Emerson / Edition 1

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Overview

"An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man," Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote--and in this book, the leading scholar of New England literary culture looks at the long shadow Emerson himself has cast, and at his role and significance as a truly American institution. On the occasion of Emerson's 200th birthday, Lawrence Buell revisits the life of the nation's first public intellectual and discovers how he became a "representative man."

Born into the age of inspired amateurism that emerged from the ruins of pre-revolutionary political, religious, and cultural institutions, Emerson took up the challenge of thinking about the role of the United States alone and in the world. With characteristic authority and grace, Buell conveys both the style and substance of Emerson's accomplishment--in his conception of America as the transplantation of Englishness into the new world, and in his prodigious work as writer, religious thinker, and philosopher. Here we see clearly the paradoxical key to his success, the fierce insistence on independence that acted so magnetically upon all around him. Steeped in Emerson's writings, and in the life and lore of the America of his day, Buell's book is as individual--and as compelling--as its subject. At a time when Americans and non-Americans alike are struggling to understand what this country is, and what it is about, Emerson gives us an answer in the figure of this representative American, an American for all, and for all times.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement

I learned from and greatly enjoyed reading Lawrence Buell's Emerson.
— Susan Sontag

Irish Times

Lawrence Buell has written a comprehensive, penetrating and timely study, the distillation of a lifetime's scholarship, of this great thinker and writer, 'the poet of ordinary days,' as his disciple, John Dewey, beautifully called him.
— John Banville

Choice

In this book Buell distills a lifetime of study and teaching on Emerson. Its tone is easy and confident, friendly and inviting, and Buell's aim is to share his admiration for America's first public intellectual with a new generation of readers.
— P. J. Ferlazzo

Common-Place

In this book Lawrence Buell shows us why Emerson remains worth reading in our own time...What Buell has to say here about Emerson is not only persuasive but also consistently interesting, surprisingly original...and, best of all, written in straightforward, lucid language...Buell's discussion of the relationship between Emerson and his prize pupil, Henry David Thoreau, is brilliant.
— Daniel W. Howe

