Commentary Magazine


Waldo Emerson: A Biography, by Gay Wilson Allen

Emerson the Man

Waldo Emerson: A Biography.
by Gay Wilson Allen.
Viking. 751 pp. $25.00.

Commentators on Emerson’s life have always been “notably skittish” about dealing with the circumstances and implications of Emerson’s first marriage to Ellen Tucker, particularly on its financial side, Joel Porte observed a few years ago in a biographical study called Representative Man. It is as if, he continued, “the mere act of mentioning Ellen’s wealth were tantamount to suggesting that Emerson married her for her money.”

The purpose of Porte’s observation, however, was not what one might assume. He did not intend, at long last, to open up the question of Emerson’s marital motivation; he meant to close it down, once and for all. To suggest that the impecunious Emerson was thinking about money during his courtship of a seventeen-year-old heiress who was already coughing up blood from the tubercular infection that would kill her less than a year and a half after her wedding would be “unwarranted and vulgar,” Porte wrote. “The sincerity of Emerson’s love for Ellen, and his motives for marrying her . . ., are not legitimately open to question.”

Even more remarkable than the vehemence with which these sweeping statements are expressed is the absence of any substantive follow-up to them. Not a single detail of Emerson’s pursuit of Ellen is adduced in support of the interpretation placed upon it.

“When I was young, I forgot how to laugh,” a Danish contemporary of Emerson’s once confessed. But “when I was older,” he added, “I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then I have not stopped laughing. I saw . . . that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress. . . . This I saw, and I laughed.” Was Emerson the sort of fortune-hunting hypocrite whom Kierkegaard had in mind when he wrote those sardonic words—and whom Henry James would depict some decades later in such novels as The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove? The question is decidedly interesting, but like all his skittish predecessors, the author of Representative Man lacked the moral courage to explore it.

The failure of Porte and others to come to grips with the problem of Emerson’s first marriage is only an example—to be sure, a particularly glaring example—of the larger deficiency in their work. Just as Emerson himself denied the inherent worth of sense experience and gloried instead in the vaporousness of an ideal world, so his biographers have traditionally under-emphasized his life as a man and overemphasized his life as a thinker. Even Ralph L. Rusk, in his prodigiously scholarly Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1949), is extremely disappointing on the subject of what sort of a human being Emerson was and of how he got that way.

In giving his new biography the private name by which Emerson was known to his family during his college days, Gay Wilson Allen has made clear his desire to bring Emersonian scholarship down to earth. As he goes on to say in the preface to Waldo Emerson, he undertook the book in the belief that Emerson’s “intimate, personal life” deserved closer scrutiny than authorities like Rusk had accorded it.

On the very first page of the first chapter, Allen gets right down to business by presenting Emerson’s resentful memories of being mistreated in early boyhood by his father. “I have no recollections of him that can serve me,” the forty-seven-year-old essayist bitterly observed to his brother William in 1850. “I was eight years old when he died, & only remember a somewhat social gentleman, but severe to us children, who twice or thrice put me in mortal terror by forcing me into the salt water off some wharf or bathing house, and I still recall the fright with which, after some of this salt experience, I heard his voice one day, (as Adam that of the Lord in the garden) summoning us to a new bath, and I vainly endeavouring to hide myself.”

The severity of Emerson’s mother took a different form. Every morning after breakfast, she retired to her room for an hour of Bible reading, meditation, and soul-searching which her five sons (she lost three other children in their infancy) never once dared to interrupt. For in her husbandless household Ruth Haskins Emerson was no less absolute a sovereign than she believed God to be in the universe. If this deeply religious woman found it unnecessary to raise her voice to her offspring, it was because they were thoroughly intimidated by her reserve. So remote, indeed, was her manner that it makes one wonder whether she thought of motherhood as anything but a duty to be performed as efficiently as possible. Whenever, for instance, her sons were reunited with her after days or weeks of separation, she would embrace them briefly, but rarely touched them thereafter. As Allen notes, the lesson of emotional inhibition was learned early by the author of “Self-Reliance.”

The Emerson boys also came under the care, from time to time, of their eccentric aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, whose fasts and other acts of self-denial were “masochistic” and “pathological,” in the opinion of the author of Waldo Emerson. “It is an awful symptom,” she confided to her diary one night, “if we cannot in the presence of God promise to renounce every indulgence of eating, sleep, dress, recreation, reading, study & friendship which appears suspicious!” In another entry, she reviled herself as “all animal—all eat and sleep,” but three weeks later recorded a recovery of morale as she thought of the cleansing power of death. “Tomorrow,” she ecstatically proclaimed, “we may be forever free from the grossness of a putrid carcase. . . .” Inasmuch as Aunt Mary did not keep such sentiments to herself, it is not surprising that her eventually famous nephew also became obsessed with the pursuit of moral purity.

