- Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Transcendentalism
As William Rossi noted in this chapter last year, tidal waves of scholarship tend to follow periods of comparative calm, and 2012 proves him correct in his prediction of “another big one on the horizon.” Though the year sees a lull in the production of textual scholarship (we await more on the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau editions in the near future), it is marked by the publication of a new biography of Margaret Fuller, an important collection of essays on Thoreau and philosophy, a commemoration of Thoreau’s legacy on the 150th anniversary of his death, groundbreaking studies of Emerson, England, and transatlanticism, and several important books that situate Transcendentalism in larger philosophical, postcolonial, European, and romantic contexts.
i Ralph Waldo Emerson
While we anticipate volume 10 of Harvard’s Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which will bear a publication date of 2013, a popular version of Emerson’s more accessible writings appears in 2012. The Annotated Emerson, ed. David Mikics, with a foreword by Phillip Lopate (Harvard), is not so much a scholarly edition as a reader’s collection informed by good scholarship. Included here are selections from Emerson’s published writing through the 1862 essay on Thoreau, along with a handful of poems. Annotations appear conveniently in the margins, though not always next to the item they annotate, and the book is heavily illustrated. Lopate examines the issue of Emerson’s “problematic [End Page 3] normalcy,” which he believes makes Emerson seem less interesting to younger readers.
b. Biography, Contemporaries, and Sources
By far the most significant contribution this year to our understanding of Emerson’s life is Daniel R. Koch’s Ralph Waldo Emerson in Europe: Class, Race, and Revolution in the Making of an American Thinker (Tauris), a study of the impact of Emerson’s English lecture tour in 1847–48 on his developing social vision. Koch’s thesis is both broad and subtle: driven overseas by an acute sense of “despair, confusion, and melancholia,” Emerson “returned to America with a clear desire to recreate some elements of the civil society he experienced in Britain” as well as “a considerable transatlantic network of contacts.” The effects of his European experience were galvanic: “When Emerson returned, his writings on reform would forever be infused with his experiences of the British Chartists, who agitated for the rights of the working class, and of the Socialist revolutionaries in Paris. His work on race and fate would be intertwined with a set of collected observations of Anglo-Saxons, Frenchmen, and Celts. His thought on class and inequality would be affected by both the ‘natural aristocracy’ that he found to be the backbone of Britain’s power, and by the impoverished beggars who lined the streets of the nation’s great cities.” Koch makes this argument deftly, using Emerson’s lectures, letters, and journals as well as published accounts of his appearances in British and French periodicals (listed in a valuable appendix) and writing graceful yet detailed prose that integrates publication history, biography, and politics. Koch does not overstate the causality: despite the impact of his European experience, Emerson still struggled with his social conservatism after his return from England. Koch’s excellent history joins Townsend Scudder’s The Lonely Wayfaring Man: Emerson and Some Englishmen (1936), William Sowder’s Emerson’s Impact on the British Isles and Canada (1966), and Larry Reynolds’s European Revolutions and the American Renaissance (2011), but differs from them in emphasizing Emerson’s response to European culture rather than his reception abroad. One measure of the impact of England on Emerson is discussed in Tom F. Wright’s “Listening to Emerson’s ‘England’ at Clinton Hall, 22 January 1850” (JAmS 46: 641–62). In this account of Emerson’s presentation amid a wave of anti-British agitation in New York City, Wright positions lyceum lectures in the larger context of performance culture and shows how newspapers employed Emerson’s lecture to reinforce “Anglo-American kinship.” [End Page 4]
Two fine essays by Wesley T. Mott continue his historical examination of Emerson’s sources and his wide circle of influence. In “The...