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On the Hudson, Saturday, October 20

(1924) [MARC] Author: Fredrika Bremer
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On the Hudson, Saturday, October 20. My happiest hours here are those which I spend alone in the forenoon, in my room, with American books which Mr. Downing lends me, and those passed in the evening with my host and hostess, sitting in the little darkened parlor with bookcases and busts around us, and the fire quietly glimmering in the large fireplace. There, by the evening lamp, Mr. Downing and his wife read to me by turns passages from their most esteemed American poets. Afterward I carry the books with me up into my chamber; in this way I have become acquainted with Bryant, Lowell, and Emerson, all of them representatives, in however dissimilar manner, of the life of the New World. Bryant sings especially of its natural life, of its woods, its prairies, its peculiar natural scenes and phenomena; and his song breathes the quiet, fresh inspiration of that life. One feels the sap circulating through the veins of the plant, and the leaves shooting forth. His Thanatopsis, or night song, is a largely conceived,
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though a short poem, in which the whole earth is regarded as a huge burial ground. Lowell is inspired by the great social questions, by the ideal life of the New World, which he then animates in his songs about freedom, about the bliss of a free and contented noble life, and about the honor and beauty of labor. Again and again I beg Mr. Downing to read me that beautiful little poem, The Poor Man’s Son, which charms me by its melody, by its impartial spirit — which is moral melody — and by that cheerful truth which it utters in the prospects for the poor man’s son on the soil of the New World. Would that I could translate for you that beautiful poem, and that Mr. Downing could read it to you with his musical voice. His little wife, Caroline, prefers reading a poem called The Vision of Sir Launfal. Lowell’s ideas are purely moral, and a deep vein of religious feeling runs through them. One of his most beautiful songs, in which burns a strong and noble patriotism, is directed against a political measure in Congress favorable to the maintenance of slavery in the United States. By this and many anti-slavery songs this young poet has taken his place among the leaders of that great party in the country which calls itself Abolitionist, and which insists upon the abolition of slavery. Lowell’s verse reveals a true poetic nature. He must express himself in verse;
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he does not make it, he sings it, and in his song we find that overflowing sentiment which makes the heart swell and thought spread its wings.

Waldo Emerson, a philosopher rather than a poet, yet poetic in his prose philosophical essays, strikes me as a new and peculiar character, the most unusual of the three. He appears to me like an American Thorild,[1] who by his own powerful nature would transform the world, seeking law and inspiration within his own breast alone. Strong and pure, calm and self-collected, but fantastical withal, he sends out from his transcendental viewpoint aphorisms on nature and history, on God (whom he does not regard as a personal God, but as a superior soul in harmony with laws), and on men, criticising them and their works from the ideal of the highest truth and highest beauty. "The world," says Emerson, "has not seen a man," and he looks forward with longing to that man, the man of the new world, in whose advent he believes. What this new individual shall really be, and what he is to do, is somewhat indefinite; but he must be true and beautiful in the highest sense of the term; and further, I suspect, he must be very handsome and tall of stature, if he is to find favor with Emerson, who is himself, they say, a man of singular
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beauty, and who regards any personal defect as a kind of sin. The new man follows only the laws within his own bosom; but there he finds the unfalsified sources of truth and beauty. The new man believes in himself alone; he demands everything from himself, and does all for himself, reposes in and upon himself. The new type is a Stoic, but not stern as such; he is gentle, beautiful. Wherever he comes, life blooms; in a circle of friends it becomes a holiday; nectar and ambrosia pour forth at his approach; but he himself needs no friend. He needs none, not even God; he himself becomes God-like, inasmuch as he does not need him. He conquers heaven by saying to it, "I desire thee not I" He descends into nature as a restorer, governs and places it under the spell of his influence, and it is — his friend. In it he finds what suffices him; the divinities of the woods whisper to him their peace and self-sufficiency; "there is not a hillock without a star above it," there is no sorrow which the healing life of nature cannot remove. He says farewell to the proud world; he tramples upon the greatness of Rome and Greece in this rural little home, where he can see God in the "burningbush." Emerson’s language is strong and compressed, simple, effective, and plastic. His turns of thought are original; old ideas are reproduced in so new and brilliant a manner that one
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fancies them heard for the first time. The diviningrod of genius is in his hand. He is a master in his domain. It seems to me that his real strength is criticism, a certain grand contempt and scorn for the weak, paltry, and mediocre wherever he sees it, and he sees it in much and many things. He chastises it without mercy; but, at the same time, with wonderful address. Emerson’s performances in this way are really quite regal. They remind me of our King Gustavus Adolphus, when he took the criminal soldier by the hair and delivered him up to punishment, with the friendly words, "Come, my lad, it is better that thy body now suffer chastisement than that thy soul go to hell." Yet there is more in Emerson even than the intention of chastisement. The writings of this scorner of imperfection, of the mean and small, this bold exacter of perfection in man, have for me a fascination which amounts almost to magic! I often object to him; I quarrel with him; I see that his stoicism is one-sidedness, his pantheism an imperfection, and I know what is greater and more perfect, but I am under the influence of his magical power. I believe myself to have become greater through his greatness, stronger through his strength, and I breathe the air of a higher sphere in his world, which is indescribably refreshing to me. Emerson has more ideality than is common among thinkers of the
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English race, and one might say that in him the idealism of Germany is wedded to the realism of Britain.