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A harsh father who suddenly died; an emotionally ungiving mother; and an aunt whose eagerness for the immaculate embrace of eternity prompted her to make a shroud for herself long before her death and then wear it as a house dress: these were the principal adult figures in Emerson’s childhood world. Allen’s assessment of their personalities is superbly frank, as is his account of what Emerson was like as a boy. His physical health was not at all robust and he was often ill. Yet for all his frailness he was quarrelsome and aggressive toward other boys and was consequently disliked by them; as his uncle Samuel Ripley was said to have remarked, only grown people were fond of young Ralph. At the age of seventeen, however, by which time he was a senior at Harvard, Emerson did develop an attachment of sorts to a freshman named Martin Gay, although the two youths never exchanged “above a dozen words.” For the most part, Emerson was content merely to stare at Martin, or to write about him in his journal after they had parted. The possibility cannot be ruled out, Allen bluntly remarks, that Emerson at this point was “bordering on homosexuality.”

Unfortunately, that kind of plain speaking does not last beyond the early chapters of Waldo Emerson. As the author follows Emerson out of adolescence into early manhood, he suddenly loses his biographical nerve. Instead of continuing his candid analysis of all the evidence available to him, Allen begins to explain away, ignore completely, or otherwise mishandle the most significant pieces of it.

The turning point in the book occurs on page 62, at the moment when the nineteen-year-old Emerson has decided to take a hard look at himself. “I have not the kind affections of a pigeon,” Allen quotes Emerson as saying in his journal. This arrestingly phrased self-estimate would seem to be very much worth pondering, but the biographer urges us not to take it at face value. “Of course this severe judgment of Waldo Emerson on himself must be largely discounted—or at least modified. He was not so much selfish as unsociable, and this in turn was the result of his introversion, lack of confidence, and inability to take the initiative in meeting young people of his own age.”

The disclaimer tells us more about Allen than about Emerson. In the first place, Emerson was not accusing himself of selfishness, but of a lack of human affection—a much more inclusive charge. Moreover, the charge cannot be reduced to unsociability simply by saying that Emerson was introverted and shy, for these qualities are often found in people who are fundamentally indifferent to their fellow men. And the two ensuing paragraphs in Emerson’s journal which spell out his indictment of himself cannot be overlooked just because Allen finds it convenient not to quote them. I am “ungenerous & selfish, cautious & cold,” Emerson wrote. “There is not in the whole wide Universe of God . . . one being to whom I am attached with warm & entire devotion,—not a being to whom I have joined fate for weal or woe, not one whose interests I have nearly & dearly at heart.” These “frightful confessions,” he concluded, are “a true picture of a barren & desolate soul.”

In discussing the long-range psychological consequences of Emerson’s relationships with his mother, Allen has no difficulty in making general reference to a legacy of emotional inhibition; but when confronted with the appalling specifics of that inhibition, he seeks to cover them up. Emerson, on the other hand, made no effort to conceal his coldness. At the age of nineteen, he identified himself as suffering from the same inability to feel warmly about people that would later make it impossible for him to find adequate satisfaction in his relations with Alcott, Carlyle, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, and that would cause him to conclude his essay on “Friendship” with the austere assertion that we walk alone in this world.

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At the same time that the young Emerson was unable to devote himself to anyone out of love, he was powerless to break free of a devotion based on fear. Thus when it came time for him to choose a profession, he elected to enter the Harvard Divinity School. He would become, like his father before him, a Unitarian minister.

Within a few weeks of making this counter-phobic identification with the authority figure who had terrorized his childhood, he began to be plagued by a series of health problems. First he came down with a painfully lame hip, and then developed such serious eye trouble that he was unable to read. What part did unresolved psychological conflict play in these calamities? Even if ultimately unanswerable, that question needs to be addressed at length by anyone seriously interested in Emerson’s intimate, personal life. Allen, alas, settles for a conjecture that is as cautious as it is brief. It “seems unlikely,” he says, that Emerson’s eye trouble was psychosomatic, because two operations completely restored his use of his eyes. The issue of whether there was a physical necessity for the operations is quietly sidestepped.

