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The best books on Ralph Waldo Emerson

recommended by James Marcus

Known to many of us as the American Transcendentalist champion of individualism and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a much more soulful and sorrowful, brilliant but deeply contradictory thinker than we often give him credit for, says James Marcus, as he recommends the best books by – or about – Emerson.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

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How did you first come to read and love Ralph Waldo Emerson?

It was back in 1997. I was working for Amazon in Seattle and having a difficult time. My wife was very sick, and I had both a five-year-old son and a high-pressure job to deal with. It just so happened that a Penguin collection of Emerson’s essays had been hanging around the house, so I picked it up and started reading it.

In a way, Emerson is a very strange person to read for consolation in times of difficulty. His essays in particular are in a very lofty register. They’re certainly not ‘personal essays’ in the way we would now recognize them, although there are personal notes around the edges. But there was something about the transcendent nature of them, about the spiritual euphoria he sometimes communicates, that I latched onto. Maybe that shows how weird I am, but I found them very heartening.

In other ways, Emerson is opaque and vexing. He’s not easy to read, and the fact that his essays were inflicted upon several generations of American schoolchildren probably explains the widespread cultural objection to him. He’s not a writer for children—he can be quite difficult. In any case, the essays made me curious about the person. Once I read a biography or two, I began to read his journals and got a more three-dimensional sense of who Emerson was, and immediately found him fascinating. Fascinating as a person, fascinating as a mind, fascinating as a gigantic influence on American culture, in ways that are both direct and also subterranean.

At the very least, anyone who wants to delve into his essays has to read his journals as well. You need the private, personal, intimate Emerson, who has climbed down out of the pulpit of his public manner. It’s an entryway to the published work and a monument unto itself. It also introduces you to the whole Transcendentalist posse—they are very extraordinary, very strange people.

Could you give me a brief synopsis of American Transcendentalist thought? What was it, and what was Emerson’s role in it?

The great thing about the Transcendentalists was that they could hardly agree upon anything. They were such an idiosyncratic group of thinkers that there’s not exactly a party line. But there’s a spine through all of it. It’s an endorsement of intuitive or subjective experience as the pathway to truth. In other words, to understand your role in the universe, you should not go to the church, you should not go to sources of tribal wisdom. Such wisdom, the Transcendentalists argued, was entirely a personal matter. Emerson’s great line that everyone should “enjoy an original relation to the universe”—that’s it, in a nutshell.

There are many directions to go from there. But the insistence, not just the reliance, on the perception of individual truth is at the heart of it.

Emerson was a mentor to Henry David Thoreau, wasn’t he?

He absolutely mentored Thoreau, who was 14 years younger than him. There are still Harvard Library records showing that Thoreau checked out Nature over and over. It must have blown his mind to discover that he and Emerson were both living in Concord.  

They had a very deep friendship, which sadly unraveled as Thoreau found his own voice. In some ways, Emerson was beginning to lose his at the same time. It’s not so much that Thoreau eclipsed him, although he moved out of his gravitational orbit in a very strong way. But their relationship was many-tentacled—not simply an intellectual one, but an extremely close emotional one. When Emerson went to England for the second time, Thoreau moved into his house and essentially babysat his children. So, when their friendship fell apart, it was enormously painful for both of them.

The first book you picked is an intellectual biography of Emerson, The Mind On Fire. Why does this one surpass the others on offer?

I’m not sure I could say it surpasses them. Emerson is the topic of several excellent modern biographies. Among the first, Ralph L Rusk’s The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1949, still holds up really well. Another, Gay Wilson Allen’s Waldo Emerson (1982), is tremendously strong. I should also mention Evelyn Barish’s The Roots of Prophecy (1989), a brilliant and deep dive into Emerson’s formative years.

Still, I love Robert D Richardson’s book. His tone is warm, judicious and empathetic, but not overly so. In all his biographies—he wrote one on Thoreau, another on Emerson, and one about William James—he sets himself the task of tracing the evolution of a person’s mind. They’re all intellectual biographies, so part of his process is that he reads everything these people read. He basically goes through their own bookshelves, which could be the recipe for a very tedious book, at least in the wrong hands. But in all these cases, it turns out you can’t discuss the mental evolution without telling the life story as well, because they’re too thoroughly intertwined. So you get the life as well as the art.

