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The Mind on Fire

Robert D. Richardson Jr. (Author), Barry Moser (Contributor)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 684 pages
ISBN: 9780520206892
November 1996
$33.95, £27.00
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Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the most important figures in the history of American thought, religion, and literature. The vitality of his writings and the unsettling power of his example continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Now Robert D. Richardson Jr. brings to life an Emerson very different from the old stereotype of the passionless Sage of Concord. Drawing on a vast amount of new material, including correspondence among the Emerson brothers, Richardson gives us a rewarding intellectual biography that is also a portrait of the whole man.

These pages present a young suitor, a grief-stricken widower, an affectionate father, and a man with an abiding genius for friendship. The great spokesman for individualism and self-reliance turns out to have been a good neighbor, an activist citizen, a loyal brother. Here is an Emerson who knew how to laugh, who was self-doubting as well as self-reliant, and who became the greatest intellectual adventurer of his age.

Richardson has, as much as possible, let Emerson speak for himself through his published works, his many journals and notebooks, his letters, his reported conversations. This is not merely a study of Emerson's writing and his influence on others; it is Emerson's life as he experienced it. We see the failed minister, the struggling writer, the political reformer, the poetic liberator.

The Emerson of this book not only influenced Thoreau, Fuller, Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, he also inspired Nietzsche, William James, Baudelaire, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges. Emerson's timeliness is persistent and striking: his insistence that literature and science are not separate cultures, his emphasis on the worth of every individual, his respect for nature.

Richardson gives careful attention to the enormous range of Emerson's readings—from Persian poets to George Sand—and to his many friendships and personal encounters—from Mary Moody Emerson to the Cherokee chiefs in Boston—evoking both the man and the times in which he lived. Throughout this book, Emerson's unquenchable vitality reaches across the decades, and his hold on us endures.
Robert D. Richardson Jr., Adjunct Professor of Letters at Wesleyan University, is also the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (California, 1986), which won the Melcher Prize in 1987. Barry Moser is one of the foremost wood engravers and book illustrators in America.
“He is a scholoarly genius.”—John A. Murray Bloomsbury Review
“[A]n electrifying work . . . a phenomenal piece of portraiture”—New York Newsday
"Richardson's rich and extensive book on Ralph Waldo Emerson is a guide to the fire that burned always at the center of Emerson's life. . . . To read this book is to be touched on the shoulder by a thousand years of poetry and thought. . . . For those who would understand Emerson, it is unforgettable; it is essential."—Mary Oliver, Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

"Emerson himself would surely have applauded Robert Richardson's monumental study, which treats the sage's thought not as a set of coldly reasoned propositions but as the continually shifting outcome of a struggle to surmount crisis and tragedy. In the process, Richardson has fashioned our most credible portrait of a vulnerable, driven, fully human Emerson."—Frederick Crews, author of The Sins of the Father

"The best biography I have read in years. Mr. Richardson is just the splendid writer Emerson has long deserved, and he makes the story great-hearted, inclusive, intellectual, and inspiring. I was enthralled."—Edward Hoagland

"A superb work . . . that will quickly come to be regarded as the definitive biography of Emerson. . . . Richardson's greatest achievement is to restore for us the emotional and passionate element of Emerson's life and personality, and to make us understand how significant an element that was. . . . He brings a very complex and interesting man—not just a thinker—to life."—David M. Robinson, author of Emerson and the Conduct of Life

"Scholars and general readers alike will return to this comprehensive and painstaking study for a long time to come."—Joel Porte, editor of Emerson's Essays

"The most readable biography of Emerson ever written and also one of the best from a scholarly standpoint."—Lawrence Buell, Harvard University

"In this magnificent study Emerson stands before us not only as the embodiment of his 'American Scholar' but also as a human mind. Richardson's Emerson is one whom we want to reread, but, more important, also whom we want to know as a friend and mentor."—Philip F. Gura

Certificate of Merit for a Distinguished Literary Biography Published in 1995, Gale Research Company

St. Nicholas Society Literary Award, St. Nicholas Society of New York

Melcher Book Award, Unitarian Universalist Association

Francis Parkman Prize The Prize is awarded to encourage literary distinction in the writing of History and biography., Society of American Historians

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