Barack Obama’s Emerson

These online columns ,  an experiment in Boston/New England studies commentary,  are timed to be a 20-minute read — except for occasional “blooks” that will demand an hour or more.  Always sourced,  but never peer reviewed,  they are the latest iteration of DSTs “column” on WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet,  for Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News.  The column moved in the 1990s  to  the Boston Phoenix as “Skyline”  (so named by editor Peter Kadzis),  and has moved now from print to online,  modeled on the Center for History and New Media   blogs at George Mason University.

“EMERSON’S  TIMELESSNESS  is persistent and striking”,  critic Edward Hirsch has written;  his explanation  Emerson’s “volcanic power,  his emotional depth and searing intellectual intensity.”  Certainly these attributes have attracted a company of praise singers as wide ranging over the years as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and in our own era,  Jorge Luis Bourges,  just among writers alone.  The American Plato,  Boston’s iconic thinker,  Emerson has also exerted a formative influence over our new young president.

To understand the origins of this influence,  one must consider unsurprisingly the reasons  Barack Hussein Obama would be drawn to the “foremost citizen”,  in Carlos Baker’s words,  “of the American Renaissance,  Ralph Waldo Emerson,  its intellectual centerpiece”, who presided over perhaps Boston’s finest hour yet, rivaling even the cradling of the American Revolution.  Considered in connection with certain historical figures  upon whom Emerson was also an important influence who are also heroes of Mr. Obama  — both Lincoln and Gandhi and,  more recently,  Robert Kennedy  — the result can be a better understanding of  our president  and  of his own new influence on our perception of Emerson himelf today.

The president’s affinities in this respect are by now well known.  So much so that when Penguin issued his inaugural address in book form,  the editor’s bracketed it with writings by the two American’s they announced had “influenced and inspired Obama politically, philosophically and personally”,  one being Lincoln,  the other Emerson.  Already,  however,  sources as grand as The New York Times and as everyday as Mr. Obama’s Facebook page had  documented the fact that it was really a formative threesome,   not twosome, and not all Americans.  Gandhi  was the second person of Mr. Obama’s trinity, omitted I guess for political reasons from the innaugural book.

I read the newspaper article the day it appeared at my usual table in the Map Room Cafe run by the Catered Affair on the ground floor of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square,  the place I favor for lunch on a day when my mealtime appointment is solely with my daily Times.  The piece took as its point of departure then Senator Obama’s favorite books,   twelve in all.  Number one was the Bible,  which I have to say I never quite believe,  so devout a choice does it seem,  but disbelieve even more when it’s not there,  so do the scriptures penetrate all strata of our culture even now in the post Christian  era.  Number two was a book I have not read but have heard much of,  “Parting the Waters”,  the first volume of Taylor Branch’s  Purlitzer Prize winning history of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights movement.  Further down the list were formidable classics — by Shakespeare,  Melville,  and Niebuhr — and also contemporary authors — all women,  interestingly  ( Toni Morison,  Doris Kearns Goodwin,  Doris Lessing and Marilynne Robinson) — but there in the top half was the not entirely compatible triumvirate:  the number five author was Lincoln; number four was Gandhi; number three,  Emerson.

I wonder if I’m the only person who decided there and then to vote for Barack Obama?  That this country finally broke the color barrier is,  in retrospect, wonderful;  a transformative event I am proud to have been a part of.  But that is not why I voted for Mr. Obama.  Never mind my politics,  which I will spare the reader,  I voted for Mr. Obama chiefly because I am sufficiently a Bostonian of the world  — a  charter member I sometimes say of “Bostonian’s Without Borders” —  to perhaps qualify as an Emersonian;  a Harvard educated historian who is just the sort of elitist,  professorial type — where are my glasses? — such a combination would suggest.  So I concluded preety quickly,  once he had got my attention,  that this svelte,  cool,  calm and collected black man whose mind it was a pleasure to see clicking through whatever,  this graceful elitist with the dazzling name of Barrack Hussein Obama , was my choice for president.

Never mind he did not favor same sex marriage,  a cause of mine,  and seemed to prefer basketball to baseball.  I didn’t  know then that because of Mr. Obama’s Kenyan father,  then Senator Obama was,  like me,  a Harvard legacy,  but  when I learned that  it only made me surer I had made the right choice.  While I have never had the slightest desire to have a beer with my president — the reason  I was told so many had voted for Mr. Bush — the fact that Emerson,  my number two,  was Mr. Obama’s number three  (Saint Paul, I’m afraid, is my number one)  sealed the deal for me.  It had been too long,  I thought,  since John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the last Harvard man of the right sort to live in the White House;  time again for an Ivy League philosopher king;  his pocket Emerson,  of course,  always ready to hand.


In Emerson’s own pocket,  so to speak,  was the Bhagavad Gita.  And to imagine Mr, Obama’a own pocket Emerson is just to say that global Boston — Boston/New England studies generally — does not get better.  Unless it’s a comparison of Gandhi’s and Emerson’s litanies of life experience. Gandhi’s version bears repeating every day:  “Keep your thoughts positive,  because your thoughts become your words”,  he taught,  and so on through words which become your behaviour,  which become your habits,  which become your values,  which finally become your destiny”.  Emerson’s version: “Sow a thought and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit;  sow a habit and you reap a character;  sow a character and you reap a destiny”.