Robert Richardson
This a splendid book, an important one, and one that will have wide appeal. This will be an indispensable book on Emerson, putting the keys to that complex man and his work into the reader's hand. If you want to know why we are still reading and talking about Emerson, start here.
Sacvan Bercovitch
This book is a literary-cultural event: the harvest of the past half-century of Emersonian revaluations and the harbinger, guide, and provocation for the next generations of Emerson scholars and critics. One cannot call a work on Emerson definite, even provisionally, but I cannot imagine that any Americanist--or, for that matter, anyone interested in America, specialist or nonspecialist--will be able to do without this book in the foreseeable future.
Wai Chee Dimock
Lawrence Buell has made it his business to set forth exciting new lines of inquiry. He has done so once again: bringing Emerson up to date, moving him away from a nation-based paradigm, and firing him up as an entry point to a global, cross-lingual circuit.
Times Literary Supplement - Susan Sontag
I learned from and greatly enjoyed reading Lawrence Buell's Emerson.
Irish Times - John Banville
Lawrence Buell has written a comprehensive, penetrating and timely study, the distillation of a lifetime's scholarship, of this great thinker and writer, 'the poet of ordinary days,' as his disciple, John Dewey, beautifully called him.
Choice - P. J. Ferlazzo
In this book Buell distills a lifetime of study and teaching on Emerson. Its tone is easy and confident, friendly and inviting, and Buell's aim is to share his admiration for America's first public intellectual with a new generation of readers.
Common-Place - Daniel W. Howe
In this book Lawrence Buell shows us why Emerson remains worth reading in our own time...What Buell has to say here about Emerson is not only persuasive but also consistently interesting, surprisingly original...and, best of all, written in straightforward, lucid language...Buell's discussion of the relationship between Emerson and his prize pupil, Henry David Thoreau, is brilliant.
Choice
In this book Buell distills a lifetime of study and teaching on Emerson. Its tone is easy and confident, friendly and inviting, and Buell's aim is to share his admiration for America's first public intellectual with a new generation of readers.
— P. J. Ferlazzo
Irish Times
Lawrence Buell has written a comprehensive, penetrating and timely study, the distillation of a lifetime's scholarship, of this great thinker and writer, 'the poet of ordinary days,' as his disciple, John Dewey, beautifully called him.
— John Banville
Times Literary Supplement
I learned from and greatly enjoyed reading Lawrence Buell's Emerson.
— Susan Sontag
Common-Place
In this book Lawrence Buell shows us why Emerson remains worth reading in our own time...What Buell has to say here about Emerson is not only persuasive but also consistently interesting, surprisingly original...and, best of all, written in straightforward, lucid language...Buell's discussion of the relationship between Emerson and his prize pupil, Henry David Thoreau, is brilliant.
— Daniel W. Howe
The New York Times
… Emerson did not fancy acolytes and disciples. If George Santayana or Ralph Ellison or even Thoreau ultimately chafed against or rejected him, so much the better. This is the last outpost of Buell's Emerson: we outgrow him, reinvent him and then we reread him. That is what Buell is doing, mindful that as one of Emerson's cagiest nondisciples, Walt Whitman, said, ''the best part of Emersonianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself.'' — Peter Davison
Library Journal
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a poet, essayist, and philosopher whose provocative thoughts transcend a variety of fields, including philosophy, literature, and politics, to name but a few, and have inspired scholars for generations. To coincide with the recent bicentenary of his birth, these two books, which differ in approach more than in objective, offer revealing glimpses into his remarkable life and career. Emerson scholar Buell (Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays) offers a nontraditional analysis of Emerson's achievements. Instead of producing a narrative biography, Buell covers "key moments of Emerson's career" and "major facets of his thought" in topics, e.g., the making of a public intellectual, religious radicalisms, and Emerson as anti-mentor, and puts these concepts into the context of the politics of the time (both in America and abroad) and of how those concepts have resonated through to the present day. As Buell puts it, his book offers a "portrayal of Emerson as a national icon who at the same time anticipates the globalizing age." Wide-ranging in scope and meticulous in attention to detail, Emerson is best suited to the specialist but still accessible to the novice. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. By contrast, Grossman (Choosing and Changing: A Guide to Self-Reliance), a psychotherapist and medical educator, is a dabbler (much as Emerson was) and a fan not only of the substance of Emerson's writing but of his style as well. His daybook gives quotes from speeches, journals, letters, and poems-some as brief as a line-to coincide with each day of the year. Some are glossed to provide context. Topics range from slavery, Mount Monadnock, and the temporal nature of beauty to grief at the death of his first wife and his musings on the young United States. Grossman feels that "the way to approach Emerson's mind is to dip into him frequently, almost at random, to find precisely the stimulus that perhaps only he could give." This book succeeds in offering the reader such an opportunity. Recommended for public libraries. [Several useful books on Emerson have come out this spring and summer to coincide with the bicentenary, including Ronald A. Bosco and others' Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates and Laura Dassow Walls's Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth.-Ed.]-Felicity D. Walsh, Atlanta Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674016279
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2004
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,076,747
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Buell is Powell M. Cabot Research Professor of American Literature at Harvard University.
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Read an Excerpt

EMERSON


By Lawrence Buell

THE BELKNAP PRESS OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-674-01139-2


Introduction

This book is about the life, career, thought, and writing of the first public intellectual in the history of the United States. It is written both for scholars and for nonspecialist readers seeking a first book about Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). The research is as up-to-date and the language as direct as I can make it.

From other books on Emerson published in recent times, this one differs most visibly in two main ways.

First, instead of concentrating on a single narrative or topical strand, it provides concise intensive examinations of key moments of Emerson's career and major facets of his thought. Emerson is typically studied in schools and colleges as a literary figure who advocated a doctrine of individualism. This image is not wrong, but it understates the depth of his thinking and the scope of his achievement. In fact Emerson was remarkable for having influenced thinking in a wide range of areas, not just one or two. Chapters 3 through 7 dramatize this by taking up in succession his contributions to literature, religion, philosophy, social thought and reform, and what I call mentorship. Emersonian "Self-Reliance," as he preferred to call his theory of individuality, is indeed the single best key to his thought; but it is not so simple as it is often made to seem. Chapter 2 discusses it in detail, both as a philosophy of life and as a personal ethic or life practice. The first chapter prepares the way for what follows with an overview of Emerson's career, culminating in an analysis of his vision of the "scholar" or intellectual. Readers already familiar with Emerson's biography may wish to begin with the next-to-last section of Chapter 1.

In addition to mapping Emerson's mind and achievement, this sequence of chapters highlights certain paradoxes that account for much of the fascination and significance of Emerson's work. No one ever made stronger claims on behalf of the individual person, yet few have been more dismissive of the trivially personal. Emerson was an intensely focused thinker who kept returning lifelong to his core idea; yet he was forever reopening and reformulating it, looping away and back again, convinced that the spirit of the idea dictated that no final statement was possible. In keeping with this, he was a kind of performance artist who favored a highly imaginative, improvisational style of expression, often playfully ironic yet also deeply serious. But he did not cultivate this style as a literary accomplishment pure and simple so much as a way of thinking through an array of major ethical, spiritual, and social concerns that ultimately meant far more to him than did the literary as such. If you are attracted to a kind of creative writing given over to pondering how life should be led; if you relish virtuoso displays of mental energy and "inspired" thinking that doesn't try to fill in all the blanks; if you find yourself vexed by the spectacle of unused or wasted resources in yourself or others-if such things matter to you, then Emerson's writing probably will too.

