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Emerson: The Mind on Fire

A BIOGRAPHY BY Robert D. Richardson
With a frontispiece by Barry Moser
Copyright Date: 1995
Edition: 1
Pages: 684
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91837-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. The Student

    • 1. Prologue
      (pp. 3-5)

      On March 29, 1832, the twenty-eight-year-old Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was seventeen when they were engaged, eighteen when married, and barely twenty when she died of advanced tuberculosis. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage...

    • 2. Emerson at Harvard
      (pp. 6-10)

      Eleven years earlier, in the spring of 1821, Ralph Emerson was in the last semester of his senior year at Harvard. He had just turned eighteen and had decided he wanted to be called Waldo. Graduation was set for August and he was to be class poet. The honor was less than meets the eye, for six other members of his class had already declined the post. And though he took poetry seriously enough, he was not otherwise a distinguished student. He ranked in the middle of his class; he was not elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was tall...

    • 3. The March of Mind
      (pp. 11-17)

      Emerson reached a major turning point midway through his junior year. In December of 1819 he began to keep a list of books he had read. In early January of 1820 he began to keep a notebook for quotations, comments on his reading, and original verses. He decided to write an essay for the Bowdoin Prize competition. Later in the month he began the first of what was to be a series of notebooks he called “Wide World.” By February he was giving up the name Ralph and signing himself Waldo.

      Emerson’s sense of himself had changed during the past...

    • 4. Home and Family
      (pp. 18-22)

      The Boston to which Emerson returned after college in 1821 was a prosperous, growing, commercial seaport of just over 40,000 people. It was organized as a town and run by town meeting. After remaining stable at around 20,000 for most of the eighteenth century, the town’s population had grown by 30 percent in each of the first two decades of the nineteenth century. By 1820 the pace of growth had quickened further. Boston was to grow by 40 percent to 61,000 persons by 1830. The din and clutter of construction was universal. The tidal flats surrounding the original pear-shaped peninsula...

    • 5. The Angel of Death
      (pp. 23-28)

      The single most important part of Emerson’s education was that provided by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. It was she and not the Boston ministers or Harvard professors who set the real intellectual standards for the young Emerson and his brothers. Her correspondence with him is the single best indicator of his inner growth and development until he was well over thirty. Emerson said that in her prime his aunt was “the best writer in Massachusetts.” He noted that she set an “immeasurably high standard” and that she fulfilled a function “which nothing else in his education could supply.” She...

    • 6. Scottish Common Sense
      (pp. 29-33)

      After graduation from harvard, Emerson returned to his mother’s home on Federal Street in Boston and went to work as a teacher in the school for girls his brother William ran out of their home. He was eighteen. In his spare time he wrote drafts of essays on a wide variety of topics. By January 1822 he was again filling commonplace books, as he had in college, with scraps and sketches at the rate of almost a notebook a month. He was reading Sismondi’s huge worksThe Literature of Southern EuropeandThe History of the Italian Republics. He loyally...

    • 7. The Brothers Emerson
      (pp. 34-40)

      The young man was probably Martin Gay from college days. As the year 1822 progressed, Emerson—who was nineteen—noted how the ardor of his friendship with Gay declined and then became very nearly extinct. Living in the pre-Freudian era, Emerson was rather innocent and essentially unembarrassed by his feelings for Gay. He easily acknowledged his “ardor” to himself and put only some of his journal comments into Latin, a common device to keep sexual matters secret, but only from children. There is no hint who the young woman was. Emerson tutored Elizabeth Peabody in Greek for a while in...

    • 8. The Young Writer
      (pp. 41-46)

      Between graduation in 1821—when he was eighteen—and the family move to Roxbury in May of 1823, Emerson taught in William’s school for young women. He was at best a middling teacher. Perhaps Hannah Stevenson spoke for most when she said that “neither the parents nor the pupils considered the school a failure.” For some it was better than that. As a tutor Emerson made a deep impression on both Elizabeth Peabody and Elizabeth Hoar. In another of the many schools he was to keep as a young man, he taught Richard Henry Dana, Jr., but taught him nothing...

    • 9. The Paradise of Dictionaries and Critics
      (pp. 47-51)

      As William was preparing to leave for Germany, Waldo was becoming more and more interested in the ideas and example of William Ellery Channing. Channing, a Boston minister and the greatest of the founding figures of American Unitarianism, was at the height of his powers. In 1819 he had delivered a sermon in Baltimore called “Unitarian Christianity” which was at once recognized as the defining scripture of the new movement, institutionalized as a separate denomination in 1825. Channing’s Baltimore sermon asserted a belief in one and only one God. He objected to the doctrine of the Trinity as “subverting the...

    • 10. Mme. de Staël and the Other Germany. Divinity Studies
      (pp. 52-60)

      The image of Germany that filtered back to Emerson from Göottingen was bookish and learned. In a letter to William Waldo flippantly called it the “paradise of dictionaries and critics.” At the same time Emerson had another and quite different view of Germany, picked up from his reading of Mme. de Staël’s celebrated bookGermany(1813). His acquaintance with her work went back several years, for she was a favorite writer of Aunt Mary’s. Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël Holstein, had made her way in French intellectual circles by her wit and intelligence and by her force of...

  5. Divinity

    • 11. Pray without Ceasing
      (pp. 63-72)

      The eye disease that struck Emerson in early 1825 WAS almost certainly uveitis, a rheumatic inflammation of the eye that gave the sufferer headaches and was often linked with rheumatism. The underlying cause was probably tuberculosis, which was pandemic at the time. Half the adults in Boston had it; one third of all deaths were from it. Over the next nine months Emerson underwent two operations in which his cornea was punctured with a cataract knife. By September 1825 he was well enough to teach school again, this time in rural Chelmsford, north of Concord. In November he could do...

    • 12. The Prince of Lipona
      (pp. 73-77)

      The trip from Boston to Charleston in the 105-FOOT sailing shipClematistook fourteen days. This was Emerson’s first trip outside his native New England and it was full of wonders. He remarked on the power of the sea, and he brooded, like a young Henry Adams, on power itself. He marveled at how the “men of this age work and play between steam engines of tremendous force” and how the sailors “brave the incalculable forces of the storm.” In Charleston there were a few old friends and acquaintances such as classmate Mellish Motte and Unitarian minister Samuel Gilman. Emerson...

    • 13. The Balance Beam
      (pp. 78-83)

      During April, May, and early June 1827 Emerson worked his way north, seeing friends and relations and delivering an occasional guest sermon. In Baltimore he saw Boston Unitarians Samuel Barrett and F. W. P. Greenwood. On the Baltimore steamer he met a Hicksite Quaker named Edward Stabler, a deeply impressive person who had developed a striking view of justice as compensation. Stabler gave a strong impression of apostolic self-assurance. And what Stabler said was so deeply in harmony with Emerson’s already long-held ideas about compensation that Emerson never forgot his remarks and kept repeating them in later years. Stabler said:...

