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WORD: LOA Interviews editor Lawrence Rosenwald about Ralph Waldo Emerson

As the Library of America prepared to launch ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Journals’ the publisher conducted an interview with editor Lawrence Rosenwald, who helmed the massive task of sorting through a lifetime of journals from the prolific author and piecing together what he felt were the most significant passages.

LOA: The two volumes of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Journals draw from writings in more than 182 individual journals and notebooks over almost 60 years. The 2,000 pages in these volumes represent fully one-third of the material in the regular journals and are the most comprehensive selection ever made from his work. How did you decide what to include?

Rosenwald: There were two principal goals: to keep Emerson's best writing, and to keep what was most significant biographically and historically. I wanted to keep what best illuminated Emerson, and what best showed Emerson illuminating the world.
There were some goals I didn't have. I didn't, for example, care much about proportionality of representation. I included a lot from the mature journals, those in which Emerson displayed the form he'd mastered, but much less from the early journals or the very late ones-before Emerson had found his form or after he had lost some of his power. And I didn't keep material on Emersonian themes that wasn't up to Emersonian standards-many of his comments on English national character, for example, seem lifeless now.

LOA: Emerson began his journal as a 16-year-old student at Harvard College. The last entry is dated January, 1877 when he was 73. Do you find that his writings break down into distinct periods?

Rosenwald: Yes, I do. Until 1833, in what Emerson called Journal A, he's a young man trying to find his form, working out the relation between a couple of competing models, John Locke's commonplace book on the one hand, the Puritan diary of spiritual experiences on the other. Then suddenly he gets it right, he makes the apt synthesis.
Everything before that is prologue; it's in 1833-a year he spent mostly traveling in Europe after resigning his ministry-that the main show begins. And the show goes on, in largely the same way, until Emerson loses his power in the 1860s. He doesn't lose it altogether, there are some great passages still to come, but there's more mechanical writing, more copying and stocktaking and summing up, fewer dazzling flashes-time to take in sail. So: the prologue, the main show, the decline.

LOA: In your book Emerson and the Art of the Diary you call the Journals "one of the great masterpieces of American writing" and "his chief literary performance." How do the Journals relate to Emerson's other literary works?

Rosenwald: Meaning no disrespect to those who admire the essays and the poems-I admire them too-I think the Journals are his great work, the one where he really found his form.
It's weird, you know; you have eminent critics like Harold Bloom, who claim-rightly-that Emerson was a great, great American writer, but who then claim that "[Emerson's] true genre was no more the lecture than it had been the sermon . . . and certainly not the essay, though that is his only formal achievement, besides a double handful of strong poems." So what was his "true genre"? Clearly the Journals, though it's surprising how few people acknowledge that.

LOA: One of the delights of Emerson's Journals is how many literary luminaries fill its pages-on one page we're with Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne on a 20-mile stroll to Harvard Village, on another we're listening to a dinner table conversation with Thoreau. And you provide brief portraits of each of them in the Biographical Notes. While devoted to his two wives, Emerson seems to struggle to find the right tone or distance for his relationships with the other women in his life, Margaret Fuller and Caroline Sturgis, in particular. Can you help us put those relationships in context?

Rosenwald: A very good question, to which I wish I had a very good answer. There are some really, really embarrassing moments in Emerson's writing about Fuller in particular. It's pretty clear that he couldn't figure out what to do with her, with her intensity and vitality, sexual vitality. He was hampered by decorum and by sexism. He was hampered by his bloodless ideas about what friendship should be:
"I do then with my friends as I do with my books. I would have them where I can find them, but I seldom use them."
What feelings he was actually having about these women he had close friendships with is hard to figure out. On this topic at least he wasn't a great writer, and John Jay Chapman was brilliantly correct to say that an inhabitant of another planet could learn one thing from Italian opera that couldn't be learned from Emerson, namely that human beings came in two sexes.
Click here to read the entire interview.


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