- "You Are the Book's Book"Robert Richardson's Emersonian Workshop
Ralph Waldo Emerson (2001: 60) practiced what he called, thinking of the scholar's use of books, "creative reading." Within the last thirty years, one of the most attentive followers of Emerson's scholastically creative reading has been Robert D. Richardson. Richardson's intellectual biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), is demonstrably Emersonian in the ways the biographer remains on the lookout for all we can learn from this writer's reading of the world. Richardson's biographical study furthers a critical reassessment of Emerson, advanced since the 1970s by scholars such as Joel Porte (2001) and Richard Poirier (1987), where Emerson is recovered from dismissal as genteel philosopher of mere romanticism and returned to the domain of the writer and rhetorician: in Joel Porte's (2001: 684) phrasing, we return to Emerson's "imaginative materials and structures of his writing … the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand." In his most recent book, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (2009), Richardson returns to the subject of Emerson's "executing hand." This new work presents an Emerson on a much smaller scale than the first biography — twelve short chapters in eighty-five pages of text — and with a sharper focus, one that meditates on, and frequently quotes in generous [End Page 225] portions, Emerson's reflections on the creative process of writing in chapters that include "Practical Hints," "More Practical Hints," "Words," "Sentences," "Audience," and "The Writer." Richardson introduces the purpose for his book by way of a contradiction. Though writing "was the central passion of Emerson's life," and though he wrote about poetry (his essay "The Poet," most famously) and various writers (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe), Emerson "never wrote an essay on writing." Richardson's initial answer as to why this was so may surprise many, given the author's status as one of the great essayists in English: Emerson struggled through his writing and "had impossible, unreachable ambitions as a writer himself" (1).
Richardson's premise is that we can learn, much as Emerson learned, from the "writer himself," from Emerson's difficult yet determined experiences with writing. Richardson sets out to re-collect the various pieces and hints of Emerson's never-written, or at least never-finished, personal essay on the creative process of writing. As Richardson sees it, those pieces, culled from the lines of journals, lectures, essays, and conversations with young writers, reflect Emerson's sustained interest in learning about writing practically from his reading. "When he read," Richardson asserts in "More Practical Hints," "Emerson was always on the lookout for what it could teach him about writing" (35). In gleaning the practical lessons of Emerson's writing process, Richardson recalls for us an unfamiliar Emerson, a writer who thinks about the creative process of writing: what he refers to as "the less well-known, the workshop side of the man" (71).
Richardson's "workshop side" offers an Emerson invested personally and practically in the process of how a writer learns to write: all three of these italicized words figure prominently in Richardson's discussion. Much as a writing workshop, then, Richardson's Emerson is pedagogical in his pragmatism. Emerson learns to write by writing and writes in response to what he learns from his reading. As such, Richardson's workshop Emerson should be of interest to those who teach this author in a literature course, who seek to track Emerson's "executing hand" behind the Romantic philosophy, the poetic and rhetorical machinery (to echo Kenneth Burke ) behind the transcendence. While I teach in several of those classrooms, including an Emerson seminar, I also teach writing in composition courses. In reviewing Richardson's compelling focus on Emerson's "process of writing" (25), particularly the attention he gives to the personal and honest struggle that informs the pragmatism of the writing, I want to turn our attention to the ways this book might support or, as the case may...