In rating influencers of American attitudes and culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson would come near the top of anyone’s list. That is why it is productive to look at his evolving attitudes toward aging and what it says (and taught others) in the formative years of this country. Emerson had a relatively long life for the 19th century; he reached the age of 79. For most of his life he wrote prolifically, lectured, kept journals and wrote volumes of letters. Yet his last decade was clouded by his gradual loss of memory and, finally, speech. In Emerson, as in Jonathan Swift, we have a figure who lived long and thought about what old age meant. Like Swift, he also had a difficult old age.
Swift, who made resolutions when he was young about how he would not behave when he got old, broke all his own rules. In his youth, Emerson was sad for the very old who were in the papers for nothing more than being a year older. “We do not count a man’s age until he has nothing left to count.” In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote: “Nature abhors the old, and old age seems the only disease; all others run into this one.” And he resents the attitudes of his elders: “But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young.” Somehow, he thinks we should be able to resist this: “Old age ought not to creep on a human mind.” Emerson seems to give little force to the inevitable decay of the body; we must keep our minds young, even though “the surest poison is time.” Emerson knew some admirable old men and he thought they had their place, but old age requires, according to the younger Emerson, “fit surroundings. Age is comely in coaches, in churches, in chairs of state and ceremony, in council-chambers, in courts of justice, and historical societies.” But not on Broadway or in the mainstream of society: “The creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous.” And perhaps it some ways it is.
Emerson took a kinder view of old age as he got into his fifties (don’t we all), but both Emerson and Swift suffered from an early aversion to growing older, which seemed to only make the process harder when they finally approached senescence.
As Emerson aged, he did mellow to the gifts of age. They are gentler gifts than those delineated by T. S. Eliot. First, there is the gift of relief that life has been (more or less) successfully weathered. “It were strange if a man should turn his sixtieth year without a feeling of immense relief from the number of dangers he has escaped.” Second, ambition evaporates. Emerson no longer frets about how he will be received, whether a project is a success or a failure. Third, we do not have things hanging over our heads – we have had the career, the family, the house, the friends. For good or bad, those days are past us. “The ferment of earlier days has subsided into serenity of thought and behavior.” And the fourth and last benefit is a chance to “set its [old age’s] house in order, finish its works, which to every artist is a supreme pleasure.” Emerson in his late fifties has a warmer view of old age than young Emerson. But he is also mostly done writing the powerful essays that made him great, that we still read today.
Emerson wrote “Terminus,” one of the great poems about old age when he was 64. Terminus was the Roman god of boundaries, and Emerson sees old age as a time for boundaries:
Make thy option which of two;
Economize the failing river,
Not the less revere the Giver,
Leave the many and hold the few.
We don’t want to hear about limitations though, do we? No boundaries for us boomers. No acceptance of, as Robert Frost terms it, “a diminished thing.” Many of us suffer from believing that all is possible in a time of life when that is not the truth. In fact, it was never the truth; old age just hits us over the head with it.
The very old Emerson does note some compensations. As he lost his memory, he posits that “increased power and means of generalization” partially makes up for the inability to remember a word or a name or a citation. Emerson is glad to lose his sensitivity to what people think: “One capital advantage of old age is the absolute insignificance of a success more or less. I went to town and read a lecture yesterday. Thirty years ago it had really been a matter of importance to me whether it was good and effective. Now it is of none in relation to me.”
Emerson finally says of the aches and pains of old age that they come with the comfort that we will soon be out of them. “Old age bring along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it, – which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums are we are.” Yet, Emerson still feared death. One of the last poems Emerson wrote follows Frost and Keats in asking stars for lessons in endurance and stability.
Teach me your mood, O patient stars!
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.
Emerson did write one piece about old age for The Atlantic when he was in his late fifties. But a better way to see how his attitude modulated over time is to look at his journals (where most of my quotes come from), which Emerson kept from his teen years until a few years before he died. The last notation in the copy I have is that the day is Thomas Carlyle’s 80th birthday. Emerson may have been wondering if he would make it to 80, but we cannot know if he were hoping he would or wishing he would not. He did not. He died at 79.