Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Emerson: The Mind on Fire

Robert D. Richardson Jr.

“A spark of fire is infinitely deep, but a mass of fire reaching from earth upward into heaven, this is the sign of the robust, united, burning, radiant soul.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, as much as any man who ever lived, was a man of ideas. It was ideas to which he devoted his life and ideas that are the core of his enduring presence. For those who revere Emerson, who have found in his ideas a lifetime of inspiration, it is hard to grasp the reality that “the purest of American seers” was also a man. It is hard to imagine the Emerson who passed the stew at the dinner table and planted his pear trees and kicked off his boots at the back door.

Robert Richardson, in Emerson: The Mind on Fire brings Emerson to life for us. He gives us a sense of the people and the relationships and the circumstances that made of his life a real life, a human life. We even come to know the Emerson with whom an average person might feel some kinship. “Waldo,” for instance, the third of six sons, was considered the least promising of the Emerson children. And who would imagine “America’s first philosopher” being a “hopeless dunce” at mathematics? Emerson, like many men, did not always express his feelings as fully as he experienced them, or to the liking of some of the women in his life. And he experienced enough tragic loss among his loved ones to bring a person to near numbness of feeling. Yet of all the virtues Emerson epitomized, in his writing and in his life, his boundless hope rose above them all.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire is an eloquent work of scholarship worthy of the author of “The American Scholar.” It also eludes one of the most poignant criticisms of Emerson’s own genius – that he lacked “the consciousness of his hearer’s mind as well as of his own.” Richardson possesses this consciousness to such a degree he holds the reader from beginning to end of this engaging life story. He presents this story in brief, digestible chapters, each devoted to another significant phase in Emerson’s life. And throughout, he deepens our understanding of Emerson’s written works by detailing for us the events in Emerson’s life that preceded them. It is one thing, for instance, to respond to and even feel Emerson’s essay “Experience.” It is another altogether to know of the deep grief Emerson was struggling with as he wrote this essay, to see him beholding his beloved five-year-old son Waldo playing in his privileged spot on his father’s study floor, to know of the suddenness with which scarlet fever stole little Waldo from his family.

There have been numerous biographies of Emerson since his death in 1882, and each of them has something of value to offer to readers in search of a deeper understanding of “The Sage of Concord.” Richardson’s 1995 Emerson: The Mind on Fire is likely to be considered henceforth the final and definitive one. This is not just because of the new material Richardson had available to him that was not available to previous biographers, but because of Richardson’s masterful absorption of all previous Emerson biographies. Most important was his lifetime of immersion in Emerson’s written works and in the works Emerson himself absorbed. Every moment one spends with Robert Richardson is spent with the man who knows Emerson best.

We at Gleam of Light, like so many people in America and throughout the world, have been devotees of Emerson since our earliest readings of him in our youth. We continue to grow into a deeper understanding of just how powerful his influence has been – in our development as human beings, as creative readers and writers, and as seekers after truth. As much as it is possible to be in awe of Emerson and at the same time imagine him as a real human being – as much as this is possible – Robert Richardson has made it so in Emerson: The Mind on Fire.

The Gleam of Light Team

Emerson: The Mind on Fire
Robert D. Richardson Jr.
1995, University of California Press

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