Man of Letters.

From: Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880)
Author: Octavius Brooks Frothingham
Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1880 New York



  THE man who was as influential as any in planting the seeds of the transcendental philosophy in good soil, and in showing whither its principles tended, is known now, and has from the first been known, chiefly as a man of letters, a thoughtful observer, a careful student and a serious inquirer after knowledge. George Ripley, one year older than Emerson, was one of the forerunners and prophets of the new dispensation. He was by temperament as well as by training, a scholar, a reader of books, a discerner of opinions, a devotee of ideas. A mind of such clearness and serenity, accurate judgment, fine taste, and rare skill in the use of language, written and spoken, was of great value in introducing, defining and interpreting the vast, vague thoughts that were burning in the minds of speculative men. He was one of the first in America to master the German language; and, his bent of mind being philosophical and theological, he became a medium through which the French and German thought found its way to New England. He was an importer, reader and lender of the new books of the living Continental thinkers. His library contained a rich collection of works in philosophy, theology, hermeneutics, criticism of the Old and New Testaments, and divinity in its different branches of dogmatics and sentiment. He was intimate with N. L. Frothingham and Convers Francis, the admirable scholar, the hospitable and independent. thinker, the enthusiastic and humane believer, the centre and generous distributor of copious intellectual gifts to all who came within his reach. Theodore Parker was the intellectual product of these two men, Convers Francis and George Ripley. The former fed his passion for knowledge; the latter, at the period of his life in the divinity school, gave direction to· his thought. The books that did most to determine the set of Parker’s mind were taken from Mr. Ripley’s library. For a considerable time, in Parker’s early ministry, they were close and thoroughly congenial friends. They walked and talked together; made long excursions; attended conventions; were members of the same club or coterie; joined in the discussions at which Emerson, Channing, Hedge, Clarke, Alcott took part; and, though parted, in after life, by circumstances which appointed them to different spheres of labor,—one in Boston, the other in NewYork,—they continued to the end, constant and hearty well wishers. At the close of his life, Parker expressed a hope that Ripley might be his biographer.

  Mr. Ripley prepared for the ministry at the Cambridge divinity school; in 1826 accepted a call to be pastor and preacher of the church, organized but eighteen months before, and within two months worshipping in their new meeting-house on Purchase street, Boston. The ordination took place on Wednesday, Nov. 8th, of the same year. “Under his charge,” said his successor, Rev. J. I. T. Coolidge, in 1848, “the society grew from very small beginnings to strength and prosperity. As a preacher, he awakened the deepest interest, and as a devoted pastor, the warmest affection, which still survives, deep and strong, in the hearts of those who were the objects of his counsel and pastoral care. After the lapse of almost fifteen years, the connection was dissolved, for reasons which affected not the least the relations of friendship and mutual respect between the parties. It has been a great satisfaction to me, as I have passed in and out among you, to hear again and again the expressions of love and interest with which you remember the ministry of your first servant in this church.” That this was not merely the formal tribute which the courtesies of the profession exacted, is proved, as well as such a thing can be proved, by the published correspondence between the pastor and his people, by the frank declarations of the pastor in his farewell address, and by a remarkable letter, which discussed in full the causes that led to the separation of the pastor and his flock. In this long and candid letter to the church, Mr. Ripley declared himself a Transcendentalist, and avowed his sympathy with movements larger than the Christian Church represented.

  The declaration was hardly necessary. Mr. Ripley was known to be the writer of the review of Martineau’s “Rationale of Religious Enquiry,” which raised such heated controversy; his translation of Cousin’s “Philosophical Miscellanies,” with its important Introduction, had attracted the attention of literary circles; a volume of discourses, entitled “Discourses on the Philosophy of Religion,” comprising seven sermons delivered in the regular course of his ministry, left no doubt in any mind respecting his position. The controversy with Andrews Norton on “The Latest Form of Infidelity,” was carried on in 1840, the year before Mr. Ripley’s ministry ended. The calmness of tone that characterized all these writings, the clearness and serenity of statement, the seemingly easy avoidance of extremes, the absence of passion, showed the supremacy of intellect over feeling. Yet of feeling there must have been a good deal. There was a great deal in the community; there was a great deal among the clergy of his denomination; that it had found expression within his own society, is betrayed in the farewell sermon; that his own heart was deeply touched, was confessed by the fact that on the very day after his parting words to his congregation were spoken—on March 29th, 1841—Mr. Ripley took up his new ministry at Brook Farm.

