Channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson

Robert Richardson discusses his Emerson bio, "The Mind on Fire," and the ways its story intersects with his own

Topics: LA Review of Books, Books, Ralph Waldo Emerson, literature, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson,

Channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

IN HIS BIOGRAPHY of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson writes “the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it.” This emphasis on the value of personal experience is the core of Emerson’s message; “there is properly no history, only biography,” Emerson wrote. The appeal to individual empathy inherent in this outlook is also a hallmark of Richardson’s work, which, in addition to Emerson, includes biographies of Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism ). While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of these subjects — the founding fathers of American intellectual life — is impressive, what astonishes is his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives. Richardson’s books bear the vivid energy of our most imaginative writers and belong, says John Banville, “among the glories of contemporary literature.”

Los  Angeles Review of Books

Richardson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent his early years in Medford and in Concord, Massachusetts. Today he lives in South Wellfleet and in Key West, where he and his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, are honorary directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. In this interview, which began on the Fourth of July and continued by email over the following weeks, Richardson discusses his work as a biographer, his own biography, and the points at which the two are woven together. We talk about John Keats’s theory of “negative capability,” about using Thoreau to find muskrats in the urban West, and about Dillard’s one-word key to understanding Emerson. Richardson, who spent a decade on each of the books discussed here and who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard, and Sichuan University in China, also gives valuable practical advice about how to stay organized, where to look online, and when to start writing; and he reminds us why “we can and must trust our best selves.”



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Arlo Haskell: In Emerson, you describe a meeting of the Transcendental Club that was held at Caleb Stetson’s house in Medford and attended by Emerson and Thoreau. Did I read this right? Is this the house you grew up in?

Robert D. Richardson: I did indeed grow up in the house at 141 High Street, and yes, it is the parsonage for the First Church in Medford and has been since 1789. But I’ve just recently learned that when Stetson was minister at Medford he lived in another house on the other side of High Street and 100 yards away. The house he lived in was torn down and there’s a Catholic rectory on the spot now. So Emerson did not attend a meeting at 141 High Street and the passage, one of the very few moments when I tried to insert myself into the book, has to come out. I hate to do it, but there it is. Nice spotting!

AH: I’d begun to wonder how literally I should take your remark that “all biography is at last autobiography.”

RR: I was thinking of Emerson saying all history is at last biography; it all comes down to what men and women have done. And if it’s not quite right to then say all biography is at last autobiography, it’s fair to say all biography is to be taken personally.

Biography certainly has an autobiographical element in that what’s interesting to the reader is the subject seen through the eyes of the writer, but most readers want the eyes of the writer to be pretty clear lenses with not a lot of ego involvement. Still, you can’t avoid asking who is doing the writing, and while a writer may try, as I do, to write by the historian’s rules (there should be evidence for any statement or claim), the writer is on his own when he chooses how to start, where to stop, what to foreground, what to ignore, what to quote, what to describe, and so on.

AH: After Medford, your family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, famous hometown of Thoreau and Emerson. Did their spirits still animate the place? Did you know their work at that time?

RR: When we moved I was already away at a boarding school, so Concord was summers, vacations, and holidays. And for a 15- or 16-year-old, Concord was pretty dull. No movie theatre, no bowling alley, no public tennis courts, no public swimming pool, no pool hall or community center. Walden Pond was there if you cared to walk all the way out there or could cadge a ride, but the best swimming was White’s Pond, which was privately owned and you had to belong. Concord was in many ways a great bore. Everything was Emerson this and Thoreau that and Hawthorne and Alcott by the way. From a young person’s point of view, Concord was drowning in its own past. We drove to Maynard for fun. My chief interests were not Emerson and Thoreau, but getting a car and meeting girls.

I read Thoreau later, in college. I didn’t get through the first chapter. When he said, “Many of you lead mean and sneaking lives,” I put the book down. “I don’t need this,” I said. I couldn’t face having been found out.

