Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. XI. Miscellanies
XXIX. Address at Opening of Concord Free Public Library
THE BISHOP of Cavaillon, Petrarchs friend, in a playful experiment locked up the poets library, intending to exclude him from it for three days, but the poets misery caused him to restore the key on the first evening. And I verily believe I should have become insane, says Petrarch, if my mind had longer been deprived of its necessary nourishment.
THE PEOPLE1 of Massachusetts prize the simple political arrangement of towns, each independent in its local government, electing its own officers, assessing its taxes, caring for its schools, its charities, its highways. That town is attractive to its native citizens and to immigrants which has a healthy site, good land, good roads, good sidewalks, a good hotel; still more, if it have an adequate town hall, good churches, good preachers, good schools, and if it avail itself of the Act of the Legislature authorizing towns to tax themselves for the establishment of a public library. Happier, if it contain citizens who cannot wait for the slow growth of the population to make these advantages adequate to the desires of the people, but make costly gifts to education, civility and culture, as in the act we are met to witness and acknowledge to-day.
I think we cannot easily overestimate the benefit conferred. In the details of this munificence, we may all anticipate a sudden and lasting prosperity to this ancient town, in the benefit of a noble library, which adds by the beauty of the building, and its skilful arrangement, a quite new attraction,making readers of those who are not readers,making scholars of those who only read newspapers or novels until now; and whilst it secures a new and needed culture to our citizens, offering a strong attraction to strangers who are seeking a country home to sit down here. And I am not sure that when Boston learns the good deed of Mr. Munroe, it will not be a little envious, nor rest until it has annexed Concord to the city. Our founder has found the many admirable example which have lately honored the country, of benefactors who have not waited to bequeath colleges and hospitals, but have themselves built them, reminding us of Sir Isaac Newtons saying, that they who give nothing before their death, never in fact give at all.
I think it is not easy to exaggerate the utility of the beneficence which takes this form. If you consider what has befallen you when reading a poem, or a history, or a tragedy, or a novel, even, that deeply interested you,how you forgot the time of day, the persons sitting in the room, and the engagements for the evening, you will easily admit the wonderful property of books to make all towns equal: that Concord Library makes Concord as good as Rome, Paris or London, for the hour;has the best of each of those cities in itself. Robinson Crusoe, could he have had a shelf of our books, could almost have done without his man Friday, or even the arriving ship.
Every faculty casts itself into an art, and memory into the art of writing, that is, the book. The sedge Papyrus, which gave its name to our word paper, is of more importance to history than cotton, or silver, or gold. Its first use for writing is between three and four thousand years old, and though it hardly grows now in Egypt, where I lately looked for it in vain, I always remember with satisfaction that I saw that venerable plant in 1833, growing wild at Syracuse, in Sicily, near the fountain of Arethusa.
The chairman of Mr. Munroes trustees has told you how old is the foundation of our village library, and we think we can trace in our modest records a correspondent effect of culture amidst our citizens. A deep religious sentiment, is, in all times, an inspirer of the intellect, and that was not wanting here. The town was settled by a pious company of non-conformists from England, and the printed books of their pastor and leader, Rev. Peter Bulkeley, sometime fellow of Saint Johns College in Cambridge, England, testify the ardent sentiment which they shared. There is no people, said he to his little flock of exiles, but will strive to excel in something. What can we excel in if not in holiness? If we look to number, we are the fewest; if to strength, we are the weakest; if to wealth and riches, we are the poorest of all the people of God through the whole world. We cannot excel, nor so much as equal other people in these things, and if we come short in grace and holiness too, we are the most despicable people under heaven. Strive we therefore herein to excel, and suffer not this crown to be taken away from us.2
