Emerson’s Poet and Warren’s Historian

I’m a proud New Englander who’s recently discovered a passion for Southern Lit. I’m a Mainline Protestant who wants to more closely examine original sin. And I’m an English major who spends most of her time squawking about political theory. These interests–both academic and deeply personal–suddenly coalesced in my Swarthmore American Lit Honors seminar.

We launched last semester (in August) by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Poet.” That essay has now launched me into my own final project, incorporating my ideas about the American republic, time, and literature.

Emerson, in this famous essay, is at his transcendentalist finest. He announces the Poet as a precursor to history: “For poetry was all written before time was…” Emerson’s poet is “sent into the world” and “has a whole new experience to unfold” because “the world seems always waiting for a poet.” The essay is optimistic, sweeping, and, yes, pretty favorable to American exceptionalism. Emerson of the early 1840’s is America’s literary agent, hoping to unleash a raw poetic potential in the New World. Unshackled from history, the Poet has a raw, messianic power.  Honestly, Emerson gets pretty utopian pretty fast and has no real literary model for coping with an American tragedy like the Civil War. His language is stirring, yet he risks dismissing the importance of history, localism, and life in the here and now.

The smartest challenge to Emerson, I think, comes from Robert Penn Warren, a Southerner and Poet Laureate who grew up with a sense of history’s capacity for tragedy. As the 2012 presidential election came and went, I finally discovered Warren’s All the King’s Men, which I read with a distinctly conservative eye. That is, the novel lends itself to political skepticism, moralism, a commitment to localism, history, and grace.  All the King’s Men centers on the anxieties that come with inheriting history: the expectations of democracy, fatherhood, and the terrible legacy of the Civil War.

Warren is by no means an apologist for slavery and the South, but he understands the difficulty of living on the ground in real human time. As Warren writes in his Legacy of the Civil War, “Behind the formidable facade of logic and learning human beings struggled with the actual process of life. When the Confederate shouldered his musket and marched away, he carried something of this burden.” Warren resented the fact that Emerson attempted to transcend the burdens of history, while, at the same time, using his abolitionist rhetoric to support nihilist movements like the John Brown massacre.  History, it turns out, can get pretty dark.

It wasn’t until after President Obama eked out reelection that I finally finished All the King’s Men, which, in my opinion, has one of the finest endings in American literature. I found it offered a good prescription for my own political disappointments and thoughts about America’s past and future. The protagonist Jack Burden vows, “[A]nd soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”

Surely living in and out of the commitments that come with capital-T Time is something conservatives (whether they be Puritan, Southern, Emerson-reading, or Emerson-hating) can support. The long arch of history is tragic but also redemptive.

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