“… he is a moral nuisance …”

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our curator of art, Anne Bentley, recently pointed out a fascinating (but brutal!) passage quoted in the MHS Proceedings of the March 1929 meeting. I feel compelled to share, and for any current author out there who’s ever received a bad review, take heart – it could be worse.

The Proceedings record that Mr. Ford [Worthington Chauncey Ford, then the Society’s Editor] “read the following criticism on Emerson’s Conduct of Life, published in the Southern Literary Messenger for April 1861 [Volume XXXII, pp. 326-7] – a fateful month in our history.” What did the reviewer have to say about Mr. Emerson?

“His mind is like a rag-picker’s basketfull of all manner of trash. His books are valuable, for the very reason they are of no earthly account. They illustrate the utter worthlessness of the philosophy of free society. Egoism, or rather Manism, (if we may coin a word), propounded in short scraps, tags, and shreds of sentences may do very well for a people who have no settled opinions in politics, religion or morals, and have lived for forty years on pure fanaticisms. We of the South require something better than this no-system. Your fragmentary philsopher, of the EMERSON stamp, who disturbs the beliefs of the common folk, without again composing or attempting to compose them with a higher and purer faith, is a curse to society. Such a man ought to be subject to the mild punishment of perpetual confinement, with plenty of pens, ink and paper. Burn his writings as fast as they come from his table, and bury the writer quietly in the back yard of the prison as soon as he is dead. If in early life, the speculative lobes of his brain had been eaten out with nitric acid, EMERSON would have made a better poet than any New England has given us. As it is, he is a moral nuisance. He ought to be abated by act of Congress and his works suppressed.”

Thanks to the Making of America site, you can read a digital version of the original review (here), which includes two lead-off sentences not read by Mr. Ford into the Proceedings: “Whoever undertakes to conduct his life according to the precepts (if there be any) inculcated in this book, will find himself in a worse labyrinth than that of Crete. EMERSON never had a fixed opinion about anything.”

You can read a first edition of Emerson’s Conduct of Life (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860) at the Historical Society, or online via the Internet Archive (click on “flip book” at the left margin).