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Re-Examining Emerson

ISSUE:  Summer 1979
Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time. By Joel Porte. Oxford. $15.95.

Any reader throwing up his arms in exasperation and railing that we simply do not need another book on Emerson would do well to secure a copy of Joel Forte’s Representative Man. By my own count there are no fewer than four new studies of the Concord sage this season, and this volume is far and away the most interesting, primarily because it is the first account of Emerson since Stephen Whicher’s Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1953) which successfully treats the complex relationship between Emerson’s writings (including the newly edited journals and notebooks) and Emerson the man. If some of the author’s conclusions seem startling or, as Forte’s other pet figure, Henry Thoreau, might have said, “extravagant,” the fault lies in ourselves as well as with previous critics, and involves a failure of historical imagination. As the title suggests, the vigor of this critical biography comes in good measure from a mind actively seeking to understand Emerson in his time, with tools well-tempered in the crucible of contemporary biographical and literary criticism.

Good Emersonian that he is, Porte has learned a lesson that might have improved many of the critical studies which have preceded this one (including his own Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalists in Conflict [1966])—quite simply, that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, particularly when critics seek to impose it on the complexity of Emerson’s life and work. Avoiding this pitfall, Porte reveals Emerson as a living presence, both challenged and confused by the demands his age made upon him, and displaying in his published works and private notebooks the ambivalence, the veritable inconsistencies, which make him one of the central figures in American intellectual history. Writing not a complete “life” of his subject—a task already accomplished in Ralph L. Rusk’s definitive biography—Porte is free to range over the key moments in Emerson’s spiritual narrative, addressing his subject by close, and yet imaginative, readings of documents he regards as particularly vibrant indices to Emerson’s intellectual development. Perry Miller’s Jonathan Edwards (1950), another study in which the life of the mind always is in central focus through the lens of the subject’s writings, is one of the models of literary biography Porte may have had in mind; but because of the greater wealth of material available to Emerson scholars, especially the psychological insights to be gleaned from the journals, Forte’s subject emerges as a much more interesting, if finally less imposing, figure.

It seems to me that method is a large part of this author’s success, for having dared such risks before (particularly in a delightful essay on, of all things, transcendental humor I), Porte is not afraid to challenge readers to a new understanding of Emerson’s intellectual problems. Eschewing a strictly chronological framework, he instead works cleverly with the four “seasons” of Emerson’s life, and neatly frames this structure, first with “Legends of An American Saint,” that is, assessments of Emerson by such admirers as Henry James and George Santayana, and then with “Representatives,” Emerson’s own wisdom regarding such “representative men” as Luther and Thoreau, both of whom Porte demonstrates to be figures against whom his subject measured his own shortcomings as well as achievements. The “seasons” themselves involve a study of Emerson’s mind at critical turning points in his career—”A Summer of Discontent,” for example, treats Emerson in 1838, the year he delivered two of his most searching discourses, the renowned Divinity School address and the lesser known, but equally revealing, “Literary Ethics,” given at Dartmouth a short time after the former address had shocked the fastidious Unitarians in Cambridge. Surely the “Essaying to Be” chapter, part of this “season,” will be regarded as one of the most important assessments of Emerson as he gingerly stepped into the shoes of the American Scholar.

But this book’s critical acclaim—or notoriety—will come from Forte’s provocative section entitled “A Winter’s Tale: The Elder Emerson,” in which (to my mind) he successfully combines intellectual and social history with some well-parried psychological thrusts. Earlier in the study Porte gave hints of the range of his historical imagination—for example, with his suggestion that when the young Emerson was composing the Divinity School address and “Literary Ethics,” Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian controversy of 1636—37 were as much on his mind as Hamlet’s psychological problems concerning his father. But it is in this penultimate section that he offers the freshest insights into not-often-studied aspects of Emerson’s career. His discussion of Emerson’s troubled awareness of ever-diminishing physical—indeed, sexual— powers, coupled with the concommitant belief that, given the “spermatic economy” to which the Victorian Age paid homage, his mental powers too would suffer diminution if he did not conserve or balance his energies, makes for suggestive (if troubling) reading, and partially explains why, especially after Margaret Fuller’s tragic drowning off Fire Island in 1850, Emerson’s exuberant spirits never again could be buoyed as easily as in the 1830’s.

At this stage Forte’s arguments draw all the more power from his compelling analogues to other historical spheres, viz. , for example, his linking Emerson’s oddly compulsive concern over his own monetary problems to the boom-and-bust economy of Jacksonian America. Or, in an even more suggestive parallel, comparing Horace Bushnell’s conservative theological arguments against the excesses of 19th-century revivalism (in his Christian Nurture) to Emerson’s growing distrust of excess of any kind. Not since (again) 1953, when Charles Feidelson called attention to the remarkable similarities between these two thinkers’ theories of poetic language have Bushnell and Emerson been so importantly linked. In his later years, then, Emerson is found to be a much more cautious and measured soul than the ebullience of “Self-Reliance” or even the grief-laden stoicism of “Experience” suggest, bringing to mind how much books like his The Conduct of Life (1860), a not frequently discussed work, may have been to blame for the saccharine quality of so much of the thought issuing from America’s Gilded Age.

Thinking about Emerson’s later years brings to mind one criticism of this study, for even though Forte’s structure does not demand his covering all the events in Emerson’s life, one wonders why such presumably important subjects as his relation to the Northern abolitionists and the traumas of the Civil War are not given extended treatment. We have been given hints to the meaning of the sectional crisis in Emerson’s life in such previous studies as Daniel Aaron’s The Unwritten War (1973) and George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War (1965), but even these two fine works do not treat Emerson in any great detail. In such subjects, it would seem, we might discover further ways of viewing Emerson vis-à-vis other significant men in his time, especially such near-contemporaries as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and James Russell Lowell, both of whom were so important in representing the interests of those who came to form The Genteel Tradition. Unlike the close focus on specific events in Emerson’s intellectual development which distinguished earlier sections of the volume, “A Winter’s Tale,” despite its wealth of suggestion, raises more questions than it answers. We yearn to know more about the years of Emerson’s life just before he began his slow ascension into the Oversoul.

The premise of Forte’s earlier study of Emerson and his younger Concord neighbor was that each of these men could be better understood when his life was juxtaposed to the other’s, as though new sparks would fly when the two men were placed in contact. But in the dozen years since the publication of his earlier effort Porte has come to realize (as he humbly admits in his preface) that in preparing the earlier volume he had been “inadequately respectful of Emerson’s complexities.” In this new volume he has come to his study with an “Emersonian latitude,” and the results justify his effort. “A man,” Emerson once declared, “is like a bit of Labrador spar, which has no lustre as you turn it in your hand until you come to a particular angle; then it shows deep and beautiful colors.” Emerson’s qualities are, of course, more gem-like than mere Labrador spar; but, just the same, Porte ably and honestly turns this great American before our eyes so that new colors are struck from each angle. He also succeeds in showing how Emerson in his time speaks to our own.


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