Ralph Waldo Emerson - How I Write
First We Read, Then We Write
The first sentence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that reached me still jolts me every time I run into it. “Meek young men,”
he wrote in “The American Scholar,” “grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”
Writing was the central passion of Emerson’s life. He considered himself a poet; he wrote what is arguably the best piece ever written on expressionism in literature—an essay called “The Poet”; he wrote about writers—Goethe, Shakespeare, Montaigne and he talked and wrote, especial y in his journals, about the art and the craft of writing. But he never wrote an essay on writing.
One reason he never did may have been that he had impossible, unreachable ambitions as a writer himself. At age twenty-one he turned uncertainly to graduate study in divinity. He found himself longing for the open horizons and welcoming fields of endeavor enjoyed by earlier generations, and longing for a time when entering contestants
“were never troubled with libraries of names and dates.”
Like many a beginning grad student, he felt “life is wasted in the necessary preparation of finding what is the true way, and we die just as we enter it.” Graduate study in divinity in 1824, even for a Unitarian, meant
almost entirely Bible study; by July, Emerson was reading Nathaniel Lardner ’s History of the Apostles and Evangelists and studying the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. Proverbs is not a gospel, and it is not a great narrative like Genesis. It is a very minor book, though it does have a prophetic voice and it sits near Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and Isaiah in the canon.
Emerson’s heart rose at the prospect of the passive study of scripture. It was his ambition not to annotate but to write one of “those books which collect and embody the wisdom of their times.” Emerson looked on Solomon as a fellow writer, someone to be imitated, not just venerated. The young Emerson singled out in his journal the proverbs of Solomon, and Bacon’s and Montaigne’s essays, and declared, “I should like to add another volume to this valuable work.” Preposterous as this must appear to the orthodox Christian, it made plain sense to Emerson. But, we say incredulously, what if it was God who was speaking through Solomon? Wel , perhaps he would speak through Emerson also.
It was an aspiration he would claim at age twenty-one only in his private journal, but which he would reclaim, albeit collectively, in the last paragraph of the final essay in his 1850 book Representative Men almost thirty years later.
“We too must write Bibles,” he writes at the end of his essay on Goethe. His ambition then, from the start, was as phenomenal as it was unwavering.
We may debate his success, but as his young friend Henry Thoreau noted, “in the long run men hit only what they aim at.” Emerson also knew, as Epictetus knew, that “all things have two handles. Beware of the wrong one.” And the Proverbs of Solomon are themselves darkly eloquent about taking the wrong path:
I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding:
And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.
Then I saw, and considered it well: I looked upon it, and received instruction.
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man. (Proverbs 24:30–34) Emerson’s immodest—almost indecent—ambition seems both too high and too abstract to be real, or to be believed; but there was always another side to the man, a side where both his feet are planted in everyday reality, a side of him that often sounds overwhelmed, sometimes desperate, but always determined. A person, he wrote, “must do the work with that faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.”
It is encouraging to learn that writing was often a desperate struggle for Emerson. He came early to the knowledge that every day is the Day of Creation as well as the Day of Judgment. At day’s end he never felt he had done his best, Na
never felt he had achieved adequate expression. His best poem, “Days,” expresses his sense of the accusing sufficiency of every single day and his chagrined feeling that he was not making the best use of his time, that he was claiming the wrong gifts, working the wrong side of the street, and that every day shut down for him on a night of failure.
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes, And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his wil ,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them al .
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp, Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
Out of his own repeated failures—from which, however, he arose each morning ready to try again— Emerson carved sentences of useful, practical advice, mostly for himself, one gathers, but fit for anyone to put up over a writing desk or write on the flyleaf of a new notebook. Emerson’s preferred unit of composition is the sentence, not the paragraph and certainly not the essay. He wrote some of the best sentences in English; a surprising number are about writing good sentences.
The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.
Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.
All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.
The thing set down in words is not therefore affirmed. It must affirm itself or no forms of grammar and no verisi-militude can give evidence; and no array of arguments.
Contagion, yeast, “emptins” [yeasty lees of beer or cider], anything to convey fermentation, import fermentation, induce fermentation into a quiescent mass, inspiration, by virtue or vice, by friend or fiend, angels or “gin.”
All that can be thought can be written.
Perhaps this last was true in a general way, but how well could the actual Emerson write what he thought? Always he held up his doings—his writing and his life —to the great standard, that is, to nature. “When I look at the sweeping sleet amid the pinewoods, my sentences look very contemptible.” But if his writing always had one foot planted in nature, the other foot rested, if somewhat lightly, on his wide and eager reading.