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Times Literary Supplement
I learned from and greatly enjoyed reading Lawrence Buell's Emerson.
— Susan Sontag
"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.
I learned from and greatly enjoyed reading Lawrence Buell's Emerson.
— Susan Sontag
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
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
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
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.
Excerpted from EMERSON by Lawrence Buell Copyright © 2003 by President and Fellows of Harvard College
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List of Illustrations
Abbreviations Used in This Book
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