Study Guide

Emerson in His Journals

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson in His Journals Analysis

Emerson in His Journals (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

ph_0111201209-Emerson.jpgRalph Waldo Emerson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

During his lifetime, Ralph Waldo Emerson kept a continuous journal of more than two hundred miscellaneous diaries, notebooks, and ledgers, beginning when he was a Harvard undergraduate and continuing until late in his life. This compilation of more than three million words has recently been made fully available in the sixteen-volume Harvard edition of Emerson’s Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks (1960-1982). Out of these riches, Harvard English professor Joel Porte has assembled a new one-volume selection, Emerson in His Journals, which offers a substantially new portrait of the private Emerson. Editor Porte has judiciously selected and edited passages from the complete Harvard edition to present a full and balanced view of Emerson’s personality. Porte’s new volume quietly incorporates the meticulous scholarship of the Harvard edition without cluttering up his text with elaborate footnotes or scholarly apparatus. Instead, he simply divides the journal entries into nine chronological sections, with a brief introduction for each, and otherwise allows Emerson to speak for himself. The passages Porte has chosen reveal a candor and frankness not hitherto apparent in previous selections from The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1909-1914, ten volumes).

Great minds need to be reappropriated by every generation, and this is especially true of Emerson, too long mythologized as the “Sage of Concord” or the transcendental idealist—the disembodied spirit of serenity and self-reliance. Emerson was much more varied and human than this, as Porte’s selections indicate, and he deserves to be known in all of his moods. For this reason, Emerson in His Journals largely supplants Bliss Perry’s earlier collection, The Heart of Emerson’s Journals (1926). Perry based his text on the original ten-volume edition of The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson compiled by Emerson’s son and grandson. The Centenary Edition had followed Victorian editorial standards of taste and delicacy, and as a result largely suppressed many of the most frank and revealing of Emerson’s personal comments. Porte’s Emerson in His Journals restores these passages and presents Emerson in the full range of his thoughts and moods.

Emerson’s journals were his “Savings Bank” in which he deposited a record of his daily thoughts and experiences. This image of the diary as a spiritual ledger or account book suggests his practice of the Puritan habit of daily examination of one’s conscience. Early habits of devotion and reflection that he learned from his mother and his aunt Mary Moody Emerson prepared him to keep a continuous record of his inner life. The value of this exercise for Emerson rests in the candor and frankness of a self-revealed writer who would not deceive himself or be deceived, and whose quest for truth forced him to examine every fact and experience from a variety of perspectives, so that there was never an event that did not suggest more than one interpretation. Porte’s edition provides a full and candid account of Emerson’s personal life, especially in his doubts and uncertainties, his sharp judgments of contemporaries, and his frank self-assessment. “The dupe of hope,” he described himself, yet his optimism was the foundation of his personal philosophy and helped him to bear the loss of his first wife, two of his brothers, and his firstborn son. The personal struggle to attain his serene and tranquil demeanor becomes apparent from these journal entries, since Porte does not censor Emerson’s private doubts and struggles, and the private Emerson of the journals is a far more turbulent and passionate personality than the public persona. Through these new selections, one witnesses Emerson’s infatuation with a fellow college student, his prolonged grief after Ellen Tucker Emerson’s death, his attraction to Margaret Fuller, his despondency after his son Waldo’s death, and his occasional exasperation with Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott.

Porte’s selections deliberately focus on the personal rather than the literary Emerson, on the autobiographical material rather than on those parts of The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson that represent a working out of ideas for speeches, essays, or poems. The emphasis is on the man rather than on his works, and the result is a more human and fascinating Emerson than has been seen before, one that complements the portrait in Gay Wilson Allen’s recently published biography, Waldo Emerson (1981). Indeed the title of Porte’s edition, Emerson in His Journals, suggests the biographical flavor of his selections. The detailed chronology he includes at the beginning of the text helps to place the entries within the context of Emerson’s life. The entries may be read chronologically or randomly, since, despite their sequential arrangement, many passages have an aphoristic, self-contained quality.

Yet Emerson in His Journals is not simply a collection of miscellaneous biographical entries. Porte’s selections may best be read as a record of the maturing of Emerson’s mind. Understandably, the first section, “Prospects,” is not as rich as later parts, but the entries show a progressive sharpening of insight and are often startling in their self-assessment. “I have a nasty appetite which I will not gratify,” he confesses at one point, and “I am a lover of indolence & of the belly” at another. Emerson chides himself for want of ambition and purpose, comparing his dreamy indolence with the energy and direction of many of his Harvard classmates. His self-understanding is so clear and acute that it often disarms the reader and forestalls criticism by anticipating the worst of what might be said of him. His...

(The entire section is 2367 words.)

Emerson in His Journals Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

American Literature. LIV, December, 1982, p. 607.

Choice. XX, October, 1982, p. 264.

Christian Science Monitor. August 25, 1982, p. 15.

Library Journal. CVII, September 1, 1982, p. 1660.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, June 20, 1982, p. 14.

The New Yorker. LVIII, May 24, 1982, p. 134.

Times Literary Supplement. August 27, 1982, p. 915.