Updated gift link here: https://wapo.st/3YBcwYE.
“Why didn’t the Republican red wave materialize in the midterms? The life of Cody Johnson offers one answer.”
This article in the Washington Post is one of the most interesting things I’ve read of late, and I am sharing it because it might help those of you outside the US make a little more sense of this baffling nation, and perhaps a bit more hopeful. This gift link should allow you to read the entire story.
One reason I found Cody Johnson’s story inspiring is that it reminded me of how important books and libraries are. The first book Cody Johnson remembers, he says, is The Hobbit, a tale that turns on loyalty, courage, and honor. J. R. R. Tolkein’s fantasy series, which begins with The Hobbit, has long been a favorite in my house. I read the whole series to my children when they were 2 and 5, during a long cold worrisome winter. Their guinea pigs were Sam and Rosy, and we mystified almost everyone by naming a cat Shadowfax.
Naturally, I love the idea of a kid in Appalachia finding solace in Frodo Baggins’s adventures and the comradeship and conviviality that are an essential part of the backstory.
“I remember there were all these themes about fighting the Dark Lord,” Johnson said, recalling how engrossed he became in stories of characters and their moral dilemmas, which had the effect of making him think about his own.
And he read Emerson, the 19th-century American transcendentalist:
[Johnson] spent as much time as he could in the library, where one day he came upon a pocket-size book whose broken binding, dog-eared pages and rows of checkout stamps made him think it must be as important as any Bible, and so he began reading the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher of self-reliance.
“I remember he said something about the great men of history are no greater than you,” he said.
He remembered reading “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” and “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” and deciding he only needed himself to figure life out. “I realized all my choices were mine, and no one else’s,” he said.
Sophia Mumford, whom I’m writing about in Too Near the Flame, said, “There was a time when I said I felt I was married to Emerson.” Her husband read Emerson aloud as they sat by the fire, and they quoted Emerson at every phase of their lives. The line I heard most often from Sophie was “plain living and high thinking,” referring to their simple way of life on a back road in upstate New York.
Lewis Mumford was a world-renowned author. Eyebrows were often raised when visitors saw the modest converted farmhouse where he wrote his many books. He wrote the introduction to a major edition of Emerson’s essays and journals. In this review, “Emerson and the Pedants,” he is critical of those who don’t see what Mumford believed to be the true Emerson, the whole man:
Almost sixty years ago, in 1909 in fact, the first volume of a ten-volume edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journals was published; and the final volume came out in 1914. In 1883, the twelve-volume collected edition of Emerson’s works had been published, with an introductory memoir by James Elliot Cabot, the editor. To bring out Emerson’s Journals a generation after his death was, then, a final act of piety, performed by those who had been close to Emerson. But unfortunately for Emerson’s reputation this publication was somewhat belated, for the robust Emerson one finds in the Journals is a far more attractive figure than the transcendental ghost lingering in the popular imagination, whose “paleness” and remoteness led Henry James, the novelist, to speak of the “white tint” of Emerson’s career.
Though Cabot was too old to participate in the editing of the Journals, Emerson’s son, Dr. Edward Waldo Emerson, the physician, with the help of Emerson’s grandson, Waldo Emerson Forbes, waded through Emerson’s notebooks and selected, out of the formidable welter, what they judged to be readable, representative, and memorable, with due consideration on occasion for the feelings of contemporaries still alive. This work was severely selective. Whatever the defects in their judgment from the standpoint of a less squeamish generation, they had the editorial courage and skill to put together a coherent series of books that not only sounded the ringing metal of Emerson’s mind, but exposed the mine pit and the ore from which so much of the final product had come. . . . Read more in the New York Review of Books, January 18, 1968.
“Self Reliance” is the title of what is probably Emerson’s most famous essays. It’s nice reproduced here if you’d like to read the whole thing. It is an ode to intellectual independence, which is no doubt one of the things that so appealed to Lewis Mumford. We quoted a line from it in our guide to international publishing: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (But then went on to explain why consistency is a great virtue when preparing books for publication.)
How does American self-reliance relate to other ideals - to our need to see ourselves as part of a global community, for example? Here’s how the author of the article “Transcendentalism” in the Encyclopedia of Community (which I coedited) explains it:
The Transcendentalists gave eloquent expression to the value of individualism. Subsequent generations have often perverted the concept of self-reliance to justify jingoistic adventures, predatory business practices, and more vapid forms of self-interest. In their writings and public actions, however, the Transcendentalists energized the Age of Reform (c. 1830-1865), insisting that genuine individualism is implicitly moral and civic minded. Real self-reliance was sorely needed, wrote Emerson, to “renovate life and our social state.”
Amen to that. Do read Cody Johnson’s story.
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Unfortunately the gift link to the Washington Post article has already expired.