- Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson
California, 668 pp, £27.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 520 08808 5
To a person inquiring about his life, Emerson wrote: ‘I have no history, no fortunes that would make the smallest figure in a narrative. My course of life has been so routinary, that the keenest eye for point or picture would be at fault before such remediless commonplace. We will really say no more on a topic so sterile.’ Not so, responds Robert Richardson; we will say 670 pages more on the topic. By the end you might wonder whether Emerson wasn’t rather in the right of it. An unremarkable, rather spartan, childhood; average performances at school and university; an appointment to, followed by a resignation from, the Unitarian Church; three short trips to Europe; two marriages; the loss of a young son; agitation over the slavery issue – and some fifty placid years in Concord. In one year ‘he reorganised his notebooks’; in another he ‘took a new interest in fruit trees’. When such things loom large enough for biographical attention, you sense that it was a pretty quiet life. But Richardson might fairly object that the more important matter is the story of the growth of Emerson’s mind, his intellectual adventures, his creative life. A detailed version of this is what we certainly get, and I doubt if it has previously been attempted so comprehensively. The determination to be exhaustive and definitive is clear on every page; but the result is not unequivocally felicitous.
Let us take the matter of reading. As a thinker, scholar, preacher, poet, reformer, philosopher – whatever he considered himself (the point is not an idle one: once he had left the Church, he could never quite define what his vocation was) – Emerson obviously spent a large amount of his time with books. His most exciting life was probably his reading life, which hardly makes him unique. But what is the biographer to make of this? ‘In December of 1819 he began to keep a list of books he had read.’ Very convenient for Richardson, but a mixed blessing for his readers, since great blocks of his book consist of these reading lists. ‘He was reading ... he loyally read ... he was reading in all directions ... he felt overwhelmed by books ... Emerson was an enormous reader all his life ... Emerson was racing through books ... Emerson leafed through book after book ... Emerson was a vast reader ... Emerson skimmed and skipped in many books ... Emerson’s reading ranged widely as usual ... new readings overlapped old ... Emerson’s reading this year covered a huge range of subjects as usual.’ And so on and on. ‘When we have canvassed Emerson’s vast reading, it will by itself have told us little or nothing about the creative process or the growth of character. Sometime the books of a month are merely the inventory of a month’s distractions.’ Just so. Nevertheless, the canvassing continues remorselessly, and the inventories are transcribed with clockwork regularity. Of course, some of the reading is important: Emerson’s struggle with Hume; his discovery of Plato (though ‘Emerson found Plato the way Schliemann found Troy’ strikes me as a comically portentous way of putting it); the effect of Rousseau; the crucial influence of Carlyle; the inspiration of Goethe; his attraction to various forms of mysticism (‘Emerson was moving seriously into Neo-Platonism’ is a curiously lowering formulation). But Emerson never aspired to be a true philosopher, or even a coherent thinker, and in one sense it didn’t matter what he read. In a passage not quoted by Richardson, Emerson wrote: ‘I find the most pleasure in reading a book in a manner least flattering to the author. I read Proclus, and sometimes Plato, as I might read a dictionary, for a mechanical help to the fancy and the imagination. I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colours.’ And again, ‘we came this time for condiments, not for corn. We want the great genius only for joy.’ That is how we should read Emerson too – for lustres rather than content, for condiments not corn, for zest and relish and not for our daily bread. In writing, he sought for ‘contagion, yeast, anything to convey fermentation, import fermentation, induce fermentation into a quiescent mass’ – fermentation, not information, is what Emerson offers. That he read widely is the core of Emerson’s life; what he read is, finally, unimportant.
In addition to the books in Emerson’s life, there are, of course, the people. Here again, Richardson has certainly done his homework, and if he does not somehow get in the name of every person Emerson met, it is not for want of trying (as with the books, there is a tendency to inventory – in one paragraph, 30 names crowdedly congregate). There are plenty of details about his family life, including some of the manic minutiae often evident in vast American biographies: ‘Three days a week they had chocolate for breakfast, with toasted bread, but no butter.’ We hear more about his obviously remarkable Aunty Mary (‘on great subjects she could write greatly,’ we are solemnly informed), and learn about ‘the tragic failures of his gifted and ambitious brothers’. We also learn that, while a minister, he was ‘hopeless’ at pastoral work, and Richardson has a rather telling anecdote concerning a (consolatory) visit by Emerson to a dying old revolutionary soldier. ‘Emerson could think of nothing to say. Seeing a collection of medicine bottles on the tables by the captain’s bed, he began to talk about glassmaking. “Young man,” said the not-yet-departed hero, “If you don’t know your business you had better go home.” ’
Emerson could awaken the strongest affection and admiration in people as different as Carlyle and Whitman. But I came away from this book still not completely sure that Emerson ever really liked, never mind really loved, anyone (his loyalties and fidelities are not in question). Richardson would certainly disagree, and he has the data; but, curiously, Emerson’s wives (and children) do not come into very sharp focus. Ellen died too young (her death, and, later, the death of his young son Waldo, were probably the two events that moved Emerson most deeply). Oddly, he opened Ellen’s coffin in 1832, and Waldo’s coffin in 1857, and Richardson makes the interesting point that ‘virtually all of Emerson’s creative life was lived in the 25 years between those glimpses not simply of death but of his dead.’ His second wife, Lidian, features only intermittently. Emerson, rather enigmatically, called her ‘Asia’ on the strange grounds that ‘no New Englander that he knew had ever possessed such a depth of feeling that was continually called out on such trivial things’ (she once woke up in a fit of anxiety remembering that she had left a large book lying on top of a smaller one). Emerson himself referred to his own ‘Arctic habits’, and the thought suggests itself that if you are married to Asia, you might well feel the need, at times, to go Arctic. Indeed, Emerson came to write of ‘the vitriolic acid of marriage’, and Richardson intimates that he was strongly attracted to at least two other women – Margaret Fuller and Caroline Sturgis – though no actual infidelity is suggested. But, truly, there is no smell of passion in the air.
Then there are his male mentors, friends and acquaintances: William Ellery Channing; Sampson Reed (one of whose books Emerson considered the best thing since Plato in Plato’s line); Bronson Alcott (whom Emerson admired as a great prophet, and whose work is quite unreadable today); the ‘manifestly insane’ Jones Very (who considered himself the ‘new born bard of the Holy Ghost’, and who went around baptising people until he made the ‘tactical error’ of trying to baptise several Salem ministers who promptly had him put in an asylum for a month); and Henry David Thoreau (and if Emerson was Arctic, what zone can we designate for the glacial Thoreau? Emerson himself said: ‘As for taking Thoreau’s arm, I should as soon take the arm of an elm tree’). There were also the various members and guests of the Transcendental Club, and the contributors to the Dial. About all these figures, and indeed many more, we are given adequate biographical material to convey a sense of the strange intellectual milieu around Emerson, fervent, earnest, intense, enthusiastic, humourless, deeply provincial, slightly deranged. (The most important American whom Emerson met from outside New England was Walt Whitman – an unlikely, but symbolically apt, encounter.) Some of the most interesting chapters in the book cover Emerson’s first visit, of nine months, to Europe. Most interesting, to be frank, because he met more interesting people – such as Landor, Coleridge, Wordsworth and, most important, Carlyle (‘Transcendentalism’ really takes off from three essays by Carlyle, as Richardson helpfully describes). Not, you understand, that Emerson was over-impressed. ‘Not one of them is a mind of the very first class,’ he declared on his return. There is something almost sublime in the prospect of Emerson delivering himself of this opinion as he returned to the company of Bronson Alcott and Jones Very. One may well feel that the defensive condescensions of provincialism could hardly go further. Clearly, Emerson was more at ease among the undemanding tranquillities of Concord than amid the provocative and turbulent stimulations of Europe. He lived on until 1882, becoming an institution in his own lifetime, and he died as peacefully as he had, for the most part, lived.
Richardson tries to bring forward a much more thrilling and inflammatory mental life – hence his title – and notes Emerson’s predilection for the theme, and the vocabulary, of ‘wildness’. A stream of fiery and ‘volcanic’ images runs through his writing, and we are told that Emerson kept a print of Vesuvius in eruption in his front hall at Concord all his life. More than once, Richardson makes claims for Emerson as a sort of closet Dionysus, quoting from his journal: ‘O Bacchus, make them drunk, drive them mad, this multitude of vagabonds, hungry for eloquence, hungry for poetry, starving for symbols, perishing for want of electricity to vitalise this too much pastime.’ Certainly, Emerson disliked Boston’s ‘corpse-cold Unitarianism’, and inveighed against what he felt was a desperate lack of fire, energy, general combustibility, in his New England world. When he wrote, he always tried to be eruptive and, to use one of his key words, ‘unsettling’ (‘I unsettle all things’). But to use the lexicon of ‘wildness’ does not mean that you are yourself actually ‘wild’; any more than keeping a print of Vesuvius erupting in your hall bespeaks a secret, smouldering, would-be Dionysus – indeed, it could rather indicate a safe, suburban dalliance with exciting Vesuvian thoughts. Emerson’s mind might have been on fire, but it was a fairly steady, eminently controllable flame. I know and recognise that Emerson was a great and important writer: I just think that Richardson tries to make him ‘exciting’ in the wrong way.
