- Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Transcendentalism
This year a major scholarly collection broadens the contexts in which we consider Ralph Waldo Emerson, while perennial debates over his pragmatism are enlivened by placing his ideas alongside their applications in national and transnational politics. A major trend in scholarship involves the quality of Henry David Thoreau’s scientific fieldwork, and interesting studies address the gendered dimensions of his Walden experiment. In a literary-historical manifestation of the adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” both Margaret Fuller specifically and the Transcendentalists generally are buoyed by the long-overdue consideration of a “female genealogy of Transcendentalism” in a remarkable new collection of essays that expands the definitions of the movement laterally, revealing a web of new influences among women.
a. Editions and Reference
Jeffrey S. Cramer has reedited The Portable Emerson (Penguin), a selection of essays, addresses, poems, journal entries, and letters, with a brief biographical introduction and an even briefer preface to each section. More a collection than an edition, the material is wholly unannotated. One wonders who the audience for this book might be: the introductions are clearly pitched toward the nonspecialized reader, who would most need the annotations this book lacks. [End Page 3]
“Reference book” hardly does justice to the enormously useful and readable Ralph Waldo Emerson in Context, ed. Wesley T. Mott (Cambridge), a collection of 32 new essays. The strategy of the book as a whole—similar to that of the Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism (see AmLS 2012, pp. 31–32)—is not to summarize conventional wisdom but rather to provide fresh perspectives on contextual topics that “capture Emerson’s active engagement with significant contexts of his life and times.” Ralph Waldo Emerson in Context is a major step forward toward seeing Emerson “living a life not only of the mind but also very much in the world.”
Some of the essays cover for the first time significant interpretive and biographical subjects, as for example “Life Against Death,” “Clubs,” “Money,” “Portraits,” and “Fame.” Others, like “Family,” “Reform,” and “America,” address enormous topics in efficient and thoughtful syntheses. All of them offer up-to-date, perceptive analysis. The contents are gathered under four headings: “Emerson and a Sense of Place(s),” “Emerson and Ideas,” “Emerson and Society,” and “Emerson and His Legacies.” Essays in the first section address places he knew either through experience (Boston and Concord, Britain, and Europe as well as his travel in general) or in imagination (Asia). Those in the second explore his views of reading, literature, and poetry as well as nature, divinity, psychology, history, democracy, revolution, and technology. “Emerson and Society” examines his social connections, both on a personal level (friendship and ethics) and as an engaged citizen (gender, race, and the commerce of publishing). And in “Emerson and His Legacies” the contributors speak to Emerson’s staying power as the Sage of Concord (biography, changes in critical reception, and his status as a national icon). Like Emerson’s life the book is organized by his expanding engagement with—as he called a series of his journals—an increasingly “Wide World.”
Joel Myerson provides an excellent example of the ways careful textual scholarship informs interpretation in “Re-editing Emerson’s ‘American Scholar’ Address” (MSS 65 : 297–303). Comparing the many variants between the first (1837) printing of the Emerson’s most often-taught address and the 1838 version, Myerson concludes that the second edition, which is punctuated rhetorically rather than grammatically, better represents Emerson’s intentions. [End Page 4]
A useful listing of academic and nonacademic commentary is my annotated bibliography of Emerson studies published during 2013 in Emerson Society Papers (25, ii: 11–13).
b. Philosophy and Religion
The conjoining of philosophy and religion, sometimes tenuous for Emerson, is affirmed this year by three essays in the American Journal of Theology and Philosophy (35), all of them loosely addressing each other on the issue of Emerson’s pragmatism. In “The Transformation of Genius into Practical Power: A Reading of Emerson’s ‘Experience’” (pp. 3–24) Jeffrey Stout reads Emerson’s 1844 essay as “a journey … into hell and out again” that offers “a theory, ethics...