You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Glad to the Brink of Fear

Glad to the Brink of Fear

A new biography reveals how Ralph Waldo Emerson gave Americans a vocabulary to understand themselves in an era even more tempestuous than our own.

Nicole Penn
Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson
by James Marcus (Princeton University Press, 333 pp., $29.95)

“A foolish consistency,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his famous 1841 essay on self-reliance, “is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little philosophers and divines.” It is the kind of aphorism that made Emerson a cultural phenomenon in his own time and ours, a kernel of truth weighted with just the right lilt so that it rolls off the tongue and burrows into one's mind. Even so, it is hard to read Emerson’s paean to radical individualism at a time of worsening threats abroad and growing political nightmare at home and not wish he had found something a little nicer to say about the virtues of consistency. 

Still, when the ground is constantly shifting under one’s feet, one can’t help but be fascinated by the kinds of people who would embrace an earthquake. That is the image of Emerson that emerges in Glad to the Brink of Fear, James Marcus’ new biography of America’s famous literary iconoclast. Emerson’s remarkable life spanned almost the entire breadth of the 19th century, and his essays gave Americans a vocabulary with which to understand themselves during an era that was far more tempestuous than even our own. 

Marcus calls his biography a “portrait,” and aptly so. He eschews a chronological account of the Sage of Concord’s life, artfully reassembling the pieces in an order of his own design. The effect is a biography that is deeply intimate, but not just for what it reveals about Emerson’s own life. Instead of shrouding himself behind the biographer’s veil of objectivity, Marcus pulls back the curtain, punctuating his narrative with unusually candid admissions about what Emerson’s life illuminates about his own. In doing so, he gently jostles our assumptions about the purpose of the biography and invites us to reexamine what we might be looking for when we plumb the lives of others in turbulent times. 

Rather than start with Emerson's birth or death, Marcus opens the biography with his disillusionment. The product of seven generations of clergymen, Emerson came of age during the Second Great Awakening, a period rocked by a wave of democratized evangelical energy that fundamentally altered the religious landscape of the United States. Rather than discovering a deeper commitment to his role as a Unitarian minister, however, Emerson began radically retreating from the idea of organized religion altogether. Like his more orthodox contemporaries, Emerson sought an unmediated encounter with the divine—he just believed they were looking for it in the wrong place. 

Part of Marcus’ project in this biography is to offer a kind of personal exegesis of some of Emerson’s greatest works. Take, for example, his extended discussion of “Nature,” the 1836 essay that launched Emerson’s career as an essayist along with the founding principles of the transcendentalist movement. After carefully guiding the reader through Emerson's beliefs on what nature reveals about the individual, Marcus energetically distills the revolutionary implications:

Here is the mighty self, the individual-as-cosmos, the blessing and curse that Waldo bequeathed to America! Here is the thing to read when you feel powerless, helpless….It will momentarily make you feel heroic, and not in a self-deluding way, but in terms of potential. Every human being deserves to feel this way. To grasp this fact, especially in a society organized around covenants and crowd behavior, was a stroke of genius.

Marcus, who does not consider himself religious, ends his chapter “Nature” by describing his own fascination with watching the televangelist Joel Osteen. Although he cannot relinquish his lack of belief, he admits to envying how easily faith seems to come to Osteen’s congregation. “It’s not easy being a materialist,” he confesses, “You need a miracle. I’m joking, but the unease I’m talking about is deeply sad and unsettling.” Emerson’s manifesto is therefore a welcome revelation. Emerson found little use in the religious belief in miracles because nature itself—manifested into being through the process of human observation—was itself a miracle. It was by walking in the woods, and not by banging on a wooden pulpit, that one could begin “to convert life into truth,” as Emerson put it. 

Conversion is an act of change, and Emerson’s myriad transformations comprise another key theme in Glad to the Brink of Fear. Marcus lingers on “Experience,” an essay from Emerson’s 1844 Second Series that in many ways repudiates the work that garnered him such acclaim a decade earlier. Whereas “Nature”celebrated man’s infinitude and connection to the cosmos, “Experience” details how those same qualities render humans finite and disconnected. 