Both men’s litanies may seem to clever by half. But as Anthony Parel has pointed out, Gandhi read Emerson’s essays in early 1909 in jail, and read them very carefully;  how carefully may be gathered from the instruction he gave to …his deputy to read Emerson by marking important passages first,  and later by copying them out in a notebook.” It was, indeed, a “great encounter”, the title of Raj Kumar Gupta’s book about “the considerable impression made by American writers such as Emerson and Thoreau on such important [Indian] public men as Gandhi and Nehru”.  Gupta points out that “Emerson has always enjoyed great popularity in India. The well known composer…Laxman Sastri,  named one of his ragas after him….Tagore, Nehru and Gandhi were among Emerson’s admirers…In his paper, Indian Opinion, in February 18, 1905 [Gandhi] published an extract from [Emerson’s] “The Over-Soul”, writing his son in March, 1909…that Emerson] was ‘a Western guru’. Moreover, what Emerson lacked in the Mahatma’s view, Emerson’s best friend supplied: “Gandhi believed”, Gupta writes, that  “Emerson was too much a thinker and not sufficiently a man of action….[It was in] Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ [Gandhi found ]a clarion call for the type of action his own deepest convictions inclined him to”.

Thus at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Hindu thinker Protap Chunder Majundar  “equated the Emersonian Over-Soul with the indwelling Diety of Hinduism”.  And today  Pico Iyer, an Oxford educated journalist and native of Bombay based at Time Magazine, can say, “I would like to call myself a Trandscendentalist”, explaining himself thusly:  “the higher form of globalism, I’ve always thought, is Emerson”, saying something too of the league he puts Emerson in when he adds, “that’s why I chose to write a book about the Dalai Lama; because he is talking globalism but not at the level of…McDonalds or Britney Spears, but at the level of conscience, imagination and the  heart.”

Iyer can argue thusly because Global Boston  is a two way street. Google “Boston Zen” today and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Sangha will come up as meeting regularly at the First Church in Boston in the Back Bay, where  Emerson’s father was minister. Indeed, as Lawrence Buell has pointed out, Emerson’s writings were what sparked “Anglo-American Protestantism to reimagine religion on a global scale, to think ‘world regional’….Transcendentalism was in fact the first significant intellectual movement in the U. S. actively to promote interest in Eastern religion.”

Introduced to India’s sacred scriptures by the work of the French philosopher, Victor Cousin, Emerson at once saw in them “a scripture of equal standing with the Gospels”, in the words of Emerson’s most brilliant biographer in  my view, Robert D.  Richardson Jr., who maintains that for Emerson “the East was proof–persuasive precisely because it was non-Western–that at the deep end of the pool, where it matters,, Westerner and Easterner are profoundly alike, indeed, identical. Nor does this perception in any way lessen  the importance and the delight of the shallow differences that seperate us from one another. Emerson’s politics of identity validated both East and West, declined subordination or dismissal, and committed him to a constant and ever widening radar-sweep of inquiry.”

Whether as to the belief in “the fundamental identity of all things, beyond and beneath appearances, and a profound conception of universal justicce and equilibrium”,  all else not real, only illusion,;  or, indeed, in its repercussions — not least that “it is necessary to act, undoubtedly, but to act as if one acted not” — it is not hard to see why Emerson would be drawn to the scriptures of ancient India, and more than one Indian thinker be drawn to Emerson’s own teachings. Nor is it hard to see why the American Plato should agree that great men,  never mind their individual gifts,  which Emerson was the last to scant,  are properly understood — as perhaps President Obama should be — as primarily “representitive or symbolic figures….of nations,  epochs,  of humanity,  of nature,  and of universal order”;  as,  indeed, is the case with Emerson himself. For not only was the Sage of Concord called  “the Buddah of the West” by John Aleers, but as truly Boston’s iconic thinker  he stood in the great tradition  of preaching “the city on a hill” first preached  on the Arabella before landing by John Winthrop, Boston’s founder.

It was a mooring Emerson always held fast to,  however far his mind voyaged,  for the widest perspective must still be from somehwre in particular,  something , as Jedediah Prudy has pointed out , Transcendentalists never forgot:  “they believed that the world…needed to be understood to become complete, and that in human understanding, the mind and world enetered a harmonious consummation [only when there] was epiphany, the crystaline gift of a moment’s emotional clarity or perfect attention to a thing or place, like Walden Pond, in which the Universe stood suddenly revealed.”

Emerson,  unlike Thoreau,  looked as much and finally more to the ever renewing Renaissance city as much as to the differently renewing landscape of nature  to fix  the necessary state of mind,  and his relationship with Boston was so intimate that more than once he refred to  the city of his birth as his  “darling”.  Writes Lawrence Buell:  “The Boston into which Emerson was born was a town of fewer than 25, 000 people, proud of its revolutionary heritage but a cultural backwater compared to London and Paris….Yet within a mere half century…the Boston area…had become a center for literature,  for avant-garde American thought in religion,  philosophy  and education,  and for a host of other reform movements”. Adds Buell: ” the so-called Transcendentalist movement, for which Emerson was the key inspirational figure, was one of the primary reasons why”.

How important this bond was to Emerson is evident in the struggle he always had to express it on paper. Of course, identity of place — as opposed to piety of place, which is realy chauvenism or boosterism — is as hard to nail down  as any other form of identity. In his “Boston Hymn”  — note the religiosity of the word “hymn” —  for instance, Emerson  struck just the global note  to try to capture that identity: “The word of the Lord by night to the watching Pilgrims came” — note Pilgrims, not Puritans —  “God said, I am tired of Kings.”  It was at least a global anunciation. And in his “Boston”,  a decade later,  it is still all outward looking,  not inward at all:  “Each street leads downward to the Sea,/ Or landward to the West.”  Outward too in  aspiration! “What care though rival cities soar/ Along the stormy coast, / Penn’s town,  New York and Baltimore, / if Boston knew the most”.  For Emerson the economic and the political capitals of the nation would never take rank over the intellectual or spiritual capital. Finally, there was  his “Hymn: Sung at the Completion of the Concord Monument”,  which made most conspicious appearance in the  “Boston Book, being Specimens of Metropolitan Literature” of 1850,  in which Emerson captured the glory of nations in his vigorous boast of  “the shot heard ’round the world” ,  his heart-thumping  vision of “their flag to April’s breeze unfirled” .

On the other hand,  Emerson , who thought so highly of Boston’s vocation , thought very little indeed of its  daily testimonies:  “in Beacon Street and Mount Vernon, as well as in the lawyer’s offices”, he wrote,  he found “the same meanness and sterility,  and leave-all-hope-behind,  as one finds in a boot manufacturer’s premises”. As Buell points out,  Emerson more than once “espressed disdain for the greed and philistinism of State Street”,  which, by the way,  returned the favor:  according to Perry Miller  “most Boston businessmen found Emerson’s ideas both disconcerting and contemptible.”

All that said, at the top and at the bottom, so to speak, of Boston, it was the amenities in between that charmed Emerson most. In Boston he created (in the “elegance and comfort” of the Athenaeum, where he prized its art as much as its books, feeling keenly “the spirit of the connoisseur stealing over him as distraction from the tedious joys of reading and writing”).  In the city also he convened with his brother idea-makers and colleagues of the spirit,  both at larger groups like Beacon Hill’s Radical Club and smaller as in Annie Fields’s Charles Street salon,  or at Margaret Fuller’s on West Street,  above all in in his cherished montly six hour dinners at the Saturday Club with the likes of Hawthorne, Longfellow, Agassiz, Lowell, Henry James Sr., Holmes Sr., and Charles Eliot Norton. In Boston too, of course, the journal of his very own movement, the Dial, was published;  there as well were his own publishers, Ticknor and Fields,  based at what is now known as the Old Corner Bookstore, home too to the Atlantic Monthly, in the first issue of which, in 1857,  Emerson’s work appeared.

There was a very real sense,  however,  in which Emerson — in this like John Updike a century later — was also very metropolitan in his life style.  Townsend Scudder writes of how Emerson cherished his  downtown walks,  how “one day, late in December,  [he] chanced to pause before the counters of a Boston bookstore.  Idly he fingered the leaves of this volume and that.  Here was a curious title….” And so on. He could not do that in  woods or field. But woods and field too he must have.   Boston woods!  Thus Concord. And how fascinating that like Cambridge,  Henry James’s “academic suburb”,  Concord could no more be mistaken for a suburb of  Paris, or of Chicago,  or of anywhere else but the Puritan capital.

But of Boston as a whole,  whether core or orbit,  of the fabled state of mind, Emerson always retained a very high church stance.  As Vasari had spoken of Florence,  he maintained,  in that earlier Renaissance,  so he  insisted one should speak of Boston,  and he spoke eloquently of what it meant to be the American Athens or Rome or Florence,  not Babylon or London or Frankfurt.  Patiently,  he explained , in one of his Harvard lectures:  “This town has a history.  It is not an accident,  a railroad station,  cross-roads,  tavern,  or army-barracks,  grown up by time and luck to a place of wealth,   but a seat of men of principle,  obeying a sentiment.  I do not speak with any fondness,  but the language of coldest history,  when I say that Boston commands attention as the town which was appointed in the destiny of nations to lead the civilization of North America”.

Now,  for the adherents still of George Santanyana’s school of thought about what he called  “the Genteel Tradition”,  this is an example of “hyperbolically prais[ing] Boston for its high culture,  [a] rhetoric,  repeated through generations,  a rhetoric begun with John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon aboard the Arabella [about]  establish[ing]  a city upon a hill with the eyes of all people upon them”;  these  the words of a current  scholar of that persuasion,  Dorothy Broaddus,  who goes on to write:  “since Winthrop’s sermon,  the idea of the city upon a hill was perpetuated untill Boston became a mythical city blessed by God.”  Such scholars have also demoted Emerson’s American Renaissance to what they call the  “New England Renaissance”,  though it seems harder to find another American Renaissance elsewhere ,  or,  indeed,  another “American Athens.” .  The point  now, and the historical fact  then,  is that to Emerson Boston was such a place,  blessed — or, perhaps, burdened — and that Boston for Emerson was no mythical city,  but his own, and, as Buell points out, its gathering fame , indeed,  somewhat of his own making

Certainly its characteristic thinker was having  a wide-ranging effect. In the very year, 1863, when at age 60 Emerson was declaiming his “Boston Hymn” on his home ground,  young Frederich Nietzsche several thousand miles away,  at age 17,  was writing a letter that according to the German philosopher’s most recent biographer,  Curtis Cate,  was “obviously inspired by Emerson,  whose essays he had just discovered”.  Nor did the man ,  whatever else he has been called,  who has been  pronounced  “the most fearlessly provocative thinker the Western World has yet seen”,  leave it at that.  A decade later ,  in the 1870s.  pondering Aristotle’s dictum “know thyself”,  Nietzsche was still reading  Emerson.     Concluding whatever else the self was it was  “not something fixed and static,  it was a dynamic process of change…of self-guiding and self-improving”,  Nietzsche declared:  “Who was it who spoke the sentence, “a man never rises higher than when he does not know whereto his way was leading him.”

“If Nietzshe did not identify the source”,  his biographer writes,  “it was because his article was impregnated through and through with the anti-conformist sentiments the Sage of Concord had so forthrightly expressed in Self Reliance”. That is the essay, does it need to be said, that ranked third on Barack Obama’s book list.


“The cornerstone of [Emerson’s] mature thought”,  in Buell’s words,  rivaled historically only by his celebrated  “The American Scholar” — so often called America’s intellectual declaration of independence — Self Reliance is now a phrase of everyday speech. “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” — and so like tolling bells we recall the Emersonian teachings:  “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”; “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinoion;  it is easy in solitude to live after our own;  but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude”…. And yet Robert Richardson is absolutely right to protest that “it is not a blueprint for selfishness…it is not anti-community. It recomends self-reliance as a starting point — indeed  THE starting point — not as a goal. When a better society evolves, it will not, in Emerson’s view, come about through a supression of the process of individuation, but through a voluntary association of fulfilled individuals.”

If, however, Self Reliance remains holy writ to the American right, the left makes no less a claim on Emerson. Perry Miller, the great Harvard scholar, once admitted that “nothing would be easier than to collect from [Emerson’s] journals enough [negative] passages about the Democratic party to form a manual of Boston snobbery”, and Kenneth Sacks too feels it necessary to  “distinguish between Emerson’s antipathy for Jacksonian politics and Boston snobbery”,  quoting George Ripley rather defensively that  “in his indignant rejection of all varnish,  gilding and foppery…[Emerson had] scarcely an equal”. Notes Sacks:  “Although enjoying the privileges of Boston society,  Emerson made a strong effort to break free of its essential constraints.  Among his great contributions to the American Renaissance,  for example,  was his attention to vernacular culture.  ‘The American Scholar’ shocked its audience…mostly because it introduced the cacophony of everyday life”. Moreover,  whenever Emerson and his friends caught even a whiff of class conflict it registered strongly;  quoth Miller,  they were “transcendental north-notth-west;  when the wind was southerly they knew the difference between Beacon Hill and South Boston”.  Adds Buell: “Within the Republican establishment Emerson did remain a progressive,  liberal voice….[His] Phi Betta Kappa oration at Harvard … makes no bones about this commitment to what he sees as an unmistakable but still uncompleted national movement toward social reform on many fronts:  ‘the fusion of races and religions’,  free imagination…[and the] advancement of political rights for women'”.

It is in this light that one should read Barack Obama when he writes: “In 1960, the year my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states of the Union….{Even} in  the most sophisticated northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s predicament into a back-alley abortion….[My mother’s and father’s] very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse,  a handy retort to the handful of softheaded liberals who supported a civil rights agenda.  Sure — but would you let your daughter marry one?  The fact that my grandparents had answered yes to this question,  no matter how grudgingly,  remains an enduring puzzle to me.  There was nothing in their background to predict such a response, no New England transcendentalists….”

And yet,  the “ardent abolitionists” of  his mother’s family — Mr. Obama’s words — included a great grandfather of Barack Hussein Obama  named Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham!   Who named one of his sons,  moreover,  Ralph Waldo Emerson Dunham Jr.

We forget Emerson’s radicalism.  In his “People’s History of the United States,  left wing historian Howard Zinn,  who writes,  he says,  from the perspective of “blacks,  Native Americans, women and other minorities and disadvantaged classes”,  though he admits Emerson was “not an activist” in the usual sense, brings  him up repeatedly,  citing his his indignant protests to the removal of the Cherokees,  his support of Thoreau in his civil disobedience occasioned by the Mexican War,  and above all for Emerson’s response to the actions of John Brown inattempting toincite a slave rebellion in the South:  “He will make the gallows [he is hung on]”,  Emerson wrote, “holy as the cross.”

Emerson’s own biographer agrees. “Emerson issued repeated,  overt,  public incitements to break the law”,  insisting  “we must put this poison…this raging fever of slavery out of the Constitution.”  Concluded Robert Richardson: “[Emerson] saw America as an incarnation of the moral law that said one may not deny to others what one finds essential for one’s self.  If I am free,  all shall be free.”  And he held this view in the face of Boston’s  “lords of the loom”.  So much so that in his “Boston Hymn”,  uttered almost within sight of the Somerset Club in Boston Music Hall,  Emerson  “brought the crowd shouting and singing to its feet with his Boston Hymn with its 18th stanza” , noted Richardson: “Pay ransom to the owner/ And fill the bag to the brim / Who is the owner? The slave is owner / And ever was.  Pay him.”

These two sides of Emerson — the conservative of Self Reliance and the liberal of the “Boston Hymn” — are the reason a contemporary critic like Harold Bloom can marvel at  “the oddity of Emerson in the public sphere…he has the power to foster fresh versions of the …Party of Memory and the Party of Hope. ” Writing during the elcetion of 2008 , Bloom pointedly noted that “the political right appropriates  [Emerson’s] values of remembering private interests as part of the public good,  while the left follows [Emerson’s] exaltation of the American Adam,  a New Man in a New World of Hope”.


Many of these Emersonian tensions or healings,  however they be judged,  played out in Boston’s orbit anew with singular force a century later in the life and work of John,  Robert and Edward Kennedy.

Althouh it was Boston’s Jewish Brahmin’s — men like Justice Brandeis and Louis Kirstein — who first validated the transition scholars like Philippa Strum have documented whereby  “Boston Brahmin”  became  a term gradually less ethnic and more vocational,  it was  (as the title of Walter Muir Whitehill’s  “Boston in the Age of John Fitzgerald Kennedy”  indicates)  our first Irish-American president who became the great symbol of the transformation.  And if it was Ted Kennedy who would turn out to be the most notably Bostonian of them all in his values — heir through childhood walks with Grandfather Fitzgerald of all Honey Fitz’s global legacy  (see “Rethining Beacon Street”, this blog, some months ago)  and worthy too as a senator comparable to Webster — it was President Kennedy who would exhibit most conspiciously what Lawrence Leamer called “aristocratic instincts.”

What a complicated piece of work the Boston Brahmin is of any ilk.  Being an  immigrant may be a harsher life experience;  gaining and sustaining middle class status may  stress the individual more;  but rising into even an apparently declining aristocracy (and Boston’s  then was ,  according to Notre Dame historian James Turner ,  America’s pre-eminent such)  and holding up one’s head in such lofty precincts,  is clearly the doctoral course.  The risks and perils of same are evident in Leamer’s own anylsis of JFK:  he no sooner pronounces on President Kennedy’s  “aristocratic instincts”  than Leamer warns in the next breath that  “[Kennedy] was a self-conscious aristocrat”,  which for Leamer  meant he was  “no aristocrat at all.  [Kennedy]  knew,  and this rankled enormously,” Leamer adds,  “that he still would not be welcome in such haunts of the Brahmin elite as the Somerset Club,  as either a member or possibly even as a guest.”

But what JFK thereby seemed to seek was not just the American aristocracy’s acceptance  of him but of his values,  which,  frankly,  were not very American at all of any class.  Indeed,  Leamer is confusing himself and us in citing the Somerset Club at all , that being to confuse the original entirely Yankee definition  with the later broader definition of the Boston Brahmin. JFK’s “aristocratic instincts” were  (like Henry James’s)  more European than American. Kennedy had,  for instance,  what Leamer calls a very “aristocratic definition of marriage.  His was not a middle class union in which adultery  was a crime.  Nor did he hold the bourgeois illusion that a mere marriage saved one from the essential isolation of life….He had his own world-weary sense of men and women and their perpetual games.”

These are not by all accounts the values of either Barack or Michelle Obama, however Kennedyesque their image. Yet the Obama’s imediate intimacy recently with Elizabeth II   reminds one of how much more welcome  more than one of Ambasador Kennedy’s children felt  in the realm of Burke’s Peerage than in the world of the Boston Social Register.  The reason may lie in other of JFKs aristocratic leanings;  for  instance,  that President Kennedy  “placed a higher value on on wit than virtue,  cleverness than sincerity”,  deploring,  for example, the philosophy of Boston Brahmin poet laureate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal!   Kennedy,  Leamer assures,  “much preferred the European view of Lord Byron…[ and would quote his] axiom: “Let’s have wine and women,  mirth and laughter, /  Sermons and soda water the day after.”

Wheras  Robert Kennedy, for instance, was apt to stop Roman Catholic priests on Capital Hill and pay his respects, JFK, Leamer notes, “would have rushed by seemingly embarrassed to be seen with them.”  In truth President Kennedy was more Hellenist than Catholic.  Certainly, “Jackie thought of her husband as being Greek in that ‘the Greeks fought the gods’ and had a  ‘desperate defiance of fate’.  It was only at JFKs funeral that the full dimensions of the man dawned, and it became plausible for such as Whitehill to see  JFK as a Boston Brahmin of the first water.  When his inaugural address was read at the funeral the phrases spoken suddenly  “did not seem like mere political perorations.  In its power and depth,  passages had a biblical resonance….Whatever Kennedy’s faults,  he believed that Americans must reach out to each other and to the world.”

The story became even more complicated when after President Kennedy’s death the spotlight shifted to Robert Kennedy,  who I doubt ever wasted a moments thought on whether or not he’d be welcome at the Somerset Club.  In his and Ethel’s house,  never mind priests,  there were more dogs than antiques.  And there was,  according to Leamer,  no alcohol allowed,  nor smoking.

Yet Michael Knox Beran was,  perhaps,  not wrong to title his biography of Robert Kennedy “The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of the American Aristocracy.”  Indeed,  what for Leamer was more than alittle declasse — Georgetown, he reports, too often noted the souffle at the  Robert Kennedy’s was often eaten with the soup spoon —   for Beran was far more convincingly aristocratic.  “Far more than the cold perfection of Jack and Jacqueline’s Georgetown showpiece,  with its eighteenth-century  antiques and tastefully selected  art,  Hickory Hill was an aristocratic establishment…alive with the careless exhuberance of a prosperous young noble couple….It was Bobby,  not Jack,  who realized [the] splendid vision [of David Cecil’s] evocations of i8th century Whig noble country houses.”