“Every day he’d walk to Mount Auburn Cemetery to see her grave. One time, he just dug it up”

I also love the form of Richardson’s biographies, which is always the same: 100 short chapters. Funnily enough, as a graduate student, he really wanted to write a William James biography first, but didn’t consider himself up to the task. Apparently, he just thought, ‘Well, I’ll warm up by writing about Thoreau and Emerson. Because they’re bucolic simpletons, it’ll be much easier to do them first!’ But his dissertation advisor was W Jackson Bate, the great biographer of Samuel Johnson, who more or less told Richardson, ‘Modern people don’t have a lot of time to read, so you should do something in a short form.’ In response, he came up with 100 bite-sized chapters.

Of course, these books aren’t lacking in intellectual fiber in any way—they’re long books. But in a biography often laser-focused on Emerson’s intellectual development, the short chapters give you breathing room. The tone is very beautiful. Also, the book includes one of the greatest final chapters ever. Instead of the customary deathbed scene, Richardson describes Emerson in his study at his house, at the end of his life, taking apart the fire at the end of the day. He did this every day; if the fire was still burning, he’d actually separate the logs to make it stop. That night, he finished his task, went upstairs, and never came down again—he died a few days later. It’s not at all a conventional way to end a biography, yet it’s thematically perfect: the book, after all, is called The Mind On Fire.

And it begins beautifully, too. Richardson opens in 1832 with Emerson digging up and opening his wife’s grave, which seems mad.

That’s a very famous Emersonian moment. It’s still wild to contemplate. His wife had been dead almost a year, and every day he’d walk out to Mount Auburn Cemetery to see her grave. One time, he just dug it up. He doesn’t explain it in his journal at all; it’s just one sentence. Strangely—well, maybe not strangely—when his son Waldo’s remains were moved to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery about ten years after he died of scarlet fever, he opened that coffin as well.

Richardson frames the incident as evidence of Emerson’s incredible phenomenological curiosity about the world, and I think that’s true. But there’s obviously some emotional freight there, as well. It’s striking. The death of Ellen, his first wife, and the death of his son, Waldo, were catastrophic for Emerson. Those were the deaths that really blighted his life, although he suffered through the deaths of many other loved ones. They reshaped and reconfigured his personality.

So, Richardson’s book gives the reader a sweeping panorama of Emerson’s mind and all he ever read. What are the biggest intellectual influences he exhumes?

Emerson certainly was among the best-read people of his time. And we’re talking about an era of insanely voracious readers, who aspired to absorb everything of worth that was being written: history, poetry, philosophy, theology, the whole nine yards.

It’s amazing to me that Emerson talks in his journals about being well-read and well-educated at only 17 years old—and writes like it, too.

Hilariously, his father, the Reverend William Emerson, complained that Ralph was a rather poor scholar—when he was two years old! Come on! Give the kid a break. But the amount of Shakespeare, the classics, and the Bible in which children were marinated during this period is astonishing to us today, I think. Emerson also came from seven generations of ministers, which entailed being schooled from the moment you could hold a book. As soon as you could read, you read very serious material.

Of course, you were taught to read Latin and Greek in school as a child. Emerson had a good grasp of those two literatures, both in translation and in the original. He also read French, and taught himself German, mostly in order to read Goethe in the original. As he grew older, he delved deeply into Eastern literature and Eastern sacred writings, too.

In that respect, he reminds me a bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who called himself a “library cormorant.”

Coleridge was another one of these people who tried to read everything—the whole panoply of contemporary literature, including writings on science and philosophy, back when a person could still absorb it all. This was right before the age of specialization started.

Incidentally, Emerson loved Coleridge. He met Coleridge and William Wordsworth during his first trip to England. Coleridge was not at the top of his form anymore: he was a stubby old man with snuff all over his collar, but still a splendid rambler and fascinating person.

“His father complained that he was a poor scholar when he was two years old”

Everything Emerson read was potential metaphorical material. You find an enormous amount of scientific metaphor in his work, along with contemporary as well as ancient history. Everything is grist for the mill. I think it makes his writing incredibly rich, though the sheer range of material makes the biographer’s task more difficult.

The one thing Emerson didn’t read a lot of was fiction. Many of the Transcendentalists seemed markedly less interested in fiction. Perhaps they just thought it was too frivolous. Emerson had an appreciation for Walter Scott early on, and he did go hear Dickens read in Boston, but aside from that, fiction was something of a dead spot for him.

The blurb to Richardson’s biography notes that it “covers the most productive period of his life, 1832–60.” Why were these years so productive for Emerson?  

He basically writes all of his great work during this period. From adolescence, Emerson always wanted to be a writer, but in his family, everyone was lobbied to become a minister. It was the family business. You came from six or seven generations of ministers; that’s what you were supposed to do. Emerson really resisted it.

