Emerson's Transcendental Gift

Article excerpt

The men and women who orbited around Ralph Waldo Emerson's sun in Concord and Boston in the middle years of the 19th century were by almost any definition eccentric, as Carlos Baker characterizes them in this posthumously published study.

Emerson and Henry Thoreau, Bronson Alcott and Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Theodore Parker - as well as the many others in that galaxy who shine less brightly to the present - also had conventional edges, of course. They raised families, capably or carelessly, wrestled with public issues, astutely or awkwardly.

The eccentricity of the Transcendentalists was their very conscious departure from the pieties of the New England heritage - stern Calvinism attenuated by Unitarianism - and commitment to intellectual and spiritual ideals that insisted on the priority of inner divinity and self-respect.

"Emerson Among the Eccentrics" is scholarly, insightful and lively, the culmination of a career. Baker, who died in 1987, spent more than 40 years at Princeton University and may be best known for his biography of Ernest Hemingway. This book, we are told, was "mostly completed" before Baker's death, a qualification that can jar. But there is no indication of spackling the cracks of an uncompleted manuscript. (Baker's book is the second major study of his subject in recent years, joining Robert D. Richardson Jr.'s tremendous "Emerson: The Mind on Fire.")

The author's technique - "a group portrait," as the book is subtitled - presents Emerson through both the perspectives of those who knew him best and his own writing, voluminous journals and life. It is neither a literary nor an intellectual biography, as such, but contains elements of both.

Emerson did not have an easy time of it and was on the verge of economic privation from childhood to middle age. Between 1831 and 1842, his first wife, Ellen, died after less than 1 1/2 years of marriage; two of his younger brothers died and a third was in and out of mental institutions; and his first son, by his second wife, Lidian, died of scarlatina just before his fifth birthday.

Whether by temperament or philosophy, however, or a blend thereof, Waldo - as his friends called him - maintained a remarkable balance. His friend of 40 years, the Scots intellectual and curmudgeon Thomas Carlyle, was quoted by an Emerson friend, "It's a verra strikin' and curious spectacle to behold a man so confidently cheerful as Emerson."

The rambunctious preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker diagnosed his friend's equilibrium, as Baker writes: "The source of Emerson's strength was `his intellectual and moral sincerity.' Never had he compromised. . . . Trusting himself, man, and God, he had been able to walk serene and erect through the turmoils of the age. Nothing was allowed to impede his search for the true, the lovely, and the good."

In Emerson's admired - and, to the orthodox, notorious - 1838 speech to the Harvard Divinity School, he defined what he called "the intuition of the moral sentiment."

"To perceive the law of laws - that the world is a product of one will and one mind - awakened the religious sentiment," Baker writes. …