Similarly,  if I seem to incline more to Beran’s than to Leamer’s view,  it is perhaps because in my own modest research in an area in which I am certainly no authority,  the Kennedy’s,  I was greatly struck by the fact that sifting through whole shelves of  books about John F.  Kennedy, not one citation of Emerson was to be found,  wheras the same sifting through the Robert Kennedy books — often by the same scholars  (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for instance) — disclosed whole columns of Emerson references.

Exactly when Robert Kennedy, never in school a very good student,  first seriously encountered Emerson is  hard to know.  Evan Thomas observes that in or around 1966,  a few years after JFKs death,  “[Robert] Kennedy discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson….Friends noticed that he began carrying around a thin, well-worn,  jacketless copy of Emerson’s Essays…underlined.”   There was no doubt,  he added,  that  “Kennedy embarked on a genuine intellectual journey…in 1964.  The path led on to the ancient Greeks and Camus and Emerson”,  a journey Schlesinger charts painstakingly.  “Emerson and Lincoln became perhaps [Robert Kennedy’s] two greatest American heroes”  according to Beran.  Nor was it unconnected with JFKs own beliefs.  “Courage, ” Robert Kennedy once wrote, ” was the virtue  John Kennedy ‘most admired’.” And[Robert] would often quote in the same breath Emerson’s teaching :” one should  always do what one is afraid to do.”

Robert Kennedy’s Emersonian studies were about more than dealing with President Kennedy’s death.  Emerson’s thought became absolutely key to his politics.  “Kennedy’s admiration for Lincoln and Emerson…form[ed] an essential part of his statesmanship. ” Evan Thomas linked the personal and the political when he wrote: “still painfully shy at times, easily stunned by criticism, [Robert Kennedy] understood that the lack of confidence could be demoralizing, paralyzing….With all his privileges, life was still a struggle for Robert Kennedy. What must it be like, he wondered, for a poor black man in a ghetto like Harlem or Watts?”  And Beran explained the politics part when he wrote of how Kennedy’s mature politics “derived from his study of Emerson’sphilosophy and Lincoln’s life”, which Beran than yoked after this fashion: “Emerson developed a novel democratic theme of self-reliant individualism. Lincoln’s life was in many ways a perfect illustration of that theory….[Lincoln having] emerged unschooled and unpolished from the frontier towns of Kentucky and Illinois…[as] a striking vindication of Emerson’s philosophy.The vision of Emerson and Lincoln powerfully influenced Bobby”.

How so is controversial. As Beran also points out, “one can also trace the intellectual origins of [Robert Kennedy’s] antipathy to hand-outs to Emerson’s and Lincoln’s contempt for them. Bobby did not, like Emerson, go so far as to condemn as a ‘wicked dollar’ every dollar doled out to charity” —  which was not quite what Emerson said, his meaning clear in the examples he cited of the  unthinking foolishness of most charity to his mind — “but he shared with Lincoln the conviction that a dole tended to undermine an individuals capacity for exertion and achievement.”

Kennedy especially studied  “the central obstacle to the creation of a nation of self-reliant individuals: the absence  in large numbers of men and women of self-confidence, or what Emerson in his Essays calls ‘self-trust’., asking himself “how much talent, how much energy…did his nation forfeit merely because the possesors of that talent and energy had grown up under conditions that destroyed their self-confidence”. Thereby Kennedy was drawn into an area the murkiness of which had driven the likes of other Boston Brahmins or their near cousins — Henry James, for example, and T. S. Eliot — to live and work in Europe, where there was an environment that better “fostered the kind of creativity that made civilization possible”, a problem Emerson — remember Gandhi — who was more thinker than activist, never addressed. He did admit “the absence of ancient cultural traditions in America”, but  pronounced it “a good, not a bad thing”, offering, really, nothing further. Failure for Emerson, perhaps inevitably for a man of his stature, was in  a certain sense just unreal.

What Robert Kennedy made of all this was  problematic if well intentioned and cut short, of course, by is own tragedy. His “massive job programs” and his “rebuilding cities through community action” certain sprang from his study of Emersonian imperatives,  but whether or not they are properly called,  as some of his biographers have, “Emersonian” is open to question.  Similarly, whether Robert Kennedy was a conservative radical or a  liberal Tory. I like best Beran’s image of the way — very Emersonian indeed — Bobby  sought to “turn the safety ‘net’ into a trampoline.”

That said, although Robert Kennedy’s  mature style, so to speak,  was more Bostonian and to that extent more Emersonian than John F. Kennedy’s,  and thus relates perhaps more closely to Barack Obama’s Emersonianism,  the real resonances  between  President Kennedy and President Obama emerge very clearly,  for example,  in a comparison of the attitude taken then by Emerson and later by JFK in respect to the decision of  Massachusetts’s great 19th century  senator, Daniel Webster, to  privilege the Union over Abolition in the era leading up to the Civil War.

To Emerson at the time, though he never doubted Webster’s genuis overall — once comparing him to Napoleon — Webster’s decision to support Henry Clay’s historic compromise was the enabler of what Emerson called “Mr. Webster’s  Law” — the Fugitive Slave law —  of which Emerson swore, “I will not obey it, by God”.  Ever the moralist, in the words of a contemporary quoted  by John McAleer, Emerson “recognized in Webster the embodiment of all that he hated.”

