Emerson's candid views of himself; Emerson in His Journals, selected and edited by Joel Porte. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 544 pp. $25.
''I find myself often idle, vagrant, stupid, & hollow,'' wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in an 1820 journal entry. This Harvard-educated descendant of ministers wasn't really any of these, yet the statement was not a calculated perjury. Candor is the cartilage knitting the passages of this extraordinary volume into a discrete entity disclosing Emerson as oracle, visionary, firebrand, and scholar. It is a vehicle by which the person emerges, free of public contrivance and posturing, betrayed in all his humanity.
The entries, which date from 1820 to 1874, are often colored by Emerson's transcendental philosophy; even those which are not convey that resilient Yankee sensibility that was the author's overwhelming characteristic. His was a mustang's spirit, and these are the emanations from a troubled and questing heart.
Professor Porte has given us all meat and no foam. Emerson, dynamiter of euphemisms, writes without inhibition about a variety of topics, never fretting about popular opinion. As a college student, he was precocious. He felt ''a goading sense of emptiness & wasted capacity'' whenever he didn't use every moment in intellectual industry. He also reveals a rambunctious patriotism; he adored his variegated nation, untrammeled by the past. Later, there would be squalls of irritation at the Fugitive Slave Law (''a law which no man can countenance''), denunciations for its proponent, Daniel Webster, and filibusters about the tyranny of slavery, yet throughout his life Emerson affirmed America as an incubating giant.
Because of his heritage and a ''passionate love for the strains of eloquence, '' Emerson had intended a religious vocation. However, he soon decided that the icons and rites of devotion were mere bunting obscuring hypocrisy. Emerson said of God, ''I never beheld him. I do not know he exists,'' and upon seeing the Pope, he scoffed, ''There is no true majesty in all this millinery & imbecility.''
His words scorched church orthodoxy, and with equal dogmatism Emerson embraced a doctrine based on the exaltation of each individual. Pledging to ''look at every object in its relation to Myself,'' the author postulated that intuition and observation should be the holiest institutions, since we are all postulants at the altar of experience.
Emerson's cathedral was the natural world. The spontaneity and beauty he found there were ambrosial, and his woodland sojourns often quickened the mental locomotions recorded here. Having freed himself from conventional worship, Emerson consummated his beliefs through this deification of the self.
It is to Professor Porte's credit that he coaxes the private Emerson into view.