Beautiful enemies at the pond

EMERSON AMONG THE ECCENTRICS: A Group Portrait by Carlos Baker, Viking pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
When Henry James reviewed the first official biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1887 he expressed his disappointment that, while well enough written, it did not sufficiently dwell on "the social conditions in which Emerson moved". Though not a great personality, Emerson was a defining figure in an American age which swarmed with "reformers and improvers", and which was full of "odd human figures and many human incongruities". As a result of the lack of emphasis on the social and intellectual context of Emerson's life, much about Emerson, James concluded, had been left out, and "the full picture of the Transcendental age remained to be painted" - the most creative American age, intellectually speaking, since the founding fathers had begun the continuous process of self-definition and analysis.

Carlos Baker does not mention these comments by James, but this "group portrait", finished exactly a century after James' review appeared and a few months before Baker died, finally give the world the sort of book James was asking for. It is as full a picture of the Transcendental movement, in all its various manifestations (social, literary, philosophical, political and personal), as we are ever likely to have. But though it is grand and monumental, learned and profound - like the book to which it owes most, namely F O Matthiessen's American Renaissance - Emerson Among the Eccentrics is not for academics: it is as entertaining and stimulating, playful and accessible as the definitive life of Hemingway for which Baker is best known.

Baker's aim here is to bring Emerson to life "in his quotidian relationships: as a young man and old, husband, father, son and brother; preacher, editor, clubman; farmer, householder, host and guest". And, most importantly, as a friend, particularly in relationships he established with other notables of his day, and with the philosophical approach to the idea of friendship Emerson explicated in his essay of that name: the friend should be "for ever a sort of beautiful enemy, devoutly revered, and not a trivial convenience soon to be outgrown and cast aside".

Each chapter is headed with the name of one of Emerson's friends and some - Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman - are inevitably repeated. The effect is of a sort of panoramic Proustian social universe, with the same people continually cropping up, though in strikingly different guises - guises determined, for the most part, according to the company they kept. Few biographies so convincingly demonstrate the extent to which the social personality is determined by the mirroring of oneself in others.

Baker, unusually, begins his biography when its principal subject is 27 years old. Emerson is about to leave America for his first trip to Europe, a trip that would shape not only the rest of his life but also the future direction of American literature. The skipping over of Emerson's early years, although justified in the sense that he had done nothing intellectually worthwhile in them, is nevertheless a pity, since he did undergo in those years a series of personal and religious crises which informed the foundation of his later secular philosophical system. He lost his first wife to tuberculosis after only 16 months of marriage; he took on the financial burden of supporting his widowed mother; two of his brothers were committed to an insane asylum; he gave up his pastorate in the Second Church of Boston after announcing his scepticism about the Lord's Supper.

Emerson's decision to tour Europe was therefore an excuse to sort out his mind, and to devise a way of thinking that was sceptical as far as the wide, all-embracing comfort of religion was concerned, yet optimistic about the immediate present and its universal, quasi-religious potential. From now on, he declared, he would do nothing more consistent than "to act faithfully upon my faith, to live by it myself, and to see what hearty obedience to it will do".

On his return from Europe, Emerson settled in Concord, a town near Boston which quickly established itself as the capital of Transcendentalism. Over the following decades just about every American thinker, essayist and poet would settle there for at least a short period. Emerson's declaration of personal independence culminated in his first book, Nature (1936), in which he claimed that nature was a new scripture which spoke directly to the self and so would replace the written word as the guiding force in the world. "Let a man under the influence of strong passion go into the fields," he wrote, "and see how readily every thought clothes itself with a material garment."

The influence of these comments and of the more sophisticated philosophy that grew out of them over the next 40 years has been widely charted, from Walt Whitman's arrival as the poet Emerson had called for to save America (its "liberating god"), to Thoreau's literal exploration of the Emersonian principle of finding fulfilment in the universality of every momentary movement in nature by setting up his famous cabin on Emerson's 14 acres at Walden Pond. Emerson Among the Eccentrics is unique in that, though most of the book simply retraces these links, it does so by taking as its guiding principle Emerson's remark that "Life consists in what a man is thinking all day", and brings to life this American age by looking at what was going on inside the heads of its leading protagonists, as their great minds came into contact with, and shaped, one another.