Books: November 27, 1996
EMERSON AND THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE
A portrait of a free-ranging mind and the eccentric friends and family in his circle
Emerson Among the Eccentrics:
A Group Portrait
Carlos Baker *40
Introduction and Epilogue by James R. Mellow
Group biographies often suffer from lack of focus, but at their best they can sum up an entire movement or era. Before he died in 1987, Carlos Baker *40, a literary critic, biographer, and English professor best known for his work on Hemingway, had almost completed an extended series of interlocking portraits of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Walt Whitman, John Brown, Theodore Parker, Edward Taylor, and many others.
This personal history begins on "the morning of the republic," as James R. Mellow writes in his elegant introduction to the book. It moves leisurely from the 1830s, with a young, widowed Emerson working as a pastor in Boston, to the 1870s, with Emerson in old age, a Concord patriarch and a Great Name. Emerson mapped out his iconoclastic mission early in life: "I can only do my work well...by abjuring the opinions and customs of all others and adhering strictly to the divine plan a few dim inches of whose outline I faintly discern in my breast." With this precept in mind, he left the ministry in 1832 and set sail for Italy to broaden his horizons.
A tall, commanding figure, with a firm chin and intense blue eyes, Emerson was an eloquent speaker who soon established a reputation on the lecture circuit. His philosophical preoccupation was "the divine beauty of moral truth," as good a pocket definition of transcendentalism as any. In part a movement, in the larger sense simply a perspective, transcendentalism corresponded to English romanticism, but incorporated the earnest heritage of the Puritans and a fillip of American selfinvention.
Romanticism, as Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, is spilt religion. This was an era in which the sermon was both a literary vehicle and a popular crowd pleaser. Baker devotes a chapter to Edward Taylor, the colorful preacher at the Seamen's Bethel in North Square, Boston, whom Emerson called "the Shakespear of the sailor and the poor." There are also cameos of idiosyncratic types like Jones Very, a Harvardtrained poet and essayist, who became convinced that he was the reincarnation of Christ.
The more fully developed portraits are better at tracing the arc of a life. They include Margaret Fuller, who first met Emerson when she was just 25. She was a bluestocking teacher who had translated Goethe's Tasso and was already grooming herself to be a writer and critic. Though she eventually became a literary critic for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, her fate seemed to be to admire Emerson from afar all her life. Bronson Alcott, a teacher at Temple School in Boston and the father of Louisa May Alcott, penned didactic verse and was much preoccupied with how spirit makes matter (Emerson was encouraging but only halfimpressed with his long manuscript Psyche, or the Breath of Childhood). These and other lives are registered through assiduous quotations from each individual's journals, poetry, and essays, but the effect is often like viewing scenery through a pane of lead glass. Because much of the book's biographical detail is based on letters, at times the work resembles nothing so much as a long epistolary novel.
Emerson had a knack for attracting engaging, often eccentric characters. We see Walt Whitman as a literary entrepreneur, anonymously sending Emerson a first edition of Leaves of Grass to pique his curiosity. When Emerson tracked down the author and kindly wrote an encouraging letter, Whitman reprinted the entire letter in his second edition. Emerson always tried to help people out, providing everything from a place of refuge for the saturnine Hawthorne to advice on prosody for writer Ellery Channing's neoSpenserian verse. Meanwhile, Emerson himself was growing important, his activities ranging from editing the new journal The Dial to a speaking schedule that amounted to over 70 lectures a year.
By and large, this biography deals mostly with quotidian life. Robert D. Richardson's recent Emerson: The Mind on Fire (University of California Press, 1995) better charts Emerson's struggle to reconcile ethics and aesthetics. Baker may aim for luminous detail, but too often he ends up telling the reader the itinerary of various walking tours or what vegetables Thoreau planted in Hawthorne's garden.
As age slowly stiffened Emerson, his once freeranging mind grew narrower. Near the end of Emerson's life, as his friend Charles Eliot Norton observed, Emerson's philosophy of hope turned into a calcified creed that everything was for the best. Yet by then he had become a feature of the American landscape, and when he died in April 1882, as Auden later wrote of Yeats, "he became his admirers." Over a century later, he and his circle remain a source of inspiration. In an early journal entry, he wrote, "After some sleepings and wakings I shall lie on this mattress sick; then dead; and through my gay entry they will carry these bones. Where shall I be then? I lifted my head and beheld the spotless orange light of the morning beaming up from the dark hills into the wide universe."
This is no mere overweening optimism, but instead a challenge to find freshness even in death. It reminds us why we return to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and why he repays rereading.
-David Galef '81
David Galef is a novelist and critic who lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
Carlos Baker *40, who died in 1987, was a literary critic and a member of the English department for 40 years.
Me Viola: Recollections of Three Quarters of a Century
Edmund Delaney '33
Orders to Connecticut River Publications, P.O. Box 359, Chester, CT 06412. $18 paper (postpaid)
The File: A Princeton Memoir
Robert V. Keeley '51
Orders to Five and Ten Press, 3814 Livingston Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20015-2803. $10 paper
A Re-View and Re-Vision
Christopher L. Webber '53
Morehouse Publishing, $19.95 paper
Deferral Dollars: The Fast
Track to 401(k), Simple and
the New Legislation
H. McIlvaine Lewis '69 and
Catherine N.H. Lewis
Orders to Benefit Services, 314 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501. $72.50
Political Islam: Essays From
Middle East Report
Joel Beinin '70 and Joe Stork, eds.
University of California Press,
$50 cloth, $20 paper
Spiritual Warrior: Uncovering Spiritual Truths in Psychic
Swami Krishnapada '72
Hari-Nama Press, P.O. Box 4133, Largo, MD 20775. $12.95 paper
The Lost Years of Merlin
T.A. Barron '74
Philomel Books/The Putnam
Berkley Group, $19.95
The MIT Press, $17.50 paper