The religious bias of our founders had its usual effect to secure an education to read their Bible and hymn-book, and thence the step was easy for active minds to an acquaintance with history and with poetry. Peter Bulkeley sent his son John to the first class that graduated at Harvard College in 1642, and two sons to later classes. Major Simon Willards son Samuel graduated at Harvard in 1659, and was for six years, from 1701 to 1707, vice-president of the college; and his son Joseph was president of the college from 1781 to 1804; and Concord counted fourteen graduates of Harvard in its first century, and its representation there increased with its gross population.3
I possess the manuscript journal of a lady, native of this town (and descended from three of its clergymen), who removed into Maine, where she possessed a farm and a modest income. She was much addicted to journeying and not less to reading, and whenever she arrived in a town where was a good minister who had a library, she would persuade him to receive her as a boarder, and would stay until she had looked over all his volumes which were to her taste. On a very cold day, she writes in her diary, Life truly resembles a riverever the samenever the same; and perhaps a greater variety of internal emotions would be felt by remaining with books in one place than pursuing the waves which are ever the same. Is the melancholy bird of night, covered with the dark foliage of the willow and cypress, less gratified than the gay lark amid the flowers and suns? I think that you never enjoy so much as in solitude with a book that meets the feelings, and in reference to her favorite authors, she adds, The delight in others superiority is my best gift from God.4
Lemuel Shattuck, by his history of the town, has made all of us grateful to his memory as a careful student and chronicler; but events so important have occurred in the forty years since that book was published, that it now needs a second volume.
Henry Thoreau we all remember as a man of genius, and of marked character, known to our farmers as the most skilful of surveyors, and indeed better acquainted with their forests and meadows and trees than themselves, but more widely known as the writer of some of the best books which have been written in this country, and which, I am persuaded, have not yet gathered half their fame. He, too, was an excellent reader. No man would have rejoiced more than he in the event of this day. In a private letter to a lady, he writes, Do you read any noble verses? For my part, they have been the only things I remembered,or that which occasioned them,when all things else were blurred and defaced.5 All things have put on mourning but they: for the elegy itself is some victorious melody in you, escaping from the wreck. It is a relief to read some true books wherein all are equally dead, equally alive. I think the best parts of Shakspeare would only be enhanced by the most thrilling and affecting events. I have found it so: and all the more, that they are not intended for consolation.
Nathaniel Hawthornes residence in the Manse gave new interest to that house whose windows overlooked the retreat of the British soldiers in 1775, and his careful studies of Concord life and history are known wherever the English language is spoken.6
I know the word literature has in many ears a hollow sound. It is thought to be the harmless entertainment of a few fanciful persons, and not at all to be the interest of the multitude. To these objections, which proceed on the cheap notion that nothing but what grinds corn, roasts mutton and weaves cotton, is anything worth, I have little to say. There are utilitarians who prefer that Jesus should have wrought as a carpenter, and Saint Paul as a tent-maker. But literature is the record of the best thoughts. Every attainment and discipline which increases a mans acquaintance with the invisible world lifts his being. Everything that gives him a new perception of beauty multiplies his pure enjoyments. A river of thought is always running out of the invisible world into the mind of man. Shall not they who received the largest streams spread abroad the healing waters?
It was the symbolical custom of the ancient Mexican priests, after the annual extinction of the household fires of their land, to procure in the temple fire from the sun, and thence distribute it as a sacred gift to every hearth in the nation. It is a just type of the service rendered to mankind by wise men. Homer and Plato and Pindar and Shakspeare serve many more than have heard their names. Thought is the most volatile of all things. It cannot be contained in any cup, though you shut the lid never so tight. Once brought into the world, it runs over the vessel which received it into all minds that love it. The very language we speak thinks for us by the subtle distinctions which already are marked for us by its words, and every one of these is the contribution of the wit of one and another sagacious man in all the centuries of time.