Many years later, with a PhD in hand, I went to teach in Denver, Colorado. I was supposed to teach American Literature so I read a lot of Thoreau, and one day I read a description of where to look for muskrats feeding along a stream. I went out and walked down to the stream 50 yards from my home in Denver, a stream called Harvard Gulch. It ran under a shopping center in a concrete box, then it came out and wandered west amid weeds and urban rubble. Thoreau said to look along the bank right at water level and to stand still for a few minutes and right where the grasses stuck up through the water you would see a muskrat if there were any. I stood still for a bit, and sure enough in a few minutes I saw a muskrat in the middle of the city 2,000 miles from Walden Pond. And I realized that Concord is where you are right now, and Walden Pond is the nearest body of water. Denver was my real Concord. That’s where I lived and work and where I eventually, around the age of 40, wrote a book about Thoreau.

AH: You describe Bronson Alcott as lacking “even a hint of negative capability,” Keats’s phrase for the essential poetic faculty, or as you put it, “the ability to set aside (one’s) own personality and enter imaginatively into the lives and situations of others.” What is the role of the creative imagination in the crafting of biography?

RR: A great question. I try to play by the rules of the historian, so I can’t make up dialogue or invent incidents, but one needs many of the tools of a novelist when it comes to deciding what to put in and how to put it. You can learn from a novelist how to use scenes, how to describe a person, how to focus on physical detail, how to foreshadow, how to make people laugh, how to move them, how to structure the story of an encounter, how much background to include, how much context to give or withhold. A biography lives not because of the factual load, but by being well written. Samuel Johnson liked to say that “that book is good in vain which the reader tosses aside.” Alfred North Whitehead praised William James for philosophical assembly; I think a biographer needs to concentrate on narrative assembly. What are the best parts? How do they go together? Those are the questions you have to answer.

The book I’m writing now is about a teacher of mine, Walter Jackson Bate, who had a huge impact on my life. He wrote biographies of Keats and Johnson and he thought that the study of greatness helped young people figure out who they were and what they might try to be. He loved biography because, as he kept saying, with Samuel Johnson, biography could be put to use. “Negative Capability” was his undergraduate thesis. And yes, we took it seriously to mean that one might try to leash one’s ego and empathetically enter into the lives of others.

AH: A practical question: Emerson’s handwritten journals took up 263 volumes; the index alone ran to more than 400 pages. How in the world do you keep your notes together?

RR: Organization is a big problem. Emerson took me 10 years. I had two three-ring notebooks for the chronology, which is one page for every three months. The left-hand half was for Emerson’s reading and writing. Tons of stuff from the notebooks and from letters went in here; I added fold-out half pages when needed. The right-hand half was for outside events and works. Then I had three notebooks with notes on Emerson’s writings, arranged chronologically. I had a Xerox file, alphabetically arranged, with pages and chapters and articles and whatnot; then a five-by-eight-inch index card file, eventually three of them, arranged by topic, such as “domestic life,” “Henry Thoreau,” “Margaret Fuller,” “religion,” etc.; then four notebooks called topics one, two, three, four, with elaborate notes on, say Swedenborg, Neoplatonism, Plotinus, etc. Then there’s a notebook called “Want to See” which lists everything you think you need to look at. Finally, a notebook called “Bibliographic Control” (this is the key, what makes the whole mess hold up), which has tables-of-contents for all the notebooks, as well as the Xerox file, the index-card files. Xeroxes of indices of manuscripts in libraries, etc., etc.

AH: Can you describe what it feels like to move from the research phase to the writing phase? How do you know when you know enough?

RR: When you start running into the same stuff over and over, it is time to think about writing. You need what Emerson calls “the casting moment,” that is the day or two days when you suddenly see it all and can outline it, hurriedly. Then you start writing, with the expectation that you have done about half the research. You’ll do the other half now as you go. Now it is important to write something every day so you don’t dry up or freeze up. When you are stuck, look at the chronology and it will tell you what happens next.

It really helps to have a couple of real people in mind as your readers, it helps with finding the right tone when you know who you mean to address. And in my case, with Emerson especially, I wanted my readers to sympathize and maybe identify with my subject’s struggles when young, and to see that it is possible to make something of life.