    • 14. Ellen Tucker
      (pp. 84-88)

      Ellen Tucker was sixteen when she met the twenty-four-year-old Waldo Emerson on Christmas Day in 1827. Although we have only a lifeless miniature of her, we can see that she was full-figured and narrow-waisted, with a high forehead and dark plentiful hair that she wore up in a great shock of tight curls. Ellen had a long nose, full mouth, and dark, large eyes. She was by all accounts very beautiful, but it was her spirit more than her beauty that caught one’s attention. She lived in the midst of a large family and her life was full of activity...

    • 15. Ordination and Marriage: Love and Reason
      (pp. 89-95)

      The Second Church in Boston was in the North End. NO longer in a fashionable part of town, the church was nevertheless old and proud, dating back to 1650, to Increase and Cotton Mather. It was a solid church of about a hundred families who were accustomed to having a first-rate minister. Henry Ware, whom Emerson was succeeding, went on to a professorship at Harvard; he had already made an important contribution to Unitarianism through his insistance on the importance of effective extemporaneous preaching. Emerson responded to the church’s call, as he responded to his engagement with Ellen, with a...

    • 16. We Are What We Know
      (pp. 96-101)

      Life was busy for the young married couple during the fall of 1829. Emerson had his senate chaplaincy duties, which were light, and his Boston school committee duties, which were heavy, as well as his church to look after. Boston was now the leading seaport in the United States and its North End, where Emerson’s church was located, was ringed by docks and crowded with sailors and with commerce.

      Edward Taylor (the colorful original of Melville’s Father Mapple, the sailor-preacher inMoby Dick) was just starting his work at the Seaman’s Bethel in the North End. Mary Peabody later recalled...

    • 17. Gerando and the First Philosophy
      (pp. 102-107)

      During the fall of 1830, as Ellen’s condition slowly worsened, Emerson declared himself willing to break all his social and professional ties for Ellen’s sake. At the same time he found himself breaking intellectual ties, undergoing the beginning of a fundamental philosophical realignment. Ellen concluded she would be better off by not traveling south. Her doctor agreed. It was Charles’s opinion that no climate could now save her. Charles saw the dark side of everything, but in this case it was the truth. For Ellen and Waldo life was now reduced to essentials, to a matter of plain survival.


    • 18. The Wreck of Earthly Good
      (pp. 108-113)

      Ellen was “sadly sick” in late January. The doctor came frequently, they hired a nurse, Charles came in from Cambridge. Ellen went out riding when she could. At home her hands were cold and the nurse rubbed them to improve the circulation. On Wednesday, February 2, she was well enough to go out riding twice. But when Charles returned three days later on Saturday, he found Ellen “sadly altered.” Now, for the first time, Waldo and Ellen’s mother despaired of her recovery. The nineteenyear-old Ellen faced the end with courage and self-possession; she spoke of it “with serenity and sweetness.”...

    • 19. In My Study My Faith Is Perfect
      (pp. 114-117)

      The lectures on the Gospels were Emerson’s valediction to biblical studies. He did not exactly reject the Gospels, but as he recognized that there were many more than four of them and that Sampson Reed was as reliable a witness to the central truths of the human condition as St. Matthew. In May 1831, after these lectures and three months after Ellen’s death, Emerson found another scripture in the Bhagavad Gita, as described by the French philosopher Victor Cousin.

      Cousin (1792-1867) was eleven years older than Emerson. He had begun with the ultrarationalism of Condillac but had come to admire...

    • 20. Separation
      (pp. 118-124)

      Ellen’s death undermined both Emerson’s personal world and the public institutional world he had embraced while married. He reacted to being separated from Ellen by separating himself from the church, from Boston, from the prevailing thought of the time (Scottish Common Sense), from the now hollow dignities of the Boston school board and the Massachusetts senate chaplaincy, and from the cramping form of the sermon. The loss that darkened his life also freed him. Ellen’s death cut Emerson loose. Excluded from conventional happiness, he abandoned conventional life. He redoubled his efforts, albeit with a touch of panic, to live his...

    • 21. A Terrible Freedom
      (pp. 125-128)

      Emerson’s expressed preference for astronomy over conventional Christian theology constitutes his break with the church. It is not a break with theism, not a rejection of the religious view of the world. It is a specific rejection of the idea that the center of Christianity is the fall of humankind in Adam and Eve and the redemption of humanity through the sacrifice of Christ. This conception of Christianity as the “scheme of redemption” is what gives meaning to the sacrament of Communion, or, as some Protestants call it, the Lord’s Supper. Within a week of his calling the scheme of...

  6. The Inner Light

    • 22. The American Eye
      (pp. 131-137)

      Emerson had been sufficiently sick that Captain Ellis had not wanted to take him aboard lest he not survive the voyage. The first week of the trip was rough; the storm kept the passengers confined to “the irremediable chagrins of the stateroom, to wit, nausea, darkness, uncleanness, harpy appetite and harpy feeding, the ugly sound of water in mine ears, anticipations of going to the bottom.” He set himself, as he had once before in a storm at sea, to retrieve Milton’s “Lycidas” from memory, “clause by clause, here a verse and there a word, as Isis in the fable...

    • 23. I Will Be a Naturalist
      (pp. 138-142)

      Emerson came into Switzerland over the Simplon Pass road built by Napoleon. It was an all-day trip. For brakes on the way down, “the wheel of the diligence is chained and shod with a heavy log of green wood.” He passed Lake Leman, the castle of Chillon, and Vevay on his way to Lausanne, where he visited Gibbon’s house. Switzerland meant people, not landscape to Emerson. In Emerson’s progressive recapitulation of history, Switzerland also represented the eighteenth century. The “stern old town” of Geneva reminded him, he said, of Calvin, Rousseau, Gibbon, Voltaire, de Staël, and Byron. He noted, and...

    • 24. A White Day in My Years
      (pp. 143-150)

      Emerson’s moment of insight into the interconnectedness of things in the Jardin des Plantes was a moment of almost visionary intensity that pointed him away from theology and toward science. That moment had the emotional quality of a new beginning. Leaving Paris for England four days later, Emerson reflected on what his European trip had taught him so far. He had learned, he said, that his own instincts and judgments were solid enough to have stood the test of European experience. He thought he could no longer be dismissed or condescended to as an undereducated and inexperienced provincial. He came...

    • 25. The Instructed Eye
      (pp. 151-156)

      Day after day passed while the winds pinned the restless Emerson in Liverpool: “If the vessel do sail they say we shall be drowned on the lee shore; if she do not sail I perish waiting.” His eagerness to be home made him realize that he felt no regret in not being born English. Fresh from encounters with Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth, he could still say that the best thing about England was that it was the “most resembling country to America which the world contains.” He felt he had seen the best minds of England, and he concluded grumpily...