Marcus mobilizes historical research and literary analysis to clarify the meaning in Emerson's beautiful but obfuscatory prose, underscoring the extent to which Emerson’s about-face was due to the death of his firstborn son in 1842. But the best authority that he arguably musters is his own experience. This is clearly an essay about soul-wrenching grief, and Marcus knows this because he is someone who has endured loss himself. 

The language of conversion might be best applied to how Marcus explores Emerson’s evolving attitude toward the antislavery movement. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson coldly dismissed abolitionists as posers who were more interested in joining a fashionable cause than they were in taking up what he deemed as the nobler fight against mindless conformity. Encounters with leading abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and writings on the history of the Atlantic slave trade began to change his mind. 

By the late 1840s Emerson had become a regular on the abolitionist speaking circuit, and the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 sparked some of his fieriest oratory against slavery yet. In what Marcus characterizes as another fascinating turn in his thought, Emerson both lambasted the extent to which the commodification of human beings had infected every American institution and celebrated the collective effort that had sprung up to excise the malady from American life. 

Despite this salutary evolution, Marcus makes no bones about the profound discomfort biographers face when staring their subject’s moral failures in the face. “To write about the Transcendentalist prophet and champion sentence-wrangler was pure pleasure,” he admits. But to watch Emerson waste decades wallowing in what one could describe as philosophical myopia at best and naked racism at worst leaves him “squirming.” 

More painful still is to know that Emerson’s progress on abolitionism did not entirely extend to his views on race. This is particularly evident in the racial taxonomies he spins out in English Traits, an 1856 account of the tour of Europe he had undertaken two decades prior. Even though Emerson ultimately concludes that no human can perfectly know the full extent of their own identity because we all ultimately contain some measure of undefinable heterogeneity, Marcus is clearly exasperated with the writer who has played such an influential role in his own life. “The good and the bad—the exalted and excruciating—coexisted in Waldo’s mind until the very end,” he sighs. 

It’s a good thing, then, that Emerson is not the only character that Marcus studies in Glad to the Brink of Fear. Despite the solipsistic cast of his writing, Emerson’s career was profoundly shaped by his relationships with others—especially with women. Yes, there was his famous (if frenemistic) mentorship of Henry David Thoreau, whom Marcus sharply describes as the “Aristotelian to Waldo’s Platonist.” But it was Emerson’s first wife, the spirited but physically frail Ellen Tucker Emerson, who gave him the financial security to pursue a life as an essayist. The unremitting abolitionism of his second wife, Lydian Jackson Emerson, was key to changing Emerson’s views on the struggle against slavery. 

The brilliant journalist Margaret Fuller edited Emerson’s transcendentalist journal (without ever being paid), sparred with him intellectually, and was likely involved with him romantically. And as dementia began to take hold near the end of his life, Emerson’s daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson played an indispensable role in managing his speaking tours; writing his correspondence; and transcribing, editing, and publishing his final works. 

Relationships tend to be a powerful solvent for consistency. This may have been why Emerson was also so intent on understanding friendship through the lens of theory. “What is philosophy for, if not to turn our worst anxieties into general principles?” Marcus perceptively asks. Contemporaries may have satirized Emerson as an ambling eyeball, but the manner in which he alternated between seeking the company of others and recoiling from the possibility of real encounter suggests that envisioning him as a hedgehog might have been a better fit instead. 

“Every spirit makes its house; but afterwards the house confines the spirit,” Emerson concluded in his essay “Fate,” published on the eve of the Civil War. The historian of American anti-modernism T. J. Jackson Lears has argued that this Emersonian nugget best captures the tension at the heart of American individualism. It also helps explain what makes Emerson such a fascinating figure not just to Marcus, but to all us moderns. 

Emerson’s gift for observation enabled him to preach an uplifting gospel of the illimitable atom. When he was knocked back by the realities of chaos, pain, and mortality, that same gift enabled him, fitfully and imperfectly, to embrace the art of changing course and to find beauty in limitation. Observing that struggle unfold through the experience of a writer such as Emerson can be terribly instructive. You peer deeply enough into the life of a man who thought himself a transparent eyeball and, after a while, you realize that you are meeting your own gaze. 

Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is senior program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a doctoral student in American history at George Mason University.

Image: Close-up of book cover, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Marcus, Princeton University Press, 2024.

DemocracyCultureBook ReviewsUnited States