restricted access Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age by Robert D. Habich (review)
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Rev. of Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age. By Robert D. Habich. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2011. 216pp.

For almost a century, the image of Emerson bequeathed to students of American literature was that of an ethereal sage, who might have sparked young dissidents but was himself serene, judicious, and paternal. My first memory of Emerson is from a 1980s film shown to my Unitarian youth group as we pestered for definitions of our beliefs. The film dully listed famous Unitarians, so that by its end, we had much hee-hawing about someone noted who wanted to become a Unitarian but, alas, died before he could commit. Emerson appeared simply as a distinguished representative, his quarrels with the more conservative Unitarian establishment unmentioned.

Investigation into the construction of this problematically dispassionate reputation motivates Robert D. Habich’s exemplary scholarship in Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age (2011). Even if one is not in a Unitarian youth group, Habich’s exploration of the first six biographies of Emerson is compelling. This is the first complete study of the six, written between 1881 and 1889 by men who knew Emerson personally, though in varying degrees of intimacy. George Willis Cooke (Ralph Waldo Emerson [1881]), a Midwestern minister, found spiritual inspiration in Emerson’s writings and in 1881 attended Bronson Alcott’s Transcendental club in Concord where he met Emerson briefly. Alexander Ireland (In Memoriam [1882], later titled Ralph Waldo Emerson), a newspaper publisher in Manchester, England, met Emerson, traveling in Scotland after the death of his first wife. Decades later, Ireland arranged the lecture schedules for Emerson’s British tour. Moncure Conway (Emerson at Home and Abroad [1882]), a Southerner, found support for his rejection of slavery in Emerson’s writings and lived in Concord for a year, before moving to Europe. Oliver Wendell Holmes (Ralph Waldo Emerson [1885]), noted for his criticisms of American Transcendentalism, socialized monthly with Emerson at the meetings of the literary and civic Boston Saturday Club. James Elliot Cabot (A Memoir [1887]), [End Page 427] also a member, was known for his conscientiousness and was thus selected by Emerson as literary executor over Emerson’s son, Edward (Emerson in Concord [1889]).

Habich, president of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society and editor of the Emerson Society Papers, skillfully culls material relevant to understanding the intellectual, literary, and commercial contexts affecting the composition of these biographies. His work is meticulously organized and informed by original study of unpublished diaries, letters, memoirs, notebooks, and scrapbooks, as well as of other kinds of primary documents, such as records from cemeteries, churches, colleges, and counties, among others. Each biographical chapter is divided into four sections (five when he considers texts linked together like Cabot’s and Edward Emerson’s). Section one describes the writer and his relationship to Emerson; section two the process of writing and the kinds of material available; section three the biography itself; and section four, its reception. Chapter one, “A Genre in Transition,” an expansion of Habich’s editorial introduction to Lives Out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation (2004), outlines the thorny issues affecting the writing and reception of biographies as the genre changed. During the Victorian era, biographies focused on exemplary lives in ways that “served to stabilize genteel ideologies like civic responsibility, progressive thinking, and domestic constancy” (3). But increasingly, as biography became something of an industry, the public demanded more personal and revelatory details. A reputable biographer had to balance favorable representation of public figures, which required “privacy,” with the public’s demand for disclosure. Accuracy could have unfortunate repercussions, as Habich illustrates with the example of James Anthony Froude. Froude, “a trusted companion, protégé, and literary executor” to Thomas Carlyle—and known personally by Emerson, Cooke, Ireland, and Conway—quoted from diaries, letters, and memoirs in his biography, thus disclosing Carlyle’s misanthropy, ill-temper, and marital difficulties (5). Shocked, readers and critics charged Froude with being “artfully malignant” and practicing “gross indelicacy” (5). But choosing to disclose...