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  • Mourning Becomes Biography
  • Brenda Wineapple

A man, yet by these tears a boy again, Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves, I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter, Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them, A reminiscence sing.

Walt Whitman, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”

Fourteen months after his wife’s death, on March 29, 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson walked from Boston to the cemetery in Roxbuxry where she lay buried. “I visited Ellen’s tomb,” he wrote in his journal later that day, “and opened the coffin” (7). He said nothing more.

Unadorned and unexplained, Emerson’s gesture incarnates the drama of grief, human and macabre. A neophyte transcendentalist, twenty-eight years old, he stares at his wife’s remains as if to assure himself that she is really dead. Having looked, perhaps now he can say goodbye, transferring her safely into the realm of mind where she’ll doubtless suffer far less decay than in the grave. But whatever Emerson’s private motive for lifting the coffin lid, his curiosity is oddly akin to the biographer’s: who is this person, Emerson seems to be asking, where has she gone, and how can I square what she is with what she was?

Just a few months after peering into his wife’s tomb, Emerson considered writing a series of biographical lectures— not about his wife, that would have been too radical, too painful—but about so-called representative men. “I would evoke the spirit of each, and their relics might rot,” he [End Page 437] promised himself (1832), as if recalling his recent Roxbury visit. “I would walk among the dry bones,” he declared, “& wherever on the face of the earth I found a living man I would say here is life & life is communicable” (35). Death, evidently, is not. But some insight into its incomprehensibility, its outrage, and its baffling finality is what Emerson, like any biographer, is after.

Understandably—it’s a terrific start—the image of Ralph Waldo Emerson peeking into his wife’s coffin jolts the reader of Robert Richardson’s recent Emerson biography, Emerson: Mind on Fire (1995). Replete with suspense and a touch of the morbid, the image defies parochial wisdom about Emerson (a man without a handle, the elder Henry James once said). But both Emerson’s palpable grief and Richardson’s use of it signal something more than the one’s transcendent prurience or the other’s narrative craft. They suggest that at its heart biography resembles Emerson’s graveside mourning. At its heart, biography is a graveside mourning.

For with a curiosity as compulsive as Emerson’s, the biographer pries open coffins, beckoning the reader into a harrowing world where the dead are not quite dead, the forgotten never forgotten. After all, biography begins in loss. Loss lurks ‘round every corner. It nips at the biographer’s heels just when she thought she outmaneuvered it by resurrecting, so to speak, the dead. (For the biographer, even living subjects must “come to life,” which, if it means anything, means that biography depends on representation. And representation, of course, is a simulacrum of the what’s-not-there.)

Indeed, the entire biographical project is suffused with the sadness of loss. Amidst all her documents and between the lines of her prose, the biographer knows that whomever she seeks will not and cannot come to her. Still, like the mourner, she turns her subject over and over in her mind, remembering details that no one else notices or cares for. Her subject stands behind every door, in every empty shoe; and most of all, she knows that her subject is gone, missing, truant. So she sings, she itemizes, she catalogues with a fury of detail: like Walt Whitman, she speaks of things that teem with life, hoping they can fill a void. [End Page 438]

At the beginning of his Walt Whitman: A Life, Whitman’s biographer Justin Kaplan (1980), seats the good gray poet amidst the accumulated objects of a lifetime: “Civil War mementos, things under glass bells, whatnots, and dust catchers . . . manuscripts, old letterhead and billheads thriftily saved and written...

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