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Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait Hardcover – April 1, 1996
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An abundance of little-known details and disclosures graces Carlos Baker's last work of literary criticism, bringing to life not only Ralph Waldo Emerson the man, but also a whole cultural milieu known for its brilliance, artistic flowering, and progressive thinking. The portrait of Emerson emerges as if through a mosaic. We see him primarily through the eyes of others--their letters and journal entries--reminding readers that Emerson did not exist in a vacuum. The eccentrics of the title include such Concord transcendentalists as Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott, as well as many prominent intellectuals of the day (Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and the abolitionist John Brown). Many will find the details of this venerable American life familiar--the impoverished boyhood and physical fragility, the breaking from orthodoxy as a clergyman, and the tragic loss of a spouse--but most readers will enjoy the complex picture of the man pieced together through his friendships. Emerson's prickly but persevering relationship with Margaret Fuller is described in both of their letters and journals, rounding out an often one-sided account. Fuller was a brilliant, self-assured, thoroughly modern woman--a trait that would continue to repel and baffle Emerson throughout the long life of their friendship; for that, he seemed never quite able to forgive her.
Still, Emerson redeemed himself with his revolutionary break from European culture and the calcified thoughts of those who preceded him. His was a unique and inimitable independence that would come to characterize American intellectualism; however, the stubborn optimism that would taint Emersonian philosophy still lingers.
Famed literary critic Carlos Baker, who died in 1987, has left a substantial yet thoroughly engaging antidote to our often craven, corrupt, corporate-driven world. Emerson Among the Eccentrics recreates both the voices and visions of one of America's most distinguished and accomplished cultural periods. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
This painterly, highly accessible and penetrating study of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and his milieu was close to completion when Baker (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story) died in 1987. Oddly truncated, it begins with Emerson's 28th year and lacks a well-rounded conclusion. Yet by focusing on the social Emerson, Baker shapes a more nuanced portrait of the American Renaissance poet, essayist and thinker than Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), which gave more weight to Emerson's intellectual side. The eccentrics of Baker's title are the idiosyncratic community of friends and family in Concord, Boston and Lennox, Mass., and in New York-the "veritable host of hobgoblins and nightbirds," in Hawthorne's satirical phrase-who perpetually surrounded Emerson. These included his bristly, paradoxical neighbor, Henry Thoreau; the mad poet, Jones Very; Margaret Fuller, whose many ardent, unrequited infatuations included Emerson; and Walt Whitman, "who cultivated eccentricity as if he had a patent on it." Quoting from the journals and letters of Emerson and his contemporaries, Baker sketches these and other mystics, poets and radicals over whom Emerson presided as an agent of stability, a householder and husband, an intellectually eclectic counselor, sage and critic, forever torn between the pull of society and a need for solitude. Baker's narrative is a lively balancing act, full of evocative set pieces, houses, landscapes and well-drawn scenes of intellectual contretemps.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
I recommend it to everyone and anyone.
I also recommend the 30 lectures on CD about Transcendentalism by the professor from Dickinson College, whose name I don't recall.
Dec. 1, 2010
In Chapter 31, Baker describes the decision, by Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and W. H. Channing to write a biography of the late Margaret Fuller, "America's first feminist," who drowned at sea on a return tour of Europe. Emerson, writes Baker, "was certain that whoever undertook the task must pay the closest attention to the personalities who had surrounded Margaret. 'Leave them out,' said he, 'and you leave our Margaret.'"
Emerson's perceptive insight about writing Margaret Fuller's biography is taken to heart by Carlos Baker. His thesis is that one cannot know Ralph Waldo Emerson without paying the closest attention to the personalities who had surrounded him. Therefore, Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait is a biography not only of Emerson, but also of numerous others with whom he associated, such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Bronson Alcott, Jones Very, Theodore Parker, and Herman Melville.
The most famous of the New England "Transcendentalists," Emerson resigned his position as a clergyman when his first wife died. He believed that ethics, not theology, metaphysics, or religious doctrine, was the heart of Christianity, and he argued throughout his long life (1803-1882) for self-reliance, nonconformity to superannuated dogmas and liturgies, and for the "priesthood" of the lone individual who needs no mediator between himself and the "World-Soul." He proclaimed that "God" was immanently accessible both in nature and in man's soul.
