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Building Their Own Waldos

Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age

Robert D. Habich

Publication Year: 2011

By the end of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was well on his way to becoming the “Wisest American” and the “Sage of Concord,” a literary celebrity and a national icon. With that fame came what Robert Habich describes as a blandly sanctified version of Emerson held widely by the reading public. Building Their Own Waldos sets out to understand the dilemma faced by Emerson’s early biographers: how to represent a figure whose subversive individualism had been eclipsed by his celebrity, making him less a representative of his age than a caricature of it.
Drawing on never-before-published letters, diaries, drafts, business records, and private documents, Habich explores the making of a cultural hero through the stories of Emerson’s first biographers— George Willis Cooke, a minister most recently from Indianapolis who considered himself a disciple; the English reformer and newspaper mogul Alexander Ireland, a friend for half a century; Moncure D. Conway, a Southern abolitionist then residing in London, who called Emerson his “spiritual father and intellectual teacher”; the poet and medical professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, with Emerson a member of Boston’s gathering of literary elite, the Saturday Club; James Elliot Cabot, the family’s authorized biographer, an architect and amateur philosopher with unlimited access to Emerson’s unpublished papers; and Emerson’s son Edward, a physician and painter whose father had passed over him as literary executor in favor of Cabot.
Just as their biographies reveal a complex, socially engaged Emerson, so too do the biographers’ own stories illustrate the real-world perils, challenges, and motives of life-writing in the late nineteenth century, when biographers were routinely vilified as ghoulish and disreputable and biography as a genre underwent a profound redefinition. Building Their Own Waldos is at once a revealing look at Emerson’s constructed reputation, a case study in the rewards and dangers of Victorian life-writing, and the story of six authors struggling amidst personal misfortunes and shifting expectations to capture the elusive character of America’s “representative man,” as they knew him and as they needed him to be.


Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. ix-xi

Writing a narrative based in archival sources is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without having the box it came in: you don’t know till the end what the picture looks like, and you’re never quite sure you have all the pieces. While writing this book I have incurred a number of debts to those who have helped me to complete the puzzle. For permission to use ...

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pp. xiii-xxv

In late 1884, just past his seventy-fifth birthday, Oliver Wendell Holmes took stock of the two years of work on his recently completed biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On the positive side, he had come to better appreciate Emerson’s complex thought and writing, even feeling some “vibrations” of spirituality from working on the project; and his...


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pp. xxvii-xxviii

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1. A Genre in Transition: Biography in the 1880s

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pp. 1-11

In November 1877 James Elliot Cabot received a letter from Edward Waldo Emerson, asking him to write his father’s biography. Cabot had already agreed some two years earlier to serve as Emerson’s literary executor, making sense of the mountain of manuscript drafts, journals, lectures, notebooks, and letters that constituted Emerson’s literary legacy. Working ...

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2. An Act of Wholesome and Pure-hearted Admiration: Emerson’s First Biographer, George Willis Cooke

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pp. 13-37

In 1918, to commemorate his seventieth birthday, the Free Religious Association of Boston hosted a reception for George Willis Cooke¹ at the Unitarian Building on Beacon Street. It was a mild April afternoon, punctuated with light rain, and the turnout was good—some two dozen ministers attended, and many old friends, including Edward Waldo Em-...

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3. Biographers and the Pornographer: Conway, Ireland, and “Emerson and His Friends”

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pp. 39-72

Of all the early biographers, Alexander Ireland (1810–1894) knew Emerson nearly the longest but probably the least well. Theirs was an accidental friendship. Ireland was pressed into service at the end of Emerson’s first European tour, in August 1833, when his host in Edinburgh, Dr. John Gairdner, backed out at the last minute due to the press of “professional ...

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4. Diagnosing the Gentle Iconoclast: Dr. Holmes on Emerson

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pp. 73-97

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s Ralph Waldo Emerson appeared in December 1884, the fourth major biography of Emerson in three years and the seventh volume in Houghton, Mifflin’s American Men of Letters series. It was a quick and documentable success, at least measured by its brisk sales, which catapulted it within its first month well past any competing ...

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5. Authorizing Emerson’s Biography: Cabot and/or Edward Emerson

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pp. 99-120

From 1875 through 1882, James Elliot Cabot (1821–1903) served as literary executor to a writer still living—very much like the relationship James Anthony Froude had with Thomas Carlyle. That Cabot was able to escape Froude’s notorious fate as Emerson’s fifth biographer is due in part to what Edward Emerson would years later call a “perfectly upright” rec-...

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6. Shelf Life: The Legacy of Emerson’s First Biographies

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pp. 121-134

The exhaustion of interest in Emerson’s biography by the close of the 1880s did not signal flagging attention to Emerson himself. By the end of the nineteenth century, as numerous critics have shown, his cultural usefulness was being vigorously asserted and debated. Yet the early biographies seem to have had little effect on Emerson’s developing iconization. ...


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pp. 135-168


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pp. 169-180


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pp. 181-186

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299636

Page Count: 186
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 719387781
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Building Their Own Waldos

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Subject Headings

  • Authors, American -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882 -- Criticism and interpretation -- History.
  • American prose literature -- History and criticism.
  • Biography as a literary form.
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