Centennial Contributions

The Alcott centennial

Read at the Second Church, Copley Square, Boston, Wednesday, November 29, 1899.

A hundred years ago A. Bronson Alcott was born, and thirty-three years later his daughter Louisa was born, happily on the same day of the year, as if for this very purpose,--that you might testify your appreciation of the good work they did in this world, at one and the same moment. It was a fortunate coincidence, which we like to think of to-day, as it undoubtedly gave pleasure to Bronson Alcott and his wife sixty-seven years ago.

How genuine were Mr. Alcott and his daughter, Louisa! “All else,” says the sage, “is superficial and perishable, save love and truth only.” It is through the love and truth that was in these two that we still feel their influence as if they were living to-day. How well I recollect Mr. Alcott's first visit to my father's house at Medford, when I was a boy! I had the same impression of him then that the consideration of his life makes on me now,--as an exceptional person, but one greatly to be trusted. I could see that he was a man who wished well to me, [356] and to all mankind; who had no intention of encroaching on my rights as an individual in any way whatever; and who, furthermore, had no suspicion of me as a person alien to himself. The criticism made of him by my young brother held good of him then and always,--that “he looked like one of Christ's disciples.” His aspect was intelligently mild and gentle, unmixed with the slightest taint of worldly selfinterest.

He heard that Goethe had said, “We begin to sin as soon as we act;” but he did not agree to this, and was determined that one man at least should live in this world without sinning. He carried this plan out so consistently that, as he once confessed to me, it brought him to the verge of starvation. Then he realized that in order to play our part in the general order of things,--in order to obviate the perpetual tendency in human affairs to chaos,--we are continually obliged to compromise. However, to the last he would never touch animal food. Others might murder sheep and oxen, but he, Bronson Alcott, would not be a partaker in what he considered a serious transgression of moral law. This brought him into antagonism with the current of modern opinion, which considers man the natural ruler of this earth, and that it is both his right and his duty to remodel it according to his ideas of usefulness and beauty. [357] It brought him into a life-long conflict with society, but how gallantly, how amiably he carried this on you all know. It cannot be said that he was defeated, for his spirit was unconquerable. His purity of intention always received its true recognition; and wherever Bronson Alcott went he collected the most earnest, high-minded people about him, and made them more earnest, more high-minded by his conversation.

How different was his daughter, Louisa,--the keen observer of life and manners; the witty story-teller with the pictorial mind; always sympathetic, practical, helpful — the mainstay of her family, a pillar of support to her friends; forgetting the care of her own soul in her interest for the general welfare; heedless of her own advantage, and thereby obtaining for herself as a gift from heaven, the highest of all advantages, and the greatest of all rewards!

And yet, with so wide a difference in the practical application of their lives, the well-spring of Louisa's thought and the main-spring of her action were identical with those of her father, and may be considered an inheritance from him. For the well-spring of her thought was truth, and the main-spring of her action was love. There can be no fine art, no great art, no art which is of service to mankind, which does not originate on this twofold basis. We are told [358] that when she was a young girl, on a voyage from Philadelphia to Boston, her face suddenly lighted up with the true brightness of genius, as she said, “I love everybody in this whole world!” If, afterwards, a vein of satire came to be mingled with this genial flow of human kindness, it was not Louisa's fault.

In like manner, Bronson Alcott rested his argument for immortality on the ground of the family affections. “Such strong ties,” he reasoned, “could not have been made merely to be broken.” Let us share his faith, and believe that they have not been broken.


The Emerson centennial: Emerson and the great poets

Read in the Town Hall, Concord, Mass., July 23, 1903.

On his first visit to England, Emerson was so continually besieged with invitations that, as he wrote to Carlyle, answering the notes he received “ate up his day like a cherry;” and yet I have never met but one Englishman, Dr. John Tyndall, the chemist, who seemed to appreciate Emerson's poetry, and few others who might be said to appreciate the man himself. Tyndall may have recognized Emerson's keen insight for the poetry of science in such verses as:

What time the gods kept carnival;
Tricked out in gem and flower;
And in cramp elf and saurian form
They swathed their too much power.

A person who lacks some knowledge of geology would not be likely to understand this. Matthew Arnold and Edwin Arnold had no very high opinion of Emerson's poetry; and even Carlyle, who was Emerson's best friend in Europe, spoke of it in rather a disparaging manner. The “Mountain and the Squirrel” [360] and several others have been translated into German, but not those which we here consider the best of them.

On the other hand, Dr. William H. Furness considered Emerson “heaven-high above our other poets;” C. P. Cranch preferred him to Longfellow; Dr. F. H. Hedge looked upon him as the first poet of his time; Rev. Samuel Longfellow and Rev. Samuel Johnson held a very similar opinion, and David A. Wasson considered Emerson's “Problem” one of the great poems of the century.

