“At bottom, [Emerson] had no doctrine at all. . . . He was far from being, like a Plato or an Aristotle, past master in the art and the science of life.”

-George Santayana 

The dedication of this latest biogra­phy of the individual known to earlier generations as “the Sage of Concord” is to Mohandas Karam­chand Gandhi, “who at Poona thirty­eight years ago set me on my present course, when he offered me a phrase from Emerson to live by: ‘Speak the rude truth in all ways.”‘ It’s too bad that it’s at least a venial sin to laugh at sincerity, for it would be difficult to find two figures so widely respected, and so widely overestimated, as Gan­dhi and Emerson. It is fitting that Gandhi should have felt a kinship to Emerson. And it is equally fitting that a writer who admired one would write worshipfully about the other.

Since Richard Grenier unforgettably dissected the weird Mohandas and his worship of bowel functions in Commentary, no further words need be wasted on that great Hindu evoker of violence, who fell victim to the hatreds he fostered. But New England and its vanished antebellum civilization remains attractive. Perry Miller, after World War II, was sufficiently drawn (partly as a result of his wartime experience) to exhume and actually examine the writings and behavior of the New England Puritans. He learned that they wore scarlet cloaks, were led by the elite of Cambridge, and did not allow all their followers to become church members, on the reasonable grounds that their requirements were too high. They enjoyed wine, beer, games, and wives. Their services were highly intellectual, but occasionally disrupted by Quaker “missionaries” who entered the meet­ings naked, with their faces smeared with black paint, or “swatched in ghostly sheets.” In Yankees and God Chard Powers Smith said of the Quakers of that  day:  “Their  conduct  . . . was intolerably offensive, even in that coarse age. By the religious criminology of the day, anywhere in Christendom, they gave Massachusetts provocation and got what they deserved.”

Puritan theology fascinated Miller. He did not convert, but he was impressed by its scholarship. It seems clear that in the beginning he had believed the usual stereotypes. As his studies extended he reverted, to an extent, to conventional academic attitudes. Perhaps he didn’t want to attempt a revolution in enlightened circles: it was enough to find praiseworthy material in the long­ despised Puritan period. In time New England became known more for its commerce than its religiosity, though the Presbyterian ministers who helped promote the War of Independence, and then joined the fight, showed few signs of decadence. It was not until after the fall of Napoleon and the spread of German scholarship through Unitarianism that New England’s Calvinism began to change.

The Rev. William Ellery Chan­ning, Emerson’s tutor, was probably the most important figure in that change. He led the transition from American Christianity to what, for lack of a better term, we might call The Goodness Party, whose adherents believe themselves to be gooder than anybody else.

Similar changes occurred in Britain and Germany within the clergy. Emerson, a clergyman, imbibed the change from Channing, whom he called “our bishop.” The phrase is not in Dr. McAleer’s book; he has man­aged to acknowledge that Channing preceded Emerson on virtually every important point, without making it clear that the older clergyman was Emerson’s model. Without Channing, there would not have been the Emerson we know, for it was Channing who made his New England reputation by first attracting attention in old England. Emerson walked in a path already charted, had the advan­tage of his predecessor’s efforts and example. That is not to say that Dr. McAleer ignores these details; it is to say that he does not highlight, but rather muffles them in ornate and elaborate prose.

The significance of the swing from Calvinism to Unitarianism was not a light matter, then or now. Chadwick, in his Gifford Lectures, observed that if any other civilization had abandoned its beliefs of untold centuries within a hundred years it would have momentous consequences. If such a phenomenon occurred in some other civilization, Chadwick added, armies of Western scholars would have rushed to investigate the phenomenon, but the collapse of faith in the West has been left largely unexamined.


“McAleer writes, ‘We . . . are enthralled . . . by his questing spirit, the glad and surging force of his rhetoric, pouring from an ardent soul filled with the joy and wonder of existence.’ More of this incautious admiration would have been welcome, so obviously is it founded on a wholly sympathetic yet not uncritical familiarity with its subject.” 



Dr. McAleer has discussed Emerson’s drift from Calvinism to Unitarianism without once defining Unitarianism. A change in belief, es­pecially when the subject is a minister, would seem to require at least some description of what the change im­plied. Dr. McAleer masks the anti-Christian nature of the position Emerson adopted, and makes Emerson’s critics sound strident and slightly ridiculous. (One gets the impression that they are being rude, while Emerson was always courteous.) McAleer does not explain that Unitarianism is not a Christian movement, though Unitarianism bears the same resemblance to Christianity as does the Ethical Culture Society to Judaism. In Emerson’s embrace of Unitarian principles, he rejected Christianity as openly as he dared. His Divinity School Address in 1838 did this so transparently that Harvard was barred to him for a generation. (For a full discussion of Emerson’s heresy, see Marion Montgomery’s recent essay in Modern Age.) 

