January 16, 2018

Emerson at the End

On this day in 1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson died, at the age of seventy-eight. Though Emerson's last decade was one of increasing debility -- aphasia and senile dementia -- it was also one of international accolade. The Sage of Concord was still invited to speak across America and Europe, and he was still able to pack them in, though many came to see and honor rather than to hear the old talks on the familiar themes, redelivered now only with the prompts of his daughter, Ellen, from the wings. Walt Whitman said that he enjoyed "the first drawing of a good pot of tea ... and Emerson's was the heavenly herb itself -- but what must one say to a second, and even a third or fourth infusion?" One younger listener commented that, in face of more pressing practical needs, the shine seemed to have gone from the Transcendentalist message; still, he quite understood that "Emerson couldn't unhitch his wagon from a star to drag our little burdens to market."

At times Emerson liked to make a joke of his incapacities: when unable to summon the word "umbrella" he said, "I can't tell its name, but I can tell its history. Strangers take it away." But he was gregarious by nature, and his "perpetual forgetfulness of the right word for the name of a book or fact or person" was an increasing frustration and inhibition: "I have grown silent to my own household under this vexation, & cannot afflict dear friends with my tied tongue." He was also buoyant and uncomplaining by nature, but Charles Eliot Norton recalled that one of Emerson's last remarks to him had a hint of Lear-wonder: "Strange that the kind Heavens should keep us on earth after they have destroyed our connection with things." The other famous story of Emerson forgetting Longfellow's name while eulogizing him at his funeral is apocryphal, though he did say to Ellen as they stood by the coffin, "Where are we? What house? And who is this sleeper?"

In the summer of 1872, fire destroyed most of Emerson's Concord home. He was sixty-nine and already infirm, and the event left him badly shaken, but that autumn he carried through with plans to make a final trip to England and then Egypt. The European leg of the journey was full of friendship and tribute; the trip up the Nile made Emerson feel "a perpetual humiliation, satirizing and whipping our ignorance. The people despise us because we are helpless babies. . . the sphinxes scorn dunces; the obelisks, the temple walls defy us with their histories which we cannot spell."

Upon Emerson's return to Boston, his friends in Concord arranged to have him delayed so that they could finish their homecoming preparations. When his train reached Walden woods the whistle began to blow, and continued to the station; the crowd which greeted him was so large that Emerson asked if the day was some sort of holiday; the band played "Home, Sweet Home," the schoolchildren sang, and everyone paraded to Emerson's front gate, over which the townspeople had constructed a huge floral arch, and behind which they had reconstructed his burned out house. Emerson went inside to find even his books and manuscripts in their accustomed place, and then returned to thank his neighbors "for this trick of sympathy to catch an old gentleman returned from his wanderings." When he died peacefully, just a month short of his birthday, the church bells rang once for each of his seventy-nine years.

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