For generations of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson has been a touchstone, a brilliant, innovative genius who preached the virtues of self-trust and self-reliance. Walt Whitman acknowledged his influence, as did Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. More recent admirers have included Virginia Woolf and Jorge Luis Borges; the list is endless. Yet the public image of Emerson is that of a cold and passionless figure, an intellectual without responsibility.
Robert Richardson's dazzling new biography introduces us to a very different Emerson. He was not, it seems, an outstanding student. Emerson lacked the discipline to follow a college curriculum and his record at Harvard was frankly disappointing. He was restless, ambitious and self-doubting. For years he struggled to meet his family's expectations, finally resigning as minister of the Second Church in Boston (his father's church) in order to devote himself to literature. Emerson was also no stranger to personal tragedy. His first wife, Ellen, died from consumption in 1831 and the same disease claimed his two younger brothers, Edward and Charles, again during the 1830s. Small wonder, then, that he could sometimes appear inaccessible and detached.
Emerson's restlessness is evident, above all, in his intellectual development. As Richardson makes clear, Emerson read and re-read voraciously. He favoured books that were original and written first-hand: travel accounts, memoirs, personal testaments, poetry. He also read at speed, selecting and noting only what was of immediate interest; "Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought," Emerson once told a young Williams College student. Nothing seems to have escaped his notice. His carefully indexed journals, which eventually ran to some 263 volumes, include references to history, art and music, to George Sand, Firdusi and the Persian poet, Hafiz.
As a result of his reading, Emerson came to react strongly against his upbringing, against Boston, Unitarianism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy; indeed, he sought to liberate the individual from all orthodoxies. "The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius," Emerson told his Phi Beta Kappa audience at Harvard in 1837. "They pin me down. They look backward and not forward." The well-being of the individual, his strength, independence and development, became for Emerson the ultimate justification for all social organisation. But this was not individualism interpreted as licence or whim. On the contrary, Emerson believed that each was an expression of all, that through self-cultivation (Bildung) the individual could approach and finally become one with the divine mind.
As Emerson grappled with these ideas, with what in essence was transcendentalism, he was also searching for an appropriate voice. Richardson notes that Emerson's early writings were "excursive" and "expository". But during the 1830s he evolved a new, aphoristic, style that was both vivid and personal. Countless examples spring to mind: "Order is matter subdued by mind"; "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"; "There is no history, only biography". The style became the man. Important as books were to Emerson, he responded enthusiastically to the world around him, to people and to places. He was a keen traveller, for instance, and a generous and indulgent friend (Emerson's sometimes difficult relationship with Thomas Carlyle is a case in point).
Emerson: The Mind on Fire is intellectual biography of the highest quality: illuminating, expansive, and beautifully written. But the author's pre-occupation with ideas has the effect of foreshortening Emerson's life, focusing attention on the writer who produced Nature (1836), Representative Men (1850), and English Traits (1856). More striking still, given Richardson's determination to make his subject seem more human, is his reticence when it comes to Emerson's relationship with his children, with Thoreau, and, most intriguingly, with Margaret Fuller. True, these things are mentioned but too often they take second place to Emerson's intellect and the life of his mind.
It has become customary to view Emerson as a man "without connections", detached from the mundane world of politics and public activity. To a large extent this was true. But some issues, like slavery, affected him deeply. In common with many New Englanders Emerson had a natural distaste for the institution of slavery. In 1844, however, he went a step further and embraced active abolitionism. The obvious question is why? Richardson puts forward a number of explanations, among them the influence of Emerson's second wife, Lidian, and the abolitionist, Lucretia Mott. Plausible as this sounds, the turnabout also had something to do with Emerson's growing unease over the sectional conflict. So far from standing aloof, he was actually profoundly shocked by reports of northern blacks arrested on the decks of Massachusetts ships lying in southern ports and incensed by the inaction of the Massachusetts state legislature. Eventually his mounting frustration spilled over into deliberate action.
From 1844 onwards Emerson became increasingly involved with the slavery issue, both on the lecture circuit and in his everyday life. If anything, the Fugitive Slave Law and the Sims case, involving a fugitive slave captured in Boston, strengthened his resolve. In 1854, for instance, the Emersons joined the underground railroad, as did the entire Thoreau family. Later, in 1859, they entertained John Brown at their home in Concord, and when Brown was arrested following his raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry Emerson personally solicited funds for his legal defence.
Some idea of Emerson's commitment to reform emerges from his anti-slavery writings, which have been collected together for the first time by Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson. The tone of these pieces is insistent, angry and confrontational. "We should not forgive the clergy of a country, for taking on every issue the immoral side," he wrote in 1854. "Nor the Bench, if it throw itself on the side of the culprit. Nor the Government, if it sustain the mob against the laws." Following the logic of his own argument, Emerson readily embraced the notion of civil disobedience. The Fugitive Slave Law, he argued, should be "abrogated and wiped out of the statute book; but, whilst it stands there, it must be disobeyed". Over the years Emerson repeated similar public incitements to break the law. Hence his admiration for John Brown; here was a man "who believed in his ideas to that extent, that he existed to put them all into action".
Taken together, these books present Emerson in a new light: as a liberal democrat who endorsed progress and the commercial spirit; as a patriot who cared passionately about his native Massachusetts, its people and its history; as an active reformer who was willing to contemplate the possibility of disunion. But what catches the eye, and finally convinces, is the man's humanity. Emerson's abiding interest in identity, his belief in the fundamental similarity between East and West, speaks across the generations. Americans today, divided and embattled, would do well to take his message to heart.
J. R. Oldfield is senior lecturer in American history, University of Southampton.
Emerson's Antislavery Writings
Author - Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson
ISBN - 0 300 05970 1
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 232