Emerson At Waterville
In August of 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson left his Concord home for Waterville, Maine. He was travelling at the invitation of the Society of the Adelphi of Waterville College. Emerson was to give a society lecture.
The lecture Emerson presented before the Society of the Adelphi, “The Method of Nature,” took the form of an essay. The format was a departure for Emerson. Prior to the Waterville appearance Emerson generally used the lecture format to hone his essays. His essays- like the famous “Self-Reliance”- were refined and polished from lectures. “The Method of Nature” was written specifically for the Waterville College presentation. It was not a work in progress but a finished product.
Emerson's presentation took place on August 11. The reception was less than felicitous. In fact it was a failure. At least that is how it is often described, and that is surprising as Emerson's fame during his lifetime rested on his lectures.
If “The Method of Nature” was a failure, it is an interesting failure. It is interesting in terms of context, not so much the context in which it was presented, although that is a part of it, but in the context of Emerson's personal development. In the summer of 1841 Emerson made a major adjustment in his thinking and the student members of the Society of Adelphi and their guests were the first to be exposed to it.
“The Method of Nature” is not just about nature. It is about the relation of man and nature. Some critics say it is about ecstasy, others that it is about peak experience. Most often it is the religious or literary critic that says “The Method of Nature” is about ecstasy; those that use the term peak experience most often have backgrounds in psychology.
About a month before he was scheduled to give his Waterville lecture, Emerson took a solitary trip to Nantasket Beach. He went there in hopes of experiencing a moment of visionary intensity. For someone who had written of the peace and rewards to be found in woodland settings Emerson had a curiously ambivalent attitude toward the sea. He considered seascapes “vulgarized”. This changed at Nantasket. He wrote of finding the ocean “satiating to the eye.” For the first time the ocean satisfied something in him.
Waterville College was founded as the Maine Literary and Theological Institute. It was a Baptist school. Today Waterville College is Colby College.
In the 1840s Waterville College was experiencing an upwelling of reform minded thinking. Antislavery sentiment was one example of the trend. The Society of the Adelphi was another. In the early 1800s, the somewhat secretive Adelphi societies could be found scattered about the northeast. Loosely based on the Italian Adelphi Society, which opposed Napoleon's rise to power, the American societies supported reform in areas such as education, labor laws and religion. Emerson came to Waterville when the controversy brought about by his Harvard Divinity School address was at its height. It is doubtful that the Waterville Society of the Adelphi expected the type of lecture that they heard that long ago August day.
In “The Method of Nature” Emerson speaks of quiting the society of his fellows “as if they were thieves” for a natural setting, “some desert cliff of mount Katahdin, some unvisited recess in Moosehead Lake, to bewail [one's] innocency and to recover it.” The Maine references may have been intended as a bow to his hosts, Emerson was always conscious to whom he spoke. Accepting this as the case, we must then take into consideration the fact that Emerson's aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, was in the audience. She travelled to Waterville from Waterford to hear her nephew.
Mary Moody Emerson was a major influence in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. She helped raise him from childhood and directed much of his early reading and general education. She was as much an intellect as her nephew. Mary Moody Emerson had expressed displeasure in what she considered her nephew's independent streak and non theistic leanings. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted his aunt to hear how his thinking had changed.
Prior to the Waterville address, Emerson's mature works dealt with man's moral progress, that the individual should think for himself, that he should “go alone, refuse the good models” models such as those of the established churches of contemporary society. The sentiments are those of a reformer, of a revolutionary.
“The Method of Nature” may be viewed as revolutionary and as reform minded but not in the specific manner that drew the attention of Emerson's earlier work. The essay has as its subject the mental state of the individual vis a vie nature. Emerson speaks of nature as “Supreme Presence” the “doctrine” of which “is a cry of joy and exultation”.
Mystics and those of a particular religious bent speak of an ecstatic union with the divine. Psychologists like Abraham Maslow speak of peak experiences, of oceanic or sylvan experiences where one is acutely attuned to his or her immediate surroundings. For Emerson these happenings occur just a few times in life. They occur when one is unified with everything he or she faces. It is an amazing experience, combining both peace and ecstasy.
For the Emerson of the summer of 1841, “... ecstacy [sic] is the law and cause of nature”. He asks “Does the sunset landscape seem to you the palace of Friendship...?” His answer is “It is that. All other meanings which base men have put on it are conjectural and false.”
“Self-Reliance” may be Emerson's most famous essay but his greatest is “Experience”. It will be written three years after the Sage of Concord speaks in Waterville. The seeds of this greatest of American essays may be found in Emerson's address to the Society of the Adelphi
“Experience” is one of the “Conduct of Life” essays. These essays and “Experience” in particular are concerned with the duty of the individual, which is compose one's character. “Experience” deals with the greatest of man's tasks, the daily management of life. The duty of the individual is not to achieve success but to achieve order and tranquility in conducting the daily routine.
In “The Method of Nature” Emerson speaks of “the waste abyss of possibility.” When we bemoan lost opportunities, advantages we may have had but did not follow up on, we must consign those feelings to the “abyss”. We can't stop life from continuing on, just as “the rushing stream will not stop to be observed”. That is part of the message contained in Emerson's failed Waterville lecture. Maybe what Emerson was saying to his listeners was as simple as “Don't cry over spilt milk,” nature doesn't, it just continues on. Be one with nature.