Emerson Behind Barbed Wire

The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson

edited by William H. Gilman, edited by AlfredR. Ferguson, edited by Merrell R. Davis, edited by Merton M. Sealts Jr., edited by Harrison Hayford
Belknap Press (Harvard), 6 volumes pp., $67.00

The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson

edited by Robert E. Spiller, edited by Stephen E. Whicher
Harvard, 2 volumes pp., $25.00

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson; drawing by David Levine

Almost sixty years ago, in 1909 in fact, the first volume of a ten-volume edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Journals was published; and the final volume came out in 1914. In 1883, the twelve-volume collected edition of Emerson’s works had been published, with an introductory memoir by James Elliot Cabot, the editor. To bring out Emerson’s Journals a generation after his death was, then, a final act of piety, performed by those who had been close to Emerson. But unfortunately for Emerson’s reputation this publication was somewhat belated, for the robust Emerson one finds in the Journals is a far more attractive figure than the transcendental ghost lingering in the popular imagination, whose “paleness” and remoteness led Henry James, the novelist, to speak of the “white tint” of Emerson’s career.

Though Cabot was too old to participate in the editing of the Journals, Emerson’s son, Dr. Edward Waldo Emerson, the physician, with the help of Emerson’s grandson, Waldo Emerson Forbes, waded through Emerson’s notebooks and selected, out of the formidable welter, what they judged to be readable, representative, and memorable, with due consideration on occasion for the feelings of contemporaries still alive. This work was severely selective. Whatever the defects in their judgment from the standpoint of a less squeamish generation, they had the editorial courage and skill to put together a coherent series of books that not only sounded the ringing metal of Emerson’s mind, but exposed the mine pit and the ore from which so much of the final product had come.

I must confess to a personal fondness for this original edition of Emerson’s Journals. In the days when I haunted the South Reading Room of the Central Building of the New York Public Library, those Journals were on the open shelves near the call desk, and I used to dip into them while waiting for my books. The format was liberal, indeed the margins were over-generous; and the typography lived up to the fine tradition of the Riverside Press—one of the first American printers to break away from the cluttered pages and the illegible print of commercial Victorian design. These widely leaded type pages had some of the spaciousness and luminosity of Emerson’s own mind; and the footnotes and summaries of books read were so unobtrusive, so easily skippable, that nothing stood in the way of intimate intercourse with Emerson’s mind. (But I must add that, alas! this edition, though limited, was printed on a poor paper that has now become prematurely yellowed and brittle.)

The full-fleshed Emerson was already visible in these Journals, though the editors, through an understandable effort to avoid duplication and to economize space, left out those parts of the Journals that had been transferred by Emerson, often without change, to his essays. Yet if all Emerson’s other work had been destroyed, he might have staked his claim as a writer on…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.