    • 26. Mary Rotch: Life without Choice
      (pp. 157-163)

      On November 9, 1833, a month after his return from Europe and just a few days after his initial lecture on science, Emerson went to New Bedford, Massachusetts, for a month, preaching there in the Unitarian church in place of his cousin Orville Dewey. Between November 1833 and April 1834 Emerson spent almost three months in the old whaling town of New Bedford, where he heard all sorts of stories about the fishery. A seaman in a coach told him “the story of an old sperm whale which he called a white whale which was known for many years by...

    • 27. A Living Leaping Logos
      (pp. 164-169)

      In a letter to Edward in December 1833 Emerson was full of condolence for his brother’s exile in Puerto Rico. But, he added, none of them was really at home. Ruth was in Newton, Charles “sleeps in Washington Street, boards with G. B. Emerson and spends the day in Court Street,” while he himself had just returned to Boston from an extended stay in New Bedford. He felt, he said, a great sense of the family’s dispersal. In the month ahead the family was to draw together again. Also during this time a great deal of Emerson’s intellectual and social...

    • 28. A Theory of Animated Nature
      (pp. 170-174)

      Emerson’s year of wonders was 1834. He turned thirtyone. Everywhere he turned there was the fresh stimulus of new corroboration. The Quakers, Coleridge, Hedge, Lydia Jackson, Italy—each had an effect on him. He was still keenly pursuing science, and he was reading Goethe and Carlyle with new eyes. There was always time too for nature itself. Late April was very rainy. Emerson courted the “sober solitude” of the Newton woods: “I saw a hawk today wheeling up to heaven in a spiral flight and every circle becoming less and less to the eye till he vanished into the atmosphere.”...

    • 29. Each and All
      (pp. 175-181)

      In May 1834 Emerson began a correspondence with Carlyle, sending him a volume of Webster’s speeches and Reed’sObservations on the Growth of the Mind. Carlyle replied with a long, warm letter full of news, looking forward to his book on the French Revolution and insisting that “the only poetry is History, could we tell it right.” Emerson also wrote encouraging letters this year to James Freeman Clarke, the Unitarian minister of Louisville, Kentucky. Clarke was seven years younger than Emerson, a distant cousin and good friend of Margaret Fuller’s. Clarke had gone to Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School....

    • 30. Confluence
      (pp. 182-186)

      In September crickets filled the woods and roads. “AS soon as one falls by the way,” Emerson noted, “the rest eat him up.” In October 1834 Emerson came to Concord to board with his stepgrandfather, Ezra Ripley, at the parsonage called the Old Manse. His brother Charles and his mother came as well. The house had been built by Emerson’s grandfather, William Emerson, and was located on the bank of the Concord River, just upstream from the confluence of the Concord and the Assabet rivers, adjacent to the Revolutionary War battlefield and the old North bridge. Emerson’s grandfather, William Emerson...

  7. Nature

    • 31. Lidian
      (pp. 189-194)

      The series of six lectures on biography that Emerson gave before the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge beginning on January 29, 1835, is the first fruit of his resolve to do only his own work. He had been actively interested in biography for years and he had long nourished the ambition to write a modernPlutarch’s Lives. Even Emerson’s daily life was lighted by that habitual vision of greatness, apart from which, Whitehead says, education is impossible. Within ten days of hearing the news of the death of Edward, as though feeling the spur dig suddenly deeper into...

    • 32. The New Jerusalem
      (pp. 195-199)

      Emerson was thirty-two in 1835. He was a tall man, standing six feet in his shoes, erect, with rather narrow and unusually sloping shoulders and a long neck. His hair was dark brown, his eyes very blue. He dressed in loose-fitting clothes; more than one observer said he looked like a prosperous farmer. He carried his money in an old wallet with twine wrapped around it four or five times. In his mid-thirties he got up at six, had a cup of coffee, then worked until twelve or one. (Much later, by the time of his California trip, he took...

    • 33. The Art of Writing. Jakob Boehme
      (pp. 200-205)

      In March and April of 1835 Emerson was urging Carlyle to come to America to lecture. He also mentioned a new magazine, to be calledThe Transcendentalistor perhapsThe Spiritual Enquirer. There was talk of Hedge for editor, but now he left for Bangor. Emerson suggested that Carlyle might take up the task. New magazines were springing up everywhere in America. In addition to Reed’sNew Jerusalem Magazine, founded back in 1827, there wereThe Knickerbocker(1833), theSouthern Literary Messenger(1834), theSouthern Literary Journal(1835), and theWestern Literary Messenger(1835).¹

      Emerson was himself working onNature...

    • 34. Marriage and Concord
      (pp. 206-210)

      During July and august of 1835, just as Emerson was excitedly absorbing Oegger, Peabody, and Boehme, he was busy with two other projects as well. By late June he had agreed to give the main address at Concord’s two-hundredth anniversary celebration, and by early July he had agreed to buy the Coolidge house in Concord as a home for Lidian and himself. Though he sometimes complained, busyness and variety stimulated him. For the Concord talk Emerson now plunged into historical research. This was the only time in his life when he showed any sustained interest in New England’s colonial past....

    • 35. Alcott and English Literature
      (pp. 211-217)

      One of the first and most frequent visitors in this fall of 1835 was Bronson Alcott. Emerson had read the extraordinary little book about his Temple School in June and he had heard from George Bradford about Alcott. Alcott’s first long visit to Emerson’s house took place in late October 1835. Alcott was four years older than Emerson. Born Amos B. Alcox in Wolcott, Connecticut, he was completely self-educated. He spent three and half years in Virginia as a peddler. He loved Virginia but had no head for business, returning from each trip without a penny of profit but with...

    • 36. All in Each: Writing Nature
      (pp. 218-223)

      The winter of 1835-1836 was all snow. It was also one of the coldest on record in New England, with temperatures averaging ten degrees below normal. Beginning in early December Concord had four months of unbroken sleighing. Emerson finished his lectures on English literature in mid-January and plunged into work onNature. He worked over his early journals, collecting and sifting material. In late January, to the intense delight of both Lidian and her husband, Lidian became pregnant. They had already begun to wonder if they were destined to have children. All winter Emerson helped Le Baron Russell collect subscriptions...

    • 37. Nature: The Laws of the World
      (pp. 224-229)

      Charles Emerson and Elizabeth Hoar planned to be married in September of 1836, after a three-year engagement. They were to move into a couple of rooms being built for them in Waldo and Lidian’s new house. Charles’s health got slowly worse, but still they planned and hoped. One day in April, while holding a measuring string against a wall to see if her piano would fit into the space, Elizabeth suddenly burst out: “It is of no use. It never will be.” Charles caught a cold, got weaker, and went south for relief from “this lake of fire I am...

    • 38. Nature: The Apocalypse of the Mind
      (pp. 230-234)

      The major part of Nature explores the relation of nature to human beings. The Stoics had always maintained that nature teaches us how to live. Emerson’sNaturedescribes a series of nature’s gifts, benefits, and lessons, in ascending order of importance, and specifies how each works. First is nature as commodity, the most easily grasped and the most quickly discussed. In an era before anyone understood the extent of the damage humans could inflict on nature, Emerson describes the simple use of nature as a reservoir of raw materials for our use. Not until George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book did...