Emerson's writings are brilliantly provocative, but one often is puzzled by the obscurity of his metaphysics. What exactly IS the "World-Soul"? Although Emerson spoke often of "God," one gets the feeling that his concept of deity was more radically "protestant" than often believed. Was it pantheism, or perhaps even atheism in clever disguise? He certainly rejected traditional forms of faith and praxis.
Indeed, one might ask, To what extent was Emerson truly a "Transcendentalist"? Was this a brand of philosophical idealism, a la the "two-worlds" dichotomy of Platonism? Or was it more like Paul Tillich's "God above the god of theism"? ... a humanistic seeking for wisdom, truth, love, and justice that was more anthropocentric than theocentric? Different readers of Emerson will doubtless come to quite different conclusions.
Carlos Baker, who is perhaps best known for his biography and criticism of Ernest Hemingway, died in 1987. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrant is his swan song, and a beautiful volume it is, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest thinkers, moralists, and philosophers that America has produced.
I needn't have worried about not having read much of Emerson's works. Although compelling enough as an account of the relationships of these diverse and fascinating individuals, it is sorely lacking in the area of focus on Emerson's writing. My impression was that Emerson has always been regarded more highly in American literature for his significance as an essayist than as a poet. Where in this book are those memorable phrases the `mute gospel', `the infinite lies stretched in smiling repose,' `a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds'? There is hardly a mention of essays such as "Self-Reliance" or "The Over-soul". Yet Baker spends three pages quoting from later poems of Emerson's and even includes the quotes from Wordsworth that inspired them. Also lacking in this book is the significance of Emerson's sermon repudiating the last supper as a sacrament. While not as overtly radical as his friend Thoreau and certainly not as militant as John Brown, Emerson's actions were revolutionary, especially in light of the New England standards of propriety and morality in his day. Much of his significance as a transcendentalist, the features that make him and his cohorts `eccentrics' in the mid-nineteenth century, is glossed over or omitted altogether. Meanwhile, Baker spends half a page describing the arrangements for Emerson's daughter's wedding.
In its favor, the book presents compelling portraits of some fascinating characters. Margaret Fuller was an early feminist who attempted to support herself by her writing. Her intensely passionate nature repelled the staid Emerson, who hardly knew how to react to her aggression. Only after she left America and was enabled to loosen up and live with an Italian and bear his child before they actually married. Tragically, on the return voyage to American all three perished when their ship struck a sandbar within 50 yards of shore off Fire Island, New York. Then there is the idealistic Bronson Alcott, whose lack of ability to provide sufficiently for his family necessitates the older daughters working while still adolescents. Even less practical is Ellery Channing, who ignores his wife and children to pursue impulsive desires to travel, often with funds provided from generous donors such as Emerson. Jones Very is a fundamentalist poet who fancies himself as the Second Coming of Christ and is hospitalized for his claims. Hawthorne seems to be a morose loner who is pleasant enough as a companion to Emerson although his writing never impresses the older mentor. Finally, there is Thoreau, who stays true to his principles to the end like a dutiful monk at the shrine of simplicity.
Emerson himself seems amiable enough as depicted by Baker although he never sufficiently conveys the quality in Emerson that drew so many people to him. To those who did not read his profound essays he would seem, at least based on his portrayal by Baker, to be a pleasant, mild-mannered former preacher that periodically utters pithy, quote-worthy words of wisdom.
There are many interesting anecdotes on some fascinating figures in this book. We see their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, the divergence of their emotional lives from their idealistic writings and the constrictions of social conventions upon all of them. There are also interminable catalogs of facts and trivia (such as the aforementioned wedding preparations), often of people we never really get to know. While I admire Baker's exhaustive research and commitment to following the threads of multiple lives (it was virtually finished at the time of his death and published posthumously), the book whetted my appetite for a book that really conveyed the person, mind and writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the flavor of life for him and his friends at that place and time.