I Heard of Emerson and Wagons

“Hitch your wagon to a star”. We all know what it means, and we’re wrong.

Well, maybe we’re not exactly wrong: it’s human to draw a variety of meanings from what other humans communicate. The Emily Dickinson poem in the last post is perfect example. I don’t know exactly what Dickinson was trying to say in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, but the strength of the language and music of her saying of it compels anyway. Poems, particularly short poems, often benefit from this kind of ambiguity. They become, in effect, several poems, poems that are experienced differently—even by the same reader—at each reading. In the end those varied readings become a kind of unstable hologram, a poem that the reader can see around corners in. I think that’s one of the benefits of these Parlando project recordings. You can listen to the words without making singular understanding the all-important goal as you enjoy the musical setting, and you can repeat the process of hearing them. A poem is not an important email from your boss that you must understand correctly immediately.

An essay on the other hand does prioritize clarity. “Hitch your wagon to a star” is from one of Emerson’s essays, and Emerson is a very clear essayist. You can read the published version of the essay, Civilization, where the famous quote appears here.

For the moment, I’m going to pass on Emerson’s racialist and sometimes racist views which saturate much of the first half of that essay. If you are an Indigenous American or a Central African, you may be so revolted by this section that anything Emerson says later may be lost on you. TLDNR: despite some nods to North African, Arabian, Buddhist, and Icelandic (Iceland! Was Emerson predicting Sigur Rós, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk?) cultures; civilization is kind of white, temperate zone, coastal U.S./European thing. Gee Ralph, checked your white privilege much lately?

In the second half of the essay, Emerson develops another point. He starts by saying “Civilization depends on morality.” What expectations does that sentence give you? Anytime you read that sentence in the last 50 years, you know what comes next:  a catalog of received, traditional, probably religious, precepts that the author will no-doubt find are being violated frequently by a fallen mankind who is ignoring this at their peril. You expect him to say “Stop screwing around with traditional morality, or civilization is doomed.” Is this what you get?

Nope. He’s soon launching into a rhapsody about the telegraph, and since he doesn’t mention that great mid-19th century technology by name, you could almost dump it word for word into the last part of the 20th century as praise for the Internet. As he talks about the telegraph’s “invisible pockets” you almost think he must be about to invent TCP/IP protocols more than a hundred years early! Instead of the Moral Majority, you get Emerson the Steam Punk.

And then he moves on to describe a then common Massachusetts technology, a mill that was powered by ocean tides, and at his observation of this, he says:

“Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labor, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements.”

From there Emerson develops the thought that a natural morality of utility, justice, civil order and freedom is—like the geo-thermal power of tides—an undeniable force for progressive change and improvement.

This section of Emerson’s essay is still a complex and novel approach. Emerson’s fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker condensed this thought in a way that Martin Luther King often cited:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Is this not proof of the maxim? Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, suffering from the ignorance and misapprehensions of racialism and racism, yet works for abolition of slavery and his philosophy helps inspire others a hundred years later to bring about long-delayed progress?

So that’s why I say we misunderstand “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Emerson would approve the gist of our misunderstanding: that it’s good to set goals high—but that’s not what he meant. What he meant on striking the coinage was more like “align yourself with the natural moral laws of the universe and your struggle for change gains great power.”

Radio Flyer Wagon

Today’s audio piece, I Heard of Emerson and Wagons recounts my mother telling me to “Hitch your wagon to a star” when I was a child. She, like most of us, meant it in the “dream big” way, and in that busy-parent way “yes, that’s nice. Dream big, but I’m busy right now.”  In this piece, the young me is puzzled by just which big dream is the right one—just the thing that Emerson thought he was, in fact, offering guidance on.

To hear the LYL Band perform I Heard of Emerson and Wagons, just click on the gadget that will appear below.

 

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