Emerson: The Mind on Fire

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Overview


Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important figures in the history of American thought, religion, and literature. The vitality of his writings and the unsettling power of his example continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Now Robert D. Richardson Jr. brings to life an Emerson very different from the old stereotype of the passionless Sage of Concord. Drawing on a vast amount of new material, including correspondence among the Emerson brothers, Richardson gives us a rewarding ...
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Overview


Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important figures in the history of American thought, religion, and literature. The vitality of his writings and the unsettling power of his example continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Now Robert D. Richardson Jr. brings to life an Emerson very different from the old stereotype of the passionless Sage of Concord. Drawing on a vast amount of new material, including correspondence among the Emerson brothers, Richardson gives us a rewarding intellectual biography that is also a portrait of the whole man.

These pages present a young suitor, a grief-stricken widower, an affectionate father, and a man with an abiding genius for friendship. The great spokesman for individualism and self-reliance turns out to have been a good neighbor, an activist citizen, a loyal brother. Here is an Emerson who knew how to laugh, who was self-doubting as well as self-reliant, and who became the greatest intellectual adventurer of his age.

Richardson has, as much as possible, let Emerson speak for himself through his published works, his many journals and notebooks, his letters, his reported conversations. This is not merely a study of Emerson's writing and his influence on others; it is Emerson's life as he experienced it. We see the failed minister, the struggling writer, the political reformer, the poetic liberator.

The Emerson of this book not only influenced Thoreau, Fuller, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, he also inspired Nietzsche, William James, Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges. Emerson's timeliness is persistent and striking: his insistence that literature and science are not separate cultures, his emphasis on the worth of every individual, his respect for nature.

Richardson gives careful attention to the enormous range of Emerson's readings—from Persian poets to George Sand—and to his many friendships and personal encounters—from Mary Moody Emerson to the Cherokee chiefs in Boston—evoking both the man and the times in which he lived. Throughout this book, Emerson's unquenchable vitality reaches across the decades, and his hold on us endures.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important figures in the history of American thought, religion and literature. The vitality of his writings continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Touching on all aspects of Emerson's life, this biography gives us a rewarding intellectual work that is also a portrait of the whole man. Photos.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The maverick intellectual life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) is the focus of this imposing, highly erudite biography. In 1832, Emerson resigned his Boston ministry to pursue a career as an essayist, orator and poet, delivering more than 1500 lectures in his lifetime, including ``The American Scholar'' (1837), and publishing essays such as Nature (1836) and Representative Men (1850). As America's foremost prophet of individual experience, he was also a founder of the Transcendentalist Club, editor of the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, and spokesman for many reformist causes. Drawing on unpublished personal journals, correspondence and lectures, Richardson (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind) charts, in exacting detail, the minutia of Emerson's daily life in Concord, Mass., and extensive travels; the literature and philosophy he read over several decades and how his reading shaped his steadily evolving intellect. Although the nuances of Emerson's personality are eclipsed by textual analysis, Richardson balances the often chilling puritanism of Emerson's writing with a portrait of the man as hungry for friendship, maintaining close relationships with Carlisle, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller; and whose icy doctrine of individualism reflects the loneliness caused by the premature deaths of his beloved first wife, his two younger brothers and numerous friends. (May.)
Library Journal
Using freshly available materials on Emerson, Richardson (Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, LJ 8/86) here fashions a lively intellectual biography of the "sage of Concord." In exacting detail, the author traces the development of Emerson's great imagination from his early student days at Harvard to his later associations with Coleridge and Carlyle. Through a study of Emerson's wide-ranging reading, Richardson reveals the origins of key Emersonian doctrines such as self-reliance, the transcendence of the soul, and the mind as an ever-erupting volcano. The great value of the biography lies in its exploration of the influences of Coleridge, Goethe, Madame de Stal, and Hindu thought on Emerson. While the intimate detail in which Emerson's life is examined is reminiscent of the pedantry of much late 19th-century American biography, Richardson offers a captivating account of the originality, creativity, and genius of the American Coleridge. This biography goes beyond John Mc-Aleer's Emerson: Days of Encounter (LJ 8/84). Recommended for large public libraries and academic collections.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Westerville P.L., Ohio
David Reynolds
Drawing from a wide range of contemporary sources, he fills up the picture of the human Emerson... the book is highly readable... [And] is a worthy addition to the library of books on one of America's foremost thinkers.
New York Times Book Review
Edward Hirsch
Richardson's splendid [book] is the first biography that locates the source of Emerson's volcanic power and his emotional depth and fairly intellectual intensity... The result is a suggestive and sympathetic work that gets to the heart of the man who felt that 'life is an ecstasy.'
The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520206892
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/6/1996
  • Series: Centennial Book Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 684
  • Sales rank: 361,399
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.75 (d)

Meet the Author


Robert D. Richardson Jr., Adjunct Professor of Letters at Wesleyan University, is also the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (California, 1986), which won the Melcher Prize in 1987. Barry Moser is one of the foremost wood engravers and book illustrators in America.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted August 17, 2010

    Emerson's Life and Letters As a Miraculous Entity

    The masterpiece of Robert D. Richardson's trilogy on the great 19th century intellectuals of American culture is undoubtedly the one concerning Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet, essayist and preacher in that heart of American scholarship that is Massachusetts, Boston and Harvard, a 670 pp and 100 chapters long and bulky tome, sparkling and flashing with learning and erudition. It is not only due to Emerson's brilliant radiance and his vast importance in the eyes of posterity, he is not only a literary personality fascinating to read about, he must also be a writer exceptionally stimulating to write an inner biography about, what emerges from the verbal enthusiasm and the captivating narrative zest that Richardson's text beam forth.
    The subtitle indicates what the purpose of the study is: The Mind on Fire. Emerson's restlessly fiery intellect, his ingenious creativity, his visions and originality and not least his receptivity and ardent inclination for reading are brought into focus, and his mental development is convincingly illuminated. But the remarkable thing is that the study works as a much detailed and vivid biography too, combining the events of ordinary life with the continuous and invisible conflagration of Emerson's brain and nerves, his thoughts and emotions. Miraculously, all of it functions as an entity, it integrates the totality of a human being as a living organism in a social context.
    To aim at such an inner biography, Richardson is maybe excessively generous with facts, even trivial facts, in the everyday life of this intellectual genius. He even reproduces words and replies, taken from the main characters of Emerson's life, what makes a dramatic impression and transforms the biography to a novel-like portrait. As a matter of fact, you can, to a high degree, read this book as an intellectual novel, vivid and even thrilling, though the real core of the study is of course the penetrating exposition of Emerson's world of thoughts, his essays, poems and other writings.
    The novelization of a serious biography, particularly an inner biography, is of course something to be received and evaluated in different ways, but it no doubt enhances the vivid character of the representation and of the close connection between life and intellectual activity. (And that is almost necessary to make the reader surmount the problems of the far too diminutive typography of the printing!)
    The last words of the study are a deeply affecting end of a great thinker's life: Emerson suffering from pneumonia, having afternoon tea, closing up his study, meticulously extinguishing the fire, then taking the study lamp in his hand, leaving the room for the last time and going upstairs. No novel could have such an intense and poignant ending.

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    Posted October 31, 2013

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