With a little searching, I was able to get this book on eBay for $6. It is a discontinued library book from the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst NY via Betterworld Books. It’s a small book, 81 pages, the kind a person might carry in his/her pocket. It’s letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson (who seems to have called himself Waldo so now we know where Waldo is) to one of his friends. No where have I learned to whom these letters were written other than it was a person 9 years younger than Emerson. There’s clearly a lot of affection and respect and sometimes humor.
As I read I wondered what I’d do if I’d ever gotten a letter like these from anyone. These are just ordinary letters but 19th century language, and the kind of education it assumes, is really NOT like today.
He writes about some writers that I like, too, like Thomas Carlyle, Tennyson, Wordsworth and Longfellow but the big difference I that to Emerson these were living breathing people. That’s not to say that their words don’t still live and breathe, but there’s a difference between someone you might share a meal with and someone whose book you pick up a hundred or more years later and appreciate. One thing that made me really want to talk to him was when he said he’d received Goethe’s and Schiller’s Letters and wasn’t impressed. I like that book a lot, and I really wanted to ask Emerson “Why not?” Then I thought, “Dude, these are letters between a couple of friends. What is there to like or dislike?” I couldn’t find Emerson for comment so I let it go.
He didn’t like Philadelphia — he wanted more intellectual stimulation there, expected more, and was disappointed. Here’s his humor:
“Very fair and pleasant people, but thus far, no originals. If the world was all Philadelphia, although the poultry and dairy market would be admirable, I fear suicide would exceedingly prevail.” He softens it, a bit, saying, “I must thank the Quaker City, however, for a new conviction, that this whim called friendship was the highest thought in what Eden or Olympus it first occurred.”
It made me think of W. C. Fields famed epitaph (“I’d rather be in Philadelphia”) that never made it to his tombstone. Here’s a cool article about that…
There were other things — he thinks more highly of poetry than of painting; doesn’t see a lot of difference between spots on a wall and a painting, an idea possibly derived from Leonardo who said something about that, too, that a rock or spots on a wall would look like a landscape. I don’t know — I think that’s just because humans are pattern recognition animals as a matter of survival. We’re going to see “something” in everything because we suck as animals and are hunters. We’re instinctively going to look for prey or predators and places to hide. For people who like to label things, it’s called pareidolia.
I know that one reason I love nature is because it doesn’t look “like” anything. It IS everything. No problems discerning what’s what out there except recognizing animals, oncoming storms, birds. It’s nice in this world where words are used to obfuscate reality.
Here are some lovely things I pulled out of the book and wanted to share.
“In this country we need whatever is generous and beautiful in character more than ever because of the general mediocrity of thought produced by the arts of gain.” Emerson in Letters to a Friend. 1839 (things don’t change, I guess…)
“…if I trust myself in the woods or in a boat upon the pond, nature makes a Bramin of me presently: eternal necessity, eternal compensation, unfathomable power, unbroken silence — this is her creed. Peace, she saith to me, and purity and absolute abandonment — these penances expiate all sin…” Emerson was reading the Vedas. Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1839
“…we are optimists when the sun shines.” Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1841
“I have long ago found that we belong to our life, not that it belongs to us…” Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1849
“I saw Longfellow at Lowell’s two days ago, and he declared that his faith in clubs was firm. ‘I will very gladly,’ he said, ‘meet with Ward and you and Lowell and three or four others, and dine together.’ Lowell remarked, ‘Well, if he agrees to dinner, though he refuses supper, we will continue the dinner till next morning!’.” Letters from Emerson to a Friend 1850 (They were discussing a club, The Anthology Club, which had existed a long time; Emerson’s father had been a member)
I wasn’t looking for this book when I pulled out this catalog card. It was in a pile to use for writing down call numbers for people using the computerized search system that replaced the card catalog at the San Diego State University Library. I have held onto it unintentionally since I don’t know, 2000? Whenever that change-over happened. Finding it, I decided to find the book. I’m glad I found it now. In 2000 I wouldn’t have appreciated it half as much. It feels like a small gift from another time.