Beautiful Enemies at the Pond

By Bradley, John R | The Independent (London, England), November 1, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Beautiful Enemies at the Pond


Bradley, John R, The Independent (London, England)


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.

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