Article - Winter 2020

Channeling Emerson

At work in his timeless, smoke-scented, ghost-crammed study at the old manse

By James Marcus | December 2, 2019
Ralph Waldo Emerson's study at the Old Manse in Concord at the time our writer was working there. The green chair is a facsimile of Emerson's. (James Marcus)
Ralph Waldo Emerson's study at the Old Manse in Concord at the time our writer was working there. The green chair is a facsimile of Emerson's. (James Marcus)

I am sitting in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study at the Old Manse, a gray clapboard house in Concord, Massachusetts, built by the writer’s grandfather in 1769. More precisely, I am sitting in Emerson’s chair, trying to do what he did: write. I am relying, in other words, on inspiration plus muscle memory, even if the memory is not my own. There are some obstacles. The chair itself, a facsimile with a built-in desk and a spanking-new coat of green paint, was clearly designed to be used with pen and paper. There’s something absurd about propping up a slender, metallic, electricity-gobbling laptop on the inclined writing surface. It’s an affront of some kind.

Emerson, whose portrait hangs over my right shoulder, would doubtless be fascinated by the technology and its infinity of storage and reproduction—the man loved infinity. Still, I think he would dislike the machine-tooled chilliness of the medium. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who also spent three years living in the Old Manse and declared this study his domain by etching words to that effect on a nearby windowpane, might be more partial to the technology. His stories are full of fanciful machinery, after all, much of it devoted to sin and expiation, as if Rube Goldberg had minored in theology.

In any case, my main activity since parking myself in Emerson’s chair has been to absorb the fact of the room itself. I was here once before, when the original chair was still in the room and therefore verboten to gaping and gawking visitors. It just sat there in the corner, quietly asserting its authenticity. Emerson’s bottom, you knew, had subtly sculpted that very surface, still painted black in deference to Victorian aesthetics, with the old green paint hibernating underneath. His feet had rested on the wide dark boards of the floor, and I assumed that some of the visible scuffing, which revealed the grain and knottiness of the wood, was his work.

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. A plane is passing overheard, parting the air with those jumbo engines and making that long, plaintive, pointless sound of transit. The sun has come out and is shining brightly through the west-facing windows. It strikes me that with the correct focal length and brightness, the sun would project onto the floor the words Hawthorne inscribed into glass:

natn’ hawthorne
this is his study

It’s not happening, though. The brightness is moving across the floor—it has crept to the edge of the fireplace over the past 28 minutes—and the clock out in the hallway just chimed the hour, and these emblems of passing time are ineffectual: the room still feels timeless, frozen in amber. It feels this way even though the original chair has been moved to the Concord Museum and replaced by this bright green ringer. This could be an alarming thing. It could suggest that what is real about the room is gradually vanishing, that in the near future, there will be nothing here but a well-meaning simulation, which would have disquieting implications of all kinds—which would show how easily the mind and heart can be fooled, especially when we wish them to be.

But no, the room still feels genuine. We forgive its equivocations, its dabbling in virtual reality, because the boards creak underfoot as they must have for Emerson, and the room smells of wood smoke. It’s clear that the fireplace, with its brass andirons and two puny, store-bought-looking logs, isn’t being used much these days. In fact, a spider has constructed a small hammock between one log and the back wall. It has bet against any immediate Judgment Day, conflagration, whatever. The purifying flames are nowhere to be seen. Yet centuries of burning wood within these walls have permeated the place with that marvelous bouquet, which still pushes some atavistic button for most human beings, it being the smell of warmth and safety and banished darkness. It is the smell of not being afraid, and it makes us happy. Perhaps there is also some unconscious frisson at the thought of energy itself being released, or at least paroled from its hissing, popping, carbon-based incarceration. Which is another metaphor, in the end, for soul and substance, a distinction so dear to Emerson’s heart.

If the smoke has somehow inhabited this old building—if it has lodged its very molecules in the walls—then what else might be hanging around? I have sometimes wished that whatever we say in a given room would remain there. What I mean is that the sound waves set in motion by our voices would hit the surrounding walls and very faintly engrave themselves there, like the grooves in an old acetate. Then we would need some amazing device, a time-traveling Victrola, to play the recordings. A needle would be far too narrow and rigid a tool to translate those wide, wiggly, scallop-shaped patterns back into sound waves and living voices.

The windowpane at Old Manse

The windowpane on which Nathaniel Hawthorne claimed the study as his own. He wrote the stories in Mosses from an Old Manse in that room. (Alamy)

What I really want to hear piped into my expensive French headphones is Emerson’s voice. He was said to have a deep and entrancing baritone. A voice like that works directly on our nervous system. It sounds like kindness. It sounds like wisdom. It must have been helpful on the lecture circuit because so much of what Emerson had to say to his rural audiences was close to incomprehensible. That is, the sentences were brilliant and would remain so in perpetuity, but they often had nothing to do with each other. They seemed related only in the sense that a cucumber and a persimmon are related, or a fountain pen and a feather duster. They were distant cousins at best, and while the audience tried to puzzle out their genealogy, Emerson kept uncorking new sentences, all of them brilliant, singular, self-propelled.

It was a style he perfected in this very room. He had been writing almost compulsively since he was an adolescent. He cannibalized other writers, and he cannibalized himself, and the urge to harvest only the best bits—the anthologist’s itch—had always been there. But his first book, his first attempt to compress the capaciousness of the universe into the stuffy, steamer-trunk dimensions of language, was Nature.

He conceived the book during his first trip to England, having exhausted his supply of newspapers and human beings to talk to. This was in Liverpool. He took notes, and by the time he boarded the ship for a long, nauseating trip to America, he had a rough outline in his pocket. The heavy lifting, however, took place in this room and in this chair. The writing surface, shaped like an oversize Ping-Pong paddle, seems insanely modest for such an undertaking. Emerson used ink and a quill, a reproduction of which is currently sitting on the other desk in this room, which Henry David Thoreau may or may not have built for Hawthorne. It’s a ratchet desk, which can fold up against the wall, and I’ve already been told that it will not support the weight of a laptop, not even a wafer-thin Apple product.

It’s now 5:11. The sun is gone, the western sky outside the window is a watercolor nullity, aspiring to blue or gray but not really getting there. Would Emerson have lit a candle in this giant tinderbox of a household and carried on, willing himself to break on through, to nail some fugitive perception before it vanished for good? Or would he have returned to the job the next morning, relying on the marvelous trickery of prose composition—its suggestion of seamless continuity, its accordion-style collapsing of time—as I am doing at this very moment?

The clock out in the hallway is chiming again: a high, silvery note. But it’s now the next day, at precisely noon, and a major storm is pelting the windows, making the smaller trees outside quiver nervously, and churning up the Concord River, which is supposed to overflow its banks by this evening. The excitable forecasters—the men and women of Big Weather—have predicted two inches of rain, a once-in-a-century downpour for this time of year. Emerson observed the same sort of flood in 1827, when he returned from a recuperative exile in St. Augustine, Florida, and stood beside what he called the “blue wonder” of the river. It is not blue at the moment. Framed by the pale sky and gesticulating trees, it looks like aluminum. Clearly it looked different to Emerson, although a poem he wrote at the time celebrated both the river’s sameness—its sluggish refusal to budge from what he remembered—and its capacity to reshape itself: “Look, here he is unaltered, save that now / He hath broke his banks and flooded all the vales / With his redundant waves.”

The foul weather also means that it’s chilly in here. I put on a sweater. I declined the kind offer of a space heater, wanting to fully experience the Emersonian inconvenience, which he would have mitigated, to be honest, by lighting a blaze in the fireplace. I wouldn’t mind a little popping and hissing right now. But that might drown out the percussive drumming of the rain on the windows, the millions of watery little pellets doing their paradiddles and press rolls on the ancient glass. There is also the sound of the wind, which sounds like itself, a big elemental noise, an airborne ocean moving through the treetops.

Emerson would insist that we are addressed by these sounds. The visual language of the natural world spoke to him as well, spelling out an “occult relation between man and the vegetable.” These tree-hugging sentiments can tremble on the brink of the comical, the sentimental, but they move me nonetheless. “The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me and old,” he wrote, perhaps while the rain drummed on these very same windows. “It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown.”

My hands are cold. The winds are predicted to hit 40 or 50 miles per hour by this evening. I am wondering what subtle intelligence nature is supposed to be conveying to me. But then I recall that for Emerson the occult relationship between human beings and the material world was a two-part invention, a feedback loop. Nature was nothing unless we perceived it—and by perceiving it, he noted in a pre-Heisenberg insight, we changed it, shaped it, made it an extension of ourselves. Hence the passage, one of his most beautiful, about grief. He had lost his brother Charles shortly before he wrote it, and what he now saw surrounding him was desolation. Nature was what was missing. Nature, he wrote,

always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend. The sky is less grand as it shuts down over less worth in the population.