Nonetheless, he reluctantly went off to Harvard Divinity School, was ordained in 1829, and served as a Unitarian minister for three years.  Meanwhile, he married, and his Ellen wife died of tuberculosis at the age of 19.

Her death shattered Emerson, and a huge transformation took place. He stepped down from the pulpit. He no longer felt that the institutional church was a source of enlightenment. As all good writers do, he had something like a nervous breakdown. (I’m just waiting for mine.) As a result, he went to Europe for the first time, which proved to be a tremendously rejuvenating trip. He met Wordsworth, Coleridge, Carlyle (beginning what would become a crucial friendship for both of them). And by the time he sailed back from Liverpool, he had an outline of Nature in his pocket.

“Emerson had become a maker of secular sermons”

Returning to Concord, he took up residence in the Old Manse, which his grandfather had built—and there he wrote Nature in full. He was a rejuvenated and transformed person. He was going to be a writer now. Sometimes, he still preached on a freelance basis, though he never had a congregation of his own again. But Emerson had become a maker of secular sermons: a lecturer and an essay writer. All of that energy was shunted into a secular approach to wisdom, rather than an institutional one.

Now he began his hot streak as a writer and a lecturer. Nature, published in 1836, was his first book. After that, he produced a series of writings that first were lectures and later were transformed into essays. He published both the first and second series of Essays in the 1840s, and subsequently wrote Representative Men (1850) and English Traits (1856). The Conduct of Life, which came out in 1860, was more or less his last book, although two more barrel-scraping collections were assembled later on. But really, his great florescence was from the mid-1830s into the late 1850s.

The fact is he lived until 1882—an extraordinarily long life for the period. He was born in 1803 in Boston, in a post-Revolutionary moment. He lived through the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and right into the Industrial Age. He did, however, have a long retreat into dementia toward the end of his life. He’s often cited in writings about Alzheimer’s, it turns out, because his decline was so heavily documented: as a famous public figure, he was watched very closely. His memory went, and obviously his command of language did, too. It’s very poignant to see someone who lived by the word have his command of it gradually subtracted. Attending Longfellow’s funeral with his daughter Ellen, he said to her as they stood by the coffin, “Who is this sleeper?”

What an odd inversion of digging up his loved ones’ graves earlier in life.

That’s a good point, actually. Toward the end, he hung on. He persisted in his lecturing career even when he was no longer cogent. Eventually his daughter Ellen, who’d go with him to public appearances, started to sew the pages of his lectures together, because she knew that if he dropped them, he’d have utterly no idea where to start again.

But those earlier decades, 1830 to 1860, were incredibly productive. He wrote his greatest work. I would argue that he was a force field of influence for every considerable American writer of that era. Some ran toward him and some ran away from him, but you couldn’t avoid him. Thoreau was his disciple, who you could say outstripped him in some ways. And there was Whitman, obviously, who once noted: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” They were completely different personalities, of course. But Whitman sent Emerson Leaves of Grass, and Emerson immediately recognized Whitman as the great poet, the real thing that America had been looking for.

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He sent him this famous letter saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Hilariously, Whitman used it as a blurb without Emerson’s permission. Not only did he use it as a blurb, but he also stamped it in gold on the spine of the next edition of Leaves of Grass. In the annals of self-promotion, it’s a phenomenal moment—one that Emerson was not happy about.

Then, there were people who were not direct disciples. Emily Dickinson, for instance, loved Emerson’s work and was very influenced by him. I think if only Emerson could have seen Dickinson’s poetry, he would’ve loved it. He was actually in Amherst while Dickinson was alive, but she refused to come outside and meet him. This is what happens when you’re agoraphobic: you miss out on some great things. Even people like Melville (who I think was very mixed about him and thought he was kind of nuts) and Hawthorne (who also lived in Concord) were influenced by Emerson. Both thought he was a great man, but were skeptical of the perceived looniness and vapours of Transcendentalism. Still, they’re all responding to him in one way or another.

His influence reverberates as far out as William James, who was literally Emerson’s godson, not simply his spiritual one. Emerson was very friendly with Henry James, Sr., who was kind of a Swedenborgian nut and self-styled philosopher. Not long after the death of his son Waldo, Emerson was at the James household in Washington Square in New York, and Henry James Sr. asked him to come upstairs and meet his new baby. And there was the infant William James! (A funny idea all by itself.) James asked Emerson if he would be the godfather. I don’t know what Emerson’s duties as godfather were, but William James was later very much in dialogue with Emerson.

