Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait

Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait

by Carlos Baker
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This painterly, highly accessible and penetrating study of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and his milieu was close to completion when Baker (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story) died in 1987. Oddly truncated, it begins with Emerson's 28th year and lacks a well-rounded conclusion. Yet by focusing on the social Emerson, Baker shapes a more nuanced portrait of the American Renaissance poet, essayist and thinker than Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), which gave more weight to Emerson's intellectual side. The eccentrics of Baker's title are the idiosyncratic community of friends and family in Concord, Boston and Lennox, Mass., and in New York-the "veritable host of hobgoblins and nightbirds," in Hawthorne's satirical phrase-who perpetually surrounded Emerson. These included his bristly, paradoxical neighbor, Henry Thoreau; the mad poet, Jones Very; Margaret Fuller, whose many ardent, unrequited infatuations included Emerson; and Walt Whitman, "who cultivated eccentricity as if he had a patent on it." Quoting from the journals and letters of Emerson and his contemporaries, Baker sketches these and other mystics, poets and radicals over whom Emerson presided as an agent of stability, a householder and husband, an intellectually eclectic counselor, sage and critic, forever torn between the pull of society and a need for solitude. Baker's narrative is a lively balancing act, full of evocative set pieces, houses, landscapes and well-drawn scenes of intellectual contretemps. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
In his final, unfinished work, literary scholar Baker (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, 1969, etc.) views an eclectic collection of individuals through the lens of conventional scholarship.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670866755
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/01/1996
Pages:
608
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.81(d)

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