I have never as yet gone a step to see a literary lion; but I would go a considerable way to see Emerson, this pioneer in the moral forests of the New World, who applies his axe to the roots of the old trees to hew them down and to open the path for new planting. And see him I will — him who, in a society as strictly evangelical as that of Massachusetts and Boston (Emerson was the minister of a Unitarian congregation in Boston) had the courage openly to resign his ministration, his church, and the Christian faith, when he had come to doubt some of its principal doctrines; who was noble enough, nevertheless, to retain universal esteem and old friends; and strong enough, while avoiding all controversy and bitterness of speech, to withdraw into silence, to labor alone for that truth which he fully acknowledged, for those teachings which heathen and Christian alike recognize. Emerson has a right to talk about strength and truth, because he lives for these virtues. And it will benefit the world, which is slumbering in the Church from lack of vital Christianity, to be roused up by such fresh winds from the Himalaya of paganism.

Now I must tell you something of my late doings
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in society. Miss Sedgwick, the author of Redwood, came here, together with her young niece, a few days after my arrival. She is between fifty and sixty, and her countenance indicates much sensible kindness and good will, but no real genius. Her figure is beautifully feminine, and her whole demeanor womanly, sincere, and frank, without a shadow of affectation. I felt my soul a little slumbrous while with her for the first few days; but this feeling was, as it were, blown quite away by a touching and beautiful expression of cordiality on her side, which revealed us to each other; and since then I have felt that I could live with her as with a heavenly soul in which one has entire trust. I derived pleasure, also, from her highly sensible conversation and from her truly womanly human sympathies. She has a true and gentle spirit; and I feel that I can really depend upon her. Of late years she has written much for what I will call the people of lower degree in society; because here, where almost every person works for his living, one cannot properly speak of a working class, but quite correctly of people of small means and somewhat limited environment and circumstances — a class which has not yet worked itself up. Franklin, himself a workman, and one who had worked himself up, wrote for this class. Miss Sedgwick writes for the same, and her little novels and stories are
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said to be much liked and to do a great deal of good. People praise in particular a story called Home, which I shall endeavor to read. Miss Sedgwick was at this time occupied in preparing a new edition of her collected works. She consulted me about some proposed alterations in her previous works, and I told her that, for my own part, I should never alter anything which I had written long since, even where I saw its faults and could easily correct them; because, when an author lives and writes through a long course of years, his or her works constitute a history of that author’s development which ought to remain unaltered as a bit of history in itself, alike instructive to him and to others. An author’s works are portions of an autobiography which he must write whether he will or not.

Longfellow, the author of Evangeline, is perhaps the best read and most popular poet in America; but this is owing to qualities which are common alike to the older poets of all countries, rather than to any peculiar characteristics of the New World. Those sentiments, whether happy or sorrowful, which exist in the breast of every superior human being are peculiarly his domain, and here he exercises his sway, particularly in the delineation of the more delicate changes of feeling. In Evangeline, however, he has dealt with an
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American subject and described American scenery.

Mr. Downing has mentioned to me Horace Mann, as one of the persons who have most effectually labored for the future, as an individual who has brought about by his enthusiasm and determination a great reform in the field of instruction, who has labored for the erection of beautiful new schools in all parts of the country, and has infused a new life into the organization of schools. It appears that the reformers and lecturers who develop the spiritual and intellectual life in America and arouse its ideal, come from the Northern States, from New England, and in particular from Massachusetts, the oldest home of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.

Mr. Downing has drawn up for me a proposed route of travel—the plan of a journey for one year through the United States, and has furnished me with letters to his friends in the different states. I still had a deal to say to you about my happiness in being here, my happiness in the new vitality which seems given to me, although I feel that the outer life is a little wearisome sometimes; and I expect to have to pay for it one of these days. But ah! how few there are who have to complain of having too many objects of interest, of experiencing too much good will!
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Not far from Mr. Downing’s villa, on the other side of the Hudson river, a brick-maker has built himself a lovely home. This honorable man—for so he seems to be, and so he really is—has been here two or three times to present me with flowers and invite me to his villa. My attention has been called, also, to a pretty little house, a frame structure with green veranda and garden, right in this neighborhood. "It belongs," said Mr. Downing, "to a man who in the daytime drives cartloads of stone and rubbish for making the roads." In this the workingman of the New World has more advantages than he of the Old. He can here, by the hard labor of his hands, obtain the more refined pleasures of life, a fine home and the fruits of education for his family, much more quickly. And he may obtain these if he will.

At this moment an explosion thunders from the other side of the Hudson, and I see huge blocks of stone hurled into the air and fall into the water, which foams and boils in consequence: it is a rock which is being blasted to make room for a railway now in the course of construction along the banks of the river, where the power of steam on land will compete with the power of steam on water. To hurl mountains out of the way, to bore through them and build tunnels, to move hills into the water as a foundation for roads in places where
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this is necessary—all this the Americans regard as nothing at all. They have indeed the faith to move mountains.

Now come the steamboats thundering like tempests among the hills. Two or three chase each other like brilliant meteors; two others plow along, working heavily, laboring and puffing, and pulling a whole fleet of larger and smaller craft. The little town of Newburgh alone maintains, by its trade from the country back of it, two or three steamboats. When one sees the number and magnificence of the Hudson steamers, one can scarcely believe the fact, which is true nevertheless, that it is not more than thirty years ago since Fulton made here his first experiment with steam power on the river, and that amid general distrust of the undertaking.


[1] Thomas Thorild (1759-1808), Swedish poet, critic and philosophical writer. — Editor’s Note.


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