Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait Hardcover – 26 Sep 1996
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In Chapter 31, Baker describes the decision, by Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and W. H. Channing to write a biography of the late Margaret Fuller, "America's first feminist," who drowned at sea on a return tour of Europe. Emerson, writes Baker, "was certain that whoever undertook the task must pay the closest attention to the personalities who had surrounded Margaret. 'Leave them out,' said he, 'and you leave our Margaret.'"
Emerson's perceptive insight about writing Margaret Fuller's biography is taken to heart by Carlos Baker. His thesis is that one cannot know Ralph Waldo Emerson without paying the closest attention to the personalities who had surrounded him. Therefore, Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait is a biography not only of Emerson, but also of numerous others with whom he associated, such as Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Ellery Channing, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Bronson Alcott, Jones Very, Theodore Parker, and Herman Melville.
The most famous of the New England "Transcendentalists," Emerson resigned his position as a clergyman when his first wife died. He believed that ethics, not theology, metaphysics, or religious doctrine, was the heart of Christianity, and he argued throughout his long life (1803-1882) for self-reliance, nonconformity to superannuated dogmas and liturgies, and for the "priesthood" of the lone individual who needs no mediator between himself and the "World-Soul." He proclaimed that "God" was immanently accessible both in nature and in man's soul.
Emerson's writings are brilliantly provocative, but one often is puzzled by the obscurity of his metaphysics. What exactly IS the "World-Soul"? Although Emerson spoke often of "God," one gets the feeling that his concept of deity was more radically "protestant" than often believed. Was it pantheism, or perhaps even atheism in clever disguise? He certainly rejected traditional forms of faith and praxis.
Indeed, one might ask, To what extent was Emerson truly a "Transcendentalist"? Was this a brand of philosophical idealism, a la the "two-worlds" dichotomy of Platonism? Or was it more like Paul Tillich's "God above the god of theism"? ... a humanistic seeking for wisdom, truth, love, and justice that was more anthropocentric than theocentric? Different readers of Emerson will doubtless come to quite different conclusions.
Carlos Baker, who is perhaps best known for his biography and criticism of Ernest Hemingway, died in 1987. Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrant is his swan song, and a beautiful volume it is, a fitting tribute to one of the greatest thinkers, moralists, and philosophers that America has produced.
I recommend it to everyone and anyone.
I also recommend the 30 lectures on CD about Transcendentalism by the professor from Dickinson College, whose name I don't recall.
Dec. 1, 2010