L: Your story about the muskrats in Denver reminded me of another piece of advice from Thoreau, one your wife Annie Dillard invokes in The Writing Life: “to find a honey tree, first catch a bee.” What changed in your writing after you met Annie?

RR: What changed? Everything. I could write a book, but I won’t. I learned from her that you have to go all out every day, every piece. Hold nothing back, the well will refill. She gave me the key to Emerson in one word: Wild. Emerson is wild. I also learned you don’t have to write every day, but you have to go in the room with the piece every day. She told me she looked at submissions from her students for any two words together that she’d never seen together. And finally, I learned I needed to read more. I read maybe 50 books a year that are not part of what I’m writing. She reads many times that. Most days, I’m not even good enough to get into one of her classes.

AH: Has your work been affected by the digitization of records?

RR: Digitization is coming, no doubt about it. But libraries are discovering that digital information decays over time and digital storage is not, at present, as permanent as paper and ink, so there is still a wait-and-see attitude. When I was using them heavily, neither the Thoreau, the Emerson, nor the James archives were digitized. They had been extensively microfilmed, and one could purchase rolls of microfilm with lots of archival stuff on it, letters, journals, notebooks. I used to think if it had been microfilmed it had been discovered and I was looking for things that hadn’t been discovered. But even that is changing. The digitizing of old newspapers and journals has brought a huge volume of great material to light and made it available and useful.

There is a website called rwe.org which has all of Emerson (though in an older edition) available and searchable. It’s a great place to start on Emerson. The greatest digital archive I know of is the Walt Whitman Archive run by Ed Folsom and Ken Price. This has all, and I mean all of Whitman’s verse in it, and much much more, and it is superior to even the best printed edition of Whitman. The Whitman Archive is a good look at the future of literary scholarship. With William James, there are lots of books and articles available now online and the best journal, William James Studies, is digital. There is now an online secondary bibliography for James and there will soon be an online bibliography of everything he is known to have read. What with microfilm, Xerox and digital material, one can do leading-edge scholarship from anywhere now.

AH: What are you working on now?

RR: I’m putting the finishing touches on the memoir-profile I mentioned earlier, about Walter Jackson Bate, a book to be called Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature. Jack Bate died more than 10 years ago; I’m doing the book with another of his students, John Paul Russo, and it’s a belated acknowledgement of the impact Jack had on my life and on many other students. Jack loved literature and it was a big part of his life. He inspired a couple of undergrads one year to charter a boat and take the whole English Department of the college out from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to see the rocks called the Dry Salvages that T.S. Eliot put in “Four Quartets.” Things like that.

And I’m about halfway through a first rough draft of a book on Omar Khayyam and his Rubáiyyát and Edward Fitzgerald and his Rubáiyyát. Khayyam was an eleventh-century Persian Astronomer, mathematician, and poet. He is said to have had two schoolfellows, one of whom, Hasan I Sabbah, became the founder of the sect of the Assassins, the Osama bin Laden of his era. The other was Nizam al Mulk who became the grand vizier to the Sultan of Persia when the empire stretched from China to the Mediterranean. Then after languishing for 700 years, the rubáiyyát (quatrains) were translated by Edward Fitzgerald and published in 1859. The pre-Rapahelites discovered him and soon there was a world-wide craze for Khayyam. His work was translated into 88 languages and there were over 500 editions by 1929. He was a major poet for Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. I want to tell the story of the eleventh-century Persian poems and also the nineteenth- and twentieth-century revival, translation, and transfiguration of the poems.

AH: Returning to Emerson, what is it about him that kept you going for 10 years? What links him, intellectually, to Thoreau and James?

RR: Emerson got me when he wrote that “the mind common to the universe is disclosed to each individual through his own mind.” Emerson is for me the best describer of real individualism, the best explainer of why we can and must trust our best selves. “Do your thing and I will know you,” he also said. In other words, Emerson gave me irrevocable permission to be myself.

In their pluralism, in their liberation from Puritanism, in their respect for mind, those three are, together and singly, voices for democratic individualism. Each voice counts. Every voice counts.

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