Consider that it is our own state of mind at any time that makes our estimate of life and the world. If you sprain your foot, you will presently come to think that Nature has sprained hers. Everything begins to look so slow and inaccessible. And when you sprain your mind, by gloomy reflection on your failures and vexations, you come to have a bad opinion of life. Think how indigent Nature must appear to the blind, the deaf, and the idiot. Now if you can kindle the imagination by a new thought, by heroic histories, by uplifting poetry, instantly you expand,are cheered, inspired, and become wise, and even prophetic. Music works this miracle for those who have a good ear; what omniscience has music! so absolutely impersonal, and yet every sufferer feels his secret sorrow reached. Yet to a scholar the book is as good or better. There is no hour of vexation which on a little reflection will not find diversion and relief in the library. His companions are few: at the moment, he has none: but, year by year, these silent friends supply their place. Many times the reading of a book has made the fortune of the man,has decided his way of life. It makes friends. T is a tie between men to have been delighted with the same book. Every one of us is always in search of his friend, and when unexpectedly he finds a stranger enjoying the rare poet or thinker who is dear to his own solitude,it is like finding a brother. Dr. Johnson hearing that Adam Smith, whom he had once met, relished rhyme, said, If I had known that, I should have hugged him.
We expect a great man to be a good reader, or in proportion to the spontaneous power should be the assimilating power. There is a wonderful agreement among eminent men of all varieties of character and condition in their estimate of books. Julius Cæsar, when shipwrecked, and forced to swim for life, did not gather his gold, but took his commentaries between his teeth and swam for the shore. Even the wild and warlike Arab Mahomet said, Men are either learned or learning: the rest are block-heads. The great Duke of Marlborough could not encamp without his Shakspeare. The Duchess dAbrantes, wife of Marshal Junot, tells us that Bonaparte, in hastening out of France to join his army in Germany, tossed his journals and books out of his travelling carriage as fast as he had read them, and strewed the highway with pamphlets. Napoleons reading could not be large, but his criticism is sometimes admirable, as reported by Las Casas; and Napoleon was an excellent writer. Montesquieu, one of the greatest minds that France has produced, writes: The love of study is in us almost the only eternal passion. All the others quit us in proportion as this miserable machine which gives them to us approaches its ruin. Study has been for me the sovereign remedy against the disgusts of life, never having had a chagrin which an hour of reading has not put to flight. Hear the testimony of Seldon, the oracle of the English House of Commons in Cromwells time. Patience is the chiefest fruit of study. A man, that strives to make himself a different thing from other men by much reading gains this chiefest good, that in all fortunes he hath something to entertain and comfort himself withal.
I have found several humble men and women who gave as affectionate, if not as judicious testimony to their readings. One curious witness was that of a Shaker who, when showing me the houses of the Brotherhood, and a very modest bookshelf, said there was Miltons Paradise Lost, and some other books in the house, and added that he knew where they were, but he took up a sound cross in not reading them.
In 1618 (8th March) John Kepler came upon the discovery of the law connecting the mean distances of the planets with the periods of their revolution about the sun, that the squares of the times vary as the cubes of the distances. And he writes, It is now eighteen months since I got the first glimpse of light,three months since the dawn,very few days since the unveiled sun, most admirable to gaze on, burst out upon me. Nothing holds me. I will indulge in my sacred fury. I will triumph over mankind by the honest confession that I have stolen the golden vases of the Egyptians7 to build up a tabernacle for my God far away from the confines of Egypt. If you forgive me, I rejoice; if you are angry, I can bear it: the die is cast; the book is written; to be read either now or by posterity. I care not which. It may well wait a century for a reader, since God has waited six thousand years for an observer like myself.
In books I have the history or the energy of the past. Angels they are to us of entertainment, sympathy and provocation. With them many of us spend the most of our life,these silent guides,these tractable prophets, historians, and singers, whose embalmed life is the highest feat of art; who now cast their moonlight illumination over solitude, weariness and fallen fortunes. You say, t is a languid pleasure. Yes, but its tractableness, coming and going like a dog at our bidding, compensates the quietness, and contrasts with the slowness of fortune and the inaccessibleness of persons.
You meet with a man of science, a good thinker or good wit,but you do not know how to draw out of him that which he knows. But the book is a sure friend, always ready at your first leisure,opens to the very page you desire, and shuts at your first fatigue,as possibly your professor might not.
