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.

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence