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By Roger Lundin


When the Fire Goes Out

"Emerson: The Mind on Fire." By Robert D. Richardson, Jr., University of California Press, 671 pp.; $35

Strong feelings of melancholy came over me as I finished the last chapters of Robert Richardson's study of the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The melancholy surprised me, because it is not an emotion I commonly associate with reading about the lives of authors, artists, or public figures. I do not mean to deny that biographies can prompt in their readers intense feelings of sadness or pathos. In the accounts of some lives, there are more than enough incidents of desperation or self-destructiveness to make any reader ponder matters soberly. For instance, William Faulkner is arguably the greatest novelist America has produced, but no matter how it is told, his life always reads like a never-ending saga of alcoholic stupor and petty cruelty.

Yet even in the case of Faulkner, the story of the life induces pity instead of melancholy. An effective biography often offers countless delights, not the least being the satisfaction of taking the measure of a well-rounded life and tracing from it a pattern you might dream of tailoring your own experience to fit.

On the face of it, Richardson's book offers us just such a heroic pattern. His Emerson is a dynamic figure, arguably the most important in nineteenth-century American literature. All the elements of the Emerson story are treated amply and eloquently in Richardson's study. We hear of how young Ralph Emerson, the third of six sons, was thoroughly undistinguished as a student, even during his undergraduate years at Harvard. He prepared for the ministry in a desultory fashion and never felt comfortable during his brief tenure as a pastor.

Shortly after his first wife died of tuberculosis, Emerson left the pastorate and the Christian church forever. He launched a career as an essayist and public speaker that would eventually bring him oracular status in his own day and an enduring reputation as one of the greatest figures in American ...

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