Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures | Library of America

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Editions of Essays and Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In August 1835 Emerson delivered a lecture to the sixth annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction in Boston "On the Best Mode of Inspiring a Correct Taste in English Literature." In strong contrast to the starchy, neoclassical title, the surviving pages of this talk, published in (volume one, 1959), emphasize the idea that a reader must approach a text with sympathy, empathy, openness, and a willingness to try out the author's point of view. It is, he says, a major principle "that a truth or a book of truths can be received only by the same spirit that gave it forth." This notion is very different from learning a few rules or current ideas and then judging works of literature by whether they conform to those rules and ideas. Emerson also makes a distinction between types of reading and warns us "reading must not be passive." An active reader is one who engages fully with the text. "As we say translations are rare because to be a good translator needs all the talents of an original author so to be a good reader needs the high qualities of a good writer." Above all the reader is to remember that books and poems are not ends in themselves. They convey truths or wisdom, they stand for and convey to us things that exist in nature. "I should aim to show him [the young reader] that the poem was a transcript of Nature as much as a mariner's chart is of the coast."

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He also continued to be alert to the social and political contexts of literature. In a speech about in 1859, published in (1884), he noted shrewdly that Burns, "the poet of the middle class, represents in the mind of men to-day that great uprising of the middle class against the armed and privileged minorities, that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and social order, has changed the face of the world." In 1870 he included an essay called "Books" in a volume titled . The essay contains Emerson's reading list, his recommendations about the best books to read. Coming during the same period as 's concept of "touchstones," it is an interesting prefiguration of the premise that underlies modern general education, namely that there is a body of knowledge that all educated people should share. For the Greeks, for instance, he lists , , , , and , then goes on to give some background reading in ancient history and art. It is an eminently practical essay, as well as a useful indication of Emerson's own broad taste.

my slow progression through Emerson’s Essays & Lectures (Library of America)

The main purpose of is to recover for the present generation the direct and immediate relationship with the world that our ancestors had. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?," Emerson asks, with emphasis on the word "also." He goes on to inquire, "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?" He had already discussed the poetry of tradition in his English lecture series. is an inquiry into the conditions necessary for a modern literature of insight.

The best one-volume edition of his essays is The Library of America volume, Emerson: Essays and Lectures ..

Ralph Waldo Emerson Biography - Brandeis University

Some things did not slip through his fingers. Emerson could be a brilliant and pungent critic on occasion. In a letter to on 17 March 1840, he told her he had been reading "one of Lord Brougham's superficial indigent disorderly unbuttoned penny-a-page books called 'Times of George III,'" thereby describing a kind of book of which too many are published in every age. Emerson wrote for the notices of 's (1840), which he liked, saying "it will serve to hasten the day of reckoning between society and the sailor." He praised the poetry in 's (1839), "as sincere a litany as the Hebrew songs of David or Isaiah, and only less than they, because indebted to the Hebrew muse for their tone and genius." In a review of Tennyson, he commented, "So large a proportion of even the good poetry of our time is either over-ethical or over-passionate, and the stock poetry is so deeply tainted with a sentimental egotism that this, whose chief merit lay in its melody and picturesque power, was most refreshing." Emerson was also an early admirer of the poetry of and Ellery Channing. He was Carlyle's American agent, so to speak, and through Emerson's effort Carlyle's (1835) was published in book form in Boston before an English publisher could be found for it. When sent Emerson a copy of the first edition of (1855), Emerson wrote back an excited letter, calling the poems "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." He recognized the "great power" in the work and praised it for having "the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging."

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In December 1839 Emerson gave two lectures on literature as part of a series called "The Present Age," much of the material of which went into a paper called "Thoughts on Modern Literature," published in the in October 1840 and reprinted in (1893). Here Emerson lists, in order of importance, three classes of literature. "The highest class of books are those which express the moral element; the next, works of imagination; and the next, works of science." Though he calls "the first literary genius of the world, the highest in whom the moral is not the predominating element," he insists that 's work "leans on the Bible: his poetry supposes it." By contrast, "the Prophets do not imply the existence of or ." is secondary, the prophets of the Bible are primary. These views compensate and balance those in the Divinity School address. Indeed seems to have been intended by Emerson as a sort of corrective of some of his early views and various misinterpretations of them. One of the best things in "Thoughts on Modern Literature" is a long and very specific treatment of the problem of subjectivity. Defending the subjectivism of the age, Emerson is at great pains to distinguish true subjectivism (the right of each single soul, each subject "I" to "sit in judgment on history and literature, and to summon all facts and parties before its tribunal") from narrow-minded insistence on one's own personality or mere "intellectual selfishness." "A man may say , and never refer to himself as an individual," says Emerson in a phrase that prefigures his concept of the representative poet.