Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book: Emerson by Lawrence Buell

Buell, Lawrence. 2003. Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

I had been meaning to learn more about American literary icon Ralph Waldo Emerson for some time. When we made the choice to send our daughter to the Emerson School in Ann Arbor, I decided it was time to actually read something. What I read was this book by Harvard professor Lawrence Buell.

This is not the ideal first book to read about Emerson to be sure; the reader walks into the middle of a rich, old, academic conversation about Emerson as a literary figure, a religious figure, an historical figure, a social reformer and a philosopher. The book also includes a short biography at the start to set the stage.

I was fascinated throughout, particularly by the bits about Emerson's life on the lecture circuit, which was the TED talks equivalent of the time. Emerson's famous essays are largely based on the lectures he would give in cities and towns around the country. I actually read one of the essays (as directed by Buell at the start of one of the chapters) and found it tough sledding, in part because people just talked and wrote differently at the time when trying to convey complex ideas and in part because, reflecting its origins as a speech, it was more coherent at the paragraph level than as a whole.

Overall, while ex post I wish I had read this book second (or third), it is well worth reading at any point if you have an interest in American intellectual life in the middle of the 19th century.

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