American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Parker’s Kaleidoscope

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Theodore Parker at Age 39

In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period.  A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.

But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.

For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination.


At Age 42

Parker is explicit on this point. In his letter to his congregation, he enumerates four “great obvious Social Forces in America”: “organized Trading Power,” “organized Political Power,” “organized Ecclesiastical Power,” and “organized Literary Power.” This last he defines as

the endowed colleges, the periodical press, with its triple multitude of journals — commercial, political, theological — and sectarian tracts.

And he continues:

This [Literary Power] has no original ideas, but diffuses the opinion of the other powers whom it represents, whose Will it serves, and whose Kaleidoscope it is.

Given his definition of literature, Parker’s remarks might seem to exclude the loftier forms of expression, but he supplements what he says in other passages, for instance when he speaks of the “scholars’ culture” as having “palsied their natural instincts of humanity.” (“Exceptional men,” he writes,  “only confirm the general rule, that the educated is also a selfish class, morally not in advance of the mass of men.”) Or elsewhere, with regard to pedagogy:

[T]he reading-books of our public and private schools seem to have been compiled by men with only the desire of gain for their motive, who have rejected those pieces of prose or poetry which appeal to what is deepest in human nature, rouse indignation against successful wrong, and fill the child with generous sentiments and great ideas. Sunday-School books seem yet worse, so loaded with the superstitions of the sects. The heroism of this age finds no voice nor language in our Schools.

When I first read that last sentence, I thought right away of Emerson, perhaps because of the word “heroism,” and turning to Emerson’s essay of the same name I found the following passage:

[I]f we explore the literature of Heroism we shall quickly come to Plutarch, who is its Doctor and historian. … Each of his “Lives” is a refutation to the despondency and cowardice of our religious and political theorists.

Parker of course knew these words, and perhaps even meant to recall them: his own life, set forth for his congregation, was likewise meant to refute despondency and cowardice.

What makes this grand theory of literature so compelling is the eloquence of its articulation. Parker is a fine writer! And his fineness comes from the very theory he articulates. In style as well as vocation, he is a democrat, embracing all apt forms of speech, whether simple or technical. Like the Whitman of An American Primer, he values words from the workplace and library alike. As he puts it in his letter:

In my preaching I have used plain, simple words, sometimes making what I could not find ready, and counted nothing unclean, because merely common. In philosophic terms, and in all which describes the inner consciousness, our Saxon speech is rather poor, and so I have been compelled to gather from the Greek or Roman stock forms of expression which do not grow on our homely and familiar tree, and hence, perhaps, have sometimes scared you with “words of learned length.” But I have always preferred to use, when fit, the every-day words in which men think and talk, scold, make love, and pray, so that generous-hearted Philosophy, clad in a common dress, might more easily become familiar to plain-clad men. It is with customary tools that we work easiest and best, especially when use has made the handles smooth.


Parker Preaching at Boston Music Hall (image from the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society)

Illustrations I have drawn from most familiar things which are before all men’s eyes, in the fields, the streets, the shop, the kitchen, parlor, nursery or school; and from the literature best known to all, — the Bible, the newspapers, the transient speech of eminent men, the talk of common people in the streets, from popular stories, school-books and nursery rhymes. Some of you have censured me for this freedom and homeliness, alike in illustration and in forms of speech, desiring “more elegant and sonorous language,” “illustrations derived from elevated and conspicuous objects,” “from dignified personalities.” A good man, who was a farmer in fair weather and a shoemaker in foul, could not bear to have a plough or a lap-stone mentioned in my sermon, — to me picturesque and poetic objects, as well as familiar, — but wanted “kings and knights,” which I also quickly pleased him with. But for this I must not only plead the necessity of my nature, delighting in common things, trees, grass, oxen, and stars, moonlight on the water, the falling rain, the ducks and hens at this moment noisy under my window, the gambols and prattle of children, and the common work of blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, painters, hucksters and traders of all sorts; but I have also on my side the example of all the great masters of speech, — save only the French, who disdain all common things, as their aristocratic but elegant literature was bred in a court, though rudely cradled elsewhere, nay, born of rough loins, — of poets like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, of Hebrew David, and of Roman Horace; of philosophers like Socrates and Locke; of preachers like Luther, Latimer, Barrow, Butler and South; nay, elegant Jeremy Taylor, “the Shakespeare of divines,” owes half his beauty to these weeds of nature, which are choicest flowers when set in his artistic garden. … [T]o me common life is full of poetry and pictorial loveliness; spontaneously portrayed, its events will fill my mind as one by one the stars come out upon the evening sky, like them each one “a beauty and a mystery.” It is therefore a necessity of my nature that the sermon should publicly reflect to you what privately hangs over it with me, and the waters rained out of my sky when cloudy, should give back its ordinary stars when clear. Yet, for the same reason, I have also fetched illustrations from paths of literature and science, less familiar perhaps to most of you, when they, better than aught else, would clear a troubled thought; so, in my rosary of familiar beads, I have sometimes strung a pearl or two which Science brought from oceanic depths, or fixed thereon the costly gems where ancient or modern Art has wrought devices dearer than the precious stone itself.

