Emerson at Middlebury

Please click on the display images to learn more about Middlebury in the nineteenth century,
and Ralph Waldo Emerson's visits to Middlebury.

On July 22,1845, Ralph Waldo Emerson presented his first of three commencement addresses at Middlebury College. The invitation came not from the President and Fellows, but from the Philomathesian Society, the literary and debating society established by students in 1803. At the time of the invitation, the College had barely recovered from a fevered crisis of religious revivalism in the previous decade. Unlike the far more progressive University of Vermont, which espoused transcendental thought, Middlebury offered a curriculum steeped in the classical tradition. Nevertheless, the Philomathesian library owned several of Emerson's works, including the Miscellaneous Poems, the Essays, and Nature (see Emerson's Works). The message of transcendentalism articulated by Emerson in these works inspired at least one Middlebury student, Henry S. Hodges '49, to record his impressions of this radical philosophy (see Middlebury in 1845, shown at left). In his address, Emerson urged scholars to think beyond the limits of the classical curriculum, even beyond the physical boundaries of the College itself; to embrace an endless, rigorous pursuit of universal truth. He left his listeners with six probing exam questions the Scholar must answer before all of humanity at the end of his life.
Despite statements perceived by many as heretical, Emerson did not rattle the religious establishment at Middlebury as he had at Harvard seven years earlier, but his reception was less than enthusiastic. Local newspapers, such as the Northern Galaxy, admired his manner, but recoiled at his "expressions…of pantheistic atheism." Nevertheless, there were some appreciative listeners, including members of the Philomathesian Society who voted unanimously to request Emerson's permission to publish his address, an offer which he refused (see the Emerson at Middlebury display, right). Despite this refusal, the Philomathesians invited Emerson to speak before them again in 1864 and 1868. Not one of these speeches was printed. It would take 150 years for Middlebury College to publish the content of that historic 1845 speech and its message. In 1999, the Friends of the Library at Middlebury College published Emerson at Middlebury College, which contained the full text of the speech (courtesy of the University of Georgia Press) with insightful and thought-provoking essays by Sylvia Robison and John McWilliams.

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