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Transcendentalists > Ralph Waldo Emerson > Analysis and Criticism > Book Review: David Robinson's The Spiritual Emerson

Spiritual Emerson

Does the world need another collection of Emerson's essays?  Especially when many of them already reside on the Web?

 The Spiritual Emerson The answer is a resounding "Yes!" if the collection is David Robinson's 2003 collection, issued just in time for the Emerson bicentennial, The Spiritual Emerson.

Why does this book belong on your bookshelf?  First, because despite the widespread availability of Emerson's materials on the Web, there's still something to reading Emerson the old-fashioned way -- holding a book in your hand, perhaps underlining passages and making margin notes about your own reactions to what Emerson is saying. (And I say this, speaking as someone who has helped to keep many of Emerson's works available in searchable format on the Web at http://www.emersoncentral.com.)

But why this collection? David M. Robinson, an Emerson scholar at Oregon State University, has introduced the book with an excellent overview of Emerson's work and importance, both to American literature and to American cultural thought.  And he has chosen a selection of essays -- some better known than others -- that tries to communicate who Emerson was and what he was trying to accomplish, over his lifetime of thinking, speaking and writing.

Most people who have read Emerson at all, have read Emerson's Self-Reliance, and sometimes Nature. Yet, as Robinson points out in the introduction and in making the selections he's included, this was all "early Emerson" -- the thought that broke with tradition, yes, and thought that served as an underpinning for much of what Emerson later espoused.  But it was thought before that later evolution.

So Robinson has included much of Emerson's later ideas, to give a sense not just of how Emerson evolved, but the Emersonian ideas that many Americans of the 19th century would have actually heard when Emerson spoke on the lecture circuit.

Robinson reminds us, both in the introduction and with his selection, that Emerson was known to his contemporaries through his speaking tours and books, and not just through his early essays.  Thus, the Emerson who had such a profound effect on American culture, religion and literature, was not simply the Emerson of Self-Reliance and Nature. 

Emerson's attitudes towards and relationship with practical ethical morality and social reform comes through in this collection, in their complexity and evolution.   When Emerson called for a "religion of pure ethics," and many in the late 19th century went looking for or tried to create such a religion, it was this thread of Emersonian thought, often neglected in Emerson studies, that they were responding to.

Robinson also does a great service to understanding this aspect of Emerson's spiritual quest by showing us the essays in his early work that hint more at this later emphasis.  Thus, Robinson includes the not-so-well-known essay "Circles," originally published in the same volume as "Self-Reliance," which hints at the later moral emphasis.

Even the end of "Self-Reliance" addresses the issue of one's individual moral sense resonating with the universal morality.  Emerson has often been accused of promoting or even introducing moral relativism, but this is, as these essays demonstrate thoroughly, a misunderstanding of Emerson.  Emerson taught that individuals should rely on their sense of truth and right -- but also that such an individual truth and right were dependable precisely because they would resonate not with social convention but with the universal law, with the spiritual law that is at the core of the universe itself.

Robinson's Spiritual Emerson, which may end up challenging your very idea of what "spiritual" means, doesn't belong on your bookshelf -- it belongs in your hands, on your bedside table, in your bookbag, anywhere where you'll take it up and ponder it, as you examine your own spiritual and moral assumptions and ideas along with Emerson's.

- Jone Johnson Lewis

The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings
Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by and with an introduction by David M. Robinson
Beacon Press, 2003


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