Emerson himself didn’t bother to attend even Unitarian services. After he no longer found the ministry necessary as a livelihood, he stopped using its pulpits. He walked in the woods on Sunday, which better suited his Pantheism. 


“Emerson’s youth was virtuous, his man­hood productive, his old age serene. He was faithful to his wife, affectionate to his children and generous to his friends.” 

The New York Times Book Review


His career of apostasy was assisted, before the Civil War, by the contrast between his unvarying civility and the horrid ranting of a wide variety of religious cranks who broke away from traditional Christian churches and faiths to embark on weird “crusades.” These campaigns-against coffee and tea, against dancing, against sports, against tobacco, and against even the mildest liquors-fit today’s stereotype about Calvinists more precisely than they do the real article at anytime. The self-righteous methods of the “crusaders” disrupted churches, offended older members of congregations, and provided material for anti-Christians. The tracts and attitudes, arguments and disturbances of the early 19th-century cranks established a stereotype that was later fastened on 17th-centuryPuritans.

Nineteenth-century apostates have been held aloft as exemplars of Ameri­can tolerance, and those whom they attacked have been characterized as specimens of all that is bigoted, wrong, and harmful in religion. The apostates could not have achieved this status from their own arguments or behavior, of course. That gilding was done by successive waves of secularizing schol­ars, operating from colleges and universities that were originally established and funded by Christian ecclesiastics. That the stereotyping succeeded as well as it has is simply another illustration of how victors re­write history.

McAleer’s hagiography is no excep­tion. To McAleer, Emerson was a saint. Professor McAleer softens Emerson at every hard point. His approach reminds me of the way Holly­wood photographed Marlene Dietrich through gauze. That comparison comes to mind because the professor, being of our day and time, seems  to take a PBS documentary approach to his subject.

In this approach, the reader is shown Emerson under pink lights. A series of set pieces describe Emerson in relation to each of his friends separately. We see Our Hero arrive in Scotland to be greeted by the Carlyles, who are charmed. We are trotted through all their later contacts and told of the coolness that developed. Carlyle’s debt to Emerson is exaggerated, distorting the reality of their relationship. Carlyle, says Dr. McAleer, is in eclipse today. Perhaps he is among the ig­norant. But he will never fade from the attention of the intellectual world. He was too honest and far too original in style for that. It is Emerson who has become a totem mummified by school teachers and is no longer widely read.

The professor shuffles Emerson’s friends like a deck of cards and deals them out one by one. Each time the reader has to go backward in the cluonology and struggle forward again. This repeated back-and-forth destroys continuity and creates a work that reads like a social calendar. This spares the author the necessity of  comment­ing upon large events: the approach restricts the scene.

Therefore, the way in which the New England cranks combined in the Abolitionist movement is an off-stage nonevent. Dr. McAleer describes, in a carefully offhand manner, Emerson’s enthusiasm for the terrorist John Brown. But he muffles its significance. It was Emerson’s change of faith that led him, by inexorable stages, into such strange associations. His circle came to believe that all is permitted in a good cause.

The Committee of Six, known to American historians as the Secret Six, are not mentioned in the text. Therefore, the uninformed reader has no way of knowing, from this work, how closely Emerson and Thoreau were associated with extremists. The teacher of the Emerson children, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, was an ardent supporter of John Brown the terrorist, and a member of the Six. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an­ other fallen minister, well-knownin the Emerson circle, was all out for “dis-Union” and was a member of the Six. The Rev. Theodore Parker, close to Emerson, funded and encouraged Brown and was a member of the Six. Thoreau’s part in the conversation and reception Emerson gave John Brown is unmentioned. That Thoreau put Francis Merriam, one of Brown’s men, on a train to Canada to assist his escape from the authorities after the raid on Harper’s Ferry (in which Merriam participated) is omitted.

Of course, Emerson may not have lost his faith: he may never have had any to begin with. Certainly the ease with which he stepped out of the pulpit, once his inheritance from his tubercular young bride was assured, would seem to indicate that. But it is important, historically and culturally, to note that the man who abandoned traditional beliefs and their restraints, who spoke of the “Over-Soul” in terms that led directly to his admirer Nietzsche’s Ubermensch; the hero who would “transcend” old barriers ended up admiring a terrorist. Emerson’s hu­bris led him to accept the concept inherent in the Hindu god Shiva, who combines both Good and Evil. Chris­tianity opposes Evil, but a Shiva wor­shiper can achieve holiness through either Evil or Good. These are not minor matters. Emerson and Tran­scendentalism led to Nietzsche and Beyond Good and Evil. In Emerson’s own time, his ideas led to terrorism at Harper’s Ferry and the catalysis of a great war.