    • 39. Margaret Fuller
      (pp. 235-242)

      On july 21, as Emerson’s book lay on his writing table, almost finished, but still with “one crack in it, not easy to be soldered or welded,” Margaret Fuller came to Concord to stay with the Emersons for a visit that stretched to three weeks. A modern historian has claimed that Fuller had “the only mind among her contemporaries that could have conversed on a plane of equality with Rousseau and Goethe.” She had grown up on Cherry Street, near Harvard Yard in what was then Cambridgeport. Her father, Timothy Fuller, was an outspoken, cranky Jeffersonian Democrat and a lawyer;...

  8. Go Alone

    • 40. The Symposium
      (pp. 245-251)

      On september 8, 1836, the day of the Harvard bicentennial celebration and the day before the publication ofNature, Henry Hedge, George Putnam (the Unitarian minister in Roxbury), George Ripley, and Emerson met at Willard’s Hotel in Cambridge to plan a symposium or periodic gathering of persons who, like themselves, found the present state of thought in America “very unsatisfactory.” What came to be called the Transcendental Club was thus born “in the way of protest” on behalf of “deeper and broader views” than obtained at present.¹

      More specifically, the impulse behind the Transcendental Club was a protest against the...

    • 41. The Forging of the Anchor
      (pp. 252-256)

      From the second half of September 1836 to early March 1837 Emerson was reading, thinking, writing, and talking at white heat. Perhaps the reason was the reception and sale ofNature, which went very well. Perhaps it was in part the stimulus of the new discussion group, or perhaps it was the prospect of a child, for Lidian was in her eighth month. Whatever the cause or conjunction of causes, Emerson was euphoric, full of energy. His journal is exuberant, brilliant, expansive. He was pursuing the line laid out inNature, boldly cutting off his retreat, burning his bridges, and...

    • 42. We Are Not Children of Time
      (pp. 257-259)

      The lectures on the philosophy of history were the first Emerson had ever given entirely on his own management. No organization sponsored him; he was part of no series. This was his own venture and his own responsibility. The series was long, consisting of twelve lectures in all. After the introductory lecture, which took place on December 8, 1836, at Boston’s Masonic Temple, Emerson gave talks on the humanity of science, art, literature, politics, society, trades and professions (Emerson’s best lecture on labor), manners, ethics, the present age, and, on March 2, 1837, the final lecture, on the individual. Emerson...

    • 43. The American Scholar
      (pp. 260-265)

      The financial panic of 1837 affected Emerson most severely through his brother William. The supply of paper money had tripled in the United States between 1830 and 1837 as part of the general boom that had begun in 1825. Hoping to strengthen the central bank, President Jackson stipulated that all obligations to the United States be paid in specie. Overseas creditors made similar demands. Then the wheat crop failed in 1836 and the price of cotton fell as well. Bank after bank suspended payment. All the banks in Boston had suspended payment by May of 1837. Many failed outright. That...

    • 44. Casting Off
      (pp. 266-270)

      On the day after the Phi Beta Kappa address the Transcendental Club was due to meet at Emerson’s house in Concord. The gathering had originally been composed of ministers and divinity students. Emerson had successfully urged the inclusion of Alcott and now he cooked up a scheme with Margaret Fuller to expand the group further. He invited Fuller, Elizabeth Hoar, and Sarah Ripley to the dinner at his house before the meeting. He couldn’t promise anything, he told Fuller, “but you shall gentilize their dinner with Mrs. Ripley if I can get her, and what can you not mould them...

    • 45. Human Culture
      (pp. 271-274)

      On December 3 little Waldo took his first steps by himself. He was thirteen months old. Three days later, on December 6, 1837, Emerson gave the first lecture of his new series. He spoke about it with a deprecating air; he told William his subject was “all divine and human matters and some others.” In fact, however, the series he called “Human Culture” was, like the preceding one, carefully focused. The “Philosophy of History” series had begun with history and ended with the constitutive unit of history, the individual. The new series began with the individual and showed how each...

    • 46. The Peace Principle and the Cherokee Trail of Tear
      (pp. 275-279)

      The antislavery movement was not the only social issue that made a successful claim on Emerson’s time in 1837 and 1838. There was also the peace movement, long an issue with Quakers and now expanding under such names as “Non-resistance,” “Christian nonresistance,” and “non-violence.” After Lovejoy’s death, Garrison put out a new prospectus forThe Liberatorsaying that in addition to supporting abolition the paper would now equally support nonresistance. Garrison arrived at pacifism by a curious route. Insurrection was wrong, he thought. If the slaves cannot justifiably use violence to free themselves, he argued, then no one in less...

    • 47. Henry Thoreau
      (pp. 280-285)

      On May 25, 1838, Emerson turned thirty-five, the age that for centuries had been regarded as the halfway point of a full life. Elizabeth Hoar described to him one evening “the apathy from which she suffers.” Emerson declared himself at a loss, “as I did not sufficiently understand the state of mind she paints.” But if he seldom knew apathy, he was not free from personal regrets or from the entailed sadness of the Emerson family. After a “remembering talk” with Lidian in March he noted that he could “go back to no part of youth, no past relation, without...

    • 48. Go Alone: Refuse the Great Models
      (pp. 286-292)

      In February 1838 Lidian went to Plymouth—the “old natal nest and eggshell of us all,” her husband called it—for a two-week stay. Emerson wrote nearly every day to report Waldo’s newest words, “Mamma gor,” “beedy beedy,” “din din.” He was also involved in the complicated planning for an edition of Carlyle’s essays. He wrote Margaret Fuller inviting her to Concord again. He was getting to know Henry Thoreau and Caroline Sturgis, the latter a close friend of Margaret Fuller’s. Sturgis had wit and beauty, she was nineteen, and she wanted to be a poet. When she visited Concord...

  9. These Flying Days

    • 49. New Books, New Problems
      (pp. 295-300)

      A week after the “Divinity School Address” Emerson traveled to Hanover, New Hampshire, to give a lecture on literary ethics at Dartmouth. The talk was the second of what was to become a long series of talks on the American scholar and on what he now called for the first time the American mind. Emerson noted again the failure of America to produce major imaginative work. He complained anew about “feudal straps and bandages.” The scholar he called for at Dartmouth is very nearly the same person as the poet-prophet he had called for in Cambridge. He was more enthusiastic...

    • 50. Jones Very
      (pp. 301-306)

      Many of the new people in Emerson’s life were now associated with reform movements. He wrote approvingly to Aunt Mary about the “variety and velocity” of the new movements: “War, Slavery, Alcohol, Animal Food, Domestic Hired Service, Colleges, Creeds, and now at last Money also, have their spirited and unweariable assailants, and must pass out of use or must learn a law.” He wrote to Fuller that he began to be proud of his contemporaries even though the zealots, many of them young men, could be tiresome on occasion. Their manners “are perchance disagreeable; their whole being seems rough and...

