When Carlos Baker died in 1987, he left the manuscript of this work virtually completed; James R. Mellow has provided introduction and epilogue as a frame for Baker’s book, to tie the unfinished manuscript together. The work is organized into five sections of some fifty chapters, one section for each of the decades of Emerson’s life Baker focuses on, from the 1830’s through the 1870’s (Emerson died in 1882). Each chapter averages about ten pages in length, and each centers on an episode in the life of one or another of the figures in the Transcendentalist movement of the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet each chapter functions almost as an independent piece, with little or no overlap with other chapters. Rather than a continuous biography, then, Emerson Among the Eccentrics reads like a collection of short stories. Had Baker lived, one suspects he might have found a stronger framework than the one Mellow has provided readers here, and linked the different stories together more effectively.
Certainly Baker had fascinating material with which to work. The period from 1840 to 1860, which has come to be known as the American Renaissance, produced America’s first important writers—Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman among them—and several at one time or another lived and worked in and around the small town of Concord, where Ralph Waldo Emerson did his most important writing. Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were just a few of the writers who were drawn to the flame of genius and friendship which Emerson burned throughout his life. Baker’s “group portrait” not only sketches in the details of the life of the leader of this philosophical and literary movement, but gives full- length portraits of its other major figures, and describes their complex (usually supportive but occasionally acrimonious) interrelationships.
Baker begins with the turning point of Emerson’s life when, at age twenty-seven, and after the death of his first wife, Ellen, Emerson left for Europe. When he set sail for Malta aboard the brigJasper on Christmas Day, 1832, Emerson could look back upon two years in which, however he tried, he had found much to be endured and little to be enjoyed: the death of his spirited young wife, his voluntary resignation as pastor of the Second Church of Boston, the nagging illnesses of three of his four brothers, and a debilitating sickness of his own that had finally persuaded him to see what an ocean voyage and a prolonged change of scene might do for his enfeebled constitution.
The change, as Baker knows, would make all the difference. Emerson met Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and other English Romantic writers on his tour, and he began formulating the Transcendental philosophy which would permeate his life and writings. Emerson’s first book, Nature, and the first and best exposition of this philosophy, was published in 1836, but his career would continue for almost another half-century. Settled in Concord, with his second wife Lidian and an expanding household, Emerson became the center of a growing number of writers who were developing their romantic, Transcendental ideas, often through theDial journal (1840-1844). Thoreau grew up and died in Concord, and lived at the Emerson house at different times in his adulthood; Margaret Fuller, author of Women in the Nineteenth Century(1845), among other works, often stayed there; Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in Concord for several periods; Ellery Channing and Bronson Alcott were other neighbors. The list of the people who came through Emerson’s Concord—from Theodore Parker through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Walt Whitman—is a catalog of the leading thinkers and writers of the mid-nineteenth century.
Unlike later literary periods, there were no elaborate dinner parties or witty salons in Concord; rather, these Renaissance writers walked and talked, and often through the woods by Walden Pond where Thoreau would soon build his cabin and live out his unique experiment (1845-1847). Throughout these early years, Emerson was writing his best essays and poems, and giving his most influential lectures: “The Divinity School Address” (1838), “The American Scholar” and “Concord Hymn” (both 1837, the latter poem the source of Emerson’s most famous line, “And fired the shot heard round the world”).
Baker shows what a good friend and mentor Emerson was, in...
(The entire section is 1830 words.)