poets & Writers, the Paris Review, the Atlantic, Nerve, the Washington Post, the New York Observer, four anthologies, and other publications. She is the caretaker of a 300-acre wood and is writing a novel.