This book's other most visibly distinctive feature is its portrayal of Emerson as a national icon who at the same time anticipates the globalizing age in which we increasingly live. At first thought, this proposition may seem strangely paradoxical. How can a figure so commonly and understandably taken as a spokesperson for U.S. national values like "American individualism" also be thought of as anticipating a "postnational" form of consciousness? Yet the fact is that Emerson had surprisingly limited patience for nationalism as such and would probably have been far more supportive than critical of the increasing interest being taken today by historians of U.S. culture in how it has been shaped in interaction with transatlantic, transpacific, and hemispheric influences. Although much of this revisionist history has involved retrieval of voices marginalized or silenced by the traditionally dominant Anglo-American culture to which Emerson belonged, by the same token it is all the more crucial to appreciate how canonical figures like Emerson have been oversimplified in being thought of as icons of U.S. national culture.

The kind of fresh look that I intend does not mean reidealizing Emerson. I want rather to provide a balanced assessment that mediates between the extremes that have polarized recent discussions of him. The last thirty years have seen both a vigorous revival of interest in his work and a vigorous effort to delimit or reject his cultural authority. He has been hailed as the father of American literary and philosophical pragmatism and discounted as a less credible spokesman for American democratization and cultural pluralism than Frederick Douglass or even Harriet Beecher Stowe and James Fenimore Cooper. My own approach is more respectful than debunking, but it differs from most previous studies of either kind in arguing that we need to think of Emerson not in terms of a single cultural context or scale but four: the regional-ethnic, the national, the transatlantic, and the global. The Emerson who emerges from this book was formed and constrained by provincial and national allegiances but also strove mightily to overcome these, an Emerson who for most of his life attached less intrinsic value to such allegiances than is usually thought. For this reason I pay an unusual amount of attention to lines of connection between Emerson and foreign sources, contemporaries, and readers.

The most striking qualities of Emerson's work often tend to get lost when we yield too quickly to the temptation of casting him as epitomizing the values of nation or regional tribe, instead of conceiving him in tension between such a role and a more cosmopolitan sense of how a writer-intellectual should think and be. Emerson is almost always at his most interesting when striving to free his mind from parochial entanglements of whatever sort. Not that he always succeeded in doing so. Sometimes the effort just led him back to stereotypes again, into programmatic tributes to the greatness of the self-sufficient individual. At best, however, he opened up the prospect of a much more profound sense of the nature, challenge, and promise of mental emancipation, whatever one's race, sex, or nation might be. That is the Emerson most worth preserving.

Even more important to me than pressing this or any other thesis, however, is to convey the vitality of Emerson's writing, which continues to outlast the old-fashioned nineteenth-century garments it wears. Its peculiar blend-f humility and assertiveness, sincerity and irony, abstraction and directness, intransigent position-taking versus infinite wariness about being pinned down to any one formulation-still retains the power to startle and excite, to produce unexpected flashes of insight. That Emerson has outgrown rather than been killed off by late Victorian reverence for him as a writer of uplifting prose stems directly from his readiness to stray from paths of common wisdom into trains of thought that seem offbeat, bizarre, and sometimes downright scandalous. This is one of the chief ways he resembles both the French Renaissance essayist Montaigne, whom he loved, and the German philosopher Nietzsche, who loved him.

All this comes across best by listening not to critics but to the sound of Emerson's own words. Featured in the following chapters, therefore, are new readings of his most admired essays and poems, together with others less famous but no less important.

As I've already suggested, Emerson was the kind of person who repeatedly put his prior certainties under question, even when he had thrashed through a subject many times before. So too with this book. It reflects an adult lifetime of meditation and teaching. I finished the first crude version when I was twenty-six. I complete this latest at age sixty-two. If it persuades others that Emerson is worth pondering for so long a time, I shall be very glad.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from EMERSON by Lawrence Buell Copyright © 2003 by President and Fellows of Harvard College
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Abbreviations Used in This Book

Introduction

1. The Making of a Public Intellectual

2. Emersonian Self-Reliance in Theory and Practice

3. Emersonian Poetics

4. Religious Radicalisms

5. Emerson as a Philosopher?

6. Social Thought and Reform: Emerson and Abolition

7. Emerson as Anti-Mentor

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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