Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Little Plainer Mr. Emerson

Inscribed title page to NatureDartmouth students in the 19th century had a habit of tweaking the sensibilities of their nervous professors. The school was a factory for missionaries, members of the clergy, lawyers, and teachers--not exactly the most radical professions of the time--and the faculty were strict and conservative in their views of culture. So, in 1838, the Dartmouth Literary Societies invited the bad boy of the American intelligentsia, Ralph Waldo Emerson, to speak at their Class Day celebrations.

On July 24th, 1838, Emerson stood before the class and orated on his Transcendentalist views. God is not found in the Bible but in Nature! Blasphamy, scandal! He also threw in a critique of education in America that was not particularly flattering. Worse yet, the speech occurred just nine days after Emerson delivered his scathing Harvard Divinity School Address that shook Harvard, the Unitarian church, and American thought in general.

Marked up flyleaves to Nature
Emerson gave the Literary Societies a little present when he was here: an inscribed copy of the first edition of his Nature published two years earlier. His copy was placed into the Social Friends' Library then became part of the Dartmouth Library in the late-19th century. The book was well read. On the inside flap are notes from various readers and there are bits of marginalia throughout as curious readers tried to puzzle out Emerson's prose.

Last page of Nature with note, "A Little Plainer Mr. Emerson."
But the best comment comes right at the end. The frustration of a confused student is expressed in his scrawl across the bottom of the final page: "A little plainer Mr. Emerson." If you want to learn more, listen to our Hindsight is 20/19 podcast episode for the 1830s.

To see the book, ask for Val 816Em3 T614.

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