Holy bread and soldiers' bones

Emerson, the great New England transcendentalist, didn`t mince his words. By Frank McLynn; Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait by Carlos Baker, Viking, pounds 25
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Ralph Waldo Emerson occupies an uncertain place in literature. While the achievements of other 19th-century New Englanders and Yankees - Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman - speak for themselves, are we justified in seeing Emerson as any more than a talented essayist? But the school he is associated with - New England transcendentalism - was certainly influential in the northern USA before the Civil War.

It was a kind of offshoot of German philosophical romanticism, impatient with mere "understanding," the mental faculty used in science or everyday life. Beyond that, thought Emerson and his followers, there was "reason" by which one intuits spiritual, metaphysical and other transcendental truths. Reason allows us to go beyond religious dogma, ethical tradition or received opinion. With Thoreau this took the form of a justification of civil disobedience; with Emerson it became a kind of fuzzy pantheism.

We can see the sort of thing the transcendentalists were driving at when one considers the scandal (quaint to our ears) that drove Emerson out of the Unitarian church and his early calling as a preacher. Emerson decided that when Jesus told his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine in memory of him at the Last Supper, he meant them to do it, but did not intend to impose a "memorial feast" on future generations.This was considered blasphemous and Emerson was pressurised to take his transcendental insights elsewhere.

He did so, in an interesting career as essayist, poet, globetrotter and centre of a "school" that included Margaret Fuller and Amos Brown Alcott, father of the better known Louisa May. Emerson's milieu was that of experimental. socialist communities like Brook, Farm would-be utopias such as the Oneida community and the religious sects of the Hutterites, Shakers and Mormons,in whom Emerson took a great interest.

What is attractive about Emerson is his wit, and what is not so attractive is his somewhat supercilious personality. He remarked that liberty on the lips of Daniel Webster was like the word "love" in the mouth of a courtesan; he characterised a bad president (Franklin Pierce) as a "toad in amber"; he described Brigham Young as a "sufficient ruler, and perhaps civiliser of his kingdom of blockheads."

Yet he seemed able to maintain a lasting friendship only with second- raters. He patronised Whitman, an incomparably superior poet. He and Thoreau gradually drifted apart, probably because of Emerson's envy of his friend's superior talents; and Emerson quarrelled with Hawthorne because he (Hawthorne) had written an admiring political biography of the pro-slavery president Franklin Pierce.

Emerson was in fact a good hater,and the following outburst against the South in 1865 shows a certain kind of Yankee sensibility at white heat: "I charge the Southerner with starving prisoners of war; with massacring surrendered men with advertising a price for the life of Lincoln...with assassination of the president...with attempts to import the yellow fever into New York; with the cutting up of the bones of our soldiers to make ornaments,and drinking-cups of their skulls."

Carlos Baker's book contains a lot of fascinating information about that curious collection of idealists centred round Concord and Boston in the mid-19th-century. My favourite was Amos Bronson Alcott who did not just try to found a socialist commune, but a vegetarian socialist commune.

The volume bowls along quite amiably, but is in many ways an old fashioned book, reminiscent of the Gay Wilson Allen style of biography. It is written in a curiously esoteric way as if addressing a Princeton graduate seminar. Baker never identifies Brook Farm as an experimental Fourierist commune and there is an assumption that all his readers must know what it is. There is too much quotation from Emerson's letters and journals, to the point where the author seems at times unable to write a sentence without the crutch of Emerson's own utterances.

More seriously, there is no attempt to penetrate Emerson's inner psychological world, and in general too many of Baker's insights are confined to the surface. There is much talk of eccentricity, but surely the most outre artefact is a biography that begins when the subject is 27, as this book does. If the child is father to the man using Baker's methodology we would have to conclude that Emerson was a product of parthenogenesis. There is a case for saying that in this collection of eccentrics the oddest of all is the author himself.