the Saturnalia or excess of Faith


During the tour of America that he chronicled in “The American Scene,” Henry James made a stop in Concord, Mass. By 1904, when James visited, the town’s glory days were half a century in the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were almost as distant as the minutemen who fired the shot heard round the world. James, who had spent decades living in the capitals of Europe, wrote about Concord with a certain embarrassment, as though describing a country cousin. The river reminded him of “some large obese benevolent person,” the town itself of “some grave, refined New England matron of the ‘old school,’ the widow of a high celebrity, living on and in possession of all his relics and properties.” He imagined Concord pleading with him not to demand too much, not to expect America’s intellectual shrine to rival Paris or London: “Compare me with places of my size, you know.”

In James’s embarrassed affection for Concord, we recognize our own mixed feelings about the men and women who made it famous: the loose conspiracy of philosophers, preachers, idealists, and cranks known as the Transcendentalists.

more from The NY Sun here.