Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portraitby Carlos Baker, James R. Mellow (Introduction)
Chosen by the editors of The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of 1996. Ralph Waldo Emerson's circle included many of the most brilliant and original minds of his day: Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. Together this eccentric group helped establish Concord, Massachusetts, as a mecca for progressive thinking, including women's rights and religious tolerance. Carlos Baker's indefatigable research included reviewing the journals and correspondence of all the central characters to reconstruct, minutely, entire days. The result is a vivid and textured mosaic not just of the group's interactions but of their daily lives-what they ate, wore, discussed, read, and cared about. All of this brings Emerson vividly to life in his quotidian relationships-as young man and old; father, husband, and son; preacher, lecturer and editor; farmer, guest and friend. It is by far the most intimate portrait we have of the Sage of Concord and his remarkable entourage.
Working from the early 1970s until 1986, the year before he died, Baker set out to show how Emerson's views "were reflected, contradicted, partly diverged from, or zealously misrepresented" by his acquaintances. Although the work falls short of this ambitious goal, it offers a glimpse of a set of fascinating people and the points at which their lives touched Emerson's. There are, most notably, Emerson's second wife, Lidian, hovering in the background, chronically ill; Aunt Mary (Mary Moody Emerson), the eccentric par excellence, who considered tact "only another name for lying"; Bronson Alcott, whose wealth of ideas could not keep his family out of poverty; Henry Thoreau, who spent more time camping in Emerson's house than at Walden Pond; Margaret Fuller, who was intellectually brilliant and emotionally demanding; and Jones Very, a poet who was briefly convinced that he was "the Second Coming." The focus of the narrative shifts from person to person with each chapter, portraying Emerson as the genial and stable center of a tornado of friends, but the image occasionally cracks: Surely a man capable of peering into his son's coffin 15 years after the boy's death is at least a candidate for the title of eccentric. And while Baker presents some of the circle as "self-appointed disciples" whom Emerson saw simply as friends, a complaint from Thoreau suggests otherwise: "He would not meet me on equal terms, but only be to some extent my patron. He would not come to see me, but was hurt if I did not visit him."
Although this group biography is less than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves remain deeply intriguing.
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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