Shaking the Tent

His voice fell at the end of each sentence. At first he had placed the microphone on his shirt pocket, which only picked up the occasional bit of phrase or word. Sitting in the front, I could hear him without the aid of the microphone.

Yet Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books, kept me rapt as he talked about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

When we think of thinkers and poets, we think of them at the end of their lives when we are able to see their work as a whole. We look at Emerson as the Concord intellectual, perhaps as the surly man who wrote disparagingly of how others misconstrued his work. We read “Nature” and “Self-Reliance” and see them as works of little moment.

Mr. Green took a different tack. He spoke about the first two sermons that Emerson delivered after his ordination, as a young man of twenty-three, the man with a family history of great ministers. “This is where it all started,” Mr. Green said. “You can see the seeds of his later works in these sermons. No, these works are uneven, he was still a young man and not in full control of his powers. But you can see so much in these two sermons.”

When we think of industrialization, of the Industrial Revolution, we often think of Lowell, Massachusetts. Mr. Green argued that we should look at Waltham, Massachusetts, first. “Studying the Industrial Revolution starting in Lowell is like studying the Civil War starting with the first battle that the Union Army won.” Rather than building a mill town from the ground as they did in Lowell, the first mills were built in Waltham, a farming community that some of the wealthy Bostonians used as their summer home.

And, when thinking of these sermons, it is important to remember that these wealthy citizens would have gone back to Boston in the fall. Emerson gave a bright burning speech. My memory cannot do it justice. But I shivered as I listened to Mr. Green read Emerson’s words.

During the question and answer period, I asked about the influences of Eastern thought and mysticism on Emerson, if he could see them in these early sermons. He said that he thought he sensed something there. In Emerson’s notebooks and journals, Mr. Green said, there are references to Byron and Shelley. “Although their works were caricatures or cartoons of Eastern thought, I think some of what filters down to Emerson comes straight from the English Romantic poets, particularly Byron.” The Romantics were fascinated with the East and some of the first translations of Eastern literature was becoming available.

Talking with him after his lecture, Mr. Green admitted he didn’t know as much about the roots of Emerson’s interest in Eastern thought. I reminded him of the reference in Walden about Thoreau sitting in contemplation, what we would now call meditation. We both wondered when, specifically, they began studying, what they read, and what they knew.

I think Mr. Green has found the topic of his next lecture on Emerson.

And when he presents, I will be there.

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