News & Reviews
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
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
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
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
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
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.
to read the entire interview.
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