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Emerson & Eros

Emerson & Eros

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Published by Carl Rollyson

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Published by: Carl Rollyson on Sep 15, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Biography, quite simply, gives the lie to literary criticism, and that is why itis such an affront to many literary critics. The genre suggests literature cannot be an end in itself, but rather that writing constitutes a part of some larger enterprise uncontainable within the covers of a book. Academic critics, in particular, would like to make of literature a priestly profession, a coded discipline practiced by adepts and sanctified by the Ph.D.This aspect of biography struck me while I read Len Gougeon's "Emerson & Eros: The Making of a Cultural Hero" (State University of New York Press, 272 pages, $35). It is often the case that a biographical study, rather than a fullfledged biographical narrative, raises profound questions about biography itself, helpingto explain why so many readers find the story of how literature is created as compelling as the literature itself.Mr. Gougeon asks a riveting question: What happened to Ralph Waldo Emerson as heapproached the age of 30? Until then, Emerson had seemed a conventional man content with the orthodoxies of his religion — Unitarianism — and social custom, whichonly the most original thinkers are inclined to challenge.Emerson had been an undistinguished student, apparently an attenuated branch ofa prominent New England family tree. At least two of his brothers were regardedas far more promising prospects than the placid Waldo, as he was called.Mr. Gougeon deftly presents this background in his prologue, so that even readers whose knowledge of Emerson is rusty, or those who hardly know more than the name, will absorb his biography and his main ideas with surprising ease. I say surprising, since I have seldom encountered a scholar so steeped in his material — Mr. Gougeon has been studying Emerson for 30 years — and yet so capable of conveyingthat learning with an admirable lucidity.Read the essays "The American Scholar" and "The Poet," and you have the basic Emersonian argument that there is a divinity in man that modern life has beaten out of him. "Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind," as Emerson put it poetically in 1847.But why did Emerson forsake his religion, attack societal institutions such as slavery, and generally call upon his fellow man to find in himself the seeds of his salvation? "It occurred to me early on," Mr. Gougeon explains, "that understanding the dramatic transformation that made his exceptional career possible would require both spiritual and psychological, as well as literary, insight." The literary text — take that literary critics! — is not enough.We need to know, for example, about Emerson's devastating loss of his young andbeautiful wife, Ellen Tucker, in 1831, which Mr. Gougeon contemplates while examining his subject's journals and published writings. When Mr. Gougeon describesthe role eros played in Emerson's life, he is not dealing with an abstraction. Ellen's death provoked such acute pain in Emerson that the supports of religion,tradition, and family proved nugatory.Emerson realized that he would have to rebuild himself by embarking on what Mr.Gougeon calls "a heroic, inward journey." During his rebirth Emerson became a public figure, often focusing on the development of the hero and history. This focus is why he inspired a group of what Mr. Gougeon calls "psychomythic humanists," writers like Joseph Campbell, Erich Neumann, Mircea Eliade, Norman O. Brown, and their successors — including Mr. Gougeon himself, who does not hesitate to explain the autobiographical origins of his commitment to Emerson, which involved his youthful concern with the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.The "eros" in Emerson is the unifying principle of the universe otherwise knownas love. He was a passionate man, Mr. Gougeon insists, and scholars and biograph

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