EMERSON'S ESSAYS. In 1841 Emerson published a volume which he called simply ‘Essays.’ When he published another volume of the same kind he called it ‘Essays: Second Series.’ So these two books — the First and Second Series — may properly be called ‘Emerson's Essays.’ The name, however, may also be taken to cover all of Emerson's work, for although his later volumes, which were generally collections, often had lectures as well as essays, there was no very striking difference between the two forms. Emerson usually wrote as if he were speaking to some one, so that his essays always have the spoken tone; and in the actual lectures which he really delivered, he gave his thoughts much the same turn as if he were writing a book. The ‘Essays: First Series’ are, however, both in thought and expression the most characteristic thing Emerson ever did. In the matter of style ‘Emerson's Essays’ are like Bacon's (q.v.) in one way; they are series of reflections and meditations rather than finished treatises.
If Emerson writes on history or on art, we are not to expect a systematic account of the subject, complete within the range allowed by its length; we have something very different. While the course of thought is not rambling or disconnected, yet the essay makes its impression chiefly by the sense and meaning of each idea as we come to it, by the illustrations or the figures; by the interest of each element, in short, rather than by the round of completed thought which it presents. This kind of expression has one great advantage at least, for it gives us Emerson's thought with the utmost sincerity and genuineness and permits him to say exactly what he wants to say and exactly as he wants to say it. His method of writing aided in this effort; he used to write down his thoughts day by day in a ‘Journal,’ and when he wrote an essay on any subject he would gather up whatever he had said on the matter at any other time and use it.
His ‘Journals’ have relatively little as to his goings and comings about Concord or about the house, but they are very full of what he was thinking about. And his thoughts were very likely to be not about everyday things, but about larger questions and the philosophies of life. One finds in the 'Essays,' then, the real essence of Emerson's thought — sincere, original, independent, undistorted, unadorned, unmingled. Here we have, not merely what he might think on sitting down to write, but the sum and substance of his thinking on the matter, as it had for years simmered and distilled in his mind till it left the pure and concentrated essence. Thus his writing has a very personal quality, although there is none of the gossipy character which we often think of as belonging to the personality of the essayist. It is Emerson himself, so intent on his thought that we forget that it is Emerson.
As to what the thought is, that will be better found in the article on Emerson. It may be said here, however, that Emerson was interested in philosophy in its broad sense, namely as the knowledge of himself and the universe that enables a man to get the best out of life. Two comments may be quoted: one by Lowell from ‘My Study Windows’ who said of Emerson's later lectures that even if the meaning were not always clear, one always felt that something beautiful had passed that way; and the other by Matthew Arnold in ‘Discourses in America’ that whatever Emerson might be as poet and philosopher, he was pre-eminently the guide and companion of those who wish to live by the spirit. The ‘Essays’ and ‘Journals’ may be compared in the recent authorized editions edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920