Emerson Among the Eccentrics: A Group Portrait

Carlos Baker, Author, James R. Mellow, Introduction by, James R. Mellow, Epilogue by
Carlos Baker, Author, James R. Mellow, Introduction by, James R. Mellow, Epilogue by Viking Books $34.95 (624p) ISBN 978-0-670-86675-5
Paperback - 624 pages - 978-0-14-026029-8
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This painterly, highly accessible and penetrating study of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and his milieu was close to completion when Baker (Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story) died in 1987. Oddly truncated, it begins with Emerson's 28th year and lacks a well-rounded conclusion. Yet by focusing on the social Emerson, Baker shapes a more nuanced portrait of the American Renaissance poet, essayist and thinker than Robert Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), which gave more weight to Emerson's intellectual side. The eccentrics of Baker's title are the idiosyncratic community of friends and family in Concord, Boston and Lennox, Mass., and in New York-the ""veritable host of hobgoblins and nightbirds,"" in Hawthorne's satirical phrase-who perpetually surrounded Emerson. These included his bristly, paradoxical neighbor, Henry Thoreau; the mad poet, Jones Very; Margaret Fuller, whose many ardent, unrequited infatuations included Emerson; and Walt Whitman, ""who cultivated eccentricity as if he had a patent on it."" Quoting from the journals and letters of Emerson and his contemporaries, Baker sketches these and other mystics, poets and radicals over whom Emerson presided as an agent of stability, a householder and husband, an intellectually eclectic counselor, sage and critic, forever torn between the pull of society and a need for solitude. Baker's narrative is a lively balancing act, full of evocative set pieces, houses, landscapes and well-drawn scenes of intellectual contretemps. (Apr.)
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