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The Emerson Letters

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Ralph L. Lusk. New York: Columbia University Press. Six volumes. $30.00.

We cannot do better than begin with the statistics of this collection: the six volumes of “The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson,”

edited by Ralph L. Rusk, contain 2,313 of Emerson’s letters that have never before been printed and 271 that have hitherto been only partly printed; they also list 509 letters that have been printed elsewhere and 1,281 that are known to have been written. This makes a total of 4,374 letters accounted for. One wonders what Emerson, who believed in the general view, would have thought of this diligent garnering and cataloguing and printing of all sorts of scraps. Having put himself on record in scores of essays, and having left behind him journals that run to thousands of printed pages, it is not likely that he would have been tolerant of such an enterprise. He would have sympathized with an attempt to sum up his thought in the briefest possible compass, but not with this massive compilation of his least considered writings.

Nothing, moreover, could be less Emersonian than Professor Rusk’s meticulous editing. The reader constantly admires the editor’s diligence and ingenuity but is a little taken aback by the indiscriminateness with which he has exercised these virtues. Let us look at a sample of his footnotes. Here is a letter that he dates “January c, 2, 1818.” Emerson himself dated the letter “Jan 1817,” but he referred to the beginning of the year 1818. The footnote reads: “The correct year is given in the first sentence, and there is much other evidence of both the year and the approximate day of the month. A note by Emerson’s mother which follows on the same sheet is dated Feb. 2, 1818, and explains that Ralph left this unfinished and that she would have sent it earlier if she had seen it. Emerson’s statement that he is to begin teaching at Waltham on the 7th shows that the date is very early in January; and the reference to the brig ‘Hesper,’ which cleared for Kennebunk on Jan. 3 (Boston Patriot, Jan. 5, 1818), seems to leave only the first three days of the month as possible dates. The letters of Jan. 20, and Feb. 6? 1818, give accounts of his teaching and of his earnings during this college vacation, which was to end ‘3 weeks from the 24th, of January.’ ” Professor Rusk might have compiled, as further evidence, a list of famous men who have misdated letters written at the opening of a new year.

This footnote is only one of hundreds that might be quoted, partly in admiration, partly in wrath. Few individuals are so obscure that Mr. Rusk cannot hunt them down in some directory or newspaper. No event in Emerson’s life is too trivial to furnish him with an excuse for twenty lines of conjecture. There must be more than a thousand footnotes to a volume, and the index runs to just under three hundred pages. At the completion of the years of research that he has given to this enterprise, Mr. Rusk devotes more than half of his fifty-four page introduction to the subject of Emerson’s reading—a subject that lends itself to catalogues and quantitative measurements.

Not only is the editing a work of enormous piety; the volumes are admirably printed and bound. (The only typographical error I have happened to notice mars the very last page of the text.) Yet one wonders why, if such a piece of idolatry was to be undertaken, we could not have been given all the letters. Of the 509 letters that have been printed elsewhere, the great majority are difficult to come at, and some are almost inaccessible. Since some of the most important and interesting letters Emerson wrote are among them, it is a pity that Mr. Rusk, with the resources of Columbia University and the Albert H. Wiggin Fund behind him, did not arrange to republish them here. So elaborate and expensive a collection might at least be complete.

There are other questions that puzzle the reader. It is not easy, for one thing, to understand the editor’s treatment of letters that have been partly printed elsewhere. On page 195 of Volume Two, for instance, he notes that a long passage was omitted from a letter that appears in “The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson.” He does not print the passage. On page 214, however, he does print a passage excluded from the same book. Even more remarkably, on page nineteen of Volume Six he omits a sentence and a half, at the expense of all meaning, because the phrases have appeared in another work. Equally obscure is the principle he follows in printing the letters of Emerson’s correspondents in footnotes. One is delighted to find so many of Margaret Fuller’s letters, but it is not clear why they are included, nor is there any explanation for the appearance of several long letters from John Muir.