JFK,  never a moralist,  but more  the activist  (statesman?)  concluded with hindsight that Emerson was wrong,  not because Emerson did not forsee the way  Webster bought time for the Union it needed to survive — that is unclear — but because, to put it bluntly,  the good  end in Webster’s case did justify  for Kennedy the bad means  that could never have been justified for any reason for Emerson, never mind that  Webster’s action,  in the view of most historians today ,  “by procuring the Union another decade of peace with this Compromise,  which tipped the scales in favor of an eventual Union victory,  thus saved the country” .    Thus it was that in John F.  Kennedy’s “Profiles of Courage”  the statesman-activist praised as one of the  “greatest acts of courageous principle”  in the history of the U. S. Senate what the thinker-moralist condemned as shameful.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once pointedly lectured Harvard ‘s undergraduates, then in what we would today call their first youth,   that many of the books in the college library were written by authors their own age or nearly. The implication was clear.  Today,  when  it is commonplace to say that middle age begins,  not at thirty,  but at fifty,  it was thus by our standards well before mid youth that Barack Obama,  a Harvard Law student in 1990,  was at age 28 elected to the prestigious Harvard Law Review and addressed the question of writing his first book.  In keeping with the high standards Emerson had attempted to instill in a previous era,  the chance to write that first book might not have come to Mr. Obama elsewhere.  As he himself has written,  the chance arose less due to his own  achievements than to  “Harvard Law Scool’s peculair  place in the American mythology”,  as nicely understated a way as I’ve heard to reference that schools legacy of Christopher Langdell,  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.,  Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and,  not least now,  Archibald Cox and Elliot Richardson.

Mr. Obama’s coming to Boston cannot have been easy, for it was to follow, however needfully and curiously, in the footsteps of a father who had abandoned his wife and son — Mr. Obama was then one year old —  in order to pursue his star at Harvard in 1962. By the time Obama Senior left Harvard with his Masters in 1965, he had, moreover, met his next wife and divorced President Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham Obama. No surprise: Mr. Obama’s first book would be entitled “Dreams of My Father”.

I read this book for the most personal and not at all political of reasons.  I too had a Harvard-educated father  who was  a well known ‘first’  in his field and much admired — John Hugh Tucci,  who  did his internship and residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital and was I believe the  MGHs  first Italian-American chief of anethesiology at  the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmiry affiliated with the General — and my father too played Obama Senior’s card in life. He abandoned my mother,  Geraldine Groves Tucci,  and me when I was  seven. And though being brought up in the house of my maternal grand parents, The Rev. and Mrs Lucian and Margaret Shand Groves,  had many privileges, a father was one I sorely missed.  In my father’s case, the exotic locale he sped off to was not Kenya but Nevada, where I can remember to this day reading of his Reno divorce  as a boy of  10 in the Boston newspapers.

What particularly drew me to “Dreams of My Father”, leafing through it first in a bookstore, was that I too was sent off by my mother to a  very international prep school — Ashbury College in Canada’s capital city of Ottawa —  quite like Mr. Obama’s in Hawai,  and just surveying afew pages I could see he had dealt at his school with the having no father in quite similar ways,  and no less fantastical and fabulist,  than had I.  Well–I suppose everyone so placed does.  But I’d never felt such a fellowship before and bought the book there and then.

By books end,  however,  what I took away from “Dreams of My Father” was something quite different than I had expected.  I had absorbed — what?  As best I can put it , the take away was twofold.  First, though it would be hard to name four places I am less interested in than Hawai,  Indonesia,  the South Side of Chicago and Kenya,  Mr. Obama had clearly  found in each that common Emersonian identity already discussed here and  had  roped me in too.  Second,  although the author makes plain in his introduction that the book was mainly written after Harvard,  as I charged through it — in two near all night sessions, so intense a read is it —  it seemed to me to record a kind of odyssey or pilgrimage from Indonesia to Hawai to Chicago to Kenya —  and then to Boston.

This is probably because the book pivots , it seems to me,  between ‘past’ and ‘future’ on Mr. Obama’s acceptance letter to Harvard Law,  which surfaces quite close to the books end,  and for which the last section in Kenya in imediate search of his Harvard-trained father seems an overture.  Mr. Obama, then a community organizer in Chicago,  announces at a church lunch his departure for Harvard  (and his abandonment from the point of view of many at his lunch of them) ,  prompting a striking response form one of the church members, Mary,  who has figured importantly in his narrative:  ” Why is it that what you have isn’t ever good enough”,  she protests tearfully,  of men in general,  but of Mr. Obama,  presumably,  in particular.  It is,  in fact,  quite like the complaint of a friend of Emerson’s who lamented that a walk with the great man was less  an inspiration and more of  “a penance”,  the conversation inevitably always turning on  “when shall I be perfect; when shall I be moral”,  and so on.  The long-suffering  (as he saw it)  friend called this “the Emerson colic”,  adding that “Thoreau had a like disease.” Yet  the critic was surely right who pointed to Emerson’s own answer in “Boston”:  “It is the men who are never contented who carry their point.”

Mr.Obama’s book was,  of course,  a very Emersonian pilgrimage,  bound then (as it turned out appropriately enough)  for Boston,  exactly why when the book pivots after Chicago it seems to hold its breath through Kenya on the eve of Mr. Obama’s own Harvard.

Emersonian pilgrimages,  of course,  can end up in many more places than Emerson’s home-town.  Indeed,  in many more places than Ted Kennedy’s home town.  But the intellectual,  even the spiritual capital,  exerts still,  I am glad to say,  its pull.  Remember Senator Kennedy opening the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston,  and his ebulient flourish about how long he waited to welcome his party to “my town”.  There is another Emersonian pilgrimage  centered on  Emerson’s own town.  But that is another column.