  The character of that Association has been described in a previous chapter, with as much minuteness of detail as is necessary, and the purposes of its inaugurators have been sufficiently indicated. The founder of it was not a “doctrinaire,” but a philanthropist on ideal principles. With the systems of socialism current in Paris, he was at that period wholly unacquainted. The name of Charles Fourier was unfamiliar to him. He had faith in the soul, and in the soul’s prophecy of good; he saw that the prophecy was unheeded, that society rested on principles which the soul abhorred; that between the visions of the spiritual philosophy and the bitter realities of vice, misery, sin, in human life, there was an unappeasable conflict; and he was resolved to do what one man might to create a new earth in preparation for a new heaven. He took the Gospel at its word, and went forth to demonstrate the power of its principles, by showing the Beatitudes to be something more substantial than dreams. His costly library, with all its beloved books, was offered for sale at public auction, and the price thereof, with whatever else he possessed, was consecrated to the cause of humanity that he had at heart. He had no children, and few ties of kindred; but the social position of the clergy was above any secular position in New England at that time; the prejudices and antipathies of the clerical order were stubborn; the leaders of opinion in state and church were conservative, to a degree it is difficult for us to believe; the path of the reformer was strewn with thorns and beset with difficulties most formidable to sensitive spirits. Mr. Emerson had resigned his ministry nine years before, and for the reason too that he was a Transcendentalist, but had retired to the peaceful walks of literature, and had made no actual assault on social institutions. Mr. Ripley associated himself at once with people of no worldly consideration, avowed principles that were voted vulgar in refined circles, and identified himself with an enterprise which the amiable called visionary, and the unamiable wild and revolutionary. But his conviction was clear, and his will was fixed. Sustained by the entire sympathy of a very noble woman, his wife—who was one with him in aspiration, purpose, and endeavor, till the undertaking ended—he put “the world” behind him, sold all, and followed the Master.

  Mr. and Mrs. Ripley were the life of the Brook Farm Association. Their unfaltering energy, unfailing cheer, inexhaustible sweetness and gayety, availed to keep up the tone of the institution, to prevent its becoming common-place, and to retain there the persons on whose character the moral and intellectual standard depended. It was due to them that the experiment was tried as long as it was—six years;—that while it went on, it avoided, as it did, the usual scandal and reproach that bring ruin on schemes of that description; and that, when finally it ended in disaster, it commanded sympathy rather than contempt, and left a sweet memory behind. The originator was the last to leave the place of his toil and vain endeavor; he left it, having made all necessary provision for the discharge of debts, which only through arduous labors in journalism he was able afterwards to pay.

  In Mr. Ripley’s mind the Idea was supreme. In 1844 he, with Mr. Dana and Mr. Channing, lectured and spoke on the principles of Association,—the foreign literature on the subject being more familiar to him then,—commended the doctrine of Fourier, and was prepared for a more sympathetic propagandism than he had meditated hitherto. In 1845, the “Harbinger” was started,—a weekly journal, devoted to Social and Political Progress; published by the Brook Farm Phalanx. The Prospectus, written by Mr. Ripley, made this announcement: “The principles of universal unity taught by Charles Fourier in their application to society, we believe are at the foundation of all genuine social progress; and it will ever be our aim to discuss and defend those principles without any sectarian bigotry, and in the catholic and comprehensive spirit of their great discoverer.” An introductory notice by the same pen, among other things pertaining to the aims and intentions of the paper, contained this passage:

  “The interests of Social Reform will be considered as paramount to all others in whatever is admitted into the pages of the “Harbinger.” We shall suffer no attachment to literature, no taste for abstract discussion, no love of purely intellectual theories, to seduce us from our devotion to the cause of the oppressed, the down trodden, the insulted and injured masses of our fellow men. Every pulsation of our being vibrates in sympathy with the wrongs of the toiling millions; and every wise effort for their speedy enfranchisement will find in us resolute and indomitable advocates. If any imagine from the literary tone of the preceding remarks that we are indifferent to the radical movement for the benefit of the masses which is the crowning glory of the nineteenth century, they will soon discover their egregious mistake. To that movement, consecrated by religious principle, sustained by an awful sense of justice, and cheered by the brightest hopes of future good, all our powers, talents, and attainments are devoted. We look for an audience among the refined and educated circles, to which the character of our paper will win its way; but we shall also be read by the swart and sweaty artisan; the laborer will find in us another champion; and many hearts struggling with the secret hope which no weight of care and toil can entirely suppress, will pour on us their benedictions, as we labor for the equal rights of all.”

  In the four years of its existence, the paper was faithful to this grand and high sounding promise. A powerful company of writers contributed their labor to help forward the plan. The Journal was affluent and sparkling. The literary criticism was the work of able pens; the musical and art criticism was in the hands of the most competent judges in the country; the æsthetics were not neglected; the verse was excellent; but the social questions were of first consideration. These were never treated slightingly, and the treatment of them never deviated from the high standard proposed by the editors. The list of its contributors contained the names of Stephen Pearl Andrews, Albert Brisbane, W. H. Channing, W. E. Channing, Walter Channing. James Freeman Clarke, Geo. H. Calvert, J. J. Cooke, A. J. H. Duganne, C. P. Cranch, Geo. W. Curtis, Charles A. Dana, J. S. Dwight, Horace Greeley, Parke Godwin, F. H. · Hedge, T. W. Higginson, M. E. Lazarus, J. R. Lowell, Osborn Macdaniel, Geo. Ripley, S. D. Robbins, L. W. Ryckman, F. G. Shaw, W.W. Story, Henry James, John G. Whittier, J. J. G. Wilkinson—a most remarkable collection of powerful names.

  The departments seem not to have been systematically arranged, but the writers sent what they had, the same writer furnishing articles on a variety of topics. Mr. F. G. Shaw published, in successive numbers, an admirable translation of George Sand’s “Consuelo,” and wrote against the iniquities of the principle of competition in trade. C. A. Dana noticed books, reported movements, criticized men and measures, translated poetry from the German, and sent verses of a mystical and sentimental character of his own. C. P. Cranch contributed poems and criticisms on art and music. J. S. Dwight paid attention to the musical department, but also wrote book reviews and articles on the social problem. W. H. Channing poured out his burning soul in denunciation of social wrong and painted in glowing colors the promise of the future. G. W. Curtis sent poetry and notes on literature and music in New York. T. W. Higginson printed there his” Hymn of Humanity.” Messrs. Brisbane, Godwin and Greeley confined themselves to social problems, doing a large part of the heavy work. Mr. Ripley, the Managing Editor, supervised the whole; wrote much himself on the different aspects of Association; reported the progress of the cause at home and abroad; answered the objections that were current in the popular prejudice, and gave to the paper the encouraging tone of his cheery, earnest spirit.