In general, however, though the reader may have his questions and his complaints, he can only be impressed with the thoroughness with which Mr. Rusk has done his job. But was the job, involving so much time and money, worth doing? Were Emerson’s letters a fit subject for such expense? It does not seem rash to answer, No, Emerson was not a great, nor even most of the time a very good, letter writer. With his egotistic, introspective character, it was inevitable that he should put the best of himself into his journals. The great majority of the letters here printed are of importance only to scholars in search of additional biographical information about Emerson or his contemporaries. The remainder are pleasant to read and amplify in some degree our knowledge of the man, but they do not change our fundamental conception of his character, and they tell us little or nothing about his ideas.

It is only in the most limited way that one feels, having read the six volumes, that one is better acquainted with Emerson. It is interesting, for example, though not very important, to know that in his early years he was a poor speller and not very sure of English grammar. More significant is the sense the letters give one of the part played by bad health, not only in his life but in the lives of most of his contemporaries. Everyone knows of the early death of his brothers and his first wife, but we have not realized how frequently he was ill himself or how repeatedly his plans were shaped by sicknesses in his family. Moreover, the letters constantly remind us of the frequency of premature death among his contemporaries, and the references to headaches and various obscure complaints are innumerable.

Even more impressive is the concern displayed with money. No one supposes that philosophers can live without eating, and we need not be surprised at Emerson’s attention to income and outgo, but it is a little disconcerting to find the dollar sign on every fourth or fifth page. In his early years the problem of an education for himself and his brothers demanded the most rigid economy, but after the settlement of his first wife’s estate there should have been no great difficulty. That bequest did, of course, give him a measure of financial independence, and it is hard to say what he would have done and been without it, but it did not relieve him of financial worry. His domestic arrangements seem to have been curiously complicated—with his brother William one is amazed to learn that in 1852 the Emersons had seven servants—and Lidian Emerson could not have been what Yankees call a good manager. There is the most bewildering record of borrowing and repaying, with minor crises every few months. Not until William Forbes became his son-in-law, and the Forbes family began to keep an eye on his affairs, was he free from anxiety. His impracticality is in accordance with convention, but the letters show none of the traditional indifference to money.

Indeed, whatever his preferences, Emerson had to devote a good deal of time to practical, commonplace matters. The correspondence about The Dial is chiefly interesting as showing that even transcendentalists cannot publish a magazine without some hullabaloo and much hard work. Emerson’s lectures involved the writing of many letters concerned with dates, arrangements, audiences, fees, and sometimes criticisms. (It is interesting to note that, as early as 1845, college presidents worried about the effect of speeches on collegiate benefactors.) The exigencies of his admirers also put heavy demands upon him, and, since he was uniformly generous, he was greatly plagued. Of the material changes that were taking place in American life, the one that probably affected him most was the building of the railroads, which shaped his career as a lecturer and brought him into touch with the West.

It is the more trivial letters that make such things clear, and that is, I suppose, their justification. Certainly in the main, as I have said, the volumes point to no drastic revaluation of Emerson’s personality and career. Perhaps the only letters that suggest a modification of earlier views are those that he wrote between 1839 and 1842 to Margaret Fuller, Caroline Sturgis, Samuel Gray Ward, and the younger El-lery Channing. Here, a little more sharply revealed, it seems to me, than ever before, we see the weaknesses of Emerson’s thinking—the tendency to sentimentality, the evasiveness, the romantic fondness for obscurity, the divorcing of theory from every kind of political and economic reality. Here at moments he stands on the edge of pure nonsense, rivaling even Margaret Fuller at her worst—which is something very different from her best. I am not suggesting that Emerson should be condemned on the basis of these letters, but I think his admirers ought to read and ponder them.

There is no space for a general estimate of Emerson’s work, and, as I have tried to make plain, the “Letters” offer no occasion for revaluation. I imagine that Professor Rusk will make further use of the knowledge he has acquired, and I wish I could convince myself that his book on Emerson, if he writes one, will be the study we so badly need. The scrupulous detection of details, however, is not in itself an adequate basis for such a study. The man who interprets Emerson to us will have to know Goethe well, and Coleridge, and the literature of the East, and Fourier, and even Sweden-borg. He will also have to know the first fifty years of the life of the nation as nobody today knows them. If Columbia’s money had contributed to the acquiring of that kind of knowledge, I should think it well spent.


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