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 the complete Journals alone. In later life, I acquired these volumes for myself; and so far from their losing the interest they had for me in my youth, they had just the contrary effect, for my numerous pencil notes show that they provoked a continuous dialogue between Emerson and myself which, it happens, is still going on. When recently I had the task of selecting passages from the Journals for a new edition of Emerson’s essays, I had only to turn these already marked journals over to the typist. Precious though Emerson’s essays and lectures are, even as biographic revelations, no one can fully fathom his mind and character without becoming familiar with these Journals.

With this background, it was natural that I should have hailed with unqualified anticipatory pleasure the announcement that the Belknap Press of Harvard was going to publish the complete Emerson Journals, printing much that had been omitted and restoring to the original state significant passages that had been bowdlerized or otherwise altered by Emerson’s editors. This anticipatory pleasure kept on increasing, like any natural appetite, until in 1960 the first volume appeared. Then it suddenly vanished.

Typographically, the new edition has the excellences of the older one, without the extravagant margins; and the paper itself will, I suspect, prove more durable. The great difference between the two editions is the difference between their contents and their editorial aims, for the new volumes, which include various miscellaneous notebooks as well as the Journals proper, have the psychological idiosyncrasy known as total recall. If these editors have any sins to confess, the sin of omission would not be among them. The first edition of the Journals was a memorable contribution to American letters; the present edition is an exhibition of current standards of American scholarship at its meticulous best by scholars and strictly for scholars. This means, if I may anticipate my eventual judgment, that it has nothing whatever to do, except by sheer coincidence, with literary values and humanistic aims. The last person who would have approved the new edition is Emerson himself. It reflects his spirit about as closely as the architecture of the new William James Hall at Harvard honors that of William James. To be fair, then, I must attempt to penetrate further the editors’ intention and describe what they have actually done.


THIS NEW EDITION of his grandfather’s Journals is properly dedicated to Edward Emerson Forbes, though the writers of the Introduction to the series, after making this courteous acknowledgment to one of their worthy predecessors, cannot refrain from politely reproaching Mr. Forbes and Dr. Emerson for their genteel habit of having referred to their ancestor as Mr. Emerson. But one must not forget that even later than 1909 historic figures were often still referred to in this fashion. Did not Henry James, in using the family letters, perversely alter William’s Old Abe into President Lincoln? As late as 1924, Albert Jay Nock, the editor of The Freeman, could still refer to Jefferson as Mr. Jefferson. This usage was partly an indication of a more general attitude which the present editors properly challenge and correct—that of seeking to magnify the positive virtues of a great figure by minimizing the defects, the discrepancies, or the contradictions. The unity so achieved is lifeless and the total effect false. In this respect the first editors were, as is the wont of near relatives with family papers, too tender of Emerson’s reputation. So it was important that their discreet suppressions should be corrected. That alone would be sufficient justification for an unexpurgated edition of the Journals.

This new edition properly boasts the essential scholarly virtues of unsparing honesty, accuracy, thoroughness; and for this everyone concerned to come closer to Emerson must be duly grateful. Some of Emerson’s early characterizations of the Negro race, for example, were doubtless so repugnant to the moral sense of his first editors half a century later that they deleted them, as Emerson himself, whose views matured, doubtless would have done had he performed the same task. But now that another half century has passed, it was obligatory for the present editors to give us Emerson’s original words, painful though it is to read them; for the fact that he, who became a passionate abolitionist, could have uttered them as a young man, should give us a little more understanding of the hold similar atavistic sentiments still have over a large number of our countrymen, North as well as South, even today.

WHAT THE NEW EDITION does, then, is to faithfully restore to us the entire manuscript collection, unedited except by Emerson himself. Limited to the Journals that effort deserves only applause. Emerson was wont to use in his lectures little anecdotes and local allusions that he firmly removed from the printed versions; and part of the value of this new version is that it reinstates these homely allusions, and presents a more vivid colorful Emerson than the somewhat etherealized and orphic figure one finds in the Essays, particularly in the First and Second Series. In replacing these passages, the editors again have performed an admirable service; for they not merely disclose further Emerson’s fragrant earthiness, already permeating the earlier edition, but they likewise bring out his unflinching realism and his racy humor, though some of these qualities were present in later essays like those on “Fate” and “Wealth” and “Power.” The complete Journals even give a hint of inner conflicts not entirely glazed over by Emerson’s habitual decorum. Thus the editors have discovered omissions of references to shadowy figures like Caroline Sturgis, which might indicate, even more than his letters to her, that the elder Henry James’s portrait of Emerson as an angelic soul, immune to fleshly temptations or divided feelings, could have been mistaken—though doubtless Emerson had a more cavalier way of dealing with these inner promptings than the impetuous James did.

