Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1985
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. His willingness to learn from women continued into his maturity. Of Margaret Fuller, Richardson asserts that she owed less to Emerson and “probably gave him more” than did Walt Whitman or Thoreau. Strongly influencing the development of Emerson’s abolitionist convictions were Lucretia Mott, and, interestingly, his second wife Lydia Jackson Emerson, or Lidian, whose Intense abolitionism predated his.
There were many other influences. The Scottish “Common Sense” philosophers early focused his mind on moral questions. The Prussian Jakob Boehme and Emerson’s neighbor in Concord, Bronson Alcott, taught him to look for divinity within. Plato and the Neoplatonists (whom the Common Sense philosophers had scorned) convinced him that everything is “an emanation of God.” Emerson’s eclectic spirit fastened upon the ideas that seemed most provocative and useful for incorporation into his own thought. His reading was a continual mining expedition, his goal the refining and alloying of the most promising lodes.
His technique for accessing the fruits of his study went far beyond the ordinary commonplace book. Richardson describes Emerson’s extraordinarily patient and thorough indexing of his journals and other occasional writing. His methodical copying, recopying, and alphabetizing of this material for incorporation into his lectures incidentally helps to explain the disconnected quality that critics have often observed in his published essays, which tend to be arrangements of striking utterances on a topic, not larger compositional structures.
To trace Emerson’s development Richardson requires one hundred chapters averaging fewer than six pages each; he groups them into eleven thematic, chronologically arranged topics (“The Student,” “Divinity,” and so on through to “Endings”). He carries almost to an extreme the modern biographer’s tendency to concentrate on his subject’s early and prime years. More than five hundred pages are allotted to Emerson’s first half-century and only sixty-some to “Fame” and “Endings,” covering the period of almost three decades culminating in Emerson’s death in 1882. Not to be seduced by “Fame,” Richardson makes it almost his shortest section, only the final one being slightly sparer. Whereas Ralph Rusk, for example, in his 1949 life of Emerson devotes about thirty percent of his text to these final decades, Richardson allots not much more than ten percent to the same stretch of years.
Richardson’s focus on Emerson’s development as a thinker to a large extent explains these proportions. The man who defined the American scholar as “Man Thinking” is presented here as observing, thinking about, and reacting freshly to the books and people and places that he experienced—a more vital scholarly activity than raking over the question whether American intellectuals should be trailblazers or students of their eminent European predecessors, a question that Emerson did feel compelled to discuss in a 1837 address.
In some senses of the word “scholar” Emerson seems decidedly unscholarly. Though well educated at a time when classical languages dominated the curriculum, Emerson’s command of Latin and Greek suffered in comparison to that of his younger friend Thoreau, and as a matter of fact he was quite willing to fall back on translations of works that he could read in another modern language such as French or Italian. On the other hand, he was the first writer to translate La vita nuova, Dante’s seminal work of the 1290’s, into English. His translations of Shams al-Din Muhammed Hafiz and other Persian poets fill thirty pages in the Library of America Collected Poems and Translations. He got as close to his sources as he believed necessary.
Richardson touches upon most of the important matters in Emerson’s life, but he does not probe deeply into his sometimes strained relationships with those close to him, such as Lidian and Thoreau. While Richardson’s Emerson is not the genial Olympian or the unruffled “Sage of Concord” revered by the first few generations of Emersonians, he does present a calm and relatively untroubled man. Similarly, the biographer notes the internal intellectual conflicts that necessarily develop in a wide-ranging student such as Emerson but is more interested in developing the notion (suggested by one of his subject’s 1842 journal entries) of “the mind on fire” than the ambiguities and inconsistencies into which such a fiery but eclectic mind must inevitably be led. Neither does Richardson attempt a concluding summation of Emerson’s life or thought; he ends with Emerson leaving his study to go to bed six days before his death in April of 1881.
About peripheral details Richardson can be inaccurate and careless. For example, Sir Philip Sidney (died 1586) and Edmund Spenser (died 1599) are referred to as “seventeenth-century prose writers,” and Sidney’s name is twice spelled “Sydney” and twice “Sidney” in the book. Ignoring the later “O Captain! My Captain!” Richardson asserts that in March of 1850 Walt Whitman “abandoned conventional metrical rhymed verse forms—forever.”
In the main, however, Richardson is a forceful but essentially modest and responsible writer who eschews the dramatically dubious assertion in favor of the qualifying “perhaps” or “probably.” Not only is he aware of how much of the truth can escape even a biographer who spends years in pursuit of his subject, but he finds in Emerson’s backyard the symbol to express this concern. In an extremely interesting chapter called “The Orchard Keeper,” Richardson explains that Emerson planted more than a hundred varied fruit trees near his house but only a few descendants survive; this orchard “haunts the biographer, since it stands for everything that was common and lively and is now unrecoverable in Emerson’s life.”
This life of Emerson is accessible both to the Emersonian scholar, who is likely to enjoy testing the author’s Emerson against his or her own, and to the reader who is taking a first plunge into Emerson biography. Richardson fills in the necessary facts for the latter without overburdening the former with an excess of the familiar. Thus he refers to “the famous ‘transparent eyeball’ passage” in Nature (1836), which informs the nonspecialist, and relates it to “nearly everyone who has ever sat beneath a tree on a fine clear day and looked at the world with a sense of momentary peace and a feeling, however transient, of being at one with it.” In an era when scholarly biographies frustrate nonspecialist readers, this ability to appeal to a wide audience must be commended.
Richardson avoids the extremes of stodginess, which lingers with some serious writers, and vulgarity, which tempts others in this informal age; his style is crisp and precise. While this biography does not seem comprehensive or profound enough to supersede all previous ones, its careful attention to Emerson’s confrontations with the ideas of his great and not-so-great predecessors and contemporaries will make it a part of the basic Emerson bibliography for years to come.
Sources for Further Study
America. CLXXIII, September 9, 1995, p. 26.
American Heritage. XLVI, April, 1995, p. 133.
Booklist. XCI, December 15, 1994, p. 731.
Choice. XXXIII, September, 1995, p. 120.
Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, February 1, 1995, p. 148.
Library Journal. CXIX, December, 1994, p. 92.
London Review of Books. XVII, May 25, 1995, p. 15.
New Scientist. CXLVII, July 29, 1995, p. 45.
The New York Times Book Review. C, July 23, 1995, p. 7.
The New Yorker. LXXI, July 10, 1995, p. 73.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, April 3, 1995, p. 53.
The Times Literary Supplement. July 21, 1995, p. 6.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, April 9, 1995, p. 6.
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