John F. Callahan

By Carlos Baker. Introduction and epi- logue by James R. Mellow. Viking. 672 pp. $34.95

Read Time:
3m 42sec


By Carlos Baker. Introduction and epilogue by James R. Mellow. Viking. 672 pp. $34.95

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a stern critic of preachers. After hearing Barzillai Frost, the junior associate of Ezra Ripley at the First Church at Concord, preach an interminable, abstract sermon during a snowstorm in March 1838, Emerson wrote in his journal: "He had no one word intimating that ever he had laughed or wept, was married or enamoured, had been cheated, or voted for, or chagrined. If he had ever lived or acted we were none the wiser for it." It was in response to the aptly named Reverend Frost that Emerson declared that "the true preacher deals out to the people his life,—life passed through the fire of thought." This was also Emerson’s standard for the writer, the teacher, the scholar, and the politician. He expected the same immediacy and vividness from his intercourse with friends—even when it took the inspiriting form of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "hospitable silence."

In this posthumous biography, the late Carlos Baker, professor of English at Princeton University, brings the "fire of thought" to life through Emerson’s pursuit of friendship. Despite an occasional cranky misanthropy and a persistent resistance to intimacy, Emerson over and over embraced friendship’s risk and vulnerability as the necessary companion to solitude.

Emerson Among the Eccentrics (an unfortunate title that condescends to its subject) puts Emerson at the center of the lives of the prominent men and women of letters and ideas of the period 1830–80. Baker’s potentially dreary decade-by-decade organization is relieved, at times brilliantly, by bringing Emerson’s friends to the forefront. This is a biography of intertwined lives: Emerson and Margaret Fuller Ossoli, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel and Sophie Hawthorne, Jones Very, Henry David Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and, in the farther reaches of the circle, Walt Whitman, John Brown, and even Abraham Lincoln. These and other figures in the 19th-century pantheon maintain vital connections, if not always friendship, through thick and thin, agreement and disagreement, proximity and distance, joy and sorrow.

Baker’s narrative shows how Emerson’s presence and correspondence, those twin complements to his lectures and essays, held this informal congregation together. Reviewing Emerson’s second book of essays for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Margaret Fuller wrote: "History will inscribe his name as a father of his country, for he is one who pleads her cause against herself." As this tribute suggests, Emerson sought to discern the singular American nature of his fellow citizens’ shared language and technology (the railroad is a theme running through this biography), as well as their ideals and compromises— whether personal, aesthetic, political, or moral. Emerson admired Lincoln as an apotheosis of the vernacular American, a man who "grew according to the need." Like Lincoln’s, Emerson’s struggle for union and unity was both private and public: toward the end of his life, when mind and memory were failing, the lecture platform was as much home to him as his study.

Carlos Baker died in 1987, before he could write an introduction pondering "Emerson’s philosophy of friendship." According to James R. Mellow, a biographer in his own right and the author of the book’s introduction and epilogue, death also prevented Baker from writing " ‘Exuent Omnes,’ presumably a summary closure to the lives of the remaining cast of characters." Notwithstanding Baker’s original slant on Emerson and his friends, there is a diminished quality about the book’s waning chapters, all the more poignant because they describe Emerson’s waning powers. The book also contains some regrettable errors: "Come live with me, and be my love" is Christopher Marlowe’s line, not John Donne’s. And the opening chapters on Emerson’s family seem flat and out of kilter with the rest. A more active editorial hand, and a more ambitious epilogue, would have helped. Nonetheless, Emerson Among the Eccentrics will be an essential book. Its inspired reconfiguration of oft-quoted materials and anecdotes shows that friendship was the compost for the New England soil from which sprang Emerson’s contribution to American life and letters.

—John F. Callahan


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