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.
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.
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,