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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.
Posted August 17, 2010
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.
Posted October 31, 2013
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