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Emerson: from the pieces, a whole picture at last; Waldo Emerson: A Biography, by Gay Wilson Allen. New York: The Viking Press. $ 25.

By Paul SteinbergPaul Steinberg is a free-lance writer. / October 13, 1981



In his lecture, "Shakespeare: or, the Poet," Ralph Waldo Emerson remarks on the inadequacy of biography to capture the poetic genius of shakespeare: "We are very clumsy writers of history. We tell of parentage, birth, birthplace, schooling, schoolmates, earning of money, marriages, publication of books, celebrity, death; and when we have come to the end of this gossip, no ray of relation appears between it and the goddess-born."

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To make the connection with the "goddess-born" -- the spirit or "genius" of the man -- a good biographer must transcend the "gossip," enter into the man's spirit, and make that spirit accessible to the reader. In his new study of Emerson, "Waldo Emerson: A Biography," Gay Wilson Allen has admirably risen to this task.

Allen has produced a meticulously thorough study, which in both content and scope even surpasses the monumental achievement of Emerson's earlier biographer, Ralph Rusk.

In terms of content, Allen makes good use of the wealth of material that has appeared since Rusk's book was written; but it is in breadth that Allen has most dramatically improved upon Rusk. In his preface, Allen points out (as other critcs have acknowledged) that Rusk did not fully develop the personal and literary aspects of Emerson. By delving deeper into the private Emerson and by expanding the study of his writings, allen gives us a more comprehensive view than was available before.

On the personal side, Allen goes beyond the mere retelling of the "gossip," relying heavily on gleanings from Emerson's journals and letters. Deftly and light-handedly the biographer composes a picture of a man struggling amid emotional turmoil.

We see, for example, that Emerson assumed a stoic attitude and tried to convince himself that he was "born tranquil" in order to insulate himself from emotional vulnerability. In fact, his theory of compensation emerged out of an emotional need to explain the seemingly inexplicable loss of those closest to him, Allen suggests. And it was Emerson's "levity" -- his ability "to see his shortcomings . . . as the comic failures of a limited person" -- that enabled him to flourish within the environment of seriousness and ambitiousness that so damaged his brothers, Allen finds.

And on the literary side, Allen analyxes all of Emerson's writings, lucidly explaining them, both in themselves and in relation to previous and later works. Allen also effectively explores many of the sources of Emerson's thought, showing us, for example, the influence Neoplatonism had on his development. The biographer also speculates on Emerson's influence on such later thinkers as Jung , William James, and Freud.

But perhaps Allen's most impressive achievement is to fuse Emerson's personal and literary sides in a way that captures his dynamism. Emerson's spiritual and intellectual growth had an organic continuity: they expanded outward from a center like the rings of trees. By interweaving strands from Emerson's personal life, journals, letters, essays, and poems, Allen achieves his own organic style. The approach brings immediacy; it allows us to encounter ideas in their nascent forms and then trace them as they mature in Emerson's thoughts.

In an early essay, Thomas Carlyle, one of Emerson's great friends, remarked that a "well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent life." If this is so , then Gay Wilson Allen's biography is indeed a rarity: a well-written life of a well-spent life.