Never mind whatever Mr. Obama took away from Harvard Law — where  the Los Angelos Times noted that “despite  Obama’s openly progressive views on social issues he also won support [for his election to the Law Review] from staunch conservatives” —  and The New York Times that  “Mr.Obama’s impulse to win over ideological opposites appeared to date at least to his friendships with conservatives on the Harvard Law Review”– the fact is that  it is Emerson’s  identification with Boston   that is, perhaps, controlling  in this context.  For in our own time his prediction of the city’s role  “in the destiny of nations” after the American Revolution has never been played out out quite so conspiciously as that night in 2004 at the DNC national convention in Boston when Chris Matthews, I think it was, now the MSNBC host of “Hardball”,  wondered aloud  after then Senator Obama’s speech  if he had heard the first black president of the United States.

Impossible thought — which editor Peter Kadzis of the Boston Phoenix,  the day Matthews prediction  (and Emersons?)  was fulfilled,  was quick to put in historical,  i.e., in this case Emersonian,  context:  ” Barack Hussein Obama’s journey to the White House  began in Boston when he elctrified the Democratic National Convention, and captured the imagination of so many in the television audience”,  presumed by Kadzis correctly to be in the millions from coast to coast.  Yet more quickly still,  Kadzis detailed the picture:  “a star was born in the precincts that spawned the American Revolution,  birthed the abolitionists who battled slavery and played home to the nation’s youngest elected president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy,  who was the nation’s first and only Catholic chief executive.”

I  wish now I could have been there that  summers night in 2004.  I turned down  tickets with the arch remark  that political conventions, historically, were not Boston’s style, nor mine. Very Douglass, one friend allowed.  Alas, say I.

Is it any wonder I know compulsively collect all the folk lore I can find about that  night.  Best is a Boston street scene later recounted  by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker:  “Marty Nesbit remembers Obama’s utter calm the day he gave his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, which made him an international celebrity and a potential 2008 Presidential candidate.  ‘We were walking down the street in the afternoon’,  Nesbit told me. ‘And this crowd was building behind us,  like it was Tiger Woods at the Masters’. ‘Barack,  man,  you’re like a rock star’,  Nesbit said.  ‘Yeah,  if you think it’s bad today,  wait ’till tommorow’,  Obama replied.  ‘What do you mean?’  ‘My speech’, Obama said,  ‘is preety good’.”  Not within earshot,  Emerson nonetheless had  had something to say about that too:  as soon as someone has “once spoken or acted with eclat,  “he had long since declarted,  “he is a commited man,  watched by the sympathy or hatred of hundreds”.  Millions now.

Watched, above all,  as in Mr. Obama’s case it turned out,  by more Kennedy’s than the  senior senator from Massachusetts.  In 2006 at Coretta Scott King’s funeral,  Ethel Kennedy,  Robert Kennedy’s widow,  leaned over and whispered to Barack Obama: ” the torch is being being passed to you”.  The senator from Illinois told an aide:  “a chill went up my spine”.

At the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common the morning after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States — looking for what I could not tell you from America’s greatest civic sculpture — I found I could not summon the memorials meditative sound track,  the first movement of Charles Ives’s  “Three Places in New England”.  Nor,  though he is a hero of mine,  could I bring to mind William James,  who gave the address at the memorial’s dedication.  Instead,  my memory,  alittle unwillingly I think,  went at once to a poem I do not know well or  read alot,  Robert Lowell’s  “For the Union Dead”;  my memory to the poem and my eye to to Lowell’s equestrian colonel,  Robert Gould Shaw.  “[A}s lean/ as a compass needle”,  Lowell saw him,  his “wren like vigilance”  likened to a  “greyhound’s gentle tautness”.

The last line of the poet’s description is toughest,  and perhaps where my comparison goes  most awry. It  is, I hope,  no longer true that the monument to the men of the 54th Massachusetts,  that fabled first mixed regiment of black and white,  “sticks like a fishbone in the city’s throat”.  But its lean young colonel does,  indeed,  still seem  “to wince at pleasure,  and suffocate for privacy” —  which is very Boston, it must be said,  and  for that matter, now I come to think on it, very Robert Kennedy too, whose older brother , now in presidential bronze,  watches today from the State House terrace accross the street.

But if Shaw seems  in that aspect more Bobby Kennedy than Barack Obama — about that I make no pronouncement — I do know that it was in the young  colonel  that morning after the election and not in the ranks —  so wonderfully modeled by the sculptor they always draw the eye first,  and where, after all,  in GLORY  Denzel Washington won his Oscar — that I found what I was looking for:  Emerson’s own  “language of coldest history”.  There and at the reviewing stand in Washington,  past which the now reactivated 54th Massachusetts marched again at President Obama’s inauguration — as in more than one minds eye it marches still toward Bulfinch’s domed Boston State House,  sorrounded now by triumphalist sculpture,  along that storied stretch of Beacon Street that  (given  the role  that race has played and plays still) in our nations history ) the  54th famously made  America’s Via Sacra.

Comments  /


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[Gandhi, Mahatma}. Dani, Ronnie M. “Mahatma Gandhi versus Ralph Waldo Emerson”, MY SCATTERED ARTICLES (, Dec. 19, 2008).

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[Majundar, Protap} see Buell, EMERSON.

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