    • 51. The Attainable Self
      (pp. 307-311)

      Lidian broke out into “wild hospitality” in November 1838 and gave two elaborate parties. She was pregnant again, often feeling sick, and there were times in December when she could eat nothing for days except rice water. Emerson was struggling to assemble a new series of lectures to be called “Human Life.” He was worried that the public reaction against the “Divinity School Address” might have cost him his lecture audience. Nervously, he gave away more than his usual number of free tickets. He told his brother on November 16 that he was “floating, drifting far and wide in the...

    • 52. Home and Family
      (pp. 312-317)

      By late February 1839 Lidian had put “every inch of her house and all her possessions in absolute perfect order.” February 23 was a mild winter day and Lidian used it to go out and clean up the barn. At ten o’clock that evening she announced that “the baby had sent compliments.” At six the next morning the baby was born. Lidian said firmly to her husband, “Her name is Ellen.” As Ellen later told the story, Lidian had planned for some time to present Emerson with another Ellen. Lidian knew it was impossible to compete with the memory of...

    • 53. Writing Essays
      (pp. 318-323)

      In July 1839 Emerson was putting together a selection of Jones Very’s poems for a volume. “I have selected sixty-six that really possess rare merit,” he told Fuller. At the end of the month Henry Thoreau showed Emerson his poem “Sympathy” (“Lately alas I knew a gentle boy …”) and Emerson responded with the generosity of spirit that drew so many young people to him. In his journal Emerson called Thoreau’s poetry “the purest strain and the loftiest, I think, that has yet pealed from this unpoetic American forest.” Later this year Emerson was introduced to the manuscript poetry of...

    • 54. The Heart Has Its Jubilees
      (pp. 324-331)

      Emerson’s already busy life became even busier this summer of 1839. There were new books, new friends, new lectures, new projects. His correspondence increased, his journal grew. He seemed to have unlimited energy. For about the next two and a half years there is a tone of workaday exaltation to everything Emerson did. Exhilaration became a habit. He was living at the apogee of his own orbit of possibility. And since he was capable of sustained effort on many projects at once, there are now, more than ever, multiple contexts for everything he was writing. During the second half of...

    • 55. Identity and Metamorphosis
      (pp. 332-336)

      Emerson had thought about starting and editing a magazine since at least his days at divinity school. More recently the transcendentalists as a group—especially Alcott, Ripley, Parker, Fuller, and Emerson—had been feeling the lack of a proper place to publish their new views. Even the most liberal of the Christian magazines were unsympathetic. The ladies magazines and the light literature magazines were utterly unsuitable.The Knickerbockerin New York was hostile; there was no serious literary magazine in New England. That there had been a transcendentalist periodical in Louisville (The Western Messenger) since 1835 only made the lack...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 56. Brook Farm and Margaret Fuller
      (pp. 337-344)

      Late June and early July of 1840 brought a searing drought, a full month of punishing weather with temperatures in the nineties every day. Emerson wilted in the “red hot noon,” watched the crops drying up, and longed for coolness and shade. “In the sleep of the great heats,” he told Ward, “there was nothing for me but to read the Veda, the bible of the tropics, which I find I come back upon every three or four years.” He read again Sir William Jones’s translation of theLaws of Menu(sometimes translated as theInstitutes of Menu), the Pentateuch...

    • 57. Pythagoras and Plotinus
      (pp. 345-348)

      On the first of January 1841 Emerson sent off his book of essays to the printer. Both now and again in late March afterEssayswas published, Emerson was in low spirits. He complained that “lately it is sort of general winter with me.” In March he grumbled that “March always comes [even] if it do not come till May.” He added, “May generally does not come at all.” His depression this year has been read as a personal crisis, but it may equally well have been the inevitable letdown after the long push to getEssaysfinished. The book...

    • 58. Osman’s Ring: A Work of Ecstasy
      (pp. 349-354)

      May did come for Emerson this year and it was yet another fruitful month. One can see Emerson’s mental and, if we may use the word, spiritual growth in his letters and journals and above all in the strange new essay, “The Method of Nature.” The month that would see his thirty-eighth birthday began with an extended rereading of his aunt Mary Moody Emerson’s letters and journals. His way forward often began with a step backward. He read over her letters and those of his brothers Charles and Edward, and he now wrote his most discerning pages on his aunt’s...

    • 59. The Frightful Hollows of Space
      (pp. 355-360)

      On September 21, 1841, Emerson’s stepgrandfather Ezra Ripley died. It was the passing of more than a season. Ripley had been born in 1751. He belonged to and he stood for the revolutionary generation. Emerson said in his eulogy that Ripley “was identified with the ideas and forms of the New England Church, which expired about the same time with him.” In 1841 the old meeting house of the First Parish in Concord was disassembled, reoriented ninety degrees to face as it now does, and enlarged and modernized inside and out in a graceful, airy, Greek Revival style. Old Dr....

  10. Children of the Fire

    • 60. The Dream of Community
      (pp. 363-369)

      Emerson pulled himself together in early February. There were Lidian and the two remaining children to be considered. There was a lecture series he had promised to give in Providence, and there was Alcott. On February 12, writing from Providence, he guaranteed Alcott that he should have five hundred dollars to go to England to visit English admirers. The Providence series had not been successful as a money-maker, so he now decided to try his luck in New York. From February 26 through the middle of March Emerson lectured in New York. His almost daily letters to Lidian have a...

    • 61. Children of the Fire
      (pp. 370-375)

      By mid-March 1842 Margaret Fuller had decided she could no longer remain editor ofThe Dial. Four days after getting her letter Emerson decided to take over the job himself rather than let the magazine die. “Let there be rotation in martyrdom,” he wrote Fuller. On March 29 he attended the last meeting of the Chardon Street Convention, a loose gathering of radicals and reformers who met to debate the credibility and authority of the Old and New Testaments. Alcott and Brownson both attended, as did a working-class speaker named Nathaniel H. Whiting from South Marshfield, Massachusetts, who distinguished himself...

    • 62. Emerson’s Dial
      (pp. 376-380)

      When Emerson took over the editorship ofThe Dialin what he called an act of “petty literary patriotism,” the magazine had three hundred subscribers and its publisher had just gone out of business. Sales brought in just enough money to pay for printing and binding; there was nothing left over to pay an editor. The heartlessness of most literary publishers (“wretched hungerstruck hyenas,” Carlyle called them) was epitomized for Emerson by the sale in June 1842 of 750 copies of Alcott’sConversations on the Gospelsto some trunk makers, at five cents a pound, for lining trunks.The Dial...

    • 63. New Views
      (pp. 381-384)

      Steam was bringing new prosperity to Boston in the early 1840s. Boston was two days closer by steamship to Le Havre and Liverpool than was New York, and Boston had not yet lost the race to connect the new western railroads with the sea. Cunard had picked Boston as its American terminus, and a Boston merchant named Frederic Tudor was having prodigious success cutting ice on Walden and other ponds and shipping the ice packed in pine sawdust from Boston to the American South and eventually all the way to Calcutta. As the age of steam consolidated its hold, so...

