On Emerson And Melville
| THROWN OVERBOARD
From the birth of our nation, the national consciousness was shaped by our Puritan fathers. The Puritans came to this country to escape religious persecution and upon arrival set out to change the world. The prevailing mind-set was to be a "city upon a hill." As the material world prospered, a spiritual world did also. Our country had a powerful mission. The Mathers and John Winthrop were the literary leaders of that earlier time, pointing the way to this "save the world" mentality. Two centuries later, however, as a nation, America was ready for a change. A spirit of tolerance opened the door wide. A young and growing nation was ready to hear Waldo Emerson's message, a message of vigor and optimism. He was clearly on the cutting edge of a new consciousness. His love for nature was a sharp departure from the long-standing popular concept of nature as a means to an end . . "so that our economy will prosper," ideology. Emerson boldly took his radical ideas on nature and went one step further, he paralleled his appreciation of the natural world with spirituality. Through an eye of a higher plane, nature and spirituality blend. He wrote:
Standing on the bare ground— my head bather by the
blithe air and uplifted in an infinite space— all mean
egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am
nothing; see all; the currents of the Universal Being
circulate thru me; I am part and parcel of God.
His powerful language and inovocative ideas became a springboard for other contemporary figures. Soon after he began sharing his ideas, others followed. His influence shows clearly in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Henry Thoreau— especially Thoreau.
Called an apostle of optimism, his church started with himself. He waited for everyone else to catch up with him. Emerson saw nature as a reflection of the human spirit. He saw man as the center of creation and nature as his servant.
As he went about giving his lectures, a young man named Herman Melville happened to attend. He later wrote of this lecture that Emerson saw only the good, that he didn't dive deep enough to see the whole truth. In a letter after attending Emerson's lecture in February of 1849, he wrote:
. . . I think Emerson is more than a brilliant fellow.
Be his stuff begged, borrowed, or stolen, or of his own
domestic manufacture he is an uncommon man. . .
I love all those who dive. Any fish can swim near the
surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five
miles or more. . . I'm not talking of Emerson now—
but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been
diving and coming up again with blood-shot eyes since
the world began.
This was written as his novel, Moby Dick began to take shape in his mind. Although rejected at the time, we can now see that he did, indeed, dive deep. The novel itself was a refutation of Emerson's ideas.
After spending four years as a sailor, he was keenly aware of the mighty power of nature, especially the ocean. He saw the beauty in nature and also the bleakness and harshness— it was just there, according to his thinking, not something to control.
He saw nature through the eyes of a working man, therefore, placing more emphasis on the rude elements. He portrayed in Moby Dick the sense that nature will never be tamed. Nature, in Moby Dick, is portrayed as the great white whale himself. The ship's captain, Ahab, tried to overcome the whale and failed. But the realization of his impending failure was apparent even to him. In Chapter 135, page 622-3, we read, "I turn my body from the sun . . . Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee, from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."
It took a whole book for Melville to refute Emerson's ideas on nature. With his book, he dove to the bottom of the sea and came up
with America's first full-fledged myth. In the process, he threw some of Emerson's ideology overboard.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. NY. Penguin Books. 1992.
Kovel, Joe. "Emerson, Earth Spirituality, and the Ecological Crisis."
Religious Humanism. Vol. 31, nos 1 & 2, winter/spring 1997.