It is a tie between men to have read the same book, and it is a disadvantage not to have read the book your mates have read, or not to have read it at the same time, so that it may take the place in your culture it does in theirs, and you shall understand their allusions to it, and not give it more or less emphasis than they do. Yet the strong character does not need this sameness of culture. The imagination knows its own food in every pasture, and if it has not had the Arabian Nights, Prince Le Boo, or Homer or Scott, has drawn equal delight and terror from haunts and passages which you will hear of with envy.
In saying these things for books, I do not for a moment forget that they are secondary, mere means, and only used in the off-hours, only in the pause, and, as it were, the sleep, or passive state of the mind. The intellect reserves all its rights. Instantly, when the mind itself wakes, all books, all past acts are forgotten, huddled aside as impertinent in the august presence of the creator. Their costliest benefit is that they set us free from themselves; for they wake the imagination and the sentiment,and in their inspirations we dispense with books. Let me add then,read proudly; put the duty of being read invariably on the author. If he is not read, whose fault is it? I am quite ready to be charmed,but I shall not make believe I am charmed.
But there is no end to the praise of books, to the value of the library. Who shall estimate their influence on our population where all the millions read and write? It is the joy of nations that man can communicate all his thoughts, discoveries and virtues to records that may last for centuries.
But I am pleading a cause which in the event of this day has already won: and I am happy in the assurance that the whole assembly to whom I speak entirely sympathize in the feeling of this town in regard to the new Library, and its honored Founder.
Note 1. The Town of Concord, in the year 1782, chose a committee of ten leading citizens to give instructions to its selectmen. The third of the seventeen articles proposed by them read thus: That care be taken of the Books of Marters and other bookes, and that they be kept from abusive usage, and not lent to persons more than one month at one time. This indicates the root of a town library. A constitution of a Library Company, dated 1784, is extant. In 1806 a Social Library was incorporated, which was merged in the Town Library in 1851. The books were kept in a room in the Town House which was open for borrowers on Saturdays. William Munroe, son of a Concord tradesman who vied with the Thoreaus in the manufacture of lead pencils, after leaving the Concord schools went into business, and later into the manufacture of silk. His intelligence and force of character secured prosperity. He loved Concord, and, to use his own words, desired to testify my regard to my native town by doing something to promote the education and intelligence, and thus the welfare and prosperity of its people. He gave to Concord a lot of land in the heart of the town and a building for a Free Public Library, which, with great care and thoroughness, he had built thereon and duly furnished; and made handsome provision for care of the land and the extension of the building later. He added a generous gift for books of reference and standard works. The town thankfully accepted the gift, placed their books in it, and chose their library committee. On a fine autumn day in 1873, the library was opened with public ceremonies. Mr. Munroe in a short and modest speech explained his purpose; Mr. H. F. Smith, on behalf of the new library committee, reported its action and the gifts which had poured in; Judge Hoar received the property on behalf of the Board of Corporation, and Mr. Emerson, but lately returned with improved health from his journey to the Nile, made the short address. Writing was now very difficult for him, but the occasion pleased and moved him, and his notes on books and on Concord, and the remembrance of his friends the Concord authors but lately gone, served him, and the day passed off well. [back]
Note 2. The Gospel Covenant, printed in London in 1646, and quoted by Mr. Emerson in the Historical Discourse. [back]
Note 3. Major Simon Willard, a Kentish merchant was Peter Bulkeleys strong coadjutor in the founding of Concord. He also is alluded to in the Historical Discourse. [back]
Note 4. These extracts are from the diary of Miss Mary Moody Emerson. [back]
Note 5. This letter was written not long after the death of John Thoreau, Henrys dearly loved brother, and also of little Waldo Emerson, to whom he became greatly attached while he was a member of Mr. Emersons household. [back]
Note 6. Mr. Emerson here speaks for others. He could not read Hawthorne because of the gloom of his magic mirror, but the man interested and attracted him, though even as neighbors they seldom met. [back]
Note 7. Mr. Emerson notes that this is an allusion to the Harmonies of Ptolemy. [back]