Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “all public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be generalized. Then at once History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime.” Emerson spent much of his life generalizing from private facts to discover the deepest, sublimest truth, most universally to be applied. A modern biographer, however, could hardly get an advance worth the cost of a photocopy unless he or she promised plenty of specific individualizing details about the biography’s subject.
Gay Wilson Allen has certainly not failed in this promise, although this biography remains worthily “deep and sublime” as well. If not strictly a Freudian, and if generally more interested in intellectual conditions than psychological ones, he nevertheless gives a clear and detailed portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson from earliest years to death, filling in all the corners with fascinating and valuable background material. Thus he richly explains the development of Emerson’s personality, thought, and work, and characterizes not only Emerson but also his times and the life and people around him.
This is the first Emerson biography since Ralph L. Rusk’s The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1949, and the change in title is significant. It may herald a new popular ranking of Emerson with the more revolutionary, two-name American writers such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain rather than with the stuffy traditionalists whose first and middle names were always prominently displayed—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and so on. More important, “Waldo” was the name Emerson chose to be known by during adolescence and ever after, much as Walter Whitman became Walt and David Henry Thoreau reversed his first and middle names.
Emerson’s childhood and youth were typical for the son of an early nineteenth century New England Unitarian minister. He received a thorough and early education; in fact, his father urged his mother to be diligent in drilling their young son—then only three. The drilling presumably paid off, for he went on to graduate from Harvard, writing occasional poems, and then to teach school sporadically to secure an income before embarking on the inevitable course of becoming a minister himself at the Harvard Divinity School. Oddly for one whose significance to American thought and literature has been so original and far-reaching, and yet not unlike one of his foremost admirers, Whitman, he showed no special promise either as a boy or as a young man, being outshone by his older and younger brothers.
He lacked a driving ambition, but he was far from lazy. He preferred to absorb, from books or nature, like the “transparent eyeball” he termed himself in his first book, Nature (1836). This preference proved wise, for he did not burn himself out early, spouting ideas before they were hardly formed; rather, once he decided to write, he was able to do so from the wisdom of years lived as well as books digested over a long period of time.
As a writer, he was driven not so much by a need to express himself as by the impulse to teach—fittingly for a minister, which he became briefly. This impulse he fulfilled initially through his sermons, and later in lectures and the essays he developed from them after he had left the church to follow his conscience.
For so strong an advocate of the virtues of nonconformity, the outer shape of Emerson’s life was amazingly orthodox and bound to other people, in contrast to those of such fellow individualists as his friends Thoreau, Whitman, and Bronson Alcott. He managed to sustain basically untroubled relations with his religiously oriented mother, first and second wives, and daughters, often attended church, and was even believed in his later years to have backslid into orthodox Unitarianism, although his son denied such rumors.
One of the most interesting aspects of Allen’s book is his portrayal and analysis of...
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