Why another life of a man whose life has already been written many times? Apart from the subjective need of an author fascinated with his subject and the commonly felt need to reinterpret periodically a major American literary and intellectual figure, Ralph D. Richardson, Jr., is responding to the need for a more comprehensive study of the intellectual influences on Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Richardson focused on the relationship between his subject’s reading and writing. In the preface to this later biography he admits, however, that Emerson’s life did not lend itself entirely to the same approach. The biographer found it impossible to separate Emerson’s intellectual life from his social life. More than Henry Thoreau, Emerson valued and needed friendship. He was also a much more public and charismatic figure than Thoreau. Emerson’s vocation as “American scholar” took the form of a continual interaction with the many people who were drawn to him personally and the even greater number in dozens of American cities who heard him lecture. Indeed, it would be more accurate to characterize Emerson as a lecturer than as a writer—more accurate but perhaps more misleading, for whereas in the twentieth century lecturing is likely to follow upon a literary reputation, or some sort of prior reputation, most of the prose for which Emerson is famous derives from moral discussions that were initially crafted as lectures.
Anyone observing the Emerson family in Ralph Waldo’s childhood would not have been likely to anticipate his destiny. In the large household of the Reverend William Emerson, minister of the First Church in Boston, he was not a particular object of notice. In his family he was regarded as the least promising of the Emerson boys, five of whom lived into adulthood. Waldo seems to have shared this assessment. His father died when he was only eight years old, and it was elder brother William who a dozen years later went off to study theology in Germany and actually met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the towering intellectual and subsequent icon of his more famous brother. Generations of Emersons had been ministers, but William did not take to theology; instead he opted for the law, in which he had a respectable but undistinguished career. It fell to Waldo, the next son, to maintain the ministerial tradition.
His lecturing career grew out of his early identity as a Unitarian clergyman almost naturally, as it appears in retrospect. Emerson found pastoral duties irksome, but he enjoyed preparing and delivering sermons. When he found even the liberal Unitarian doctrine confining, he resigned his ministry in Boston’s Second Church in 1832 and made the transition from regular preaching to delivering occasional guest sermons in various churches to increasingly regular speaking in the lyceum circuit that was springing up in the America of the 1830’s.
First, however, he decided to take his intellectual bearings by spending the better part of a year traveling. Though interested chiefly in northern European intellectual life, with the great Goethe and Thomas Carlyle looming large in his current reading, he approached Europe from the south: Malta, Sicily, the Italian mainland, Switzerland, and France. Only after six months abroad did he gravitate to England and meet the important British influences on his work: Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. In all of his subject’s journeying, Richardson emphasizes the importance Emerson attached to the “instructed eye”; it was not so much whom or what he saw as the act of seeing that excited him. The great men he encountered impressed but did not awe him.
Home less than a month, Emerson began delivering lectures on subjects such as “The Relation of Man to the Globe” and “The Naturalist.” Despite Emerson’s oft- expressed scorn for the merely bookish life, he was a very bookish man, and Richard- son’s account of his reading and its various contributions to his own work is the fullest and richest yet made. In the mid-1830’s, Emerson was attracted to the Quaker “inner light” and to an essay by Frederic Hedge on Coleridge and German philosophy; to these influences Emerson owed much in developing his concept of self-reliance.
In his chronology of influences Richardson gives considerable attention to the women who figured in Emerson’s intellectual development, including his mother, his kinswoman Sarah Ripley, and in particular his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, whose eccentricities some previous biographers have emphasized at the expense of her intellectual attainments. This self-taught woman read Benedict Spinoza, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Madame de Staël, and Goethe, among many others, and inspired her nephew to record an astonishing 870 manuscript pages of her letters and conversation....
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