The point is, the work of those two or three crucial decades had a giant ripple effect on everything that came after in American literature.

Your second choice is the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures. Why did you choose this book?

This book includes all of Emerson’s work, basically. If you buy this, you have it all in the palm of your hand, starting with Nature and going on for another 1,250 pages or so.

What’s Nature about? Beyond what the title indicates.

Nature is the blueprint for everything Emerson wrote after it. It lays out the core of his notion of Transcendentalism, which again has everything to do with the vast superiority of subjective and intuitive understanding.

Another thing I love about Nature is that it includes a personal note, all the more intensely moving for being so rare. Nature was written around the time that Emerson’s brother Charles died. There’s a very beautiful moment where he’s arguing that we shape nature by perceiving it. It’s an interesting pre-Heisenberg idea, that you change what you perceive by perceiving it. Then there’s this passage, which I’ve read a million times:

Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire hath sadness in it. Then, there is a kind of contempt of the landscape felt by him who has just lost by death a dear friend.

Such beautiful sentences, so deeply felt. The loftiness of the essays can sometimes be their failing, but there’s also an amazing prophetic voice you can hear leaping out of them. There are certainly sentences in Emerson that Whitman could have written, and vice versa.

There’s also a shared American sensibility. This is crucial to all of Emerson’s writing. I’d argue that he’s the first great American writer—but he’s certainly the first great American writer determined to be American. The first who thought incessantly about how an American writer would differ from, say, an English writer.

Many of the essays take up those questions: How are we different as Americans? How is an American artist different from a European artist? It sets up a highly contradictory set of emotions in all of his work. Emerson is heavily steeped in the tradition of British and Continental writing; those are his heroes. Yet he has such a strong iconoclastic urge. So, he’s simultaneously worshipping his pantheon and smashing it. He can’t stop himself.

In Essays: Second Series (1844), Emerson says, “In America the geography is sublime.” But in his travel journals in 1843, he writes: “Dreamlike traveling on the railroad. The towns which I pass between Philadelphia and New York make no distinct impression. They are like pictures on a wall. The more, that you can read all the way in a car a French novel.” How does America’s geography figure throughout Emerson’s writing?

He didn’t like urban settings very much. He went to New York City several times, and since his brother lived in Staten Island, he would go visit there or give lectures in Manhattan. But he didn’t care for it. The bucolic setting: that was where he thought beauty and truth were to be found.

But America, as a gigantic geographical entity, did strike Emerson as sublime: a source of poetry and transcendence. To give him his due, he traveled much more widely than most Americans of his day, because he was a rock star of the Lyceum circuit. Of course he was a person who spent most of his time sitting in his room. “Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day.” That was his credo. But he did travel extensively, doing 50 to 100 speaking gigs a year.

And the money he gets from lecturing allows him to buy more and more acres of land to live on.

Emerson’s Transcendentalism was underpinned financially by the estate he got from the death of his first wife, which was mostly stocks and bonds. It came to a little more than $23,000, a very considerable sum in that day. Still, he needed to lecture to make a living. The later two books—English Traits (1856) and The Conduct of Life (1860)—sold reasonably well for the time, but the earlier books, Nature and the two Essays, while hugely important intellectually and culturally, sold in tiny numbers. This was partially because the publishing infrastructure in this country was not very advanced. They’d be printed by a publisher in Boston who would hardly lift a finger to sell them anywhere else.

Who was Emerson’s audience?

His early audience is a small subset of American lovers of literature and heavy philosophical thought. Boston is the powerhouse of American intellectual life, at least during the first half of the 19th century. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere as an intellectual and a writer.

But once Emerson set up his network with Carlyle and other British writers, his fame traveled to England fairly early. By the time he went for a second trip, he was a known figure. He would lecture in England as well. It wasn’t really about selling huge numbers of books—it was about the impact you could make in that world.

Right. And, if anything, Emerson benefits Carlyle just as much if not more, because he helps Carlyle get published in America.

He helped Carlyle enormously in America, yes. His deteriorating relationship with Carlyle is also funny and interesting. Carlyle was very cranky to begin with, so as he got more cranky, well, you can only imagine. Meanwhile, Emerson’s temperament moved in the opposite direction. As Carlyle became more obstreperous and impossible, Emerson became more and more tranquil and impossible to ruffle. Jane Carlyle—also a cranky person and very skilled at conveying it—found that infuriating. She hated the fact that he was now a tranquil, serene, smiling man who simply would not rise to the bait. Later, as his cognitive life began to deteriorate, that affect was kind of a mask as well, for not being able to engage anymore.

How did the relationship of Emerson and Carlyle deteriorate? One of your other choices, Emerson in His Own Time, chronicles how his opinion of Emerson seemed to change over time: in 1833, he reminisced fondly over an evening’s conversation, whereas in 1847, he called Emerson “proud”; intellectually “elevated but without breadth” and possessing the “face of a cock.

To a degree, he felt himself Carlyle’s junior when he first encountered him. Remember, Emerson was just discovering his own vocation as a writer. He met Carlyle during his first trip ever to Europe, after the trauma of his wife dying and leaving the Church. Though still unformed in some ways, his voice was tremendously inspired by the sound of Carlyle’s. He went to meet him out in the country, and it was a lovefest. Carlyle saw Emerson as his American disciple—as this angelic, beautiful young man who responded to the tone of his voice and transposed it into a Yankee register. And as you mention, Emerson labored very hard on behalf of Carlyle’s literary career in America. He acted as his agent, seeking publishers for his work and brokering deals.

“Emerson was discovering the incendiary part of his own personality as a writer, whereas Carlyle was no longer excited by his work”

But with Emerson’s burgeoning reputation, Carlyle felt like he’d been flattened out a bit. It  must have been difficult to see someone else’s stardom on the rise while his was somewhat on the wane. But I’m talking about something else beyond literary fame: he could see that Emerson was discovering the incendiary part of his own personality as a writer, whereas Carlyle wasn’t quite as excited by his own work anymore.

There’s a whole separate book of Emerson’s correspondence with Carlyle, because they wrote so many letters to each other. (I should say it can be procured as a free ebook.) Their letters are great. They write in a very high register, a sardonic one, with a certain humor.

The next book you’ve picked is Emerson’s Journals. I liked that its introduction situated this particular edition in the history of Emerson’s reception—Joel Porte points out that the posthumous reputation of Emerson was greatly influenced by a highly censored series of his journals published between 1909 and 1914.

There was certainly a lot of bowdlerization that went into early editions of Emerson’s journals, partly from his son, Edward Emerson.

Early in these pages, after leaving off the practice of journaling for a few months, he writes, “every one writes differently when he composes for the eyes of others, and when his pen scampers away over mote and rut for the solitary edification of its lord and master.” Is this true for Emerson? Does an entirely different side to the man come across in private writing?

Oh, absolutely. He came out of an age of compulsive journal-keepers. Many of them were Puritanical: you undertook a journal to keep track of your sins (or lack thereof) as a way of perpetual self-examination.

For Emerson, keeping a journal functioned in many different ways. The journals were, first of all, a laboratory for all of his mature writing, a place where he would try out things. They were also a commonplace book. Last but not least, they were a window into an intimate side of Emerson that he would never, ever expose in his published writings.

Much of what’s in the Journals is a cipher for Emerson’s interior life. They function like commonplace books, but it also seems to me as if his impetus for writing things down is often an emotion, a highly intense feeling.

Well, there is that famous bit in the beginning where he’s discussing his crush on this guy while he’s at Harvard. He draws a picture of his face and glues a piece of paper over it. It’s an early multimedia approach to hiding your big crush. That’s something that you don’t find in a lot of journals of the era. He also records some incredibly bizarre dreams. He was intrigued by what dreams told you, and had a sort of pre-Freudian idea that dreams were a residue of the day’s thinking. The journals also record some amazing moments where he’s working through his very complicated relationship with Margaret Fuller.

She’s one of the first women he invites to the meetings of the Transcendental group.

Yes. She was a very important and forceful voice in that conversation. She stayed at his house at various points for weeks at a time. The interpersonal dynamics there are insane. She stayed in what was called ‘The Red Room,’ which was directly across from his study on the first floor. (It’s now the gift shop and admissions area for the house, which is open to the public.) She was always pushing Emerson for more intimacy in their relationship. They would go for long, bucolic strolls, and I only wish someone had been wearing a wire, because I’m sure there were incredible intellectual exchanges. But she wanted more from him.

And he wouldn’t give it to her?

He wouldn’t and couldn’t give it to her. First of all, he was married. There are these tremendous scenes with his wife Lidian, who was afflicted with various maladies and would frequently take to her bed. At the dinner table, Lidian would ask Margaret Fuller if she cared to go walking with her after dinner. And Margaret Fuller would say, ‘Well, I had an appointment to go walking in the garden with Mr E first.’ And then Lidian would burst into tears and run away from the table. What a scene! It’s clear that Lidian knew Emerson had this tremendous attraction to this person, even if it was primarily an intellectual attraction, and felt threatened by it.

In any case, Margaret Fuller was always pressing Emerson for greater intimacy of some kind, and you see him working it out in his journals, addressing her, saying things to her in his journals that he couldn’t in real life, often in an exasperated manner:

You would have me love you. What shall I love? Your body? The supposition disgusts you. What you have thought and said? well, whilst you were thinking and saying them, but not now. I see no possibility of loving anything but what now is, and is becoming. Your courage, your enterprise, your budding affection, your opening thought, your prayer, I can love, but what else?

You understand why he couldn’t have addressed this stuff to her personally. I don’t think she was saying to him, ‘Take me, Waldo, on the pine needles!’, but clearly, there were some very intense conversations going on. His journal is a laboratory for that, too: for the working out of his sometimes thorny interpersonal relations.

The journals, then, are where he can address people in a way that simply wasn’t possible in real life, not for him. He often spoke of being afflicted with what he called his “porcupine impossibility of contact” with other people. This is his personality, with its ardent underside: intense currents of feeling beneath a very chilly exterior. He himself was aware of it. It’s something I find very poignant about him as a person, his keen awareness of his own multilayered condition.

Does he cultivate a sort of diffident exterior, not imbibing anything that comes near him?

There’s always a sense of distance. Maybe it was shaped by grief, by dealing with catastrophic bereavements very early in life. He was entirely aware of, and in some ways imprisoned by, his own diffidence. But he couldn’t change it, really.

Famously, in 1849 he writes in his journal, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” But his writing is highly allusive, leaning against a legacy of dead writers who he regards as kin and borrowing from centuries of past thought. Is there a contradiction here, to some degree?

Oh my god, he is the most contradictory person ever. He even admits it in a famous quote from Self-Reliance: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It’s something that I love about him. Sometimes, I’ll encounter a bit of his writing and think, ‘that’s insane’, or ‘that’s really unattractive.’ His early writing on slavery, which is imbued with a kind of lofty indifference toward the suffering of other people is a good example. And yet later he become quite a fiery abolitionist speaker.

“He was entirely aware of, and in some ways imprisoned by, his own diffidence”

While his line about quotations is clever, the fact is Emerson was constantly quoting, consciously and unconsciously. There is, for example, a line of his that I love: “The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night.” I was a little annoyed to find out that the phrase “chaos and old night” is actually Milton’s. Emerson doesn’t attribute it—not to cover his tracks, I think, but simply because so much material is in his head from the time he’s a child. His level of immersion in all of this literature is so great that he unconsciously phrases around it. The cadences are in his head all the time.

Milton was one of his major influences stylistically; he’s half-alluding to Milton all the time. This goes back to what we were talking about before: utter fealty to his intellectual fathers, but also an Oedipal desire to slay them, to violently discard the baggage of his predecessors. It’s a sentiment that’s contradictory in every single way, but I love it.

You mentioned his early racism. How does he go to become involved in the movement for abolition?

Actually, it was his wife Lidian who was very involved in the anti-slavery society in Concord before Emerson was. The same thing was true of Thoreau’s household—leave it to the women! In The Mind on Fire, Richardson details how one year in the 1850s, Lidian “mounted her own protest against the celebration of the Fourth of July. She cast a literal pall on the day by covering the front gate and gateposts of the Emerson house—which lies famously along Paul Revere’s famous route—with large quantities of black cambric cloth.” It was her way of saying, ‘We can celebrate America, but there’s a blight on the country still.’ Emerson wasn’t entirely pleased by it at the time, but good for her.

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What redeemed him, as I said before, is that he became a fierce advocate on behalf of abolition. By the time of the Civil War, he lent considerable intellectual prestige to the movement, once he found his feet. The drawback here—which is also the drawback of the Transcendental thinking he endorsed, shaped, and enunciated so beautifully—is that it presupposes an enormous revolution of consciousness, which consequently leads to very little patience for retail politics. What’s the point of ringing doorbells and giving speeches if the very consciousness of the nation is going to be transformed? By that metric, it’s a waste of time, a kind of superficial dabbling.

But of course that revolution of consciousness never happened. Real life intruded on a very idealistic way of thinking. At some point, Emerson realized that some actual political engagement would be necessary.

How should we read today the inevitable contradiction between the democratic quality of experience that Emerson writes that all men have access to, and the actual conditions of life for women and African Americans in this period?

