REPRESENTATIVE MAN: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time by Joel Porte

REPRESENTATIVE MAN: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time

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Emerson's fortunes continue to rise. Beyond the lofty but naive idealist who channeled European Romanticism into America, there has appeared in recent times a thinker of rich intuition, akin to James and Nietzsche (see, e.g., Stephen Donadio, Nietzsche, Henry James and the Artistic Will, p. 847). Intending to set Emerson at the heart of mid-19th-century American culture, Porte's intellectual biography stresses his protean mind and character: he was always in the ""process of self-creation and self-discovery"" and thus serves as ""one of our best models of the American spirit in letters."" Drawing circumstantial details from other books, notably Ralph L. Rusk's standard Life, Porte traces Emerson's thought, as expressed in public and private writings, from his early travels through Europe, where he absorbed Romantic ideals, through his declaration of intellectual independence from religion, his deepening sense of human tragedy, maturing ethical conscience, and transcendentalist philosophy, to his sense of declining powers. Emerson emerges as an earnest Protestant in temper, a forceful stylist, and a courageous thinker of vacillating moods and imagined but thwarted sexuality. And sharing the preoccupation of fellow Americans, including writers, with money, sex, and religion, Emerson experienced a ""central personal and philosophical problem"" that reflected America itself: how to integrate the ""immersion in raw experience"" with ""the desire for higher truth."" If the yearning for truth prevailed in him, it was never divorced from a yearning for experience. Porte's earnest and affirming study strengthens Emerson's reputation among academics by redeeming it from such deprecations as Porte's own in Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalists in Conflict (1966). But the book's density, complexity, and out-of-the-way references limit its uses as a portrait of a mind we should heed.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press