    • 64. The World
      (pp. 385-390)

      Emerson’s down-to-earth streak in combination with his almost unreachably austere idealism led James Russell Lowell to call him “a Plotinus Montaigne” and Edwin Whipple to think of him as a “Hindoo- Yankee,—a cross between Brahma and Poor Richard.” And indeed almost any period of Emerson’s adult life seems to have been half epiphany and half cordwood. He needed both ecstatic experience and pie for breakfast. During the fall of 1842 and the spring and summer of 1843 the realistic or worldly part of his life was constantly threatening to submerge the other side of his

      In late October 1842...

    • 65. The Young American
      (pp. 391-394)

      In mid-September 1843 Margaret Fuller returned from the western trip she would write up asSummer on the Lakes. Emerson told Elizabeth Hoar that his hopes for what he lightly called “Concord Socialism” lay in recruiting “half a dozen rare persons” to the town, but everywhere he looked, rare persons were leaving Concord and even the country. Thoreau was in New York, tutoring William Emerson’s children and trying to make money writing. Henry James was off for Europe, as was Theodore Parker. Late in September Aunt Mary became gravely ill with erysipelas. She was still courting death in her seriocomic...

    • 66. Emerson’s Emancipation Address
      (pp. 395-399)

      On august i, 1844, Emerson delivered a fiery, emotional speech in Concord calling for the abolition of slavery. He had always been opposed to slavery; that was not in question. Now he was ready to work actively and openly for abolition. His new willingness to get involved had emerged since March of this same year. On March 3 he had given the lecture “New England Reformers” in Boston’s Amory Hall, wrapping his general approval of reform movements in light irony and speaking from the cool Apollonian distance of the observing intellectual. He traced the “soldiery of dissent” back to the...

    • 67. Essays on Power
      (pp. 400-403)

      Emerson spent most of August and September 1844 correcting proofs for his new volume of essays. He hated the work. He told Fuller that it “bewilders my brain with its concentration on nothings.” He grumbled that “the impracticability and tough unalterableness of sentences which must not stand as they are, demonstrates past a doubt the inherent vice of my writing.” He had trouble ending things. He was never quite finished with an essay, and as time went on, completing a book-length project became ever harder for him. There were interruptions too. Early in September the address on emancipation was published...

    • 68. Ex Oriente Lux
      (pp. 404-410)

      The combination of a commitment to the work of abolition and the publication of the new book of essays had a revitalizing effect on Emerson, enlivening his reading and sending him ranging ever farther afield. New readings overlapped old, familiar books yielded fresh connections with the present, and books from one culture or era became newly applicable in another. This sort of cross-fertilization happened frequently for Emerson. This year, 1844, he gave it a name, “croisements,” crossings or crossbreeding. Its startling symbols for Emerson were “the seashore, and the taste of two metals in contact, and our enlarged powers …...

  11. The Natural History of Intellect

    • 69. Representative Men
      (pp. 413-417)

      What Emerson called his “pantheon course of lectures” had its roots way back in Emerson’s early interest in biography. But his immersion in books about Napoleon seems to have catalyzed his new interest in the idea. “I have found a subject,” he wrote in his journal, “On the use of great men.” He would do a modern Plutarch, but with a difference. He was not interested in the usual worshipful bowing down before the unreachable great ones. Emerson took the idea of a pantheon seriously—even literally; he thought his subject was one “which might serve a Schleiermacher for monologues...

    • 70. The Lecturer
      (pp. 418-422)

      The year 1845 brought new faces and took away old. In January Poe’s “The Raven” made the greatest stir yet created by an American poem. Napoleon’s brother Joseph died this year. Ireland suffered the Great Hunger. Frederick Douglass was on the abolitionist lecture circuit and talking about writing his autobiography. Margaret Fuller, now living in New York, fell in love with James Nathan. Brook Farm was nearing its end. Robert Owen, of New Harmony fame, came to visit the Alcotts. Henry Thoreau moved into his cabin at Walden. In October Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne left the Old Manse and Concord....

    • 71. Persia and Poetry
      (pp. 423-428)

      The early months of 1846 were consumed by lecturing. Emerson shuttled from Gloucester to Lowell to Worcester to Providence to Boston. On March 3 the new, unfinished central building at Brook Farm burned down, effectively ending the most successful, most interesting, and surely the sunniest of the communal enterprises of the period. It was symptomatic that the fire broke out in the grandiose new Fourierian “phalanstery” while the Brook Farmers were at a dance in the comfortable old farmhouse headquarters known as “the Hive.” On the same day Ellery Channing left for Europe on funds raised and provided by Emerson....

    • 72. The New Domestic Order. Poems
      (pp. 429-432)

      In july 1846 the Emersons revolutionized their housekeeping. They brought in a Mrs. E. C. Goodwin to run their home as a boardinghouse. The Emersons contracted themselves into four rooms, the rest being given to Mrs. Goodwin to use for her own family or to rent to other lodgers. The Emersons were literally boarders in their own house.

      Less than a year earlier, in the fall of 1845, they had taken a first step toward lightening those burdens that fell mainly on Lidian. They had hired a woman named Sophia Foord or Ford to be the children’s teacher and governess....

    • 73. The Orchard Keeper
      (pp. 433-435)

      The sense of fruition Emerson felt toward the end of 1846 may have arisen partly from the publication of his poems, but the feeling also had another quite literal source, which was a new interest in fruit trees. Emerson had been mildly interested in orchards for years. He had planted fifteen apple trees in 1836. Now, in November 1846, his brother William sent him a box of young grapevines. Emerson carefully unpacked them into a tub of earth and next day replanted them into good soil in the garden. With his finances now improving, he had recently bought a two-acre...

    • 74. I Shall Never Graduate
      (pp. 436-440)

      During the first two-thirds of 1847 Emerson was more restless and dissatisfied than he had been for many years. On the surface his life was going well. He was forty-three now, settled and successful. His children were thriving. He had published four books; he had his next one clearly in mind. He had a large and still increasing audience for his lectures. But there was a clear lull or pause after the appearance ofPoems. Perhaps he felt the postpartum letdown that often follows the publication of a book. Certainly his domestic situation was troubling, dominated as it was by...

    • 75. England
      (pp. 441-445)

      On October 5, 1847, in Boston Emerson boarded the packetWashington Irvingfor Liverpool. The fifteen-day passage was uneventful. The ship encountered large floating drifts of boards, logs, and chips that came down from the rivers of Maine and New Brunswick after every high tide. They saw whales and blackfish. Dolphins swam in the bow wave and huge schools of mackerel tore the surface of the sea.

      England jolted Emerson. Everything seemed different, bigger, faster, heavier. “Everything in England bespeaks its immense population,” he wrote. “The buildings are on a scale of size and wealth out of all proportion to...

