the Concord Magazine Sept/Oct 2000
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History and Myth:  Through the Eyes of the Transcendentalists

By Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator of Special Collections, Concord Free Public Library. See a related story about her newly-published volume, Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism.

Note: This is Part 4 of a continuing series. Our next issue will conclude this series with the ending of this article. For the previous installments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

The 225th anniversary of the Concord Fight this past April was marked by an exhibition at the Concord Free Public Library of sources relating to April 19, 1775. As I researched and planned the display over the months leading up to April, I repeatedly came face-to-face with the realization that what we think we know about April 19th and those who fought at the North Bridge is based only partly on solid documentation.

Our understanding of the Concord Fight is also in part a response to the innate mythic elements that the history of the day presents. It reflects our own need to transform what was, after all, a brief skirmish between "embattled farmers" and British soldiers out of their element into a story that more clearly mirrors the archetypal patterns of a nation's beginning: a tale complete with right and wrong, bravery, spirited independence, dramatic action, and characters of heroic (or folk-heroic) proportions. Over the past year and a half, I have thought frequently about what compels us to create myth out of the bare bones of history.

The Mythological Hero as the Obscurest of Men
The writings of Transcendental authors Emerson and Thoreau suggest some answers to this question. In his essay "History," (published in 1841 in the first series of his Essays), Emerson expressed a more encompassing outlook on history than that which focuses on discrete events and the individual achievements of particular men. He perceived a common source underlying all of history and a sameness of human impulse and action throughout all periods and across all cultures. Emerson wrote, "I believe in Eternity. I can find Greece, Asia, Italy, Spain, and the Islands--the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind." He placed factual history within a larger framework that gave immediate relevance to even the most remote deed of a distant people long ago.

Emerson, Thoreau, and others among their contemporaries looked for universals in everything they examined. They emphasized both the present moment as equivalent to all other moments in history, and the inherent capacity of all men in the present -- the ordinary as well as the extraordinary -- for greatness of the kind demonstrated by famous individuals of earlier generations. In his essay "Walking" (first published in 1862), Thoreau went so far as to declare that he lived in "the heroic age itself" and that "though we know it not ... the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men." The Transcendentalists' idea of "Universal History" conferred upon the present time a significance commensurate with that of the past, identifying common threads among discrete facts and eras.

History is the Record of the Universal Mind's Work
The Transcendentalists viewed man as a limitless expression of divinity, a favored part of the triad of God, man, and nature they sometimes called the Oversoul. God communicated directly with and to some extent intuitively inspired each individual, each drawing power from this connection with the divine. The authority of the individual was thus placed above that of traditional religious, social, and political institutions. Moreover, each man's receptivity to the divine spark of intuition was equal to that of every other man. Nature, like man a manifestation of the creator's mind, was through its symbolism key to man's realization of God. Emerson wrote of it in Nature (1836) as a tool "to conspire with spirit to emancipate us." The Transcendental view of history rested on these basic premises.

Emerson saw history as reflective of collective humanity rather than of the individual impulses of individual men. He opened "History":

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. ... What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.
History, Emerson continued, is the record of the works of this universal mind. Because of the underlying unity inherent in this concept, man could be understood only through the whole of history, not merely within the context of a given period and a given set of circumstances. Furthermore, the universal mind expressed itself through the agency of the particular individual, who encapsulated its totality within himself: "The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world." This vision of history conferred dignity upon the actions of the individual and was profoundly democratic. Emerson wrote in "History":

Universal history, the poets, the romancers, do not in their stateliest pictures ... anywhere lose our ear, anywhere make us feel that we intrude, that this is for better men; but rather it is true, that in their grandest strokes we feel most at home. ... We sympathize in the great moments of history ... because there law was enacted, the sea was searched, the land was found, or the blow was struck for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded.
Each man is thus capable of that which all great men before him have accomplished. Validating the subjective individual viewpoint implied elevation of the individual, however humble. This made Transcendental history far more personally relevant than any narrowly factual or chronological approach.

From Universal Paradigm to Human Scale
History derives its meaning, Emerson suggested, from the repetition of recurrent generalities in the life of the individual: "We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself ..."

Historical inquiry constitutes the "desire to do away with this wild, savage, and preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now" to establish that the motives and the powers of those who left their mark on history are identical to our own. The "infinite variety of things" gleaned from a superficial exploration of history actually has at its center "a simplicity of cause."

Emerson thus removed history from the level of data and humanized it, vitally connecting it to the life of the individual in the present. We ourselves are the proper subject matter and source material of history: "The primeval world,--the fore-World, as the Germans say,--I can dive to it in myself as well as grope for it with researching fingers in catacombs, libraries, and the broken reliefs and torsos of ruined villas." We seek corroboration of the constancy of human tendencies and behaviors, thereby asserting our own affinity with the historical past.

History as Mythology
Nothing expresses the constants in human experience more elementally than mythology. Emerson commented in "History," "The beautiful fables of the Greeks ... are universal verities" that transcend temporal limitations and are therefore more meaningful than written history as we know it. Facts need to be put into proper perspective:

Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time, serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him.
Emerson closed the essay by urging a "broader and deeper" approach to history, one founded on evidence more primal than that provided by conventional documentation.

Note: This is Part 4 of a continuing series. Our next issue will conclude this series with the ending of this article. For the previous installments: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.


Text: ©2000 Leslie Perrin Wilson.
Drawings: ArtToday.
Backgrounds: Culprit Fey.


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