"Orphic Sayings" in the Dial (1840 - 1841, 1842)

"Who reads the Dial," teased the orthodoxy of Yale College in 1843, "for any other purpose than to laugh at its baby poetry or at the solemn fooleries of its misty prose."  The great Transcendentalist periodical, the Dial, became a butt for ridicule mainly due to A. Bronson Alcott's contribution, the "Orphic Sayings."  Fifty of these sayings appeared in the first number (I:1:85 - 98, July 1840) and fifty more in the third (I:3:351 - 361, January 1841).  An additional set of twelve Orphic Sayings appeared under the title "Days from a Diary" a year later (II:4:423 - 425, April 1842).
The newspaper reviews of the sayings were far from favorable.  The Boston Transcript parodied one of the epigrams under the title "Gastric Sayings," while a letter to the Boston Post compared the sayings to "a train of fifteen railroad cars with one passenger."  Even Octavius Brooks Frothingham, a staunch supporter of the Transcendentalists but for the most part an unbiased critic, had to admit that these sayings "were an amazement to the unintiated and an amusement to the profane."  Or, according to a 21st-century critic, the "Orphic Sayings" "reads like a collection of stale fortune cookies at a New Age restaurant" (Ron Charles, "War is no place for saints," The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 97, No. 66 [Boston: Christian Science Publishing Society, March 1, 2005], p. 15).  Yet the unfortunate habit of joking about the "Orphic Sayings" has prevented them from receiving the serious attention they deserve.  Rhoda Newcomb considered the sayings to be "full of the highest wisdom."  According to Odell Shepard, they contain "better things by far . . . than those who prefer to take their literary opinions at second hand suspect."  In 1980, Madelon Bedell called them "a brilliant essay in philosophical dialectics."  And in 1987, Catherine Albanese praised them as "mystical teachings that seek to fuse speech and action, life and experience, as the Orphic Mysteries of ancient Greece had done."
Moreover, even if one does not agree with the substance of the "Orphic Sayings," the sayings remain valuable and important not only for their philosophy, but for the fact that they could be written at that time in America at all.  To a generation familiar with existentialism and with innumerable forms of making statement out of gropings for statement, Alcott's epigrams can hardly help suggesting insights which his own generation simply did not comprehend.

A note on the text:

The text presented here is taken from the original printing in the Dial, with the following two editorial exceptions.
Alcott, despite his crucial role in establishing the Dial in the first place, even down to contributing the name "Dial," did not have very much of his own material ever published within its covers.  It is fairly well-known that the first fifty Orphic Sayings appeared in the first number, July 1840, and that the second fifty appeared in the third number, January 1841, but what is not so well-known is that, despite the poor public reception of this series of sayings, as well as the detrimental effect they had on the reputation of the Dial, Alcott did manage to sneak in twelve more Orphic Sayings in April 1842, within a larger piece entitled "Days from a Diary."  Thus, to do justice to Alcott, it seems fitting to include as many of Alcott's Orphic Sayings in the Dial as possible, even if they do not derive from the first two installments of fifty each.  The most favorable way to do so is to manipulate the very first Orphic Saying.  It can be readily observed that the first saying functions most appropriately as a motto for the entire collection: it is notable that Alcott himself did not even give this saying a title.  It can be perceived that its proper place is as an epigraph, preceding all other sayings, each of which deserves a title, even the first one.  The now vacant first saying can be filled with the twelve supplemental sayings, each one functioning as a sub-saying within the first saying.  Alcott would not have minded this arrangement, since he himself multiply numbered sections and sub-sections throughout "Days from a Diary."  Besides, since the additional sayings were not originally present, it would be hard to justify them taking up the space of a full twelve, but a space of one saying seems more fitting.  This scheme also keeps the nominal number of sayings at 100, without disturbing sayings 2 through 100.  As for the title of this new first saying, Odell Shepard's suggestion seems particularly appropriate, since Alcott's first and last word was indeed "Spirit," and no other Orphic Saying has this name.
Otherwise, this edition of Alcott's "Orphic Sayings" is critical and unmodernized.  The complete text, including substantives and accidentals, is copied directly from the pages of the Dial.  The only exception occurs in Orphic Saying number XLIII, 'Genesis.'  Here, the original printer's error is corrected by restoring the important word "not."  For more information on the Dial's omission of the word "not," see Joel Myerson, "'In the Transcendental Emporium': Bronson Alcott's 'Orphic Sayings' in the Dial," English Language Notes 10 (September 1972): p. 33.