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First We Read, Then We Write

Emerson on the Creative Process

Robert D. Richardson

Publication Year: 2009

Writing was the central passion of Emerson’s life. While his thoughts on the craft are well developed in “The Poet,” “The American Scholar,” Nature, “Goethe,” and “Persian Poetry,” less well known are the many pages in his private journals devoted to the relationship between writing and reading. Here, for the first time, is the Concord Sage’s energetic, exuberant, and unconventional advice on the idea of writing, focused and distilled by the preeminent Emerson biographer at work today.

Emerson advised that “the way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.” First We Read, Then We Write contains numerous such surprises—from “every word we speak is million-faced” to “talent alone cannot make a writer”—but it is no mere collection of aphorisms and exhortations. Instead, in Robert Richardson’s hands, the biographical and historical context in which Emerson worked becomes clear. Emerson’s advice grew from his personal experience; in practically every moment of his adult life he was either preparing to write, trying to write, or writing. Richardson shows us an Emerson who is no granite bust but instead is a fully fleshed, creative person disarmingly willing to confront his own failures. Emerson urges his readers to try anything—strategies, tricks, makeshifts—speaking not only of the nuts and bolts of writing but also of the grain and sinew of his determination. Whether a writer by trade or a novice, every reader will find something to treasure in this volume. Fearlessly wrestling with “the birthing stage of art,” Emerson’s counsel on being a reader and writer will be read and reread for years to come.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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pp. 1-5

The first sentence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that reached me still jolts me every time I run into it. “Meek young men,” he wrote in “The American Scholar,” “grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero...

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pp. 7-17

“There is then creative reading as well as creative writing,” Emerson says in “The American Scholar.” “First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.” Reading is creative for Emerson; it is also active. In “History” he insists that “the student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his...

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Keeping a Journal

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pp. 19-21

The mature Emerson would look back on his voluminous journals as his savings bank. The phrase from the world of money seems feeble; it lacks the disastrous felicity—as Kenneth Burke called it—of, say, William James’s insistence on the “cash value of an idea,” but Emerson’s journals served...

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Practical Hints

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pp. 23-26

We do not usually think of Emerson as an intensely practical person. Give us Emerson for ideas, perhaps, but Thoreau for the practical application. But this is to ignore a side of Emerson that is enormously practical, even though the practicality may be masked by humor or drawn out—by fine attention...

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pp. 27-32

The practical, down-to-earth Emerson urges us, as we might have guessed, to look to nature for language. On this subject he once quoted Goethe, even though it meant a tussle with German syntax: “They say much of the study of the ancients but what else does that signify, than, direct your attention...

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More Practical Hints

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pp. 33-43

“A Plotinus-Montaigne” was what James Russell Lowell called Emerson, and the description has stuck, suggesting that there are two Emersons—one transcendental and idealistic, the other pragmatic and practical. The Plotinus side, the side that is sure that mind alone is real, and sure of both Primal...

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The Language of the Street

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pp. 45-48

Emerson pointedly preferred the language of the street and of action to that of the study. “Life is our dictionary,” he says in “The American Scholar.” Years are well spent in country labors; in town; in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one...

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pp. 49-52

One modern critic has wondered how Emerson wrote as well as he did, considering how little faith he had in words as such. It is an empty judgment. Emerson loved language as much as any poet does, but he understood that reality is larger than language. If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many...

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pp. 53-57

Words are the writer’s clay; the sentence is the writer’s brickmold. For Emerson the sentence—not the paragraph and not the essay—is the main structural and formal unit. This was a deliberate, self-conscious matter. He was endlessly curious about sentence mechanics, and he combed his reading...

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Emblem, Symbol, Metaphor

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pp. 59-63

If language begins in the street, so do symbols and metaphors. “The schools of poets and philosophers are not more intoxicated with their symbols than the populace with theirs,” he says in his 1844 essay “The Poet.” In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See the great ball which they roll from Baltimore to Bunker Hill! In the political processions Lowell...

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pp. 65-70

Henry James once gave it as his reason for leaving Paris to live in London that in France, in those days, it was impossible for an American to be admitted to the best society, whereas in England James found he was welcome everywhere if he would just take pains to make himself entertaining. I remember...

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Art Is the Path

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pp. 71-76

Though we often think of Emerson as an essayist, his strongest and most lasting self-identification was as a poet. He told Lydia Jackson when he was courting her that poetry was his vocation, noting wryly that his singing was very husky and “is for the most part in prose.” By “poet” he meant “verse-maker,” and something more...

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The Writer

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pp. 77-83

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Emerson’s understanding of the poet as representative, as standing for the poet in each of us. And while we continue to think of his 1836 book Nature as his central, necessary book, there is an argument that his 1850 book Representative Men is his most useful...

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pp. 83-85

No one can maintain the heroic, the Promethean tone all the time. Emerson came to adopt, for most of his writing, a calmer rhetoric, a muted bravado, but a bravado nonetheless, which breaks out from time to time with unexpected heat. Toward the end of Nature, for example, Emerson turns...

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pp. 87

Thanks first of all to Joe Parsons, whose interest in this project got me to resurrect and finish it. Amanda Gladin-Kramer transcribed illegible notes, ran down innumerable references, and was an enthusiastic and indispensable research assistant. I will always be grateful for the work—and even more for the...


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pp. 89-98


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pp. 99-101

E-ISBN-13: 9781587298424
E-ISBN-10: 1587298422
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587297939
Print-ISBN-10: 1587297930

Page Count: 111
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882 -- Knowledge and learning.
  • Creation (Literary, artistic, etc.).
  • Creative writing.
  • Books and reading.
  • Authors, American -- 19th century -- Biography.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access