Peter S. Field. Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Making of a Democratic Intellectual. Lanham and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002. xv + 253 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8476-8842-5.
Reviewed by Susan L. Roberson (Department of Languages and Literatures, Alabama State University)
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 2002)
The Public Life of America's Democratic Intellectual
The Public Life of America's Democratic Intellectual
Peter S. Field, a historian at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, has undertaken to write a biography of one of America's premier men of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Coming at Emerson as a figure of history and as a public figure of the nineteenth century, Field has written a biography that focuses on key moments in Emerson's evolution into America's "first democratic intellectual" (p. 5). Unlike more standard biographies--like Robert Richardson's Emerson: Mind on Fire (1995), John McAleer's Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter (1984), or Gay Wilson Allen's Waldo Emerson (1981)--that provide a comprehensive view of the life of the writer or that focus on the private life and/or the "mind" of the writer, Field has decided to focus on the events that led Emerson to become a public figure.
Given his focus, there are many events and topics in Emerson's life that Field does not attempt to describe, such as the complex nature of Emerson's relationship to Margaret Fuller, the influence of Eastern philosophy on Transcendentalist thought, or the impact of little Waldo's death on his writing. It also means that Field, while he certainly makes much reference to the essays, is not attempting literary explications of these texts. Rather, he is interested in the "social, personal, and political" (p. 4) forces that led Emerson to a public career as "poet-preacher-prophet" (p. 7). Like Mary Kupiec Cayton, author of Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845 (1989), Field situates Emerson in the political and social environment that helped forge an Emerson that Field sees "as engaged with the people, events, and politics of his day" (p. 4). With the decision not to attempt a comprehensive, definitive biography that would compete with such fine works as Richardson's, Field is able to concentrate on key moments in Emerson's life and to supply historical details that many biographies miss. Thus his work complements what has gone before. In addition, he provides a reader-friendly book with notes at the end of each chapter where they are easily accessed and with a selected bibliography of both primary and secondary works.
Using Emerson's 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School as a pivotal moment, Field traces the events that led him to call for reform in Unitarian practices. Field begins by sketching the rise of the Brahmin class, the secularization of New England religion, and the role of William Emerson, Waldo's father and minister of one of the elite churches of Boston, as a promoter of Boston's literary culture. Field argues that the Divinity School Address struck out against the "intellectual and social elitism" (p. 29) cultivated by the Boston Unitarians and men of his father's generation.
Impoverished after his father's early death, the young Emerson was left both a member of the educational elite of Boston society and an outsider. In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Field traces the economic difficulties faced by the widowed Ruth Haskins Emerson as she tried to raise five boys on her own and to educate four of them at Harvard College. Field demonstrates how that period of poverty, the scramble to make ends meet, shaped Emerson into a democrat rather than a member of the elite classes. Field writes: "Their father's premature death and their subsequent financial straits thus purged the sons of the reflexive conservatism of Brahmin Boston" (p. 40). He also argues that the poverty played into Emerson's ambition to make something of himself, a theme that runs throughout Emerson's early journals. Rather than play out some sort of Freudian analysis of the father-son conflict, Field puts the differences between the older and younger Emerson in social and economic terms, a move that not only helps him support his argument about Emerson's emergence as a democratic intellectual but that makes concrete what might have otherwise been overburdened with guesswork and theorizing.
Field goes onto to discuss Waldo's own experience in the Unitarian ministry, following the family calling into a vocation that he eventually felt was not his own. Here Field is disappointing. Though he traces the well-known path into and out of the ministry, Field relies on the outdated Young Emerson Speaks (1938) rather than going to the four-volume Complete Sermons edited by Albert J. von Frank, et al. (1989-92). Following Arthur McGiffert, editor of YES, Field refers to the sermons by titles that McGiffert, not Emerson, ascribed to them. While this criticism may appear picky, the broader problem is that Field attempts to represent the ministerial career of Emerson with reference to just a handful of the 164 sermons he wrote before his resignation. Thus Field goes a little too far, I think, in describing Emerson's career at the Second (Unitarian) Church of Boston as a "failure" (p. 87) and in discounting the real affection that the congregation had for their young minister.
Travel, Field argues, had a democratizing effect on Emerson and helped him form his political views. The nine-month tour of Europe after his emotionally wearing resignation from Second Church had a profound effect on Emerson's understanding of the meaning of democracy, enabling him to compare American institutions against those of Europe. Later, Emerson's extensive travel as he continued to preach at various churches as a "supply" preacher and as his lecture career began to build put him in touch with a broad range of fellow Americans, preventing social and intellectual isolation. Visiting other Unitarian churches convinced Emerson, Field claims, of the deficiency of Unitarian preaching and theology, compelling him "by the summer of 1838 and his notorious Divinity School Address" to burst "with the pent-up frustration accumulated over half a decade of miserable Sundays" (p. 120).
Field presents the Divinity School Address as an attempt to point out to the students "how they might repair the vocation upon which they were about to embark and simultaneously explain why he had resolved to seek a new vocation" (p. 124). While certainly Emerson heard some boring sermons, notoriously the ones by the Concord minister Barzillai Frost, Field seems to suggest that all Unitarian ministers, including Orville Dewey who was famous for his oratorical skills, lacked pulpit eloquence. Again, I think Field overstates his case. Nonetheless, he demonstrates how Emerson arrived at the point of the Divinity School Address and how it figured in making him a democratic intellectual.
The other pivotal moment around which Field organizes the public life of Ralph Waldo Emerson is his decision to participate in the anti-slavery movement. Field correctly discusses Emerson's ideas about slavery and particularly his ideas about race as an evolution of thought. Field traces three periods in Emerson's involvement: his youth and early career when he "remained largely mute on slavery"; the period of the 1840s which "showed the most dramatic change" as demonstrated by his 1844 "public celebration of emancipation in the West Indies"; and the final stage dating from the Compromise of 1850, after which Emerson "often joined the ranks of antislavery activists" (p. 169), and on through the Civil War and Reconstruction, during which his "imagination largely failed him" (p. 196). Field thus shows how the public events of slavery and the expansion of western territories helped shape Emerson into a public spokesman for the abolition of slavery and to reconsider "his blatant racial prejudice" (p. 187) as he became more aware of the accomplishments of African Americans. By looking at Emerson's thought about race and his public involvement in the anti-slavery movement as progressive, Field avoids a one-sided view of Emerson's racial politics.
Throughout Emerson's engagement in the moral and political issues that circled around the Divinity School Address, his invention of himself as a public lecturer, and his involvement in the slavery question, Field shows him "cajol[ing] Americans to make the most of themselves" (p. 210). Optimistic, both Emerson and Field find much to celebrate in "the transformation of genius into practical power" (p. 210) and in a "participatory ethic" (p. 214) that for Emerson made him act out his thought and turned his political and moral thought into acts of public engagement. Field does a convincing job of showing the growth of this public thinker, and his volume certainly adds to our understanding of the man and his times.
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Susan L. Roberson. Review of Field, Peter S., Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Making of a Democratic Intellectual.
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