  As interpreted by the “Harbinger,” the cause of Association was hospitable and humane. The technicalities of special systems were avoided; dry discussions of theory and method were put aside; generous sympathy was shown towards philanthropic workers in other fields; the tone of wailing was never heard, and the anticipations of the future were steadily bright and bold. When reformers of a pronounced type, like the abolitionists, spoke of it slightingly as a “kid glove” journal that was afraid of soiling its fingers with ugly matters like slavery, the Associationists explained that their plan was the more comprehensive; that they struck at the root of every kind of slavery; and that the worst evils would disappear when their beneficent principle should be recognized. That the “Harbinger” should have lived no longer than it did, with such a corps of writers and so great a cause,—the last number is dated February 10, 1849,—may be accounted for by the feeble hold that Socialism had in this country. In Europe the hearts of the working people were in it. It originated among them, expressed their actual sorrows, answered their living questions, promised satisfaction to their wants, and predicted the only future they could imagine as in any way possible. Here it was an imported speculation; the working people were not driven to it for refuge from; their misery; they did not ask the questions it proposed to answer, nor did it hold out prospects that gladdened their eyes. The advocates of it were cultivated men, literary and æsthetical, who represented the best the old world had to give, rather than the worst the New World had experienced; and their words met with no response from the multitudes in whose behoof they were spoken. America was exercised then by questions of awful moment. The agitation against slavery had taken hold of the whole country; it was in politics, in journalism, in literature, in the public hall and the parlor. Its issues were immediate and urgent. People had neither heads nor hearts for schemes of comprehensive scope that must be patiently meditated and matured for generations. No talents, no brilliancy, no earnestness even, would engage interest in what seemed visionary, however glorious the vision. The socialistic enterprises in America were all short lived. Brook Farm was an idyl; and in the days of epics, the idyl is easily forgotten.

  The decease of the “Harbinger” was the end of that phase of Transcendentalism. The dream of the kingdom of heaven faded. The apostles were dispersed. Some kept their faith and showed their fidelity in other places and other work. Three or four went into the Roman Church, and found rest on its ancient bosom. Others found a field for their talents in literature, which they beautified with their genius, and ennobled by their ideas. Others devoted themselves to journalism. Of the last was George Ripley. The New York Tribune offered him the post of literary critic on its editorial staff. That position he has occupied for twenty-five years, in a way honorable to himself and to good letters. It has been in his power to aid the development of literature in America, in many ways, by encouraging young writers; by giving direction to ambitious but immature gifts; by erecting a standard of judgment, high, without being unreasonable, and strict, without being austere. A large acquaintance with books, a cultivated taste, a hospitable appreciation, a hearty love of good literary work, a cordial dislike of bad, a just estimation of the rights and duties of literary men, and the office they should fill in a republican community, have marked his administration of the department assigned to him. He has held it to be his duty to make intelligent reports of current literature, with enough of criticism to convey his own opinion of its character, without dictating opinions to others. Worthless books received their due, and worthy books received theirs in full measure. The books in which worth and worthlessness were united were discriminatingly handled, the emphasis being laid on the better qualities. Many of the reviews were essays, full of discernment. All showed that respect for mind which might be expected from one so carefully trained.

  Mr. Ripley has been true to the ideas with which he set out in his early life. His period of philosophical propagandism being over; his young enthusiasm having spent itself in experiments which trial proved to be premature, to say the least, if not essentially impracticable; his dreams having faded, when his efforts ended in disappointment, he retired from public view neither dispirited, nor morose. His interest in philosophy continues undiminished; his hope of man, though more subdued is clear; his faith in the spiritual basis of religion is serene. Disappointment has not made him bitter, reckless or frivolous. His power of moral indignation at wrong and turpitude is unimpaired, though it no longer breaks out with the former vehemence. A cheerful wisdom gained by thought and experience of sorrow, tempers his judgment of men and measures. His confidence is in culture, in literature, generously interpreted and fostered, in ideas honestly entertained and freely expressed.

  The Transcendentalist keeps his essential faith. Generally the Transcendentalists have done this. It was a faith too deeply planted, too nobly illustrated, too fervent and beautiful in youth, to be laid aside in age. James Walker died in the ripeness of it; Parker died in the strength of it; others—old and grave men now—live in the joy of it. The few who have relapsed, have done so, some under pressure of worldly seduction—they having no depth of root—and some under the influence of scientific teaching, which has shaken the foundation of their psychology. The original disciples, undismayed by the signs of death, still believe in the Master, and live in the hope of his resurrection.

All Sub-Works of Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.