Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait

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9780140260298: Emerson among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait

* Chosen by the editors of The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of 1996. Ralph Waldo Emerson's circle included many of the most brilliant and original minds of his day: Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. Together this eccentric group helped establish Concord, Massachusetts, as a mecca for progressive thinking, including women's rights and religious tolerance. Carlos Baker's indefatigable research included reviewing the journals and correspondence of all the central characters to reconstruct, minutely, entire days. The result is a vivid and textured mosaic not just of the group's interactions but of their daily lives--what they ate, wore, discussed, read, and cared about. All of this brings Emerson vividly to life in his quotidian relationships--as young man and old; father, husband, and son; preacher, lecturer and editor; farmer, guest and friend. It is by far the most intimate portrait we have of the Sage of Concord and his remarkable entourage.

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Review:

An abundance of little-known details and disclosures graces Carlos Baker's last work of literary criticism, bringing to life not only Ralph Waldo Emerson the man, but also a whole cultural milieu known for its brilliance, artistic flowering, and progressive thinking. The portrait of Emerson emerges as if through a mosaic. We see him primarily through the eyes of others--their letters and journal entries--reminding readers that Emerson did not exist in a vacuum. The eccentrics of the title include such Concord transcendentalists as Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott, as well as many prominent intellectuals of the day (Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and the abolitionist John Brown). Many will find the details of this venerable American life familiar--the impoverished boyhood and physical fragility, the breaking from orthodoxy as a clergyman, and the tragic loss of a spouse--but most readers will enjoy the complex picture of the man pieced together through his friendships. Emerson's prickly but persevering relationship with Margaret Fuller is described in both of their letters and journals, rounding out an often one-sided account. Fuller was a brilliant, self-assured, thoroughly modern woman--a trait that would continue to repel and baffle Emerson throughout the long life of their friendship; for that, he seemed never quite able to forgive her.

Still, Emerson redeemed himself with his revolutionary break from European culture and the calcified thoughts of those who preceded him. His was a unique and inimitable independence that would come to characterize American intellectualism; however, the stubborn optimism that would taint Emersonian philosophy still lingers.

Famed literary critic Carlos Baker, who died in 1987, has left a substantial yet thoroughly engaging antidote to our often craven, corrupt, corporate-driven world. Emerson Among the Eccentrics recreates both the voices and visions of one of America's most distinguished and accomplished cultural periods.

From Kirkus Reviews:

In his final, unfinished work, literary scholar Baker (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, 1969, etc.) views an eclectic collection of individuals through the lens of conventional scholarship. Working from the early 1970s until 1986, the year before he died, Baker set out to show how Emerson's views ``were reflected, contradicted, partly diverged from, or zealously misrepresented'' by his acquaintances. Although the work falls short of this ambitious goal, it offers a glimpse of a set of fascinating people and the points at which their lives touched Emerson's. There are, most notably, Emerson's second wife, Lidian, hovering in the background, chronically ill; Aunt Mary (Mary Moody Emerson), the eccentric par excellence, who considered tact ``only another name for lying''; Bronson Alcott, whose wealth of ideas could not keep his family out of poverty; Henry Thoreau, who spent more time camping in Emerson's house than at Walden Pond; Margaret Fuller, who was intellectually brilliant and emotionally demanding; and Jones Very, a poet who was briefly convinced that he was ``the Second Coming.'' The focus of the narrative shifts from person to person with each chapter, portraying Emerson as the genial and stable center of a tornado of friends, but the image occasionally cracks: Surely a man capable of peering into his son's coffin 15 years after the boy's death is at least a candidate for the title of eccentric. And while Baker presents some of the circle as ``self-appointed disciples'' whom Emerson saw simply as friends, a complaint from Thoreau suggests otherwise: ``He would not meet me on equal terms, but only be to some extent my patron. He would not come to see me, but was hurt if I did not visit him.'' Although this group biography is less than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves remain deeply intriguing. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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