It took me a long time to read Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson. It’s a thick biography, very thorough, with small print. I have the hardcover edition and I must say the paper the publisher used is very nice, smooth and creamy, not bright white, so it isn’t as hard to read the small print as you might think. And even though the book is long, the chapters are short, usually less than ten pages, often less than five.
There is no way I could possibly sum up a life like Emerson’s so I won’t even try. When I read biographies I often expect to find a scandal or two, the dirt, gossip, a juicy story. Emerson turns out to have been just an all around good guy. This is not to say he didn’t have issues. His first wife, Ellen, was the love of his life and she died of TB quite young and only a few years after the two had been married. Emerson eventually remarried. He loved Lidian but she was not Ellen. Emerson made it clear to Lidian that he loved her, but he also made it clear that he loved Ellen more. How sad is that? Of course this caused problems in their marriage, mostly for Lidian. Sadly, and not, perhaps, surprisingly, when Emerson’s memory began to go later in his life Lidian came into her own. In their younger days she was often ill. She frequently had difficulty running the household and had to higher servants. She was grateful for the help though often intimated by them. But as Emerson aged and ailed, Lidian grew stronger, joined the suffrage movement, attended meetings, lectures and other community events. And of course, took care of Emerson who knew he was losing his memory and was distressed by it. That’s the worst that can be said about the man.
Emerson was a tireless worker and a dedicated friend. He not only supported his own household with an income garnered mainly from lecturing, but he also sent money to his brothers who would sometimes get themselves into financial difficulties. He was great friends with Bronson Alcott, Carlyle, Thoreau, and many other men of prominence in New England and abroad. He was Carlyle’s US agent, would find publishers for Carlyle’s work in America, edit and prepare the manuscripts for printing, sell the books, and then send Carlyle the money. Thoreau lived with the Emersons for a number of years and it was Emerson’s land that Thoreau built his famous cabin on at Walden Pond. Emerson and Thoreau had a bit of a falling out at one point in their relationship. Neither would talk about what it was that caused the break, but they eventually made up and were good friends until Thoreau’s death.
Emerson and Lidian were ardent abolitionists. Emerson gave numerous speeches calling for the end of slavery. He and Lidian attended meetings and their house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Massachusetts was a free state but would send runaway slaves back to their owners in the South. The Emersons would harbor runaway slaves that frequently arrived by boat, then help them on their way further north.
I mentioned earlier that Lidian joined the suffrage movement. Emerson supported women’s suffrage too and was even asked to be president of a local suffrage group. He refused, but not because he didn’t believe in the cause. He just had too many other things on his plate. In his essays and lectures it is always men this and man that and he rarely mentioned women. I thought it odd since he was good friends with Margaret Fuller, who, it seems wanted to be more than “just friends,” which Emerson tried to ignore because he valued her friendship but couldn’t figure out a way to tell her he could give her nothing else. But I digress. Emerson believed in a male and female principle in nature and thought the hermaphrodite the symbol of a “finished soul.” And, according to Richardson, even though Emerson mostly used masculine pronouns in his lectures and essays as well as using men as examples, Emerson really did use “man” to mean “human.” I think Richardson is right, however, if one never read beyond the essays, one would never know this. Still, Emerson can’t be faulted for not making it more obvious he included women in his philosophy as equal to men. Use of a masculine pronoun was convention at the time and it wasn’t until not that long ago that that changed.
I could go on and on about all the interesting things in this biography. I already respected Emerson from all the reading of his work I have been doing. Emerson: The Mind on Fire made me admire him even more. Emerson believed that there was no history, only biography. By this he meant that if you want to learn about the past, the best way to do it is to study the lives of those who lived it. He also believed that by studying the biographies of great people, of representative people, we could learn how to improve our own lives. Even if you have no interest in reading Emerson, if you like reading biographies, this one is worth your time.