Emerson: ‘A Few Inches from Calamity’

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Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Surely mankind’s greatest invention is the sentence. Words may be matter, but the sentence is form. Ezra Pound, though perhaps not the trustiest legislator, is right when he identifies language—and language is words made into sense by sentences—as uniquely to be valued if only for the fact that our laws are graven in it. More than this, however, human consciousness itself is expressed in intervals between capital letters and full stops. Even the physicist, who alone can fairly lay claim to a special, separate language, must descend to commonplace phrases when he orders his dinner or composes his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

As Robert D. Richardson points out in his splendid little book on Emerson as a guide for the writer, First We Read, Then We Write, for Emerson “the sentence—not the paragraph and not the essay—is the main structural and formal unit.” This is the most striking characteristic of Emerson’s remarkable prose style, and accounts for its fireworks quality as well as its peculiar difficulties. Richardson writes:

Emerson’s lifelong interest in sentences pushed him toward epigram and proverb, and steered him away from narrative, from logic, from continuity, from formal arrangement and effect. Pushed as far as he pushed them, many of Emerson’s sentences stand out by themselves, alone and exposed like scarecrows in a cornfield….

In this deceptively modest volume Richardson is intent on setting his subject before us not so much as a philosopher—Emerson’s philosophical achievement is taken as recognized—but as a model writer to be profitably emulated by all who would follow the same trade, especially the tyro. His second major theme is that of Emerson the creative reader. At no point does Richardson identify to whom his book is primarily addressed, but we may make a fair guess from the fact that he opens his introduction with that splendid piece of encouragement and accommodation from Emerson’s great essay “The American Scholar”:

Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.

Robert Richardson is the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995), and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006). These three books taken together—may we call them a trilogy? —form one of the great achievements in contemporary American literary studies. Aside from his learning, which is prodigious, Richardson writes a wonderfully fluent, agile prose; he has a poet’s sense of nuance and a novelist’s grasp of dramatic rhythm; he also displays a positive genius for apt quotation, the result of a total immersion in the work of his three very dissimilar yet subtly complementary thinkers. Can there be any more exciting critical writing than this?

Richardson surely would not …

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