Just one more post from The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2, before I move on to other things.
These two giants of literature, unkown to the general public in the 21st century (though Emerson has a following in American acedemia), regularly sent writings to the other, for reading and criticism. This wasn’t for critique, since these were published items. Emerson took over as publisher and editor of The Dial magazine, and sent each issue to him. Carlyle had some interesting thoughts about it:
“I love your Dial, and yet it is with a kind of shudder. You seem to me to be in danger of dividing yourselves from the Fact of this present Universe, in which alone, ugly as it is, can I find any anchorage, and soaring away after Ideas, Beliefs, Revelations, and such like,–into perilous altitudes, as I think; beyond the curve of perpetual frost, for one thing! I know not how to utter what impression you give me; take the above as some stamping of the fore-hoof. Surely I could wish you returned into your own poor nineteenth century.”
Well, that is heavy criticism, to say a good friend has his head so far in the clouds that his writing, and the publication he edits, lacks grounding in the current times. I’ve been active on some Internet writing boards where this type of criticism would cause a massive flame war. That is harsh criticism. How did Emerson respond?
“For the Dial and its sins, I have no defence to set up. We write as we can, and we know very little about it. If the direction of these speculations is to be deplored, it is yet a fact for literary history, that all the bright boys and girls in New England, quite ignorant of each other, take the world so, and come and make confession to father and mothers,–the boys that they do not wish to go into trade, the girls that they do not like morning calls and evening parties. They are all religious, but hate the churches; they reject all the ways of living of other men, but have none to offer in their stead. Perhaps, one of these days, a great Yankee shall come, who will easily do the unknown deed.”
Most interesting. Emerson acknowledges the criticism, seems to be somewhat in agreement with it, and then says he doesn’t care. They will go on writing as they do, for the writing is better than other activities they could do. If they are unconnected with the current age, so be it. Again, on some Internet writing boards, this rejection of criticism would be a call to fightin’.
But Emerson and Carlyle remained friends, and continued to write each other for thirty more years, seeing each other on two visits Emerson made to England. That is a kind of relationship I would like to have: to be able to be honest about another’s writing (and to be open to their honest criticism), to accept or reject it as best suits the author’s intentions for the piece, and to be friends for decades hence.