Ralph Waldo Emerson was looked upon by many of his contemporaries as a foolish optimist who seemed unaware of the social ills of his time or who was unmoved by them because he lived too much in an ideal world of his imagination. He was attacked as a radical by conservatives and traditionalists, who saw him as a danger to the youth of the nation, whom he advised to rebel against well-established customs of religious belief and action. He was mocked as a borrower of other men’s ideas who had no philosophic system and who wrote and spoke nonconsecutively and often in a “transcendental” style which hid whatever meaning he was trying to convey. Nevertheless, Emerson lived long enough so that for many years before his death at seventy-nine he was esteemed as one of America’s most impressive speakers and one of its finest essayists. He was honored not only for what he said but also for what he was.
Many biographies and memoirs of Emerson have been published since his death in 1882. Gay Wilson Allen’s Waldo Emerson (1981) portrayed the poet-philosopher as a much warmer man than he seems in his essays and his poetry. Now, three years later, John McAleer looks at the sage of Concord during his “’days of encounter’ which constituted for him spiritual, ethical, ideological, emotional, or physical crises advancing the progress of the soul.”
For the most part, McAleer avoids detailed analyses or commentary on Emerson’s individual works, but he devotes considerable attention to “The Method of Nature,” a neglected oration originally delivered at Waterville College, in Maine. Although “The Method of Nature” is, as McAleer says, a companion piece to the famous Harvard Divinity School address, the Waterville oration aroused little interest when it was delivered at the small Baptist college. This contrasts strongly with what Emerson called “the storm in our washbowl” that followed the Harvard address, when Andrews Norton in a Boston paper assailed Emerson as a man attempting to subvert Christianity and as being possibly an atheist.
Many of McAleer’s eighty brief chapters are restricted to Emerson’s relationships with members of his family, close personal friends, or other people who sought him out or to whom he was drawn at various stages during his long life.
As a young man, Emerson said of himself, “What is called a warm heart, I have not.” In middle age he wrote, “Even for those whom I really love I have not animal spirits.” In between these two assessments of his lack of feelings, he wed and lost a young wife after less than seventeen months of marriage; he married a second wife who bore him four children; and he lost at five years of age the first of these children, Waldo, whose death inspired the beautiful elegy “Threnody,” in which the father tries to console himself for the loss of his beloved son.
That Emerson was capable of intense emotion is evident in his courtship of and his brief marriage to consumptive Ellen Louise Tucker. He kept her letters; he invited his second wife, Lydia (Lidian) Jackson, to read them; and he wrote poems commemorating his and Ellen’s love (there were none to Lidian).
After Ellen’s death, Emerson wrote, “There is one birth & one baptism & one first love & the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men.” He concluded that what he had experienced once could never be repeated. He made no pretense of feeling toward Lidian, whom he married more than four years after Ellen’s death, as he had toward Ellen. The amazing letter of proposal to Lidian (included in Gay Wilson Allen’s Waldo Emerson and quoted in part by McAleer) surprised her, since it was totally unexpected. She asked him to visit her; she quizzed him about various matters; she confessed her own inadequacies; then she accepted his offer.
The forty-seven-year marriage of Emerson and Lidian (whom he called Queenie) seems to have been marked by mutual respect and some affection, but there is little indication in McAleer’s biography that there was much more. One wonders how much jealousy Lidian felt during two long visits of Margaret Fuller to Bush, the Emersons’ Concord home. Perhaps Fuller’s homeliness may have lessened any jealous feelings Lidian had about her visitor’s chances of alienating Emerson’s affections. Fuller, an intense young intellectual, did seemingly fall in love with Emerson; when she tried, however, to penetrate the ice which he confessed was a part of his nature, she found it too thick to break. They remained friends, though, until after a European trip she drowned in a shipwreck off the American coast, along with her young Italian husband and their baby son.
After a spell of ill health in 1832, Emerson sought a cure in a voyage to Europe. McAleer remarks that he was also seeking a guru who might set him on the right path in life. A visit to the poet Walter Savage Landor in Florence quickly convinced him that Landor was not the one. Emerson’s disillusionment with two more English poets, whom he sought out when he reached England, is well-known, but McAleer gives some details which show a brash young American expecting too much of two famous but aging men. He found Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth very different from what he had imagined.
At Coleridge’s home,...
(The entire section is 2196 words.)