Near the beginning of The Conduct of Life (1860), Ralph Waldo Emerson poses the question, “How shall I live?” This problem underlies all of his works, and its focus on the practical rather than the abstract made Emerson popular in his own day and continues to win for him new readers and admirers. Yet before he could tell others how to live, he had to attempt to resolve that matter for himself. Evelyn Barish’s study of Emerson’s early life demonstrates that the ringingly optimistic answers constituting such essays as The American Scholar (1837) and “Self-Reliance” (1841) emerge not from the easy acceptance of Romantic idealism but rather from a hard- won battle against deprivation, loss, depression, and a nearly fatal illness. In his essays and lectures, Emerson insisted on the importance of experience, perhaps because he had found life to be his best teacher.
At the age of twenty-nine, Emerson wrote, “[My] manners & history would have been very different, if my parents had been rich, when I was a boy at school.” As Barish observes, this statement expresses two wishes, the desire not only for wealth but also for a father, whom Emerson lost when he was eight. William Emerson’s death caused financial hardship. The First Church of Boston, where William had served as minister, granted his widow a pension of $500 for seven years, but the sum could not support a family of six. To supplement her income Ruth Emerson took in boarders; and, as soon as they could, her sons earned small amounts by teaching for their uncle, Samuel Ripley, at his academy. Even with such measures, the Emersons remained poor. Ralph and his younger brother Edward owned only one coat between them; on one occasion, Sarah Ripley found that the Emersons had no food in the house.
Emerson suffered psychologically as well as physically from this poverty. At school, children would teasingly ask whose turn it was to wear the coat. Emerson was shy as a child, concealing his talents; a schoolmate recalled his “gentleness and forebearance.” Barish ascribes this behavior to depression, noting that Emerson’s later memories of childhood were almost uniformly dark. At home, Emerson had to live in the basement while paying guests enjoyed the best rooms, a situation he presented in his journal as a metaphor for intellectual limitations. Though great writers, he observed, invite everyone to enjoy the lofty parts of a house, and though all recognize their right to those regions, lesser people remain in the basement, intent on their servile business. Later, he used the boardinghouse image to express the isolation and anomie of life.
According to Barish, even more troubling for young Emerson than the shortage of money was the lack of a father, whose death left the Oedipus conflict unresolved. Emerson would claim to have only two memories of his father. One was being taken by his father to bathe in saltwater in order to cure a skin disease; the other was enjoying himself at his father’s funeral, about which Emerson created the anagram, “Funeral: Real fun.” Though asked several times to write a memoir of his father, Emerson never did, and he cut out William’s sermons from their bindings, substituting his own. Emerson showed little regard for his father’s intellectual abilities or achievements, even though William served as minister of Boston’s prestigious First Church and as a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers; edited The Monthly Anthology, an important literary journal; and belonged to a number of societies promoting education. In a letter, Emerson dismissed his father’s efforts as revealing only “candour & taste, or I should almost say, docility, the principal merit possible to that early ignorant & transitional Month-of-March in our New England culture.”
Lacking a father, the boy found a substitute in his aunt Mary Moody Emerson, who, like her nephew, had been orphaned young. Emerson would reject her Calvinistic outlook, but her wide reading, independence, and spirit of critical inquiry deeply influenced him. He would write, “A...
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