I think his vision is essentially democratic. Even looking more narrowly at his ideas about the church, he argues that one’s relationship to the universe is original, personal, and intimate—that a minister is essentially a middleman who gets in the way. You don’t need a broker for your relationship with God and the universe; it’s entirely individual. That idea is intensely democratic.

Along the way, of course, there are some utterances that don’t sound very democratic. He had ideas about power and natural aristocracy which in some ways bear the stamp of Carlyle (who was even worse in that respect, frankly.) He had some truly regrettable and stupid ideas. In a couple of chapters of Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, Emerson is revealed as a popularizer of certain pro-Aryan mythologies, which makes me wince. But I still believe that his literary ideas, his spiritual ideas, his philosophical ideas are very powerfully democratic.

One last question on this topic: why should reader choose this edition of the Journals in particular?

I think the complete version of his journals totals 14 volumes. Harold Bloom actually said in a Harper’s interview, “Don’t invest in that over-edited Harvard edition, but do buy the complete journals—better, one of the old editions—and wade deeply into them. You’ll find the inner Waldo.” But most human beings don’t have the time, nor would I suggest it.

Though there are other selections of the journals, I happen to think this one is really good. I myself am doing a selection of the journals for Penguin Classics, so I have to read all of them, and there’s more than enough to choose from. In my case, it’s a personal selection—I just have to choose the things I like.

Let’s move on to your next choice, Emerson in His Own Time. This book is interesting in that it’s a collection of interviews with and memoirs by his friends and contemporaries. There’s a smattering of 19th-century household names: the Carlyles, James Russell Lowell, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman. What did these figures think of him?

I recommend that book not because it’s a pinnacle of scholarship, but because Emerson is such an interior, cerebral personality that it’s great to see him from the outside—to have a kaleidoscopic view of many different people on the ground. This book records the recollections of many, some famous, and others who are completely obscure and just happened to cross paths with him.

The famous ones are great. Some of Jane Carlyle’s exasperated letters are in there. You get Margaret Fuller’s journal entries about her troubled relationship with ‘Mr E’, which are fascinating. You also get people who just ran across him, or went to visit him for an afternoon, or attended one of his lectures. Emerson was a certifiable star of the lecture circuit. You have to remember that in the middle of America back then, there was nothing to do—it’s not like the entertainment-industrial complex had expanded into Minnesota yet. The Lyceum lecture circuit was a combination of a TED talk, a comedy club and television. People would turn out everywhere: in a church, a town hall if there was one, or even in a yard somewhere.

“His platform manner was sedate. Somebody once compared him to a perpendicular coffin”

Some of those who appeared were comedians; Artemus Ward, for instance, was a famous yarn-spinner and stand-up comedian. But Emerson toured as a great dispenser of wisdom. He was the great American sage. His platform manner was extremely sedate. Somebody once compared him to a perpendicular coffin.

There’s a very funny anecdote by Julian Hawthorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, who first met Emerson when he was a kid, then later reencountered him as a young adult. He describes going to one of Emerson’s lectures. It’s completely silent. The crowd is rapt. And Emerson just stood there—but he had the habit of shifting his weight from one foot to another. As Julian writes:

Emerson had the misfortune to wear a pair of abominably creaking boots; every slightest change of posture would be followed by an outcry from the sole leather, and the audience soon became nervously pre-occupied in expecting them.

Throughout the entirety of this lofty Transcendentalist lecture, the whole audience is white-knuckling it, thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ It’s so funny. Hawthorne writes that after time passed, he didn’t remember the lecture, only the boots. This book has so many hilarious, humanizing descriptions of Emerson.

You have to understand that from the 1850s onward, Concord had become a kind of Transcendentalist petting zoo—a tourist destination where people came to see not only Emerson but also Hawthorne, Alcott, and Thoreau. The book has some very funny descriptions by Concord residents at the time. One woman, who was then just a child, recalls:

We were immensely entertained by the odd people who came from all parts of the world to see him. Not only men with beards which hung below their waists, but men who chose to go without shoes and stockings and who if they condescended to wear hats at all, insisted on keeping them on in the house as well as in the street. We felt a curious kind of personal pride as we were told how Mr. Emerson’s unfailing courtesy and personal dignity managed one of these pseudo-reformers.

That’s how you could tell they were Transcendentalist wannabes: they didn’t have shoes. I have a great appetite for this kind of period detail, rendered by people who weren’t even necessarily writers, but shrewd enough observers. You want people who don’t have a dog in the hunt; these are not acquaintances trying to triangulate their own relationship with Emerson in some canny way. Yet something caught or struck them. I just love to thumb through this book.

