Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Recently finished a magnificent book--a simply magnificent book: Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. 5 stars and then some. There are many excellent things about this book; here are a few:
1. Richardson does an amazing job of presenting the intellectual interplay between Emerson's reading and his own intellectual development--not just in the blunt tacking of he-read-this-and-now!, but in picking up threads as they re-emerge years later--in tracing the influence of Persian poetry on Emerson's religious conceptions, for example. The biography was originally intended to be a reading history--focused on this element of Emerson's intellectual development, and that remains a real strength. Richardson has a tremendous sensitivity and clarity about what strains come in where, and how different elements combine, are transformed or subsumed, and then re-emerge.
2. He does an excellent job of introducing and reiterating the impact of the human elements of his life--his second wife's persistent illness, or his brother's relentless indebtedness, for example. He has a deft touch in establishing them, and then raising them again to demonstrate their ongoing impact on Emerson's view of the world. Emerson emerges as profoundly human--working, struggling, doubting. His triumphs are more triumphant and his losses more devasting than I have found them in other biographies. I think there is a special danger in Emerson of seeing him as a cheerleader--in reading his aphorisms as glossing over the darker or more complex aspects of moving through the world because they are so compressed. Richardson draws Emerson out from this compression and reinvigorates much of the prose that we (I) have read a thousand times.
3. He also does an excellent job in drawing other writers into service--not just in quoting writers Emerson was reading to show us what moved Emerson, but in quoting writers who have ably expressed ideas that help us understand the point Richardson is making about Emerson. This is a special pleasure, because it opens out new areas of interest, while clarifying and extending what Richardson has to say--this is a world above most biography. For example, late in the book, Richardson quotes Henry James on an awareness that Emerson was develpoing about the fundamental nature of man:
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths—the depths of an essential dearth in whichs its subject's roots are plunged. . . . The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters
Not just Emerson's writings, nor his readings, but other writer's with eloquence to bear on our understanding what Emerson is going through. 5 stars? Not enough...
4. Richardson's own writing is usually crisp and unmuddled by jargon, clear while managing great complexity and nuance, and in some places it rises to a sublime level, like this:
The personal consequence of such perceptions was an almost intolerable awareness that every morning began with infinite promise. Any book may be read, any idea thought, any action taken. Anything that has ever been possible to most of us every time the clock says six in the morning. On a day no different than the one now breaking, Shakespeare sat down to begin Hamlet and Fuller began her history the Roman Revolution of 1848. Each of us has all the time there is; each accepts those invitations he can discern. By the same token, each evening brings a reckoning of infinite regret for the paths refused, openings not seen, and actions not taken.
This is the stuff--worth a read and a re-read and hoarding a copy and dogearing and marginal scrawling.
Here it is.
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