I love that last weird allowance of ornateness at the end, itself ornately wrought, allowing into his preaching what the preceding sentences seemed to preclude. For Parker, yes, everything has its place.

He was a great, inspiring figure, from a great, inspiring age. His letter ends:

May you be faithful to your own Souls; train up your Sons and Daughters to lofty character, most fit for humble duty; and to far cathedral heights of excellence, build up the Being that you are, with Feelings, Thoughts and Actions, that become “a glorious Human Creature” …. Bodily absent, though present still with you by the Immortal Part, so hopes and prays

Your Minister and Friend,



13 Responses

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  1. Interesting post. Never heard of Parker but I like his sentiments:

    [T]o me common life is full of poetry and pictorial loveliness; spontaneously portrayed, its events will fill my mind as one by one the stars come out upon the evening sky, like them each one “a beauty and a mystery.”

    That’s really lovely. Did he live long enough to be familiar with Lincoln or his Gettysburg address? I was struck by his statement:

    “In my preaching I have used plain, simple words, sometimes making what I could not find ready, and counted nothing unclean, because merely common.”

    I’m reminded of the chapter “Revolution in Style”, in Garry Wills’ book “Lincoln at Gettysburg”. From the extracts you’ve provided, Parker still writes in the elevated style of oratory frequently cultivated by writers and orators prior to Lincoln and the Civil War. So I wonder what Parker’s impression of Lincoln would have been.


    November 8, 2009 at 11:14 pm

  2. I’m glad you found something there! Parker, alas, died in 1860, well before emancipation, and his recorded remarks on Lincoln — all skeptical from what I’ve seen — predate the Civil War.

    You’re right about the elevated style, though it seems to me to take the form of elevated sentiment, not diction — he’s no Edward Everett. In fact, if you go back to the Gary Wills book, you’ll see that Wills describes Parker as down-to-earth, and cites him as one of Lincoln’s influences, giving him credit — as others do — for one of Lincoln’s more famous phrases. Here’s the Parker version of the phrase (from a lecture on John Quincy Adams):

    In America, politics more than elsewhere demand greatness, for ours is, in theory, the government of all, for all, and by all.

    And here’s the editorial note on that line by Samuel A. Eliot (in The Works of Theodore Parker, vol. 7):

    This is one of the earliest occasions of Parker’s use of the famous description of democracy later adopted by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. The phrase was frequently repeated in Parker’s sermons, speeches and prayers, though it never assumed the exact and final form given to it by Lincoln. Lincoln’s indebtedness to Parker has been clearly traced. Mr. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, came to Boston after the Douglas-Lincoln debate and saw Parker and other anti-slavery leaders and discussed with them Lincoln’s political prospects. He took back with him to Springfield printed copies of some of Parker’s sermons and addresses and gave them to Lincoln. In one of these pamphlets, in the lecture on “The Effect of Slavery on the American People,” Lincoln marked with a pencil the familiar phrase and afterwards embodied it, in his own simple and majestic formula, in the Gettysburg Address.

    Ben Friedlander

    November 9, 2009 at 9:01 am

  3. //his recorded remarks on Lincoln — all skeptical from what I’ve seen — predate the Civil War. //

    That’s no mark against him. Lincoln wasn’t the same man going into the presidency as he was before he was murdered. I suspect that if Parker had lived long enough, like Douglas, he might have grown to love the man.

