[genesis in Joel Porte’s “Representative Man”.]
In an early Lecture of 1839 called “Human Life” Emerson reveals a kind of self-diagnosis of his “fear of aging”, or rather of dying young without great achievement, but he applies it to the nations’ youth:
Young men, young women at thirty and even earlier have lost all spring and vivacity and if they fail in their first enterprizes there seems to be no remedial force in nature, no Roman recovery, but the rest of life is rock and shallow (EL 3:104).
Waldo was 36 and so well past that mythical age of 30.
By 1878 this “rock and shallow” experience of American men and women seems to now have become our truly national character according to our most encompassing mind.
In this country, with our practical understanding, there is, at present, a great sensualism, a headlong devotion to trade and to the conquest of the continent, – to each man as large a share of the same as he can carve for himself, – an extravagant confidence in our talent and activity, which becomes, whilst successful, a scornful materialism, – but with the fault, of course, that it has no depth, no reserved force whereon to fall back when a reverse comes.
That repose which is the ornament and ripe-ness of man is not American. That repose which indicates a faith in the laws of the universe,- a faith that they will fulfil themselves, and are not to be impeded, transgressed or accelerated. Our people are too slight and vain. They are easily elated and easily depressed. See how fast they extend the fleeting fabric of their trade, – not at all considering the remote reaction and bankruptcy, but with the same abandonment to the moment and the facts of the hour as the Esquimau who sells his bed in the morning. Our people act on the moment, and from external impulse. They all lean on some other, and this superstitiously, and not from insight of his merit. They follow a fact ; they follow success, and not skill. Therefore, as soon as the success stops and the admirable man blunders, they quit him ; already they remember that they long ago suspected his judgment, and they transfer the repute of judgment to the next prosperous person who has not yet blundered. Of course this levity makes them as easily despond. It seems as if history gave no account of any society in which despondency came so readily to heart as we see it and feel it in ours. Young men at thirty and even earlier lose all spring and vivacity, and if they fail in their first enterprise throw up the game.
And describing the “ground” of our living (the “effervescence of Nature”) he also describes our betrayal to it and our vanity in believing we “make” our world:
The revolution is the work of no man, but the eternal effervescence of Nature. It never did not work. And we say that revolutions beat all the insurgents, be they never so determined and politic ; that the great interests of mankind, being at every moment through ages in favor of justice and the largest liberty, will always, from time to time, gain on the adversary and at last win the day. Never country had such a fortune, as men call fortune, as this, in its geography, its history, and in its majestic possibilities.
We have much to learn, much to correct, – a great deal of lying vanity. The spread eagle must fold his foolish wings and be less of a pea-cock ; must keep his wings to carry the thunder-bolt when he is commanded. We must realize our rhetoric and our rituals. Our national flag is not affecting, as it should be, because it does not represent the population of the United States, but some Baltimore or Chicago or Cincinnati or Philadelphia caucus ; not union or justice, but selfishness and cunning.
Not union or justice…but Corporate profits got by selfishness and cunning.