Emerson's 200th birthday keeps OSU prof in spotlight


CORVALLIS - The 200th birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson next month is casting a rare bit of illumination from the national spotlight on a group of scholars who consider their subject rather illuminating himself.

A series of national celebrations will mark the birthday of Emerson, and Boston's Beacon Press will issue a new book of spiritual writings by the author-philosopher. Edited by Oregon State University's David Robinson, the collection, "The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings," will hit bookstores and libraries this month - just in time for Emerson's May 25 birthday.

Robinson is one of the nation's foremost Emerson scholars, which he says "can be a lonely business, sometimes."

"There is always a baseline of students who read Emerson and find him useful, and a small number of them become someone devoted to his ideas," Robinson said. "More students tend to identify with his prize pupil, (Henry David) Thoreau, who seems to them more relevant and 'hands-on.' But those who find something in Emerson really tend to lock onto him."

Robinson served as president of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society in 1998-99. He is the Oregon Professor of English at OSU, where he directs the American Studies program.

Emerson's importance is difficult to understand through 21st-century eyes, Robinson points out. Born in Boston and raised in Concord, he became a primary, formative thinker of American values from 1830 to 1870, when those values were being tested through the rise of the market economy and industrialism, the continuing legality of slavery, the Civil War, and emerging issues of women's rights.

"He advocated emancipation before Lincoln declared it and saw it as critical for justifying the cause of war," Robinson said. "He was a close friend with Margaret Fuller, one of the most important American feminists. And he is viewed as a father to environmentalism and natural history. So he is old, in some respects, but also very contemporary.

"Emerson was relevant on so many fronts," he added. "You just don't find people like that today, who fill so many roles."

While understanding his world may be difficult, the breadth and sophistication of his thinking is why Emerson still resonates with scholars and students 200 years after he was born. He was a multi-dimensional, "big picture" thinker in an era before mass media, specialized disciplines, and globalization.

"At the time, the nationwide phenomenon was 'the public lecture,' which became very important in bringing new ideas to the people," Robinson said. "It was their introduction to the cutting edge of philosophical thinking, and Emerson traveled all over the east and the Midwest.

"It is probably true that most of his audience didn't understand what he said," Robinson added. "The joke that went around was that one grizzled old frontiersman asked another about his lecture, and was told, 'I didn't get a word he said, but he said it very well.'"

Still, Emerson clicked with enough of his audiences to become a national figure. And while today he is recognized as a poet and essayist, he viewed himself as a teacher of ethical and spiritual wisdom. Thus the new book's focus on his spiritual writings goes to the core of Emerson himself, Robinson says.

"Emerson went through a long spiritual struggle following the death of his first wife and the death of his son," Robinson said. "Both tragedies pushed him very hard in his beliefs and caused him to shift his stance. He recognized more fully that you have to live life without knowing all of the answers…that you proceed with some uncertainty, but with provisional knowledge and faith that you know the right action.

"Emerson was known as the great optimist and forward thinker," he added, "and these events toughened him and tested him."

In "The Spiritual Emerson," his writings show how his thinking evolved. He becomes less sure about large, abstract questions, Robinson says, but more sure about proceeding in the day-to-day world.

He talks about living the greatest number of "good hours."

Part of that evolution shifted Emerson from a theological base in his thinking to an ethical base.

"He came to believe that one's ethics created a theology, not the other way around," Robinson said.

"He began trying to invent new terminology in his religious beliefs because the language being used didn't work anymore," Robinson added. "He was trying linguistically to move away from the tradition of the church, feeling that its terminology had become a burden and didn't allow people to properly express their inner needs."

Robinson gave a presentation on Emerson last month in Boston at the Massachusetts Historical Society in a conference that also brought scholars to Concord for a tour of the Emerson home, hosted by Emerson's descendants. In late June, Robinson will participate in a program called "Emerson and the Examined Life" at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall. Appearing with Robinson will be former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and Emerson scholar Richard Geldard.

The OSU professor says he is glad that the spotlight is focusing this year on Emerson, one of America's great thinkers.

"There were a lot of different Emersons," Robinson said. "There is something to take away from him for just about everyone."