Contempt! A tonic word from a man who tends to get filed away with the other nature nuts, as if he were one more huckleberry-picking fool (which was how he sometimes regarded Thoreau, who was anything but). Emerson knew that nature could be lethal. As if to prove his point, the Boston papers this morning—yes, it’s the next morning—are full of disaster imagery. I study the downed trees and utility poles, the flooded streets and pedestrians in rowboats, the monster waves crashing over Scituate Light, which do seem to signify the end of the world. Even the dogs are being evacuated in one photo.

I didn’t realize things were quite that bad, sheltering in the Old Manse and then repairing to the Colonial Inn for a wheat beer and some French fries. But the storm flattened an old, ailing apple tree on the property, which may or may not have been a remnant of Ezra Ripley’s original orchard. I prefer to think it was a straggler from that distinguished cohort, just as Ripley himself, who died in 1841, was a wig-wearing leviathan of American Christianity, occupying (in Emerson’s words) the “rear guard of the great camp and army of the Puritans.” There was some concern, too, about a venerable sugar maple standing right near the house. It dates back to Hawthorne’s residency, has been held aloft for many years with cables, and yet it weathered the wind and rain—for now. So did a drunkenly leaning ash along the edge of the property line on Monument Street. So did a tall oak, dead from the roots up and yet impressively vertical, perhaps still believing itself alive, if trees are capable of thinking such things, and likely to topple onto the boathouse when the sad day arrives.

The entire, roughly trapezoidal property is sprinkled with survivors, then. Emerson could have seen most of them from the windows. That assumes he sometimes left his chair and peered outside, that he was as distracted as I am. Of course, he could have moved the chair, a tactic suggested by the guide who just led a tour group, consisting of one woman in a puffy red coat, through the room. The woman seemed less than pleased by my anachronistic, laptop-using presence in Emerson’s chair. I should have worn a cloak. The guide, meanwhile, called the chair “hugely mobile” and suggested that Emerson, in his hunger for a better view or more congenial conversation, must have been shifting it around every 10 minutes.

By contrast, the misanthropic Hawthorne asked Thoreau (or somebody) to make his ratchet desk immovable, facing the wall, with his back to wretched humanity. It does seem that Hawthorne spent too much time staring at the wall. At some point during the 1840s, he paid a courtesy call upon Emerson, who wasn’t home, and instead sat in the parlor with Emerson’s children, who showed him a stereopticon with views of downtown Concord—which he failed to recognize.

What is it that we are seeing at any given moment? To what are we blind? The Transcendentalists tried to see everything anew. They encouraged, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe.” Hawthorne considered them harmless dorks, peddling illusions to whoever would listen, but he was stuck fast in the tar pit of Puritanism, preferring invisible saints to the all-too-visible ones in his neighborhood.

Emerson’s grandfather built the Old Manse in 1769. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new wife lived in it from 1842 to 1845. (Wikimedia Commons)

Out in the hallway, the guide is saying, “These walls are pine, but they are painted to look like oak, which is a better wood. There’s lots of illusion here.” No arguing with that, is there? There is the illusion of life, which Emerson called a “bubble, and a skepticism, and a sleep within a sleep,” and there is the illusion of language, capturing life in its own sort of tar pit, preserving it from the ruination of light, heat, rain, air. What Emerson captured in this room was not exactly nature but Nature, a replica made of words, just as this chair is a replica and just as the panels are pine painted to look like oak. Which is to say, another illusion.

Also out in the hallway, visible if I inch the hugely mobile chair toward the door, are engravings of four Puritan divines. None of them are smiling. It seems possible that these are the same prints that hung in the study when Hawthorne first showed up, and which he described as looking like “bad angels, or at least like men who had wrestled so continually and so sternly with the devil that somewhat of his sooty fierceness had been imparted to their own visages.”

The sootiest of the four is George Whitefield, who could reduce a crowd of 10,000 to tears—who could alter their very sense of reality—simply by uttering the word Mesopotamia. Whitefield, a fireball of the Great Awakening and also one of the first celebrities to employ a publicist, was cross-eyed. The engraver did not shrink from this oddity, which almost certainly deprived his subject of stereo vision. Whitefield, in other words, could not see the world in three dimensions. Whereas Emerson saw it in three or four or five, which meant that his universe was subject to a constant metaphorical slippage. Everything was itself and something else, very much including language, which at its most articulate was always pointing toward things we were incapable of articulating: “Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.”

