Overview

The Conduct of Life is a collection of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1860 and revised in 1876. In this volume, Emerson sets out to answer “the question of the times:” “How shall I live?” It is composed of nine essays, each preceded by a poem. These nine essays are largely based on lectures Emerson held throughout the country, including for a young, mercantile audience in the lyceums of the Midwestern boomtowns of the 1850s.

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The Conduct of Life

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Overview

The Conduct of Life is a collection of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1860 and revised in 1876. In this volume, Emerson sets out to answer “the question of the times:” “How shall I live?” It is composed of nine essays, each preceded by a poem. These nine essays are largely based on lectures Emerson held throughout the country, including for a young, mercantile audience in the lyceums of the Midwestern boomtowns of the 1850s.

The Conduct of Life has been named as both one of Emerson's best works and one of his worst. It was one of Emerson's most successful publications and has been identified as a source of influence for a number of writers, including Friedrich Nietzsche.

Three years after publishing his English Traits, Boston's Ticknor & Fields announced on 27 December 1859, an “early appearance” of a new book by Emerson titled The Conduct of Life. Confirmed as “completed” on 10 November 1860, Emerson’s seventh mayor work came out on 12 December of the same year, simultaneously in the US and in Great Britain (published there by Smith, Elder & Co.). It was advertized as “matured philosophy of the transatlantic sage” and sold as a collector’s item “uniform in size and style with Mr. Emerson’s previous works.” Quickly running through several editions in the U.S. (Ticknor & Fields announced a third edition only a week later) it was soon picked up by a third publisher (Cleveland’s Ingham & Bragg). In Great Britain, it was reported as “selling rapidly.” Subsequently, several passages from the book appeared in popular U.S. newspapers, most of them quoting either from 'Wealth' or 'Behavior' (especially the 'Monk Basle'-passage and Emerson’s treatment of the human eye).

First translations of the book appeared during Emerson's lifetime in France (1864) and in Russia (1864). Still, the height of the book's international fame came around the turn of the 20th century, coinciding with a growing public interest in one of Emerson's most famous readers: Friedrich Nietzsche. Eventually, The Conduct of Life was translated into at least 13 different languages, including Serbian, Dutch and Chinese.

Though hailed by Thomas Carlyle as “the writer's best book” and despite its commercial success, initial critical reactions to The Conduct Of Life were mixed at best. The Knickerbocker praised it for its “healthy tone” and called it “the most practical of Mr. Emerson's works,” while The Atlantic Monthly attested that “literary ease and flexibility do not always advance with an author’s years” and thought the essays inferior to Emerson's earlier work. Yale’s The New Englander while complimenting Emerson's abilities, criticized the book as depicting “a universe bereft of its God” and described its author as writing “with the air of a man who is accustomed to be looked up to with admiring and unquestioning deference.” Littell's Living Age found the book to contain the “weakest kind of commonplace elaborately thrown into unintelligible shapes” and claimed it to read in parts like an “emasculate passage of Walt Whitman.” Others were no less critical, proclaiming that Emerson “has come to the end of what he had to say, and is repeating himself” or even calling him a “phrasemonger” and “second-hand writer”.

While some critics like Harold Bloom place The Conduct of Life among Emerson's best work—Bloom calls it “a crucial last work for Americans”—it has only been paid little critical attention.

As The Conduct of Life is, in parts, thematically grouped around practical life issues (e.g. 'Power', 'Wealth'), it has been discussed as participating “in the aspirations of the contemporary conduct-of-life literature” while opening up possibilities of gender fluidity. Also, despite the stronger reconciliation between self and society compared to Emerson’s previous, more individualistic works, The Conduct of Life is in no way a one-sided affirmation of American society, especially 19th century capitalism.
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Product Details

  • BN ID: 2940015386233
  • Publisher: Balefire Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/7/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 290
  • Sales rank: 429,133
  • File size: 14 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. He was seen as a champion of individualism and a prescient critic of the countervailing pressures of society, and he disseminated his thoughts through dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures across the United States.

Emerson gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature. Following this ground-breaking work, he gave a speech entitled The American Scholar in 1837, which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. considered to be America's "Intellectual Declaration of Independence".

Emerson wrote on a number of subjects, never espousing fixed philosophical tenets, but developing certain ideas such as individuality, freedom, the ability for humankind to realize almost anything, and the relationship between the soul and the surrounding world. Emerson's "nature" was more philosophical than naturalistic; "Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul."

Emerson's work has greatly influenced the thinkers, writers and poets that have followed him. When asked to sum up his work, he said his central doctrine was "the infinitude of the private man." Emerson is also well known as a mentor and friend of fellow Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.
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