These men were all poets themselves, though they did not make a profession of it, and in that character were quite equal to Matthew Arnold, whose lecture on Emerson was evidently written under unfavorable influences. They were men who had passed through similar experiences to those which developed Emerson's mind and character, and could therefore comprehend him better than others. We all feel that Emerson's poetry is sometimes too abstruse, especially in his earlier verses, and that its meaning is often too recondite for ready apprehension; but there are passages in it so luminous and so farreaching in their application that only the supreme poets of all time have equalled them.

Homer's strength consists in his pictorial descriptions, but also sometimes in pithy reflections on life and human nature; and it is in [361] these latter that Emerson often comes close to him. Most widely known of Homer's epigrams is that reply of Telemachus to Antiochus in the Odyssey, which Pope has rendered:

True hospitality is in these terms expressed,
Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest.

To which the following couplet from “Woodnotes” seems almost like a continuation:

Go where he will, the wise man is at home,
His hearth the earth,--his hall the azure dome;

The wise man carries rest and contentment in his own mental life, and is equally himself at the Corona d'italia and on a western ranch; while the weakling runs back to earlier associations like a colt to its stable. But Homer is also Emersonian at times. What could be more so than Achilles's memorable saying, which is repeated by Ulysses in the Odyssey: “More hateful to me than the gates of death is he who thinks one thing and speaks another;” or this exclamation of old Laertes in the last book of the Odyssey: “What a day is this when I see my son and grandson contending in excellence!”

It seems a long way from Dante to Emerson, and yet there are Dantean passages in “Woodnotes” and “Voluntaries.” They are not in Dante's matchless measure, but they have much [362] of his grace, and more of his inflexible will. This warning against mercenary marriages might be compared to Dante's answer to the embezzling Pope Nicholas III. in Canto XIX. of the Inferno:

He shall be happy in his love,
Like to like shall joyful prove;
He shall be happy whilst he woos,
Muse-born, a daughter of the Muse.
But if with gold she bind her hair,
And deck her breast with diamond,
Take off thine eyes, thy heart forbear,
Though thou lie alone on the ground.
The robe of silk in which she shines,
It was woven of many sins;
And the shreds
Which she sheds
In the wearing of the same,
Shall be grief on grief,
And shame on shame.

There is a Spartan-like severity in this, but so was Dante very severe. It was his mission to purify the moral sense of his countrymen in an age when the Church no longer encouraged virtue; and Emerson no less vigorously opposed the rank materialism of America in a period of exceptional prosperity.

The next succeeding lines are not exactly Dantean, but they are among Emerson's finest, and worthy of any great poet. The “Pine tree” says: [363]

Heed the old oracles,
Ponder my spells;
Song wakes in my pinnacles
When the wind swells.
Soundeth the prophetic wind,
The shadows shake on the rock behind,
And the countless leaves of the pine are strings
Tuned to the lay the wood-god sings.

Again we are reminded of Dante in the opening passages of “Voluntaries” :

Low and mournful be the strain,
Haughty thought be far from me;
Where a captive lies in pain
Moaning by the tropic sea.
Sole estate his sire bequeathed-
Hapless sire to hapless son-
Was the wailing song he breathed,
And his chain when life was done.

It is still more difficult to compare Emerson with Shakespeare, for the one was Puritan with a strong classic tendency, and the other anti-Puritan with a strong romantic tendency; but allowing for this and for Shakespeare's universality, it may be affirmed that there are few passages in King Henry IV. and Henry V. which take a higher rank than Emerson's description of Cromwell:

He works, plots, fights 'mid rude affairs,
With squires, knights, kings his strength compares; [364]
Till late he learned through doubt and fear,
Broad England harbored not his peer:
Unwilling still the last to own,
The genius on his cloudy throne.

Emerson learned a large proportion of his wisdom from Goethe, as he frequently confessed, but where in Goethe's poetry will you find a quatrain of more penetrating beauty or wider significance than this from “Woodnotes” :

Thou canst not wave thy staff in air
Nor dip thy paddle in the lake,
But it carves the bow of beauty there,
And ripples in rhyme the oar forsake.

Or this one from the “Building of the House” --considered metaphorically as the life structure of man:

She lays her beams in music,
     In music every one,
To the cadence of the whirling world
     Which dances round the sun.

There is a flash as of heaven's own lightning in some of his verses, and his name has become a spell to conjure with.


The Hawthorne centennial: Hawthorne as art critic

When the “Marble Faun” was first published the art criticism in it, especially of sculptors and painters who were then living, created a deal of discussion, which has been revived again by the recent centennial celebration. Hawthorne himself was the most perfect artist of his time as a man of letters, and the judgment of such a person ought to have its value, even when it relates to subjects which are beyond the customary sphere of his investigations, and for which he has not made a serious preparation. In spite of the adage, “every man to his own trade,” it may be fairly asserted that much of Hawthorne's art criticism takes rank among the finest that has been written in any language. On the other hand, there are instances, as might be expected, in which he has failed to hit the mark.