Such accretions of fresh data, however minute, are welcome, though the picture of Emerson is sharpened rather than radically altered by the restorations and the fresh exposures of the unvarnished paint that the editors have so far made. Through it all, Emerson remains in essence what he always intended to be, a true descendant of Montaigne, in other words, a great gentleman, one incapable of doing violence to himself or to anyone else. The impression is all the deeper because now one can see under what tensions and at what price the final result was achieved.

BUT IN DOING JUSTICE to the parts of Emerson’s Journals the editors have deliberately disrupted the whole. This immense body of material has been arranged, not to produce a consecutive, readable journal, as in the first edition, but to regurgitate the undigested contents of Emerson’s mind, year by year, as revealed in all the surviving documents, not just the Journals. Whereas Volume I of the 1909 edition, covering 1820-1824, contains less than 65,000 words, Volume I of the 1960 edition, covering only two years, boasts some 185,000 words. To realize fully all that this implies, one would have to go through the six volumes so far published section by section; but it will suffice to look at Volume I. Here is Emerson’s college theme book, forty-four pages; here are thirty-six pages of quotations from Emerson’s readings; here, too, as in the first edition of the Journals, is every book that Emerson set down as having read. Altogether, some 130 pages of juvenilia, conceivably of interest to the specialist, but irrelevant to those concerned with Emerson’s living mind. Nothing has been omitted, though Emerson himself, according to Ralph Rusk, felt that all the early manuscript books should be burned. At whatever cost, this edition leaves the major task of editing to the reader. What the editors have in fact done is to throw open the entire mass of raw material for future generations of scholarly research, knowing in advance, surely, that is very rawness will incite the production of endless Ph.D. theses, with all the trivia and minutiae duly refined and painstakingly sophisticated.


The cost of this scholarly donation is painfully dear, even if one puts aside the price in dollars of this heavy make-weight of unreadable print. For the editors have chosen to satisfy their standard of exactitude in transcription by a process of ruthless typographic mutilation. As it turns out the damage done to the text by this method is no less serious from the standpoint of humane letters than the worst bowdlerization was from that of scholarly rigor. Though nothing in the manuscripts has been omitted, something has unfortunately been added. To present the written text in printed facsimile the editors have used twenty different diacritical marks. These marks, treated as an integral part of the printed line, spit and sputter at the reader, not only to indicate cancellations, insertions, or variants, but also unrecovered matter, unrecovered cancelled matter, accidentally mutilated manuscript, even erasures. What the phrase “nothing has been omitted” means on the printed page may not easily be visualized by the reader unused to academic ways: so let me give an example, one of hundreds that could be drawn on, since hardly a page lacks some evidence. I quote at random a sentence, Volume 1, page 193:

The best visions of the Christian ^ corresspond v cold ^ ly v & imperfect ^ ly v to the promise of infinite reward which the scripture | contains | reveals |.

Let me stress that I have not out of malice chosen a particularly spotted passage; just a typical one. The effect of these notations is to make the reader feel as if he were Demosthenes, practicing oratory with his mouth full of pebbles. The scholarly reason for inflicting this torture is to present in print, solely for other scholars, the manuscript journals “wie sie eigentlich geschrieben waren.” This is as near as print can get to a photographic copy of the original; and because type is easier to read than the handwriting of most authors, these volumes are an immense gift to specialists in American literature who may at last assiduously cultivate this once neglected domain on the strict lines prescribed for the mass production of scholarly papers and books.

THE EDITORS, despite their occasional modest disclaimers, have done their work so competently that no later scholar will have to microfilm another page of Emerson’s notebooks, nor need he travel to Cambridge to gain permission to view the MSS in the Houghton Library, so long as he has access to this new edition. But apparently it did not occur to the editors, or even to the all-too-acquiescent publisher, that these journals might have genuine value for those not committed to professional scholarship.

This, then, it turns out, is a high fidelity version of Emerson’s Journals, with all the virtues of mechanically exact reproduction offset by a blunt indifference to any other human aims. As is the way of many hi-fi enthusiasts, the editors show more concern to reproduce the original scratches and squeaks than the music; for instead of relegating the noise to an appendix, or even, as has often been done, to separate volumes, they have made the scratches an integral part of the very sentences from which Emerson himself had already eliminated them, reinstating the slips, the false starts, the rejected ideas, as of equal importance to the final expression. This is not only a maddening practice in itself, but it surely has an ominous bearing on the appreciation and teaching of literature. Such technological extravagance and human destitution is of course the fashionable mode of our day. In the present case, nothing has been lost by this process—except Emerson: Emerson and the many potential readers who have been prevented by this automated editing from having direct access to his mind.

