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
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
TV It all goes wrong for Iain's Baked Alaska as 'bingate' ensues
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?