These latter may be placed in two classes: Firstly, those in which he indicates a partiality for personal acquaintances; and secondly, those in which he has followed popular opinion at the time, or the opinion of others, without sufficient consideration. [366]

American society in Rome is always split up into various cliques,--which is not surprising in view of the adventitious manner in which it comes together there,--and in Hawthorne's time the two leading parties were the Story and the Crawford factions. The latter was a man of true genius, and not only the best of American sculptors, but perhaps the greatest sculptor of the nineteenth century. His statue of Beethoven is in the grand manner, and instinct with harmony, not only in attitude and expression, but even to the arrangement of the drapery. Crawford's genius was only too well appreciated, and he was constantly carrying off the prizes of his art from all competitors. Consequently it was inevitable that other sculptors should be jealous of him, and should unite together for mutual protection. Story was a man of talent, and not a little of an amateur, but he was the gentlemanly entertainer of those Americans who came to the city with good letters of introduction. Hawthorne evidently fell into Story's hands. He speaks slightingly of Crawford, and praises Story's statue of Cleopatra in unqualified terms; and yet there seems to have been an undercurrent of suspicion in his mind, for he says more than once in the “Marble Faun” that it would appear to be a failing with sculptors to speak unfavorably of the work of other sculptors, and this, of course, [367] was perhaps more like Auerbach than any other writer of the nineteenth century, but still more like Goldsmith. The “Vicar of Wakefield” and the “House of the seven Gables” are the two perfect romances in the English tongue; and the “Deserted Village,” though written in poetry, has very much the quality of Hawthorne's shorter sketches. “And tales much older than the ale went round” is closely akin to Hawthorne's humor; yet there was little outward similarity between them, for Goldsmith was often gay and sometimes frivolous; and although Hawthorne never published a line of poetry he was the more poetic of the two, as Goldsmith was the more dramatic. He also resembled Goldsmith in his small financial difficulties.

In his persistent reserve, in the seriousness of his delineation, and in his indifference to the opinions of others, Hawthorne reminds us somewhat of Michael Angelo; but he is one of the most unique figures among the world's geniuses. [368] action and royal abandon which greets us in Shakespeare's and Plutarch's “Cleopatra.” Story might have taken a lesson from Titian's matchless “Cleopatra” in the Cassel Gallery, or from Marc Antonio's small woodcut of Raphael's “Cleopatra.”

Hawthorne was an idealist, and he idealized the materials in Story's studio, for literary purposes, just as Shakespeare idealized Henry V., who was not a magnanimous monarch at all, but a brutal, narrow-minded fighter. The discourse on art, which he develops in this manner, forms one of the most valuable chapters in the “Marble Faun.” It assists us in reading it to remember that Story was not the model for Hawthorne's “Kenyon,” but a very different character. The passage in which he criticises the methods of modern sculptors has often been quoted in later writings on that subject; and I suppose the whole brotherhood of artists would rise up against me if I were to support Hawthorne's condemnation of nude Venuses and “the guilty glimpses stolen at hired models.”

They are not necessarily guilty glimpses. To an experienced artist the customary study from a naked figure, male or female, is little more than what a low-necked dress would be to others. Yet the instinct of the age shrinks from this exposure. We can make pretty good Venuses, but we cannot look at them through the same [369] mental and moral atmosphere as the cotemporaries of Scopas, or even with the same eyes that Michael Angelo did. We feel the difference between a modern Venus and an ancient one. There is a statue in the Vatican of a Roman emperor, of which every one says that it ought to wear clothes; and the reason is because the face has such a modern look. A raving Bacchante may be a good acquisition to an art museum, but it is out of place in a public library. A female statue requires more or less drapery to set off the outlines of the figure and to give it dignity. We feel this even in the finest Greek work-like the Venus of Cnidos.

In this matter Hawthorne certainly exposes his Puritanic education, and he also places too high a value on the carving of buttonholes and shoestrings by Italian workmen. Such things are the fag-ends of statuary.

His judgment, however, is clear and convincing in regard to the tinted Eves and Venuses of Gibson. Whatever may have been the ancient practice in this respect, Gibson's experiment proved a failure. Nobody likes those statues; and no other sculptor has since followed Gibson's example.

Hawthorne overestimates the Apollo Belvidere, as all the world did at that time; but his single remark concerning Canova is full of significance: “In these precincts which Canova's [370] genius was not quite of a character to render sacred, though it certainly made them interesting,” etc.

He goes to the statue gallery in the Vatican and returns with a feeling of dissatisfaction, and justly so, for the vast majority of statues there are merely copies, and many of them very bad copies. He recognizes the Laocoon for what it really is, the abstract type of a Greek tragedy. He notices what has since been proved by severe archaeological study, that most of the possible types and attitudes of marble statues had been exhausted by the Greeks long before the Christian era. Miss Hosmer's Zenobia was originally a Ceres, and even Crawford's Orpheus strongly resembles a figure in the Niobe group at Florence.

But Hawthorne's description of the Faun of Praxiteles stands by itself. As a penetrative analysis of a great sculptor's motive it is unequalled by any modern writer on art, and this is set forth with a grace and delicacy worthy of Praxiteles himself. The only criticism which one feels inclined to make of it is that it too Hawthornish, too modern and elaborate; but is not this equally true of all modern criticism? We cannot return to the simplicity of the Greeks any more than we can to their customs. If Hawthorne would seem to discover too much in this statue, which is really a poor Roman [371] copy, he has himself given us an answer to this objection. In Volume II., Chapter XII., he says: “Let the canvas glow as it may, you must look with the eye of faith, or its highest excellence escapes you. There is always the necessity of helping out the painter's art with your own resources of sensibility and imagination.” His cursory remarks on Raphael are not less pertinent and penetrating. Of technicalities he knew little, but no one, perhaps, has sounded such depths of that clairvoyant master's nature, and so brought to light the very soul of him.

The “Marble Faun” may not be the most perfect of Hawthorne's works, but it is much the greatest,--an epic romance, which can only be compared with Goethe's “Wilhelm Meister.”

Hawthorne and Hamlet: a reply to Professor Bliss Perry.

To compare a person in real life with a character in fiction is not uncommon, but it is more conducive to solidity of judgment to compare the living with the living, and the imaginary with the imaginary. The chief difficulty, however, in Hamlet's case, is that he only appears before us as a person acting in an abnormal mental condition. The mysterious death of his father, the suspicion of his mother's complicity in crime, which takes the form of an apparition [372] from beyond the grave, is too much of a strain for his tender and impressible nature. His mental condition has become well known to physicians as cerebral hyperemia, and all his strange speeches and eccentric actions are to be traced to this source; and it is for this reason that the dispute has arisen as to whether Hamlet was not partially insane. If the strain continued long enough he would no doubt have become insane.

As well as we can penetrate through this adventitious nimbus, we discover Hamlet to be a person of generous, princely nature, highminded and chivalrous. He is cordial to every one, but always succeeds in asserting the superiority of his position, even in his conversation with Horatio. If he is mentally sensitive he shows no indication of it. He never appears shy or reserved, but on the contrary, confident and even bold. This may be owing to the mental excitement under which he labors; but the best critics from Goethe down have accredited him with a lack of resolution; and it is this which produces the catastrophe of the play. He must have realized, as we all do, that after the scene of the players in which he “catches the conscience of a king,” his life was in great danger. He should either have organized a conspiracy at once, or fled to the court of Fortinbras; but he allows events to take their course, and is controlled [373] by them instead of shaping his own destiny. Instead of planning and acting he philosophizes.

Of Hawthorne, on the contrary, we know nothing except as a person in a perfectly normal condition. His wife once said that she had rarely known him to be indignant, and never to lose his temper. He was the most sensitive of men, but he also possesed an indomitable will. It was only his terrible determination that could make his life a success. Emerson, who had little sympathy with him otherwise, always admired the perfect equipoise of his nature. A man could not be more thoroughly himself; but, such a reticent, unsociable character as Hawthorne could never be used as the main-spring of a drama, for he would continually impede the progress of the plot. A dramatic character needs to be a talkative person; one that either acts out his internal life, or indirectly exposes it. Hawthorne's best friends do not appear to have known what his real opinions were. This perpetual reserve, this unwillingness to assimilate himself to others, may have been necessary for the perfection of his art.

The greater a writer or an artist, the more unique he is,--the more sharply defined from all other members of his class. Hawthorne certainly did not resemble Scott, Dickens, or Thackeray, either in his life or his work. He [374] was perhaps more like Auerbach than any other writer of the nineteenth century, but still more like Goldsmith. The “Vicar of Wakefield” and the “House of the seven Gables” are the two perfect romances in the English tongue; and the “Deserted Village,” though written in poetry, has very much the quality of Hawthorne's shorter sketches. “And tales much older than the ale went round” is closely akin to Hawthorne's humor; yet there was little outward similarity between them, for Goldsmith was often gay and sometimes frivolous; and although Hawthorne never published a line of poetry he was the more poetic of the two, as Goldsmith was the more dramatic. He also resembled Goldsmith in his small financial difficulties.

In his persistent reserve, in the seriousness of his delineation, and in his indifference to the opinions of others, Hawthorne reminds us somewhat of Michael Angelo; but he is one of the most unique figures among the world's geniuses.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
July 23rd, 1903 AD (1)
November 29th, 1899 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: