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Checking the Foundations


My mother’s father was named Charles Peacox (seated on left above – location and date of this WWI photo are unknown). Growing up, my mom always told me that character skipped a generation, and that I was just like her father. I never knew what that meant, but as a kid, I was always vaguely mystified – terrified actually – of some dark past I was destined to repeat.

Although I never knew my grandfather Peacox, I got the sense that things were tough growing up in my mom’s household – she was born in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. He died when I was 5, shortly after our family moved into his house (where my Mom grew up). My grandmother, Nanny Peacox never spoke of him to me. She had remarried my step grandfather, who I spent loads of time with as a kid fishing the Hudson River.

Anyway, all my mom told me about my grandfather Peacox was that he lived alone, he raised chickens, and was an intellectual. She said he was a bootlegger and ladies’ man during Prohibition. Other than that, the only clues she gave me (she died in 2003) was the above photo which I have on my wall, and three of his books: an 1865 and an 1876 edition of Emerson essays and Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly”.

My grandfather’s book of Emerson essays always fascinated and dwelt on me – I never understood his writing as a child. Although I read – many times – the classic essay “Self Reliance“, I am just beginning to do so as an adult. I’ve tried to read and have virtually everything Emerson wrote in my home library.

With this in mind, a strange coincidence prompted me to write this little essay tonight.

About a month ago, I read a wonderful book “American Transcendentalism” by Philip F. Gura, which traced the social and intellectual history of the transcendental movement of the 1830’s – 1850’s. Emerson was a major influence in that movement, which occured, as now, during a period of economic collapse, depression, and massive economic displacement and social upheaval.

Shortly after that, while browsing a Princeton book store, I came across and picked up a copy of “The Utopian Alternative – Fourierism in Nineteenth Century America” by Carl J. Guarneri. That book examines the social and intellectual history of Fourier, and includes detailed discussions of Emerson and his influence on the movement. I haven’t finished that book yet, but was intrigued by a reference to an 1841 Emerson essay titled “Man the Reformer“.

So, also fashioning myself some kind of reformer, I pulled out a copy off my bookshelf and re-read it.

And like Bob Dylan said

“every one of them words rang true and rang like burnin’ coal;

Pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you

Things started getting spooky! Emerson’s thoughts were so on target, both for my life personally and the politics of the times:

Let it be granted that our life, as we lead it, is common and mean; that some of those offices and functions for which we were mainly created are grown rare in society, that the memory of them is only kept alive in old books and in dim traditions; that prophets and poets, that beautiful and perfect men, we are not now…that the community in which we live will hardly bear to be told that every man should be open to ecstasy or … his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world”

I was more blown away by Emerson’s yearning for virtue, and his indictment and condemnation of corruption and call for reform:

In the history of the world, the doctrine of Reform has never had such scope as at the present hour. … all things hear the trumpet, and must rush to judgement…

It can not be wondered at, that this general inquest into the abuses should arise in the bosom of society, when one considers the practical impediments that stand in the way of virtuous young men.¬†The young man, on entering life, finds the way to lucrative employment blocked with abuses. The ways of trade are grown selfish to the borders of theft, and supple to the borders (if not beyond the borders) of fraud. The employments of commerce are not intrinsically unfit for a man, ..but these are now in the general course so vitiated by derelictions and abuses at which all connive, that it requires more vigor and resources than can be expected of every young man, to right himself of them; he is lost in them… Has genius no virtue? He must sacrifice all the brilliant dreams of boyhood and youth; he must forget the prayers of his childhood; and he must take on him the harness of routine and obsequiousness.

…The trail of the serpent reaches into all the lucrative professions and practices of man. .. Each finds a tender and very intelligent conscience a disqualification for success. Each requires of the practitioner a certain shutting of the eyes, a certain dapperness and compliance, an acceptance of custom, a sequestration from the sentiments of generosity and love, a compromise of private opinion and lofty integrity.

Reading this all led me back to the original copy of my Grandfather’s copy of essays.

I eerily noted that he had highlighted specific texts, both in the margins of the book itself and summarized in a list on inside cover pages. Let me share just one:

Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think, I am” but quotes from saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God today. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose.; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.

Upon examination, the foundations are sound.

And yes, despite Darwin, Crick, Watson, and the geneticists, maybe things really do skip a generation.

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  1. isbjorn
    November 21st, 2009 at 12:20 | #1

    “… maybe things really do skip a generation.” and if they do, what a wonderful legacy you’ve inherited!

    The Emerson quotes, and even the Dylan lines, reminded me of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell,” which I looked at after reading this post. A few lines stuck out. “The weak in courage is strong in cunning.” Sound familiar–esp. after our recent elections and the backtracking we’re seeing in Washington?

    This one seems especially appropriate to some of the environmental issues(Scott, read literally, sounds as if he might be talking abt some battles you know all too well) “Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

    And I thot I’d pass this along just in case . . .”Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.”

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