Archive for the 'Books' Category

Book Review: The Annotated Emerson

When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.

With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.

On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.

Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.

Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.

This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.

In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.

In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)

I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.

Posted in: Books, Reviews on February 17, 2012 | No Comments »
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On Emerson’s Journals

Many of the excerpts that I’m posting on this site come from Emerson’s journals, in the 16-volume Harvard University Press edition. While expensive – and massive – this is the complete transcription of Emerson’s journals. Most readers will be satisfied with selections from the journals, such as the two excellent Library of America volumes reviewed by Philip Lopate: volume 1, 1820-1842, and volume 2, 1841-1877. While substantially shorter than the full journals, these selections, in 1,900 pages, are the most extensive selections available. (And the Library of America books are quite attractive.)

I must strongly recommend that anyone interested in Emerson read the journals, and not just his essays. Philip Lopate, describing his reading of the journals in this edition, says, “I never felt that close to Emerson in the past. I admired his prose style, but his essays seemed too impersonal. They sounded oracular, abstract, dizzy- ingly inspired, like visionary sermons: the thinking and language spectacular, the man somehow missing. It took reading his journals to ind him.”

This is how I feel. Emerson is oracular and lapidary in his essays; slightly more flexible in his lectures; but in his journals, the real man comes through more clearly. Reading the journals is a moving experience, because Emerson wrote his deepest thoughts in these books. These are not diaries, like those of Samuel Pepys, but thought-books, full of scintillating ideas and wonderful improvisations. To truly understand Emerson the thinker, the journals are certainly the key.

For an interesting analysis of the journals, see Lawrence Rosenwald’s Emerson and the Art of the Diary, a brief, expensive, yet highly interesting book, and the only book-length study of the journals.

Posted in: Books, Journals on August 17, 2011 | No Comments »
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Free Ebook of Emerson’s Complete Works

I’ve prepared an ebook of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s complete works in epub format, which can be used with a number of readers, including Apple’s iBooks (on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch) and Stanza (on a variety of platforms). I’ve taken texts from RWE.org, and formatted them to create this ebook. The book has a full, detailed table of contents, listing each volume of the complete Emerson edition from the early 20th century, as well as each essay or text within each volume.

This book is not perfect; I need to go through it and change some _words between underscores_ to words in italics, and I have to proofread punctuation, which may have some issues. But as this ebook contains more than 1 million words, it may take me some time to get to it.

So, in order to help others who may want a collection of Emerson’s works on the portable device, I’m making this book available now. If you find any errors, let me know, and as I update the file, I’ll repost this article specifying new versions.

Change log:

Version 1.1, added correspondence between Emerson and Carlyle.

Download Emerson’s Complete Works v. 1.1.

Posted in: Books on May 4, 2011 | 6 Comments »
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A Concordance to the Collected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have stumbled across an amazing resource for those reading Emerson, and who wish to delve deeply into his work. A Concordance to the Collected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson is a 5,371-page PDF document containing entries for every occurrence of every word (well, every major word; minor words, such as articles and prepositions are not included) in the 12-volume edition of Emerson’s collected works. An HTML version is also available. The concordance is keyed to the 1903-1904 Centenary Edition of Emerson’s works, so if you have other editions, you’ll need to flip around (or search in electronic texts for precise phrases or sentences). You can also access all of the texts of that edition at RWE.org, though these texts are not paginated.

Posted in: Books on February 20, 2011 | No Comments »
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Read the Transcendentalist Journal The Dial

The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy and Literature was a journal published by the Transcendentalists from 1840-1844. (See this Wikipedia article for more about this publication.) Emerson was the leader of this magazine, and Margaret Fuller was the first editor. Emerson took over the editorship about two years later, after Fuller decided to step aside.

You can view and download what seem to be complete anthologies of The Dial from Google Books. Here are the links:

I have only read selections from The Dial, but am planning to go through these documents; they give the best overview of Transcendentalist thought during the important years of 1840-1844.

Posted in: Books on December 4, 2010 | No Comments »
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