Oh! but Emerson is there! One sees his figure at a distance, through a barbed wire entanglement of diacritical marks; the searchlight from the control tower, meant to keep Emerson from escaping, or even making a movement without being noticed by the guards, keeps on sweeping into the reader’s eyes and blinding him: the voice in which Emerson faintly calls out to one is drowned by the whirring of the critical helicopter, hovering over the scene; while, with sympathetic anguish, one sees Emerson himself, sentenced to fatigue duty, laboriously picking up and reassorting the rejected scraps he had once thrown away. Yes: Emerson is there. But after an hour or two of trying to find an unguarded place in the scholarly enclosure where one may get near enough to him for a little uninterrupted conversation, one gives up in despair, and departs, as one might from a futile visit to a friend in a concentration camp. Thus these Journals have now performed current American scholarship’s ultimate homage to a writer of genius: they have made him unreadable. And the editors have done so by a wholly gratuitous misplacement of the typographic devices they have employed to ensure an accurate transcription.

THESE, I realize, are harsh words, for what I am saying is that the editors committed two monumental errors of judgment, impossible to rectify without a complete reprinting of the whole work. The first one was to print all the available material seriatim, mingling the important with the inconsequential, the living and maturing mind of Emerson with the debris of his daily existence; and the other was to magnify this original error by transcribing their accurate notations to the very pages that the potential readers of Emerson might wish to read freely, without stumbling over scholarly roadblocks and barricades. When I first expressed these critical misgivings to an eminent academic friend of mine, he advised me rather peremptorily to lay off reviewing the Journals: begging me, indeed, not to make a gratuitous nuisance of myself, since I am not an accredited Emerson scholar.

True: but I am a faithful Emerson reader; and, as it turns out, that academic disability is perhaps my chief qualification for writing this criticism. For who is to question such an authoritative enterprise, if indeed it be questionable, except those whose reputations and promotions could not possibly be jeopardized by passing an unfavorable verdict upon it? Happily, such a judgment must fall most heavily, not upon the editors as individuals, but upon a greater culprit, the Academic Establishment of which they are a part. For it is the preconceptions and the mock-scientific assumptions governing the pursuit of the humanities today that so adroitly ensured the miscarriage of this great effort, and turned it into a repulsive caricature of the sober scholarly virtues it sought to exemplify.

The question ultimately to be decided, in the face of my learned and venerable friend’s irritated caveat, is whether my description of this work is exaggerated and distorted, or whether it is the editing of the Journals and Notebooks that exhibits, to an appalling degree, such wanton distortion and exaggeration, disguised though it be by a passion for close historic and biographic reproduction. Viewed as an abstract feat of scholarly notation, meant solely for the limited use of specialized scholars, the result gives the layman no reason to quarrel except possibly on the purely economic ground that, like moon-rocketing, it represents a colossal expenditure of human effort, money, and time, that might have been addressed to matters of greater consequence. What is puzzling though is the obvious fact that the editors did not apparently conceive that Emerson’s Journals might fulfill any other purpose than that of the scholarship industry. For if the editors had considered Emerson’s experience and reflections as having a value in themselves, they might, without foregoing a single exact notation of their own, have equally served the interests of humane letters.

Strangely, indeed astonishingly, this dual solution had already appeared in a book published by the same press. For in 1959, a year before the first volume of the journals and notebooks was published, Robert Spiller and the late Stephen Whicher published the first volume of the early lectures of Emerson, composed mainly of fragments that called for detailed editing, in the same fashion as the journals. But in this edition, in almost the same format, the purposes of the general reader and those of the scholar were both respectfully heeded by relegating the entire critical apparatus to the Appendix, leaving the lectures themselves unencumbered. In the case of the Emerson Journals the readable text could easily have been confined to half the number of books, presumably at half the price of the final set.

More frightening, however, than the costly error itself is the state of mind of those who decided on this systematic maltreatment of Emerson’s Journals: namely, their belief that the exact representation of the original text is a far more important undertaking than the sympathetic selection and arrangement of that text in a fashion that might invite and encourage those who wish to have intimate intercourse with Emerson’s mind. That pseudo-scientific nonselective canon of judgment has become now the hallmark of American literary scholarship on the eve of its surrender to the computer and to those limited problems that computers so deftly and swiftly handle. Unfortunately, the issues that must be opened up here are too large to be treated casually at the end of a review. But until they are faced, and until American literary scholarship itself radically overhauls its present values and purposes, such expensive errors as the present edition of Emerson’s Journals will continue to be made.

This Issue

January 18, 1968