Plato's Republican

Poet, philosopher, scholar, sage, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave Americans cultural respectability. CJ Fox considers a new Life; Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D Richardson Jnr University of California, pounds 27

The name Ralph Waldo Emerson, now given fresh prominence by Robert Richardson's vast new biography, has probably stirred little popular recognition of late in Britain beyond the image of a slightly fusty 19th-century poet. But towards the end of his life (1803-82) Emerson was, for British readers and lecture-goers, a respected and gratifyingly Anglophile fixture of the literary-philosophical landscape. Over in the States, he was even more - a revered sage whose lecture audiences once included Lincoln himself and whose worthy causes ranged from the abolition of slavery to "self- reliance", metaphysical and otherwise. He was deemed the Plato of his age, but a democratic one in the sense of "levelling up" ordinary people to a significant place in the all-transcending spirit of the world.

In one particular seminal lecture on "The American Scholar" given at Harvard in 1837, Emerson provided what has been called a milestone in the young republic's cultural development. He gave what could be construed as philosophical legitimacy to the kind of raw social and economic individualism that was flaring in America at the time. But more than that, he sought to bestow respectability on being an American, previously a status that inspired considerable pangs of inferiority when measured against the cultural glories of Europe, declaring that "confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs ... to the American scholar". Parts of another oratorical bombshell unleashed by Emerson soon afterwards had a proto-Nietzschean ring. Indeed Nietzsche, not then born, was reputedly influenced by this mild-mannered, ex-Unitarian cleric from Massachusetts who affirmed a rugged spiritual individualism not unlike that of Zarathustra, challenged the very idea of charity and even had a good word to say for hate.

Professor Richardson has produced a monumental account of Emerson, perhaps the last word where the facts of his personal and intellectual evolution are concerned. In a gentle but compelling prose, he lists and explicates what must be all the books the prodigiously recondite Emerson ever read and analyses their effect on him. With equal care, he expounds all of Emerson's own works. He goes far towards justifying his own book's subtitle which, with its attribution of intellectual fire, is in itself a standing contradiction of anyone portraying Emerson as a ponderous period-piece of "Victorian" America.

He also explodes some unflattering myths about Emerson - that, for example, he was deficient in common humanity. In fact, a dreadful succession of family calamities left him steeped in a sense of life's malevolence. "Threnody", the poem lamenting his dead five-year-old son, testifies to his capacity for anguish, while the act of opening his first wife's coffin more than a year after her passing is macabre proof of his willingness to confront mortality. Richardson also demonstrates that Emerson's commitment to the pre-Civil War anti-slavery cause in America was stronger than previously assumed, despite Emerson's distrust of militant protesters ("arcadian fanatics", he called one lot).

Richardson is enlightening too on Emerson's ties with Britain, land of Carlyle, Wordsworth and Coleridge, whom he met under sometimes poignant, sometimes comic circumstances. Coleridge greeted Emerson in Highgate with an hour-long tirade against Unitarianism. When the American cautioualy pointed out that he himself had been a Unitarian minister, his host muttered scathingly, "Yes, I supposed so", and Emerson suffered further forced enlightenment.

Yet - not for lack of research - Richardson's teeming book refrains on one occasion from a candid probing of the negative side of things. He concedes that Emerson's second visit to Thomas and Jane Carlyle in 1847 wasn't as warm as the first but he doesn't explore the full extent of the cooling - Thomas's lecture-hall guffaw at Emerson, and Jane's put- down of the American as "the most elevated man I ever saw, but it is the elevation of a reed". And while Richardson admits that the high priest of Transcendentalism could loftily distance himself from even his closest intimates, he doesn't so much as mention John Jay Chapman's blunt contention that what the pioneer bluestocking, Margaret Fuller (much discussed by Richardson) sought from Emerson was a love that he denied her.

Richardson's soft-pedalling of such unlaudatory perspectives detracts from this generally awesome study. His obvious belief in Emerson as a thinker for our time and his determination to display him in all his multifarious profusion though exhaustive research is admirable enough. But it might be that the desire to groom him, for our "correct" age has produced a certain tendentiousness which in turn has led to Richardson's downplaying, for instance, of the nationalist element in the "American Scholar" lecture and of the influence on the possibly embarrassing Nietzsche.

Moreover, the book does not sufficiently present Emerson in the context of America's subsequent cultural growth. Instead, it ends abruptly with his death. The amazing extent of Emerson's influence - on everything from the etymology of Ernest Fenollosa to the buccaneering gyrations of Henry Ford - is surely crucial to our understanding of his peculiar genius.

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