Friday, April 03, 2009

Emerson brings a friend up to date on his London doings

A letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to his English friend Alexander Ireland:
London, 3rd April, 1848.

I had hoped to have seen you here ere this. My London adventures already make too long a story to write. I spend my time not quite unprofitably, but in a way that must soon have an end, or it would make an end of my comfort. Yet I cannot decline these valued opportunities of seeing men and things which are offered me here. Excepting Tennyson, I believe, I have seen all the literary and many of the political notabilities who interested me. On Thursday last, I went to Oxford, and spent two days and more, very agreeably there, and made the acquaintance of many good men. I have not quite yet decided how long to stay, or whither next to go, but soon must. I carried our good friend Neuberg, the other night, to Carlyle, who was in better mood than usual. I have a good chamber for you here, waiting your advent, and am ever yours. I doubt about Paris a little, being very impatient to be at home and at work.
It was Alexander Ireland who convinced Emerson to make this journey in 1847-48. Ireland, an editor, journalist, and prolific author, was a Scot living in Edinburgh. In a book celebrating Emerson's life and works he described the invitation that he had extended to Emerson and gave Emerson's response.*

Emerson had met Thomas Carlyle on his first visit to England and subsequently championed his writings in the United States. Joseph Neuberg was Carlyle's indispensable secretary.

{This painting of Thomas Carlye is by John Everett Millais; source: nshadowsong blog}


Here is the heart of Ireland's description:
The publication, in England, of [Emerson's two] series of essays, which took place a year or two later, made his name widely known throughout Great Britain, and men of thought recognised in him an intellectual leader. Many of his friends were desirous that he should come to England, and deliver courses of lectures similar to those he had given with such signal success in various cities of the United States. In this desire I warmly-shared. In the autumn of 1846, a very favourable opportunity presented itself of sending a message to him by a common friend Mr. Lloyd Garrison who was then sailing from Liverpool to Boston, and who promised to deliver it himself, I gladly availed myself of the occasion, and on the spur of the moment, just before the ship steamed out of the Mersey, I wrote a hasty note in pencil, urging him to entertain the project of a lengthened visit to England, and which should embrace the delivery of lectures in the chief towns of the kingdom. That he might be freed from all irksome correspondence in connection with such a project, I gladly offered to undertake all the necessary business arrangements. Before long I received a reply, which was more favourable than I expected. It was full of kind words and reminiscences. "Your suggestion is new and unlooked for, yet opens to me at once so many flattering possibilities, that I shall cheerfully entertain it, and perhaps we may both see it ripen one day to a fact. Certainly it would be much more practicable and pleasing to me to answer an invitation than to come into your cities and challenge an audience." Some months later (28th February, 1847) he wrote: "I owe you new thanks for your friendly and earnest attention to the affair of Lectures which you have put me on, but I had not anticipated so prompt an execution of the project as you suggest. Certainly I cannot think of it for April (1847). For September I will think of it, but cannot at present fix anything. I really have not the means of forming an opinion of the expediency of such an attempt. I feel no call to make a visit of literary propagandism in England. All my impulses to work of that kind would rather employ me at home. It would be still more unpleasing to me to put upon a few friends the office of collecting an audience for me, by much advertisement and coaxing. At the same time it would be very agreeable to me to accept any good invitation to read lectures from institutions, or from a number of friendly individuals who sympathised with my studies. But though I possess a good many decisive tokens of interest in my pursuits and way of thinking from sundry British men and women, they are widely sundered persons, and my belief is that in no one city, except perhaps in London, could I find any numerous company to whom my name was favourably known. If I were younger, it would give me great pleasure to come to England and collect my own audience, as I have done at home here ; and I have that con-fidence in my favourite topics and in my own habits, that I should undertake the affair without the least distrust. But perhaps my ambition does not give to a success of this kind that importance it has had for me. At all events, in England I incline rather to take than to give the challenge. So that you see my project requires great frankness on your part. You must not suffer your own friendly feelings to give the smallest encouragement to the design. . . . You inquire what are the rates of remuneration of lecturers here. ... I am glad to hear what you tell me of your employments and position. I doubt not life has taught and is teaching us both one lesson. It would be strange, but most agreeable to me, to renew again our brief yet never-forgotten acquaintance of thirteen or fourteen years ago in Edinburgh. With ever kindest regards."

It was quite characteristic of Mr. Emerson to under-estimate the extent to which his name was known and his writings appreciated in England. No sooner was it announced that he had decided to revisit this country and to read lectures, than applications from every part of the kingdom began to flow in, and in many cases it was found impossible to comply with the wishes of the requisitionists, from a fear of committing him to engagements which might have become burdensome to him.

Speaking of the occasion of his second visit to England in "English Traits," he says: "I did not go very willingly. I am not a good traveller, nor have I found that long journeys yield a fair share of reasonable hours. But the invitation was repeated and pressed at a moment of more leisure, and when I was a little spent by some unusual studies. I wanted a change and a tonic, and England was proposed to me. Besides, there were, at least, the dread attraction and salutary influences of the sea, so I took my berth in the packet ship, 'Washington Irving,' and sailed from Boston on Tuesday, 5th October, 1847."

Some sources:

Ralph Waldo Emerson; his life, genius, and writings. A biographical sketch, by Alexander Ireland (London, Simpkin, Marshall, 1882)

Emerson at Home and Abroad, by Moncure Daniel Conway (J. R. Osgood and company, 1882)

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