On the first page of this intensely readable gem of a little book, Robert D. Richardson observes most surprisingly, and bluntly: "Writing was the central passion of Emerson's life ... But he never wrote an essay on writing."
And yet, buried within Ralph Waldo Emerson's lectures and essays, letters, personal journals and transcribed conversations, we will find, if we are patient, a trove of durable truths and practical advice on just that subject.
All of this Richardson has himself quarried and then shaped into 12 lustrous chapters unified by his own commentary, thus recovering a 19th-century American voice that comes across as fresh, contemporary and wise.
Richardson is well placed to produce this project. In his 1995 book Emerson: The Mind on Fire, he unfolded his subject with an ease born of an absolute mastery of the material. Because of the authority of that book, we can trust his judgment in this one. Richardson the scholar becomes the ears through which we hear Emerson the writer.
"To listen to Emerson was to catch fire," he says. Indeed. In some of the most remarkable sentences in English, Emerson offers his impeccable advice as if writing to an unknown friend.
"The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say ... The most interesting writing is that which does not quite satisfy the reader. Try and leave a little thinking for him ... Every good sentence seems to imply all truth ... The writer ... believes that all that can be thought can be written ... In his eyes a man is the faculty of reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported."
And in what Richardson calls "the best single bit of practical advice about writing Emerson ever gave", the voice of American transcendentalism says: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."
It is encouraging to learn that even for Emerson, Richardson says, writing was often "a desperate struggle". He "felt assailed by endless disincentives to write" and "never felt he had achieved adequate expression".
It takes much effort to write a truthful sentence, especially if your standard and source of language is set by nature, as it was for him. "When I look at the sweeping sleet amid the pinewoods," Emerson says, "my sentences look very contemptible."
Pivotal in Emerson's inner life, and therefore his creative process, was his love for reading. He read "for personal gain, for personal use", to find his way, always looking for what it could teach him about his art and craft. His reading nourished his creativity: "First we eat," Emerson says, "then we beget." But he also knew not to overvalue books, lest he lose sight of his own views as if drugged by the words of others.
One of the many strengths of this study is that we do not need to be acquainted with Emerson's life and canon to benefit. Richardson's book stands on its own. And yet, after absorbing these pages and with their appetites now whetted by a taste of Emerson, I am sure that many readers will want to learn more about this man of high principle, who spoke for individualism, for self-reliance, for the grandeur of the soul. His words go deep.
First We Read, Then We Write is enlightening. Like Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1903) and A. Alvarez's The Writer's Voice (2005), it is an essential book that belongs in the hands of every impassioned writer, reader and teacher.
First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process
By Robert D. Richardson
University of Iowa Press
Published 15 March 2009