Emerson’s Breakfast

When reading a biography about Ralph Waldo Emerson, I discovered that the eminently quotable American Transcendentalist philosopher’s favorite breakfast  was a slice of apple pie and coffee.

He’d have this every day, usually early in the morning. Then he’d sit down to write. About two an a half hours later, he’d finish and go for a walk. Returning from the walk, he’d busy himself with correspondence and then have supper.

I’ve been intrigued with Emerson ever since high school, when I adorned my English papers with his quotations. Those I selected had a crisp, strident, optimistic ring, implying, or sometimes stating outright, that problems were strewn in our path so that we may benefit from solving them, that nature was our greatest teacher (this was poignant for me, as I suffered from hay fever and loathed the out-of-doors) and that so many difficulties in life, love and whatever happiness one wished to pursue (for me, reading, and writing science fiction and fantasy under the blast of a rattling window mounted air conditioner that was supposed to filter out the nasty pollen that made me sneeze) could be traced to a failure to trust yourself completely.

“To believe your own thought,” Emerson wrote in “Self Reliance,” the essay that became the lecture that made him nationally famous,  “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost.”

When my short stories were refused publication by science fiction pulp magazines, I could take heart in Emerson’s observation that “in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

“Trust thyself,” Emerson proclaimed, “every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

It would take the 20th Century to show us that it’s possible to follow this guidance and find yourself in a barrel floating toward Niagara Falls. In high school, I lost weight, fell in love and was absolutely certain that by writing often and trusting myself, I’d become the writer I always wanted to be. In college, I took whatever courses interested me, eventually accumulating a double major in English and Religion, with minors in History and Classics–all on the assumption that this would lead me someplace.

Later, when I entered the exploitative world of journalism, every underpaying editor I met (beginning at The Georgetowner in Washington, D.C. and climaxing at the New York Times) assured me that the great experience from being overworked and underpaid was would take me places.

But I had the occasional doubt. They began when my parents divorced and I couldn’t get a sensible answer from either of them as to why it happened. Then my high school girlfriend broke up with me and I couldn’t figure out why that happened. I loved her. She loved me, but…

I continued to write science fiction stories that were rejected by the magazines. I applied for jobs at publications and was turned down for reasons that didn’t make any sense. I encountered the cruelty, hypocrisy and strangeness of a human nature that was profoundly disinterested in my survival, and thoroughly estranged to providing the comforting self-confidence that comes from “success.” Book publishers kept coming up with new ways to disappoint me, especially when they published my work!

But every once in a while, I’d stumble on those Emersonian quotes and smack myself on my forehead for not trusting myself enough. I’d look back on my immediate history and see where I’d gone wrong. I even found a villain: doubt! I’d doubted myself, doubted others, doubted the benevolence of the natural world that Emerson was so certain about.

Later I studied Emerson’s life and saw that, before he wrote his essay and became famous and wealthy, he suffered terribly. His father had been a respected clergyman who died when Emerson was eight.The New England congregation Emerson’s father had so earnestly led promptly put Emerson’s family on the street to free the parsonage for the next spiritual leader, thus dooming them to poverty. Emerson went to Harvard on what we would call today a work-study scholarship and was insulted, humiliated and hazed by the wealthier students. He had ill health. He studied to be a clergyman but delivered sermons so tedious that few understood him. He married the love of his life only to watch her die of tuberculosis.

This made him doubt the faith he was educated to espouse. He quit the ministry and wandered through Europe, miserable most of the time. He met the English romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge and began thinking about their ideas of the purity of nature, the integrity of natural forces and the inherit dignity of all men.

He settled in Concord at the home of a relative, and began to write, and talk, about his travails. He married again. Things began to look up when he wrote about Nature, not as something dark and nasty that was given by a paternalistic God to mankind to be exploited, but as an inherent, integral and inescapable part of us.

People began to listen to what Emerson had to say. His ministerial training gave him a powerful, commanding speaker’s voice. His ideas appealed to an emerging American nation searching for an identity that would transcend those offered by institutional religion and European notions of social structure.

Emerson told us to love, and learn from Nature; to trust ourselves and have the confidence in our fellow human beings to discover our own, innate goodness.

Of course, American transcendentalism was never one specific thing. Henry David Thoreau, who slept in Emerson’s house until he built his shack on nearby Waldon Pond, had a significantly different understanding of nature and American society. American “nature worship” had obvious contradictions: look outside your window and you see human begins enslaving others (Transcendentalism joined some of the New England Protestantism of the Second Great Awakening in condemning the ownership of human beings) and being less than accepting of the poor. Look in your garden and you’ll find things killing other things, things eating other things, regardless of how much, or whom, they trust.

But it really feels good when you decide to have faith in your own gumption. No need to feel guilty about what you haven’t learned or experienced: all those books you didn’t read, the college classes you slept through, the magazines that didn’t publish your stories, the jobs you didn’t get and those awful exploitative jobs you worked that were supposed to lead someplace but didn’t, They aren’t as important as that one singular, epiphanic rush of emotion that encloses you in a glow that is close to the spiritual ecstasy promised by some institutional religions, but feels even better because it comes from within.

Emerson found himself losing his memory as he aged. He may have had a stroke that made it difficult for him to speak the long, sonorous paragraphs for which he was renowned. He never lost his equanimity. People who met him regarded him with the reverence the French had for the aging Voltaire, or students of Princeton had for the fuzzy-headed Einstein wandering in a daze about the Institute for Advanced Studies.

This great story about a great man left me curious. What was it about this breakfast that Emerson liked so much? One morning I decided to make apple pie and black coffee the first meal of my day.

A qualification: it is likely that the apple pie of Emerson’s time does not taste like the sugary, cinnamon-scented dessert of ours. The crust was probably made of lard from apples that, in the 19th Century, were grown to be pressed into cider.

We can only guess the provenance and roasting technology of Emerson’s coffee beans. His drink was certainly bitter, made from boiling ground beans and letting the grounds settle before serving the liquid.

This said, coffee and a slice of apple pie has an immediate effect: the sweetness of the apples and bitterness of the coffee cancel out, almost like milk and chocolate chip cookies. Caffeine, fat from the crust, and fruity sugar embrace and go right to the brain, in the same way that coffee and a donut arouse a powerful surge of energy.  You get an amazing and thoroughly delightful rush of emotion that, for a writer, leads compulsively to a gush of words that continues on and on. You are almost overwhelmed with the rightness of what you’re doing. What you’re writing makes sense! It even seems to lead somewhere until…

It stops and you crash and you get grumpy or merely sluggish and…

Time for an Emersonian walk!  After touring the lanes and paths of your village in bracing autumn air, you’re back at your desk where, in the fading embers of your creative fire, you check e-mail where, as recent events in the last election remind us, the less you write, the better. Use those acronyms, abbreviations, grammatical short cuts as the last…spark….dies….out.

Before it’s time to sit down for supper, a question remains. Did the most admired American philosopher in our history gain his luminous insights into Nature and the human condition from enduring an early life of loss, humiliation, ill-health and a ministry for which he temperamentally was unsuitable?

Or was it all due to a sugar-and-caffeine rush from a cup of black coffee and a slice of American apple pie?

Try it, and see.








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