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An essay by George William Curtis

Emerson Lecturing

Title:     Emerson Lecturing
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

Many years ago the Easy Chair used to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture. Perhaps it was in the small Sunday-school room under a country meeting-house, on sparkling winter nights, when all the neighborhood came stamping and chattering to the door in hood and muffler, or ringing in from a few miles away, buried under buffalo-skins. The little, low room was dimly lighted with oil-lamps, and the boys clumped about the stoves in their cowhide boots, and laughed and buzzed and ate apples and peanuts and giggled, and grew suddenly solemn when the grave men and women looked at them. At the desk stood the lecturer and read his manuscript, and all but the boys sat silent and inthralled by the musical spell.

Some of the hearers remembered the speaker as a boy, as a young man. Some wondered what he was talking about. Some thought him very queer. All laughed at the delightful humor or the illustrative anecdote that sparkled for a moment upon the surface of his talk; and some sat inspired with unknown resolves, soaring upon lofty hopes as they heard. A nobler life, a better manhood, a purer purpose wooed every listening soul. It was not argument, nor description, nor appeal. It was wit and wisdom, and hard sense and poetry, and scholarship and music. And when the words were spoken and the lecturer sat down, the Easy Chair sat still and heard the rich cadences lingering in the air, as the young priest's heart throbs with the long vibrations when the organist is gone.

The same speaker had been heard a few years previously in the Masonic Temple in Boston. It was the fashion among the gay to call him transcendental. Grave parents were quoted as saying, "I don't go to hear Mr. Emerson; I don't understand him. But my daughters do." Then came a volume containing the discourses. They were called _Essays_. Has our literature produced any wiser book?

As the lyceum or lecture system grew, the philosopher whom "my daughters" understood was called to speak. A simplicity of manner that could be called rustic if it were not of a shy, scholarly elegance; perfect composure, clear, clean, crisp sentences; maxims as full of glittering truth as a winter night of stars; an incessant spray of fine fancies like the November shower of meteors; and the same intellectual and moral exaltation, expansion, and aspiration, were the characteristics of all his lectures.

He was never exactly popular, but always gave a tone and flavor to the whole lyceum course, as the lump of ambergris flavors the Sultan's cups of coffee for a year. "We can have him once in three or four seasons," said the committees. But really they had him all the time without knowing it. He was the philosopher Proteus, and he spoke through all the more popular mouths. The speakers were acceptable because they were liberal, and he was the great liberalizer. They were, and they are, the middle-men between him and the public. They watered the nectar, and made it easy to drink.

The Easy Chair heard from time to time of Proteus on the platform--how he was more and more eccentric--how he could not be understood--how abrupt his manner was. But the Chair did not believe that the flame which had once been so pure could ever be dimmer, especially as he recognized its soft lustre on every aspect of life around him.

After many years the opportunity to hear him came again; and although the experiment was dangerous the Chair did not hesitate to try it. The hall was pretty and not too large, and the audience was the best that the country could furnish. Every one came solely to hear the speaker, for it was one lecture in a course of his only. It was pleasant to look around and mark the famous men and the accomplished women gathering quietly in the same city where they used to gather to hear him a quarter of a century before. How much the man who was presently to speak had done for their lives, and their children's, and the country! The power of one man is not easily traced in its channels and details, but it is marked upon the whole. The word "transcendentalism" has long passed by. It has not, perhaps, even yet gone out of fashion to smile at wisdom as visionary, but this particular wise man had been acquitted of being understood by my daughters, and there were rows of "hardheads," "practical people," curious and interesting to contemplate in the audience.

The tall figure entered at a side door, and sat down upon a sofa behind the desk. Age seemed not to have touched him since the evenings in the country Sunday-school room. As he stood at the desk the posture, the figure, the movement, were all unchanged. There was the same rapt introverted glance as he began in a low voice, and for an hour the older tree shook off a ceaseless shower of riper, fairer fruit. The topic was "Table-Talk, or Conversation;" and the lecture was its own most perfect illustration. It was not a sermon, nor an oration, nor an argument; it was the perfection of talk; the talk of a poet, of a philosopher, of a scholar. Its wit was a rapier, smooth, sharp, incisive, delicate, exquisite. The blade was pure as an icicle. You would have sworn that the hilt was diamond. The criticism was humane, lofty, wise, sparkling; the anecdote so choice and apt, and trickling from so many sources, that we seemed to be hearing the best things of the wittiest people. It was altogether delightful, and the audience sat glowing with satisfaction. There was no rhetoric, no gesture, no grimace, no dramatic familiarity and action; but the manner was self-respectful and courteous to the audience, and the tone supremely just and sincere. "He is easily king of us all," whispered an orator.

Yet it was not oratory either in its substance or purpose. It was a statement of what this wise man believed conversation ought to be. Its inevitable influence--the moral of the lecture, dear Lady Flora--was a purification of daily talk, and the general good influence of incisive truth-telling. If we have ever had a greater preacher of that gospel who is he?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Emerson Lecturing