The most exciting part of Emerson’s life is, obviously, his writing; or, bearing in mind the extraordinary number of lectures he gave, writing and speaking – ‘utterance is place enough,’ he declared, revealing his one permanent address. But what was he writing? Apart from some quite striking poems, Emerson showed no real interest in any complex literary form (bizarrely, he thought Hawthorne’s novels not worthy of him). He rarely aspired to a literary unit larger than the sentence. His style offers itself as a stream of aphorisms, ‘epiphanic’ aphorisms, Richardson calls them. His method of working, as described by Richardson, is very revealing – his life begins to seem like an endless notebook. ‘He kept this energetic reading and excerpting up for over forty years; the vast system of his personal notebooks and indexes – including indexes to indexes – eventually reached over 230 volumes, filling four shelves of a good-sized bookcase.’ Annotating notes, copying copies, indexing indexes – it sounds more like the grinding routine of a doomed Borgesian clerk than the process of happy alchemies effected by the self-nourishing creative imagination. You sometimes feel that the important thing for Emerson was just to keep on writing for writing’s sake – not for any climactic or residual statement, but for the sheer motion of the process. ‘All language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries are, for conveyance, and not as houses and farms are, for homestead.’ The aim was to be, somehow, in a state of permanent transition. ‘Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.’ Inasmuch as for Emerson any fully formulated thought was already the beginning of a stagnant pool, it seems that, ideally, it would be best if he were not to be caught out actually saying anything at all: ‘if I speak, I define, I confine, and am less.’ This is why his writing, which at times seems to come across as a series of clear, discrete aphorisms, on further acquaintance can be felt to be moving towards the non-propositional – a strange point at which language seems to begin actively to undermine its own semantic status. Not only does it not, in the end, matter what Emerson read; it should not finally, by his own account, matter what he wrote either. It is perhaps not surprising that at times he seemed not to know where, mentally, he was – once telling his brother that he was ‘floating, drifting far and wide in the sea of “Human Life”, without port without chart and even with a glass so thick on the compass that it is only once in a while that I can see sharply where it points.’ This is a not unfamiliar 19th-century feeling (and metaphor). But for Emerson, it hardly seems to have mattered – he wasn’t going anywhere in particular anyway. He continued unceasingly to preach, invoke and celebrate the ‘unattained but attainable self’. This notion of the ever-to-be-liberated ‘self’ is perhaps Emerson’s most influential bequest to American thought – yet he never sought to try to define what he meant by the ‘self’, and the word remains inscrutable and nebulous at the heart of his work.
Richardson’s massive biography is consistently hagiographic, and the continuous uncritical veneration and respect become somewhat wearisome. The tone and pitch never vary, and one longs for some shading and shifts in perspective. In addition, Richardson takes it upon himself to offer summaries of various bits of Emerson’s already entirely unstructured and meandering work – and this really is like nailing jelly to a tree. There is also something mechanical about the compilation of the book: exactly one hundred chapters of around five pages each, with not a great deal of variation in sentence length. The result is, at times, numbing.
Of course, in all this Richardson’s book is very much of its time. Since the enthusiastic re-evaluation of Emerson by Stanley Cavell, Harold Bloom and, most importantly, Richard Poirier, Emerson’s stock has probably never stood higher. He seems, temporarily, to have moved into a privileged place beyond criticism. But I wonder if that is good for him. In 1887 Henry James reviewed a Memoir of Emerson written by James Elliot Cabot. His essay is only some twenty pages long, yet it gives the feeling of engaging with Emerson and his society in a way which Richardson never does.
We seem to see the circumstances of our author’s origin, immediate and remote, in a kind of high, vertical moral light, the brightness of a society at once very simple and very responsible. The rare singleness that was in his nature (so that he was all the warning moral voice, without distraction or counter-solicitation), was also in the stock he sprang from, clerical for generations, on both sides, and clerical in the Puritan sense ... we get the impression of a conscience gasping in the void, panting for sensations, with something of the movement of the gills of a landed fish ... Hawthorne’s vision was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which Emerson’s eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as to which the latter’s conception of right could be violated, but he had no great sense of wrong – a strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist – no sense of the dark, the foul, the base.
I am not saying that this is the correct version of Emerson. But it reminds us of the advantages of being offered a distinctly contoured figure, with discernible limitations and attributable shortcomings. And whatever the ‘self’ was, or meant, in mid-19th-century Concord, you may be sure that it does not translate so easily into our very post-Emersonian times.