As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here, I ask your indulgence—today’s piece isn’t based on a poem. Earlier this week I did use a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, mentioning then that his poetry often fails. Well, there are compensations—as an essayist, Emerson often expresses himself poetically.
Today’s piece is part of an Emerson essay published in The Atlantic in April 1862 called “American Civilization.” In it Emerson ranges quite a bit, including some racial and regional stereotyping that may shock some modern readers with its ignorance and prejudice. But rather than concentrate on what Emerson got wrong—after all, I don’t need to go to 150-year-old writing to find that sort of thing, our own age will supply all we’ll ever need—I want to present to you some things that Emerson might have gotten right.
I’ve selected a handful of sections from Emerson’s essay for today, the parts of the essay that strike me as if they were a poem. I call my extracted text “Emerson’s Wagon,” in that one of the phrases it popularized became a pervasive folk-motto: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”
What do you think that means when you hear it today? Most likely you think it means have high ambitions, aim for success not mediocrity, that if you only make it half-way you’ll still get farther than if you’d set your sites lower.*
If so, you may be surprised to hear how Emerson meant that phrase. Indeed, the whole argument Emerson makes in today’s piece is a subtle and surprisingly contemporary one.
Emerson wondering if his essay will go viral—wait—can something go viral on the telegraph?
“Emerson’s Wagon” starts by telling a technology story. While he’s speaking about the telegraph, a recent marvel of his time, the metaphor here could just as easily be applied to the Internet on which you are reading this.** In this metaphor we meet the essay’s first wagon, and it’s, well, stuck and broken down. He points out technology has found a way to get around that.
OK, nice story. Interesting contemporary parallel.
Then mid-19th century Emerson starts considering renewable energy. A couple years back I was talking to someone about that very subject and he mentioned Massachusetts had fewer resources than some other parts of the U.S. for that, which I found ironic, because Emerson’s 19th century Massachusetts was leading the country in exploiting water and tidal energy for industrial power.
Here is Emerson’s second wagon, the first one he hitches to a star. He’s not talking about personal advancement particularly, he’s talking about harnessing nature’s renewable power, and working with it to improve our civilization.
Now his technological story is getting more interesting. How many times have you heard of nature and technology portrayed as opposites? Enough that you may think that technology inevitably destroys nature, or that technology is replacing nature, and so on?
Emerson’s asking you to think of technology (and also nature, as we’ll soon see) differently. Technology comes from close observation of and analysis of the powers of nature. And in concert, the book of nature can tell us something about how to use and deploy technology, and how we should share the bounty of that.
Finally, Emerson goes somewhere you probably won’t expect. His third wagon*** says that moral principles are natural principles (and vice versa). We moderns may have some doubts about this, but it was part of the Transcendentalist ideals that Emerson and his fellows believed. From that equivalence, he says that for American civilization to succeed, for us to fix those broken and stuck in the mud situations like that first wagon, we must align ourselves (if we wish to make change) with the moral principles of a nature that spreads over all and gives benevolently. To do so makes us more powerful agents of change that cannot be defeated in the long run.
An interesting thought for a time of lies and behavior that isn’t pulled forward by the tides of heroic stars, that instead aims at the lower level of personal enrichment defended with the muddy shield of not-quite-legally-indictable.
To hear me perform Emerson’s story of three wagons, use the player below, and electricity will transfer it to you in its invisible pockets. To read all of Emerson’s essay, you can find it here.
*It was a phrase my mother would use, and in this sense too. She raised her large and different family whose members did different things, so maybe it has some value used in this way as well.
**The “invisible pockets” he has the telegraph carrying data in so easily become the “packets” that have flown through TCP/IP routers to bring this post or the accompanying audio file to you. Did you know that some of the savviest conceptual thinking about how the Internet works can be expressed via carrier pigeons?
***As he once more returns to the line “hitch your wagon to a star” Emerson eventually reels off a list of constellations named after heroes. You might be thrown by the first one on his list “Charles’ Wain.” I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s another name for the Big Dipper. Wain is a Middle English word for, yes, wagon and together Charles’ Wain sort of morphs into the name of legendary king Charlemagne.