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Book Reviews

The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. Cambridge UP, 1999

Price paperback £13.95 hardback ISBN hardback 052149611X, paperback 0521499461. pp 280.

Reviewed by Madeleine Minson

In his introduction to this accessible collection of essays, Joel Porte points out that Ralph Waldo Emerson has often been regarded as ‘a sort of Transcendental rocket racing into trackless space’. Porte and Saundra Morris’s companion to Emerson does an excellent job of taking him down to earth. It covers a range of aspects of his life and work and reveals the sometimes vulnerable man behind the volatile transcendental abstractions. In line with current trends in Emerson research, it stresses the diversity of his achievement and the moments of hesitation in the midst of his confident rhetoric. Indeed, Emerson’s open-endedness, provisional statements and emphasis on constant change are more likely to inspire the reader in the twenty first century than his moments of cosmic optimism. As he put it, ‘I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.’

Topics covered range from Emerson’s family origins to his mature friendships; from his literary background to the influence his work has had; and from his early lecturing career to his late reflections in The Conduct of Life, via detailed explorations of his main works: Nature and Essays First and Second Series. The collection should appeal to students as it works very well as an Emerson starter kit, including as it does a comprehensive bibliography and a useful – if less thorough – chronology. Particularly successful are David M. Robinson’s overview of Transcendentalism and its intellectual origins, Robert D. Richardson Jr’s exploration of Emerson’s broad understanding of nature and Robert Weisbuch’s learned account of emerging-nation anxieties and modes of self-assertion in ‘Post-Colonial Emerson and the Erasure of Europe’.

The only time the emphasis seems slightly misjudged is when the analysis gets too intricate for an introductory purpose. Catherine Tufariello’s lengthy essay on Emerson’s influence on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson falls into this category, as does Morris’s close reading of Emerson’s poems. The collection as a whole is perhaps not as provocative a re-evaluation as the editors claim, but it nevertheless provides an urgently needed up-to-date introduction to Emerson that should make him accessible to new generations of readers. Emerson is not the kind of author you immediately develop a liking for but, as we are eloquently reminded here, he is well worth the effort. His literary significance still reverberates far beyond New England and is likely to keep on reverberating, if not quite rocketing. But who knows, for as Emerson pointed out in ‘Circles’, ‘Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess today the mood, the pleasure, the power of tomorrow’.

 

 

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