    It so fascinates me how, if not every generation, then “every other” generation has to rediscover the power and beauty of plain speech. I can’t draw the parallels heavily enough – between the latter 20th century and the late Victorians. And I know I’m beating a horse (but it ain’t dead), all you have to do is look at many of the more recognized literary blogs to read a kind of style that is, in its own way, just as convoluted, showy, stylized and ostentatious as anything ever written during the worst excesses of the 19th Century. It’s presence is felt in prose *and* in poetry.

    I pray that our children will offer up a corrective. It’s just possible that the current recession might serve to encourage simplicity in more than just roof and raiment.


    November 9, 2009 at 9:32 am

  4. But I can love ornateness too! And convoluted phrasing…. Here’s Emily Dickinson, to the aunt of a girl with sprained ankle:

    We trust the repairs of the little friend are progressing swiftly, though shall we love her as well revamped?

    Anatomical dishabille is sweet to those who prize us — A chastened Grace is twice a Grace. Nay, ’tis a Holiness.

    I love the weirdness and extravagance of that. But generally, yes, plain speech is best.

    Ben Friedlander

    November 9, 2009 at 9:49 am

  5. Yes, well, being a connoisseur of 19th Century thought and literature, you may be forgiven. : )


    November 9, 2009 at 9:54 am

  6. !

    Ben Friedlander

    November 9, 2009 at 9:55 am

  7. What a splendid blog. As for Parker in particular, I visited his grave in Florence last year – – stood where Douglass stood …


    November 9, 2009 at 3:36 pm

  8. Thank you. And what a spot to stand on! Following your hint I looked for an image, which led me to a website dedicated to the English cemetery in Florence (scroll down for info on Parker):



    Ben Friedlander

    November 9, 2009 at 3:42 pm

  9. On that same English Cemetery site look around for papers from their 2008 conference, The City and The Book V. Mine is the one on sculptor Edmonia Lewis.


    November 9, 2009 at 4:08 pm

  10. I guess I found the right website for an image of the grave!

    The City and the Book is great! I look forward to reading your paper, and the others.

    Ben Friedlander

    November 9, 2009 at 7:34 pm

  11. Art and History:

    It’s not the papers, alas, just the abstracts, but great leads there for further study. I’ll certainly be looking into Edmonia Lewis.

    This morning I realized that you wrote the preface to a book I was reading only a few weeks ago, Sisters of the Spirit! I live in Bangor, and when I learned that Zilpha Elaw preached here, I thought I’d try to find the church, if it still stands. Not the sort of research I usually do…but I have friends in the history department I can lean on.

    All best,


    Ben Friedlander

    November 11, 2009 at 7:20 am

  12. Here’s another intriguing bit o’ Parker:

    “Such is our dread of authority that we like not old things; hence we are always a-changing. Our house must be new, and our book, and even our church. So we choose a material that soon wears out, though it often outlasts our patience. The wooden house is an apt emblem of this sign of the times. But this love of change appears not less in important matters. We think ‘Of old things all are over old, of new things none are new enough.’ So the age asks of all institutions their right to be…

    There are always some men who are born out of due season, men of past ages, stragglers of former generations, who ought to have been born before Dr. Faustus invented printing, but who are unfortunately born now, or, if born long ago, have been fraudulently and illegally concealed by their mothers, and are now, for the first time, brought to light. The age lifts such aged juveniles from the ground, and bids them live, but they are sadly to seek in this day; they are old-fashioned boys; their authority is called in question; their traditions and old wives’ fables are laughed at, at any rate disbelieved; they get profanely elbowed in the crowd — men not knowing their great age and consequent venerableness ; the shovel hat, though apparently born on their head, is treated with disrespect. The very boys laugh pertly in their face when they speak, and even old men can scarce forbear a smile, though it may be a smile of pity. The age affords such men a place, for it is a catholic age, large-minded, and tolerant, — such a place as it gives to ancient armor, Indian Bibles, and fossil bones of the Mastodon; it puts them by in some room seldom used, with other old furniture, and allows them to mumble their anilities by themselves; now and then takes off its hat; looks in, charitably, to keep the mediaeval relics in good heart, and pretends to listen, as they discourse of what comes of nothing and goes to it; but in matters which the age cares about, commerce, manufactures, politics, which it cares much for, even in education, which it cares far too little about, it trusts no such counsellors, nor tolerates, nor ever affects to listen.”

    Theodore Parker, “The Political Destination of America and Signs of the Times,” 1848


    November 12, 2009 at 6:15 pm

  13. Pretty great.

    Ben Friedlander

    November 12, 2009 at 11:47 pm

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