The Emerson No One Knows by Otto Scottn”At bottom, [Emerson] had no doctrine atnall. . . . He was far from being, like anPlato or an Aristotle, past master in the artnand the science of life.”n—George SantayananJohn McAleer: Ralph WaldonEmerson: Days of Encounter, Little,nBrown; Boston.nThe dedication of this latest biographynof the individual known tonearlier generations as “the Sage ofnConcord” is to Mohandas KaramchandnGandhi, “who at Poona thirtyeightnyears ago set me on my presentncourse, when he offered me a phrasenfrom Emerson to live by: ‘Speak thenrude truth in all ways.'” It’s too badnthat it’s at least a venial sin to laugh atnsincerity, for it would be difficult tonfind two figures so widely respected,nand so widely overestimated, as Gandhinand Emerson. It is fitting thatnGandhi should have felt a kinship tonEmerson. And it is equally fitting thatna writer who admired one would writenworshipfully about the other.nSince Richard Grenier unforgettablyndissected the weird Mohandas andnhis worship of bowel functions innCommentary, no further words neednbe wasted on that great Hindu evokernof violence, who fell victim to thenhatreds he fostered. But New Englandnand its vanished antebellum civilizationnremains attractive. Perry Miller,nafter World War II, was sufficientlyndrawn (partly as a result of his wartimenexperience) to exhume and actuallynexamine the writings and behavior ofnthe New England Puritans. Henlearned that they wore scarlet cloaks,nwere led by the elite of Cambridge,nand did not allow all their followers tonbecome church members, on the reasonablengrounds that their requirementsnwere too high. They enjoyednwine, beer, games, and wives. Theirnservices were highly intellectual, butnoccasionally disrupted by Quakern”missionaries” who entered the meetingsnnaked, with their faces smearednOtto Scott is a regular contributor tonChronicles of Culture.nwith black paint, or “swatched innghostly sheets.” In Yankees and GodnChard Powers Smith said of the Quakersnof that day: “Their conduct . . .nwas intolerably offensive, even in thatncoarse age. By the religious criminologynof the day, anywhere in Christendom,nthey gave Massachusetts provocationnand got what they deserved.”nPuritan theology fascinated Miller.nHe did not convert, but he was impressednby its scholarship. It seemsnclear that in the beginning he hadnbelieved the usual stereotypes. As hisnstudies extended he reverted, to annextent, to conventional academicnattitudes. Perhaps he didn’t want tonattempt a revolution in enlightenedncircles: it was enough to findnpraiseworthy material in the longdespisednPuritan period.nIn time New England becamenknown more for its commerce than itsnreligiosity, though the Presbyteriannministers who helped promote thenWar of Independence, and then joinednthe fight, showed few signs of decadence.nIt was not until after the fall ofnNapoleon and the spread of Germannscholarship through Unitarianism thatnNew England’s Calvinism began tonchange.nThe Rev. William Ellery Channing,nEmerson’s tutor, was probablynthe most important figure in thatnchange. He led the transition fromnAmerican Christianity to what, fornlack of a better term, we might call ThenGoodness Party, whose adherents believenthemselves to be gooder thannanybody else.nSimilar changes occurred in Britainnand Germany within the clergy.nEmerson, a clergyman, imbibed thenchange from Channing, whom hencalled “our bishop.” The phrase is notnin Dr. McAleer’s book; he has managednto acknowledge that Channingnpreceded Emerson on virtually everynimportant point, without making itnclear that the older clergyman wasnnnEmerson’s model. Without Channing,nthere would not have been thenEmerson we know, for it was Channingnwho made his New Englandnreputation by first attracting attentionnin old England. Emerson walked in anpath already charted, had the advantagenof his predecessor’s efforts andnexample. That is not to say that Dr.nMcAleer ignores these details; it is tonsay that he does not highlight, butnrather muffles them in ornate andnelaborate prose.nThe significance of the swing fromnCalvinism to Unitarianism was not anlight matter, then or now. Chadwick,nin his GifiFord Lectures, observed thatnif any other civilization had abandonednits beliefs of untold centuriesnwithin a hundred years it would havenmomentous consequences. If such anphenomenon occurred in some otherncivilization, Chadwick added, armiesnof Western scholars would have rushednto investigate the phenomenon, butnthe collapse of faith in the West hasnbeen left largely unexamined.n”McAleer writes, ‘We . . . are enthralledn. . . by his questing spirit, the glad andnsurging force of his rhetoric, pouring fromnan ardent soul filled with the joy andnwonder of existence.’ More of this incautiousnadmiration would have been welcome,nso obviously is it founded on anwholly sympathetic yet not uncritical familiaritynwith its subject.”nAmericanDr. McAleer has discussednEmerson’s drift from Calvinism tonUnitarianism without once definingnUnitarianism. A change in belief, especiallynwhen the subject is a minister,nwould seem to require at least somendescription of what the change implied.nDr. McAleer masks the anti-nChristian nature of the positionnEmerson adopted, and makesnEmerson’s crihcs sound strident andnslightly ridiculous. (One gets the impressionnthat they are being rude,nwhile Emerson was always courteous.)nMcAleer does not explain that Unitarianismnis not a Christian movement,nthough Unitarianism bears the samenAPRIL 1985/11n