In the fall of 1826, just as the twenty-three-year-old Emerson was about to be licensed to preach by the Middlesex Association of Unitarian Ministers, calamity struck again. He felt a terrifying “constriction” in his lungs. Although all of Emerson’s previous biographers have assumed he had developed tuberculosis, Allen, to his considerable credit, introduces a letter from Emerson to his brother William in which the invalid says that he had “no symptoms that any physician extant can recognize or understand. I have my maladies all to myself.” Having made this important discovery, however, the author of Waldo Emerson is too reverential to do anything with it. “This does sound psychosomatic,” he admits, but apparently no reason occurs to him why such a condition should have developed. “The pain in his chest could hardly have been caused by his fear of failing in the pulpit,” Allen remarks in a tone of perplexity, as he hastily moves on to less confusing matters. In his desire to get away from the subject of Emerson’s psychopathology, he does not even pause to point out that the ministerial career of Emerson’s father had been interrupted by a bout of tuberculosis three years before his untimely demise, nor does he remind us about the child who had been frightened to death of drowning, i.e., that his lungs would fill up with water, when his father shoved him off a Boston wharf.

Assisted by a loan from his uncle, Samuel Ripley, Emerson spent the winter of 1826-27 convalescing in the South. Upon his return home, he considered abandoning his commitment to the ministry “on the score of health,” but as the fear of tuberculosis faded he started accepting invitations to preach in the pulpits of other ministers. The inconsequential fees he earned in this way during the next two years did very little to diminish his concern about earning a living wage, reducing his considerable debts, and paying at least a part of the soaring medical bills being incurred by his brothers. Bulkeley, who was mentally retarded, had now become “perfectly deranged,” and when servants could not cope with him, he had to be placed in McLean’s Asylum. Edward was no sooner cured of tuberculosis than he began to suffer from fainting fits and descents into delirium; “in a state of violent derangement,” he, too, was eventually sent to McLean’s. Charles’s health was also none too good, although Emerson seems not to have noticed this, possibly because he was distracted by the news from New York that William had endangered his life by dint of too much work and too little food. “We are born to trouble,” Emerson exclaimed in a letter to William.

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It was in a time, then, of acute financial embarrassment for him that Emerson met a sheltered, innocent girl eight years his junior. Ellen Tucker was the daughter of a Boston merchant who upon his death had left a considerable fortune to his wife and children, and the step-daughter of Colonel William Kent, one of the most prominent citizens of Concord, New Hampshire. Ellen’s father and brother had died of tuberculosis; her mother and sister suffered from it as well; and she, too, had recently begun to “raise blood.”

From the moment of her formal engagement in December 1828, Ellen’s expressions of love for Emerson were far more ardent than his for her. “I care not if he gives me a pint,” she wrote in a letter, “I shall give him an ocean.” Indeed, the excitement he aroused in her made her doctors wonder whether the experience of being with him was doing further damage to her health. In the early summer of 1829, their suspicions increased when she suffered another hemorrhage while Emerson was visiting her, and he was ordered to stay away from Concord until she had regained at least a portion of her lost strength. Not until early August was he permitted to see her again.

The only jarring note for Ellen during this blissful reunion was her fiancé’s insistence that they discuss the making of her will. Perhaps all he said was that she ought to have one; perhaps he said a great deal more. The details of their conversation, says Allen, are “impossible to recover” from the “ambiguous references” in Ellen’s subsequent letters to Emerson. As for Emerson’s letters to Ellen, they “have not survived.”

Why Emerson’s letters no longer exist is the first issue which Allen fails to confront. Did Ellen destroy them because they distressed her? Or did Emerson himself destroy them, after Ellen’s death, because they did not conform with his image of himself as morally pure?

Allen also fails to make clear that Emerson’s conversation with Ellen in Concord was but the opening gun of a considerable campaign—as Ellen’s letters unmistakably demonstrate. She called her will “the ugly subject,” and emphasized how reluctant she was to ask her mother to write to Pliny Cutler, the executor of her father’s estate. She signaled her fervent desire to stop all the talk about the question of her will by referring to “that plan which has been convulsing the wise heads” as a dull and laughable topic. As tactfully as she could, she tried to persuade Emerson to cease meddling in the financial affairs of the Tucker family by telling him how glad she was that “you being a babe in such things will resign them to more experienced noddles and I thank you.”

Another letter seems to have been written in response to an inquiry from Emerson as to whether she thought the executor of the estate would deem her humble fiancé worthy of being named the beneficiary of some sort of insurance policy, for she told him that if the “ugly insurance business” were mentioned to Mr. Cutler, “he would think you were doubting yourself and would be justified in doubting too.” Whatever Mr. Cutler may have said to Ellen about these developments, there is no doubt that Colonel Kent, her step-father, had come to hope that the impending wedding would not take place. That “disbeliever,” Ellen informed Emerson, “told Margaret [Ellen's sister] that he was confident that we should not live together this winter.”

Allen’s hagiographical piety blocks his understanding of nearly all of this. “Almost any conjecture we might make on this mysterious debate would be unfavorable to Emerson,” he says, and so he refuses to interpret it! In summing up what Ellen’s letters reveal about the pressure that Emerson was exerting, he restricts himself to saying again that “possibly all he had done was to urge Ellen to make a will. If so, it was sound advice, though we might wish the lover had been less prudent.” Unlike earlier Emerson biographies, Waldo Emerson makes it possible for readers to see for themselves how interested Emerson was in his future wife’s money, and we must be grateful for that. Allen himself, however, has no wish to behold the Kierkegaardian reality of Emerson’s romance.

Three months after Ellen’s death in February 1831, Emerson wrote a cheerful note to his brother William. (The text is not included in Waldo Emerson, but it is quoted in a surprisingly candid discussion of Emerson’s conduct as a widower in Porte’s Representative Man.) Don’t worry about our brother Bulkeley’s expenses, Emerson told William, “I can pay for B. without difficulty, especially as it seems that Ellen is to continue to benefit her husband whenever hereafter the estate shall be settled. . . . I please myself that Ellen’s work of mercy is not done on earth, but she shall continue to help Edward & B. & Charles.” Emerson’s equation of Ellen’s mercy with financial benefits to his brothers was certainly an odd way to pay tribute to her sweet personality, but such a thrifty choice of words would not have elicited any expression of surprise from the executor of Ellen’s estate, if he had chanced to hear of it. For while Pliny Cutler may have held his tongue while Ellen was alive, he no longer felt any need to do so. As he soon informed Emerson’s lawyer, he had no intention of allowing Emerson to get his hands on any of Ellen’s money as long as he was alive.

In the light of this information, Emerson submitted a petition to a court of law, which after some months of consideration ruled in his favor. Stocks and cash were to be turned over to him in the amount of $23,000. The bequest would provide him with an annual income of $1,200—a sum sufficient to live on in the 1830′s.

The court’s ruling was handed down in the summer of 1832. During that same season, Emerson announced to the parishioners of the Second Church of Boston, whose minister he had been for almost three and a half years, that he could no longer in good conscience administer communion. The announcement eventually compelled the church, as Emerson knew it would, to get rid of him. Toward the end of October, having done nothing to halt the dismissal process, he was finally voted out, and by Christmas he was on his way to Europe for a gloriously extended tour. Historians of the American mind like to say that Emerson left the Second Church out of a spiritual dissatisfaction with organized Christianity and that in going to Europe he launched himself upon the seas of Transcendentalist rebellion; what they do not even want to think about is the court ruling that made possible these bold steps. If Emerson had not been assured of financial independence for life, it is difficult to believe that he would have so quickly abandoned the profession which he had spent years of psychological travail attempting to enter, or that he would not have thought twice about the high cost of rebellious voyages.

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The historians also like to tell of how Emerson returned from Europe to pioneer the new vocation of “the American scholar,” and of how he was made famous by the address of that name which he delivered at Harvard in 1837. Young men of the fairest promise, Emerson told the students, who begin life upon our shores with all the stars of God shining upon them, are hindered from action by the disgust which the principles of business management inspire in them, and they turn into drudges, or die of their disgust, some of them by suicide. The trouble is that they do not see, “and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career do not yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” Although “Man Thinking,” as Emerson called the brave figure of whom he was speaking, must be willing to relinquish “display and immediate fame,” resist “the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism,” and accept if necessary “poverty and solitude,” he will be solaced for his sacrifice by the knowledge that he has become the eye and heart of the world.

The story of that address has been told many times, but what the historians always leave out of their accounts of it is the fact that the speaker had a dirty little secret. Emerson called upon the students to avoid involvement in business, spurn material values, dedicate themselves to the life of the mind, and imitate the career of—he all but said it—Ralph Waldo Emerson. What the speaker neglected to add, however, was that Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American scholar who was living on a subsidy, and that the source of that subsidy was the business fortune of a Boston merchant.

Ever since it was delivered, “The American Scholar” address has been a holy text for American intellectuals who like to believe that they are morally superior beings who have risen above their countrymen’s worship of money. They thus have a vested interest in not learning anything about the author of the address that might tend to discredit him. American intellectuals in general, like Emerson’s biographers in particular, have never wished to know that the cold young man who successfully sought the hand of Ellen Tucker was in no less hot pursuit of vulgar prosperity than the most barbaric businessman of the age.

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