This fluidity, this will-o’-the-wisp quality, was not limited to language. People were also hard to pin down in any satisfactory way, and Emerson despaired of making actual contact with other human beings. In “Experience,” his most confessional essay, he insisted that we were all terribly alone:

Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with.

Roger Boscovich, a Croatian polymath whose cranky personality kept him in constant motion until his death in 1787, did indeed propose an atomic theory whereby the particles that made up physical reality never made contact with one another. From a distance, he argued, particle called out to particle: there was a force of attraction. But once the infatuated particles drew near, they grew antagonistic, then mutually repellent. They never touched.

Could Emerson have found a scientific theory more perfectly attuned to his emotional squeamishness? He must have been grateful to learn that his loneliness, his splendid isolation, had been validated by one of the great brainboxes of his era, who also repaired the cracked dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica and wrote a 5,000-line poem about astronomy while on horseback.

Indeed, Emerson’s sense of discontinuity amounted to a kind of private gospel. “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles,” he wrote in “The Over-Soul.” Just paragraphs later, however, he changed tack and suggested that the human soul was capable of dissolving every such boundary: “It abolishes time and space.” Experience, in other words, was flux. It could not usefully be divided into sausage-link increments or even into paragraphs. Instead it resembled the boundary-bursting blue river outside the Old Manse, at a perpetual high water, sweeping away any attempt to contain it.

It would have been nice if this vision of oceanic communion had narrowed the gap between Emerson and his peers. Alas, he retained what he once called the “porcupine impossibility of contact” with other people. For him, even images of people were problematic, which explains his uneasiness with the infant art of photography. He liked the impersonality of the daguerreotype and described it as the “true Republican style of painting.” Yet he never felt that such images captured his real self. They alternated, he complained, between “the donkey and the Lothario,” which makes me wonder what he would have thought of the portrait I mentioned earlier, hanging over his chair at the Old Manse. A lithograph made by an artist named Leopold Grozelier, it was sold as a souvenir for decades and promoted as a favorite of the Emerson family.

Grozelier didn’t draw it from life. He copied it from an 1858 daguerreotype, not at all troubled by this dilution of the original data. Emerson wouldn’t have worried, either, since in his view, physical reality, despite its sandpaper textures and knobby protuberances, was itself too slippery to get a grip on. “Time,” he wrote, “dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.” Might not the smoke-scented, ghost-crammed study at the Old Manse be equally ethereal? Hawthorne suggested that not only the room but the entire building was unreal:

The glimmering shadows, that lay half-asleep between the door of the house and the public highway, were a kind of spiritual medium, seen through which, the edifice had not quite the aspect of belonging to the material world.

But language is the most immaterial (which is to say magical) thing of all. Let me utter the magic word: Mesopotamia! I am no longer in the study at the Old Manse. I am in Manhattan, in a branch of the public library two stories below street level, where the solitude that Emerson so adored is sought en masse by people who are reading newspapers or sleeping, snoring, dreaming. Months have passed, I am here and there, both in the chilly little chamber and in the other room two stories closer to the center of the earth, warmed by human bodies and the slow decay of cellulose. Books, as it happens, consume themselves. The more they are read, the more oxygenated and acidic and self-devouring they become. So they are substance, in Emerson’s formula, and their souls are what the words are supposed to represent.

We are back to surfaces, and what they conceal. It was in his study at the Old Manse that Emerson called the physical world a “great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us.” On his deathbed, having shed his memory and most of the words he had accumulated over nearly eight decades, he studied the numerous photographs and engravings in his room and could recognize none of them. What, he asked, were these “seemings” on the walls? To the dying man, they were so many metaphors hung in neat rows: apparitions, he must have sensed, of the people and places he had loved, and from which he was about to part. Seeming and being—the title of one of Emerson’s earliest lectures!—never stopped intriguing him. Which could you trust? The shining surface or the spiritual innards? Perhaps, on the principle of that stereopticon that so puzzled Hawthorne, you needed both for even a glimpse of reality, whose glowing depths might strike you as utterly convincing and yet too much, really, for us to bear.

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