    • 76. The Natural History of Intellect
      (pp. 446-450)

      The inner history of Emerson’s second trip to england—the story told by his journal and lectures—is more complicated and less triumphant than were his busy and colorful days. When he was still in New England, preparing for his trip to England, he drew up a list of the “superstitions of our age.” He cited “the fear of Catholicism, the fear of Pauperism, the fear of immigration, the fear of manufacturing interests, the fear of radicalism or democracy, [and] faith in the steam engine.” If he had been drawing up a personal account, he might have noted his own...

    • 77. Chartism and Revolution
      (pp. 451-456)

      Of the revolutions that erupted throughout Europe in 1848 like a chain of volcanoes, Emerson actually witnessed two. He was more in sympathy with one than the other, but both pointed him back to his own subject.

      “Suddenly out of its stale and drowsy lair, the lair of slaves, like lightning Europe leapt forth,” wrote Walt Whitman of the events of 1848. Ireland boiled with revolt. Italy chafed under the Austrians. In February the weak bourgeois king Louis Philippe was overthrown and the victors proclaimed a republic in Paris. In the Netherlands and in Denmark terrified monarchs granted new democratic...

  12. The Science of Liberty

    • 78. Return: Quarrel with Thoreau
      (pp. 459-464)

      On his way home Emerson tried to balance his books on England. Carlyle was still, he thought, the most interesting person, Clough the most promising young poet, theHeimskringlathe best clue to English character. He had written Lidian that he could not regret making the trip but that it had been too costly in every way. He was sorry to have missed so many weeks and months of his children. He had allowed himself “freely to be dazzled by the various brilliancy of men of talent,” but “in calm hours I found myself no way helped.” Despite all his...

    • 79. The Walden Sierras. Quetelet
      (pp. 465-469)

      Returning from England Emerson’s ship had entered Halifax harbor in a fog. When the fog rolled up like a theater curtain revealing the high hills, large bays, and wooded shores of that splendid harbor, the ship’s company burst into spontaneous applause. Nature was still the New World’s best act. Once home, Emerson tried to reroot himself in his native New England. He went walking twice a week in Concord with Ellery Channing, the poet, ne’er-do-well, and, as Emerson said, “the incomparable companion.”

      Walking with Channing one day near Walden, across the railroad tracks from Thoreau’s hut site and by the...

    • 80. Therienism and the Hegelian Moment
      (pp. 470-476)

      Emerson had come home from England feeling displaced and uncertain. During the fall of 1849 and the winter of 1849–1850 he gradually recovered his balance. Newly kindled by Hegelian notions about history, the role of ideas in history, and the processes of consciousness, he set out on a strenuous reexamination of many of his old convictions. This reformulation will reach its full expression in Emerson’s great essay “Fate.” Here idealism, freedom, and melioration are only put forward after the claims of materialism, determinism, and inertia have been exhausted. This new idealism was so tempered, qualified, and intertwined with the...

    • 81. The West
      (pp. 477-481)

      There was always a restless quality in Emerson. Although he was deeply attached to Concord and missed home terribly when he was away, he traveled a good deal outside Concord. A year and a half after he returned from England, he made his first trip to the American West. The country was growing rapidly and in interesting ways. Educated and liberal-minded Germans were settling in the Midwest, having left Europe after the failed uprisings of 1848. Gold had been discovered in California. In 1849 Yerba Buena became San Francisco. In 1850 California would become a state. Cholera had also reached...

    • 82. The Matter of Margaret
      (pp. 482-485)

      After four years abroad Margaret Fuller set out for home on May 17,1850, sailing from Livorno in the American bvigElizabeth. She may have been married to the Italian nobleman named Ossoli who accompanied her. She had a two-year-old son, she had taken an active part in the (unsuccessful) revolution in Rome in 1848, and she had written a book about it. She had repeated premonitions of disaster about this trip. “I am absurdly fearful,” she wrote, “and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling.” Her only consolation was that if disaster did strike, “I shall perish...

    • 83. The Tragic
      (pp. 486-489)

      The death of Margaret Fuller when she was only forty was a shock to Emerson. The deaths of his first wife, his younger brothers, and his first child had also been shocking, of course, but he had rebounded from them. Somehow, Margaret’s death caught him unprepared and undefended. Her loss drove him in on himself and made him intensely conscious of a side of life he usually tended to rush over. It is easy to call this consciousness a sense of tragedy, but in Emerson’s case it did not have the clear form and redemptive lift of classical tragedy. He...

    • 84. The Conduct of Life
      (pp. 490-494)

      In the early months of 1851 , while Emerson was still at work on the Margaret Fuller memoir and still mulling over the relation between England and America—and his book on that subject—he was also at work on a third new project. This was a course of lectures to be called “The Conduct of Life,” which he first gave in Pittsburgh on a trial run. He arrived in Pittsburgh on March 20, 1851, after a long trip from Philadelphia, “two nights being spent in the railcars and the third on the floor of a canal-boat, where the cushion...

    • 85. The Fugitive Slave Act
      (pp. 495-499)

      On february 15, 1851, five months after the passage of the new fugitive slave law, a black man named Shadrach Minkins, also known as Fredrick Jenkins, was arrested in Boston as a fugitive—in Taft’s Cornhill Coffeehouse, where he was a waiter. He was immediately arraigned. Massachusetts Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw (Herman Melville’s father-in-law) refused a request for a writ of habeas corpus; the court adjourned before noon, before finishing the case. As the court was breaking up, Lewis Hayden, a black member of the Boston Vigilance Committee organized by Theodore Parker, entered the courtroom with a group of about...

    • 86. The Science of Liberty
      (pp. 500-504)

      In late June 1851 Emerson’s mother fell out of her bed in the middle of the night during a bad dream. “She lay there,” Emerson wrote his brother, “unable to help herself for a long time, neither calling out nor able to reach her bell rope or so much as a shoe to make a noise with, and wake us in the next room.” Doctor Bartlett diagnosed a broken hip. She was eighty-three or eighty-four. By mid-September her mind had become clouded. “Her memory is much broken, and she confounds things sadly,” Emerson wrote William.¹

      It was a melancholy autumn...

  13. Fame

    • 87. My Platoon
      (pp. 507-513)

      Only a fraction of the activity in Emerson’s life during the early 1850s involved his creative work. During January and February 1852 he gave “The Conduct of Life” lectures in Boston and New York. TheMemoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoliappeared early in February and the book was an immediate success. A second printing came out by the end of the month. Emerson’s domestic establishment had now grown to include seven servants. William ventured to suggest that he might live more modestly. Emerson’s brisk reply makes it clear that something besides his own wishes was responsible. Lidian was unwell most...

    • 88. Country Walking and the Sea
      (pp. 514-516)

      Emerson was fifty in 1853. He was acutely aware now of external losses and inner subsidence, of fresh limitations and flagging energies. He told Carlyle that he wrote “much less than formerly.” He told Furness that he thought of leaving the lyceum to the younger lecturers, and he told his daughter Ellen—who was now fourteen and just going to boarding school, “I seldom write verses.” He still enjoyed being out of doors, but he had little interest in solitary withdrawal. “It is pleasant to go to the woods in good company,“ he wrote, "but who dare go to the...

    • 89. English Traits
      (pp. 517-521)

      Emerson’s mother died on November 16, 1853. Dr. Bartlett had seen her death coming, but neither Lidian nor her husband had believed him, and so Emerson was out of town when it happened. “After being with her so long,” he told an old family friend, “I feel as if I might have been present at the moment of her departure.” Born in 1768, Ruth Haskins Emerson had “lived through the whole history of this country,” as Emerson observed to his brother. She had always been there. He told Carlyle, “In my journeyings lately, when I think of home, the heart...

    • 90. Fame
      (pp. 522-525)

      By the mid-1850s emerson was dangerously famous. his reputation had been pretty much local through the 1830s. His 1836 book,Nature, was not widely reviewed, but the storm over the “Divinity School Address” two years later brought him general attention and set a pattern for what was to follow: strong objections and attacks from one side and personal, witness-bearing praise—almost adulation—from another. His fame grew rapidly during the 1840s, through lecturing and the publication of two volumes of essays,The Dial, and the 1847 volumePoems. His earliest English notice had come in 1839, and in 1840 Richard...

    • 91. Whitman
      (pp. 526-531)

      The second half of 1854 and the first half of 1855 were very busy times for Emerson. From October 1854 to March 1855 he gave seventy-three lectures. His reading ranged restlessly through time and space. In June he read W. L. Herndon’sExploration of the Amazon, L. Sitgreaves’sExpedition down the Zuni and Colorado Rivers, and the census of 1850. In July he read, besides French periodicals and ever more on England, Francis Lieber’sManual of Political Ethicsand he made plans to read T. F. Davis’sThe Chineseand Father Hue’sTravels in China. In September he was reading...

    • 92. The Remedy at the Hour of Need
      (pp. 532-534)

      At the close of the 1850 Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston, a small group of the delegates gathered to consider the issue of women’s rights. A call for a national convention resulted. Paulina Davis, a leader in the movement, invited Emerson to address the meeting, which was scheduled to be held in Worcester in the fall of 1850. He declined to speak but agreed to having his name included in the list of conveners. The following year Lucy Stone, an Oberlin graduate and an early activist in the women’s rights movement, asked him to address the second annual convention. Again he...

    • 93. The Power and Terror of Thought
      (pp. 535-540)

      During the mid-1850s Emerson took up a number of his oldest, most central themes and reconsidered them in the light of accrued experience. His speeches on affairs in Kansas, on the attack on Charles Sumner, and on John Brown and his raid—coupled with his disapproval of the national government—rekindled his old political radicalism. In a speech for a Kansas relief meeting in September 1856 he admitted, “I own I have little esteem for government. I esteem them only good in the moment when they were established.” He was “glad to see that the terror at disunion and anarchy...

  14. Endings

    • 94. Memory
      (pp. 543-546)

      Memory began to interest Emerson in the mid-1850s. He had never proposed to deal with the past by forgetting it; he had always insisted that the use of the past is to educate the present generation. But like Nietzsche Emerson knew the value of being able to forget. He told his daughter Ellen in 1854, “You must finish a term and finish every day, and be done with it. For manners, and for wise living, it is a vice to remember.” He meant that one should not pick at the scabs of one’s little mistakes, rudenesses, oversights, and failures. “This...

    • 95. Civil War. Death of Thoreau
      (pp. 547-550)

      On April 12, 1861, came the bombardment of fort sumter. The war was on everyone’s mind. Forty-five Concord volunteers left to go to war on April 19. In July the first battle of Bull Run (called the first battle of Manassas by the Confederates) was fought and it became clear that the war might be long. Emerson disapproved of the war as long as it was fought only to hold the Union together. He continued lecturing, mostly on nonwar subjects. In November he gave a talk called “Old Age,” and while he energetically enumerated the advantages of age, it was...

    • 96. Terminus
      (pp. 551-554)

      Emerson had become by 1863 an inescapable part—a Fixture—of American public life. At the huge meeting in Boston’s Music Hall on January 1 to celebrate the first day of emancipation, Emerson opened the program, bringing the crowd shouting and singing to its feet with his “Boston Hymn.” Its eighteenth stanza, later taken up by the soldiers of Higginson’s regiment, the First South Carolina, pursued the logic of compensated emancipation with a startling turn.

      Pay ransom to the owner

      And fill the bag to the brim

      Who is the owner. The slave is owner

      And ever was. Pay


    • 97. May-Day
      (pp. 555-559)

      As always Emerson was a little ahead of himself. Perhaps the direct acceptance of age gave him a momentary sense that he had overcome it. During 1867 he gave eighty lectures; he made two western trips through fourteen states. Only once before, in 1856, had he taken on so heavy a schedule. In January he was in Minnesota, where he visited one of the tiny remnants of the once powerful Santee Sioux. Little Crow had lost his war with the whites in 1863; in 1867, when Emerson went to Faribault to see a Sioux village, the battle of the Little...

    • 98. Harvard. California. Fire
      (pp. 560-567)

      In 1868 came another of the losses that increasingly punctuated Emerson’s life. His last surviving brother, William, had been suffering increasingly from headaches. On September 4 he wrote Emerson a letter full of the usual family chat, but adding, “Indeed, I am but poorly. The last two days I was not able to get down stairs.” Nine days later he was dead. By chance Emerson arrived in New York on other business the day William died. The two brothers talked together for half an hour. William spoke with difficulty; he had not expected to see Waldo. When the end came,...

    • 99. Philae and Parnassus
      (pp. 568-571)

      The fire affected Emerson profoundly. he was exhausted; he became ill. His power of attention and his memory weakened visibly. Enough money had been raised for him to take a trip as well as rebuild the house. On October 23, 1872, he sailed with Ellen for England, the Continent, and Egypt. This trip too was an ending. Reversing his first European trip of forty years earlier, he and Ellen went from England through Paris to Naples, where they took ship for Egypt. After seeing Alexandria and Cairo, they set off by boat up the Nile. He found it “a wonderful...

    • 100. Fire at the Core of the World
      (pp. 572-573)

      The tongue of flame, the picture the newspapers give, at the late fire in Liverpool, of the mountains of burning cotton over which the flames arose to twice their height, the volcano also, from which the conflagration rises toward the zenith an appreciable distance toward the stars—these are the most affecting symbols of what man should be. A spark of fire is infinitely deep, but a mass of fire reaching from earth upward into heaven, this is the sign of the robust, united, burning, radiant soul.

      This was also Emerson’s image for the energy behind the poetic impulse. Poetry...

  15. Genealogies
    (pp. 574-576)
  16. Chronology of the Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson
    (pp. 577-578)
  17. Principal Sources
    (pp. 579-584)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 585-656)
  19. Index
    (pp. 657-671)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 672-672)