Your last choice is actually not by Emerson—One First Love is a collection of letters written to Emerson by first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker. Save for some poems he sent to her, none of his letters in this correspondence have survived. Why did you include this book in your list?

It’s a bit of an outlier because it’s not by Emerson at all, but I find it tremendously moving. It’s a book you have to read to understand him, even though there’s hardly a word by him in it.

To make a short story even shorter: Emerson met Ellen Tucker when she was 16 and he was 24. He’d gone to Concord, New Hampshire (not Massachusetts) to preach and encountered this beautiful and scintillating teenager. He went back to Concord to preach some more; they got engaged when she was 17; they got married.

“Miniature portraits were the FaceTime of the era: they’d open them up and look at each other’s faces”

Ellen already had tuberculosis when they met. What you have to understand is that tuberculosis was the greatest killer of adults in the 19th century aside from war. It was a great terror—it was called the White Plague, or—more romantically—the Captain of Death. Emerson’s family was especially terrified of it because he had already lost siblings to tuberculosis, and it was probably involved in his father’s early death as well. It ran in his family and in Ellen’s, too.

In other words, there was a death sentence hanging over this beautiful romance. It’s as though the whole love story is in the conditional tense—but he fell deeply in love with her, and vice versa. Now, none of his letters to her have survived. There’s no question he wrote a great many of them, and she saved them. He most likely burned them later in life. If they ever turned up, that would be amazing. But we do have these 40-odd letters addressed to him. Really, they’re all that survives of Ellen, except for a painted miniature that she gave him during their engagement. They both had one. It was the FaceTime of the era: the miniature portraits were in these red leather cases, and they’d open them up and look at each other’s faces.

Her letter-writing voice reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s, a bit.

It does. There’s such a powerful personality there—such charm and poetic sensibility. There’s some very beautiful language. But she also joshes Emerson in a way I find fantastically funny. She’s constantly calling him Grandpa. You realize that Emerson was a person who needed someone in his life to make fun of him. I’m not sure to what extent his second wife did that, but it’s clear that Ellen really knew how to tease him. The letters are so full of ardor and personality and you can really see why he fell in love with her.

Her death really destroyed him for a long while. He never stopped loving her, and he never stopped mourning her. It was a shadow over the rest of his life. His second wife, Lidian, very much knew that she was the successor, and could never quite measure up. When their first child was born, she was named Ellen Tucker Emerson, after Lidian’s predecessor. Emerson said that Lidian suggested it, and perhaps she did, in an act of great generosity and mild masochism.

Anyway, Ellen was always a looming figure in Emerson’s life, and these letters help to explain why. They were not reprinted for many years. They were seen as too intimate. But I’m very moved by them, and can easily imagine how they moved Emerson as a young and love-besotted man.

One last question. Why is it important to read Emerson today?

What he has to offer the modern American reader is that he’s a great American writer. He’s a great aphorist. You have to accustom yourself to look for the great, blazing, revelatory sentences, because that’s his delivery system.

He is also the begetter and the shaper of so much in contemporary American culture. His emphasis on self-reliance, self-creation and individualism is the cornerstone of how Americans regard themselves still. He wasn’t the only one to make that argument, but because he wrote about it so beautifully and spent decades lecturing to regular people about it, he was the one who injected it into the cultural bloodstream.

Sometimes his influence is quite roundabout. Take the case of contemporary evangelicalism in America. Emerson was not an evangelical in any way. The exploding Protestant sects of his day, the Methodists and Baptists, were not at all his cup of tea. Yet his emphasis on a personal relationship to God, one that requires no ministerial middleman, aligns very closely with evangelical thinking. That’s the apple falling far from the tree, I’ll grant you that, but I think there’s a dotted line there.

More broadly, Emerson can tell you an incredible amount about what it means to be a contemporary American, about what it means to be a human being. That’s a lot to deliver for someone writing nearly two centuries ago, whose “old arctic habits” kept him at a distance from most other people. Let’s fact it, Emerson is a weirdo of genius, in a certain way. But once you get past some of the barriers to entry, he’s a very human personality. You can fall in love with him. Most likely you will.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

April 26, 2019

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James Marcus

James Marcus

James Marcus is a writer, translator and the former editor of Harper's Magazine. He is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut and an impending book about Ralph Waldo Emerson.

James Marcus

James Marcus

James Marcus is a writer, translator and the former editor of Harper's Magazine. He is the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut and an impending book about Ralph Waldo Emerson.