Columnists > Judgment Calls

Declaring independence

This literary revolution embraced a dependence upon self

Issue: "Bush picks Cheney as VP," Aug. 5, 2000

On Walden Pond we strolled upon an August afternoon, my sister's family and I, trying to inhale the vapors of Henry David Thoreau, not knowing how much he was already in the warp and woof of us.

We had come to Concord on a lark, to put our steps in his footsteps, and those of Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts. We had come to fathom the mystery: how so much literary energy had welled up from such a small piece of real estate just northwest of Boston. Was there something in the water?

In New England the steeples of simple, white, wood-framed churches with their apron of grassy commons still serve as bearings for many a town. They are geographical (if no longer moral) compasses in this their second incarnation as tourist guides.

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The sign in front of this one is a thumbnail history: The First Baptist Church of Concord. Then, the smaller subscript: Unitarian Universalist. (What tales are left untold in those interstitial spaces!) Inspirational thought for the week: "I always make the most of what's ahead of me and the least of what's behind me." Inoffensive enough, I suppose. And maybe there's a man in a thousand who will recognize a buried allusion to Paul's words about contentment in Philippians 3:12-14, verses that might once have graced the church board. What in the world has happened here?

The museum just off Lexington Avenue is very informative. For $10 they will tell you how to think about the history of the settlement, of those narrow-minded Calvinists who foisted their religion on the noble Algonquins. It hardly seems like a fair fight: Puritans like frozen specimen under glass vs. museum curators writing the brochures. I inquired for directions to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

Grim, rounded slabs crookedly dot the hill like teeth in an old man's mouth. I retrieve a paper from my pocket and jot: "Retire, my friends, dry up your tears. I must be here till Christ appears" (Elizabeth Barrett, d. 1701). A hundred yards and a hundred years up the road, on "Author's Ridge" we read a different ode: "The Passive Master Lent His Hand to the Vast Soul That O'er Him Planned" (R.W. Emerson, d. 1882). "He gave his life in service for children and youth" (Daniel Lothrop, d. 18-).

Do I detect a slippage here? Religion giving way to poetry? Faith in Christ, subtly, to faith in faith? Ah, mere anecdotal evidence. To the men's own testimonies I repair-to books I slighted in school with these words: "Trust thyself." "No law can be sacred to me but that of my own nature." "Nothing can bring you peace but yourself." "... [T]he fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is a door into the deeps of Reason" (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

There is a saying that heresies are the unpaid debts of the church. What neglect, then, what crime, transpired here in Massachusetts, so that Emerson fired that other shot heard 'round the world, his declarations of intellectual independence from God? Why those addresses on "the innate goodness of man," here in Massachusetts where literature and education came unhinged from Christianity, and all on the borrowed capital of the Puritan sermons that were their school of diction? How is it that grandsons of the Calvinists are modern-day Unitarians? Oh "Ichabod," the glory has departed!

In 1838 Emerson addressed the Harvard Divinity College, without a scintilla of sound doctrine left, only elegant and naïve claptrap. ("Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?" -Jeremiah 8:9.) In 1909 Harvard shortened its banner from "Truth for Christ's Kingdom" to "Truth," signaling unbounded optimism in man free of God. ("For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin" -Psalm 36:2.) Connect the dots from Alcott's Plumfield school to Columbine horror.

I also have cocked an ear and listened to Nature. And I can tell you with surety that it doesn't talk back. In the end you are like Frank Asch's bear in Happy Birthday, Moon, embarrassed to find that the voice you heard was your echo, the projections of your own desires. General Revelation without Special Revelation is mute, save for the convicting testimony of the deity of the Creator.

On Walden Pond we strolled upon an August afternoon, serene in the knowledge that it belongs to Him. And therefore it is ours (1 Corinthians 3:21), and we will not let them claim it. We listened for a voice and heard more than our own reflections-something breaking through solipsism, a better transcendentalism, an eloquence not blown off like chaff, a dream not washed away like footprints in the sand.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.

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