WALDO EMERSON by Gay Wilson Allen
Kirkus Star


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While he may not dazzle either as a stylist or a literary critic, Allen, the biographer of Whitman and William lames, has written another full, useful life of an American giant: Waldo Emerson. (Allen omits the familiar ""Ralph"" from his title because Emerson himself disliked the name and almost never used it.) Allen has no revelations or major reappraisals to offer; but he gives us a more intimately detailed picture of the poet than does R. L. Rusk's standard Life. Readers will doubtless quarrel with Allen on various points; he argues, for example, that Emerson's lament, ""I chiefly grieve that i cannot grieve""--the numbness, rather than agony, he felt at the death of his beloved first wife Ellen and of his five-year-old-son Waldo--actually masked a sorrow ""too deep for tears."" But in view of Emerson's notorious insensitivity to tragic experience, which extended to his Shakespeare criticism and which Allen freely admits, why not take the man at his word? On a more basic level, Allen is remiss in not subjecting Emerson to the acid bath of modern re-evaluation. What are we to make, say, of the characteristic note in Emerson's Journals, ""I have taught one doctrine, namely the infinitude of the private man,"" when many now mock such endless horizons as a romantic fantasy of 19th-century bourgeois society? Allen generously credits Emerson with anticipating the insights of a host of later thinkers, from Darwin to lung, but he fails to ask why our generation has turned from Emerson to Emerson's obscure contemporary and philosophical opposite, Herman Melville. Still, on its own somewhat old-fashioned terms, Allen's study is clear and informative. He explains that murky monster ""Transcendentalism"" in brisk layman's language. He has a balanced appreciation of Emerson's aloof but oddly engaging personality. He keeps his perceptive analyses of Emerson's poetry pleasantly brief. And, of course, he knows his subject cold. So, as we approach the centennial of Emerson's death (1982), Allen's book becomes the logical and indispensable starting point for anyone seriously interested in him.

Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1981
Publisher: Viking