Chapter Three: RALPH WALDO EMERSON: The Impersonal in the Personal Public Sphere
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87 Writing in his journal, Ralph Waldo Emerson includes P. T. Barnum’s name on a list of individuals he considers among the worst of the age: “My countryman is surely not James Buchanan, nor Caleb Cushing, nor Barnum, . . . But Thoreau & Alcott & Sumner & whoever lives in the same love and worship as I; every just person, every man or woman who knows what truth means.”1 Emerson’s rancor here registers his concerns about the Democrats, Know-­ Nothings, and other threats to the ideal society he envisions . He distinguishes himself and his “countrymen” from others who, as it turns out, are in fact his countrymen, and in doing so he reveals the very personal terms with which he understands political differences in a fractious time. The passage articulates a tribalism that turns up from time to time in Emerson’s writing, as when, in “Self-­ Reliance,” he remarks, “There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be.”2 This line comes in the context of his discussion of popular philanthropy , and while I recognize his effort to withstand the pressures of conformity, I think such statements reveal Emerson at his most snobbish. Nonetheless, the ideas he conveys in these instances are significant to his engagement with his times. Rejecting Barnum as one who does not know “what truth means,” Emerson does more than echo contemporary criticisms of the showman as a fraud; he addresses his own quest for authenticity and meaning, and he personalizes the tendencies within the culture that make that quest both difficult and necessary. In his own career, Emerson tried to reconcile the demands of commercial society with those of scholarly devotion, and he did so in part through a celebrity akin, but by no means identical, to Barnum’s. As much as has been written about Emerson, his popular appeal—­ his celebrity—­ remains a fact more acknowledged than understood. Emerson lectured to packed halls until late in his life, and he retained the reputation for genius that drew ardent readers and listeners, mostly young men, not just to his public appearances but even to his doorstep. Part of his success owes to his skills as a lecturer. Emerson studied oratory from his youth, and in his journals he astutely critiqued oratorical performances, including his own. In an age that prized oratory, Emerson ranked among Edward Chapter 3 �������������� RALPH WALDO EMERSON The Impersonal in the Personal Public Sphere 88  chapter three Everett, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Ward Beecher as one of the best and most influential speakers of the era. But a cultural value for oratory does not quite account for Emerson’s celebrity, because celebrity indicates a kind of relationship between a singular public figure and his audience. In the first place, oratory, and the reputation for eloquence, concentrates on each performance independently. The oratory establishes a unique connection with the audience, a sympathetic union, that unites the entire group as if by an electric current. This understanding of eloquence highlights its temporality: it exists only in the time and place of the utterance, and it depends on the physical presence, voice, delivery , and language of a charismatic speaker. Emerson apparently achieved this kind of success and built a reputation on it, but his celebrity presumes to extend that charismatic power beyond the lecture hall and into the culture at large. As Barnum’s example shows, celebrity supposes the public figure’s ubiquity, a presence beyond the body. The celebrity, in this respect, is less like the public speaker, who appears intermittently before specific audiences and then retreats, than he is like the printed text or image, which extends the figure’s presence into spaces he does not physically occupy. The significance of the body notwithstanding, celebrity is a metaphysical, even transcendental, condition. But let’s not get carried away. My language might indicate that Emerson’s celebrity is of a piece with his philosophies: it presumes that the leading spokesman for the ideas commonly called transcendentalism sought or at least tolerated celebrity as a manifestation of a spiritual reality in the shared material world of mass culture. I do not go so far as that in this chapter, because Emerson was highly skeptical of celebrity and its tendency to equate the physical person with his private self. As we have seen, celebrity culture operates in a personal public sphere characterized by the presumption of familiarity and even...