The headline is not a crass, attention-grabbing strategy for my inaugural blog at NJVoices. I promise you that as the weeks and months unfold I will turn my intellectual energies to more compelling issues.
But this time I cannot help myself.
Here's what happened. Late the other night I realized with a start that we had run out of cat food, so I dashed out for an emergency purchase, and was minding my own business, waiting in the checkout line at Pathmark (now there's a valid New Jersey connection!), nonchalantly flipping through the July 9th issue of People magazine, when lo and behold, in the upper right hand corner of page 64, there was a small photograph of a fanned-out sheaf of pages from Paris Hilton's Prison Journal.
Her neatly-formed, rounded penmanship caught my eye. Being a lifelong scholar of American literature, I drew the magazine closer to my face, squinting, in an attempt to read what Paris had written, and - much to my surprise - realized that her very first reference was to one of the all-time defining giants of our culture, the adamant and principled nineteenth-century erstwhile minister, philosopher-poet, by turns recluse and intinerant lecturer himself, Ralph Waldo Emerson [1803-1882].
"Emerson once wrote," she noted, "the meaning of success being 'to laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children...'"
I added the magazine to my shopping bag and as soon as I returned home, scrutinized the nine lines more closely, then clicked on the Emerson online concordance to track down the origin and context of the citation.
There was none. "Success" seemed to be an aphoristic attribution that had stuck to RWE for decades.
Perhaps many of you have come across the passage in greeting cards, on posters and refrigerator magnets. Emerson - or whoever it really is - goes on to talk sensibly if floridly about "the appreciation of honest critics" and the fortitude to "endure the betrayal of friends." He applauds the ability "to find the best in others" and "leave the world a little better." He advocates the joy that comes when you "know that one other life has breathed" because of your actions.
"I decided I wanted to make the best of a bad situation," Hilton said. "So I just wrote about my feelings" on "jail-issued paper."
I set aside for a moment questions of authenticity (or lack of same) of the journal, suspicion of ulterior motive (book contract in the revolutionary tradition of Che Guevara or Antonio Negri?), the irrepressible urge to cynicism. I wondered, if he still walked among us - over six feet tall, black-clad, unsmiling and craggy - what Emerson would have thought about finding his name invoked in a glossy weekly by the paradigmatic personification of celebrity in our day.
I'd like to think that, to set the record straight, Emerson would have gently recommended to young Paris that she read his landmark essay, Self-Reliance , in particular the simple advice at the beginning and the end: "Ne te quaesiveris extra...Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles."