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  • Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age
  • Bonnie Carr O’Neill (bio)
Robert D. Habich. Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2011. xxviii + 134 pp. + notes. ISBN 978-1587299629, $29.95.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply interested in biography’s centrality to human history—it is, for him, a record of certain individuals’ abilities to influence or reflect their times, and it provides a blueprint to the kind of personal power that others might cultivate in themselves. This view of biography is [End Page 839] entirely absent from the six biographies of Emerson himself that Robert Habich examines in Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age. The biographers whom Habich discusses are aware of the power of their subject, and they attempt to direct that power, like an electric current, so that it turns the wheels of their own cultural values. As Habich puts it, the problem Emerson’s first biographers confronted was “how to represent a figure whose subversive individualism had been eclipsed in his later years by his celebrity, making him less a representative of his age than a caricature of it—the ‘Sage of Concord’” (xiii). These writers aimed to explain Emerson’s power or significance while at the same time satisfying the public curiosity engendered by his celebrity.

To do this work, Emerson’s biographers inevitably entered into “the debate over the nature of biography” in play in the late nineteenth century (6). In short, that debate concerned how much of the subject’s private life to disclose publically. As Habich explains, the Victorian value of privacy conflicted with “biography’s cultural mandate, to validate ideologies of nationality, gender, and race by making public the lives of representative men and women” (6). In the case of Emerson, the biographers tend to validate a national ideology based on balanced character, or what in one chapter Habich calls sanity. Interpretations of Emerson’s balanced character acknowledge his intellectualism and emphasize his optimism but avoid or even omit from the account the radicalism of his Romantic individualism. The biographers look to Emerson’s personal behavior and habits only as evidence of his expressed character, and by and large squelch unseemly curiosity about his private life.

The cultural value of privacy, and competing ideas over how to honor it in biography, are demonstrated in the three earliest treatments of Emerson, all written or begun while the subject himself still lived but prepared with different levels of access to him, his family, and his circle of acquaintances. Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Life, Writings and Philosophy (1881) by George Willis Cooke distinguishes “between the personal and the characteristic ” (31, italics original). For Cooke, personal behaviors matter only as expressions of “the inner character,” and “by excluding the private and idiosyncratic through his biographical lens, Cooke at once accommodated the practicalities of his situation as a biographer and rescued Emerson from his Transcendental legacy” (32). Likewise, Alexander Ireland’s In Memoriam: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1882) distinguishes the personal from the private in his treatment of Emerson, and emphasizes “the application of his philosophy to his personal behavior that revealed his character ” (56, italics original). The focus on personal character, Habich argues, fit Ireland’s agenda of representing Emerson “as socially relevant and philosophically nonthreatening” (57). [End Page 840] By contrast, Emerson acolyte Moncure Conway sought “to humanize Emerson by placing him always in the company of others” (68). His Emerson at Home and Abroad (1882) represents “Emerson the social animal” and refutes conventional views of him as “the noble loner” (69).

Habich’s book is especially strong in considering the three most influential early biographies of Emerson, those by Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Elliot Cabot, and the subject’s son, Edward Emerson. Holmes’s Ralph Waldo Emerson (1885)—by far the most popular of the early biographies—is, in Habich’s reading, a nuanced portrait of the man Holmes knew and respected but disagreed with philosophically. Although reluctant to expose Emerson...