BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert D. Richardson Jr., why did you call the book on Ralph Waldo Emerson "The Mind on Fire"?
ROBERT RICHARDSON, AUTHOR, "MEANS OF ASCENT: THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON": Well, I called it "The Mind on Fire" because the picture that I used to have of Emerson was of a kind of cold, plaster saint -- his bust was up in school rooms everywhere, and I think a lot of other people sort of picked up the notion that Emerson was this kind of cool, distant saint. And one day, I was in his house in Concord looking on the walls, and there was a picture of a volcano in eruption right where you come in the front door, and it's very striking because it's not a very good painting, but it's very vivid and very colorful. And I kept wondering and wondering and wondering about this painting, and finally, I began to notice that the image of fire and volcanoes and the notion that humanity is all connected the way volcanoes are all connected by a fire under the earth was his leading idea. And he came to think that just as each volcano was an outlet for the fire under the earth, so each person is an outlet for the humanity that unites us all. And this notion that somehow fire and the volcano and the power of passion is all in there should be the way to start the book.
LAMB: When did he live?
RICHARDSON: He was born in 1803 and he died in 1882 (stet) so his life covered two-thirds of the 19th century, and he lived to see the Civil War and its aftermath. He lived through much of the formative period of the republic. His mother liked to remind him that she was born an English subject, but he was born an American in the republic, and it was one of those sort of early formative voices in shaping what we now sort of think of as Americanism.
LAMB: Where did he live?
RICHARDSON: He lived in Concord, Massachusetts, although he wasn't born there. He was born in Boston. But he moved to Concord eventually and became very much a citizen of Concord. And while it's sometimes been complained that there's no great sense of place in American literature -- D.H. Lawrence once famously complained that -- that certainly isn't true of these Concord writers -- Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott. They have a very strong sense of place.
LAMB: Where is this home?
RICHARDSON: That home is just a couple of hundred yards from the center of Concord, right on the Lexington Road, and you can get to it, and it looks just like that now. It's open to the public. You can poke around. There's nothing fancy there. It looks pretty much the way it did when he would come in and leave his half-finished cigar on the lower rung of the white fence out front to go in the house.
LAMB: When did he live there?
RICHARDSON: He bought the place in the early 1830s and lived there till the -- for the rest of his life.
LAMB: One of the great surprises I've had when I went through this town of Concord was going to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and you see all those famous names right there together. Who's buried there?
RICHARDSON: Emerson's buried there, Henry Thoreau is buried there, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott are buried there, Hawthorne, I think, is buried there, and all their families.
LAMB: How did they all end up there?
RICHARDSON: Well, the graveyard was started in the 1850s as an imitation of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the garden cemetery, the idea of having trees in a cemetery and not just a kind of useless field be turned into the cemetery. And people were buried there from then on who lived in Concord, and then, although they don't tell you this story always in Concord, various people were moved in order to be clustered together up on Author's Ridge, as it's now called. So there was a little bit of stage managing to get them all together. But still, there was a very remarkable group of men and women who lived in Concord in the middle of the 19th century.
LAMB: How did you get -- I know you've got a biography of Henry David Thoreau or is it David Henry Thoreau? Which one is it?
RICHARDSON: No, it's Henry Thoreau.
LAMB: And people call him what?
RICHARDSON: People called him Henry.
LAMB: And when did he live?
RICHARDSON: He was just 15 years younger than Emerson. He died in 1862, just as the Civil War was under way. He died young, and Emerson lived on, but they were both in Concord at the same time. They were very close friends. They were both people of very -- they had a lot of intellectual horsepower, and they didn't always get along perfectly. There were some spats and some falling-outs, but Emerson, even when his memory was gone as a very old man, remembered Thoreau was his best friend. And without Emerson, I don't think there would have been a Thoreau.
LAMB: Who were they? What did they do? Why are they so famous?
RICHARDSON: They were writers, but they found their way to writing. It wasn't really a profession the way it might be thought to be now. Emerson started out to be a preacher and he had some difficulties with that. He went to college. He eventually went to divinity school, although it's a misleading phrase to call it “divinity school,” and that's a picture of him later on. There really are no early photographs because photography wasn't really invented until he was 35 years old, and the first ones weren't taken until he was in his 40s. But he couldn't really live with the institutional church. He was a deeply religious person all his life. That picture shows him in the late 1850s, a very interestingly molded face. And he worked his way out of the institutional church.
As I said, he was a deeply religious person all his life but had trouble with anything that was institutionalized. His first wife died early and tragically, and about the same time that she died, he had his break -- his crisis of conscience and his break with the church. That's her, Ellen Tucker. She died of tuberculosis after they had only been married a short time, less than two years, and it just absolutely tore him up. And somehow in that loss of her, he also lost his willingness to go on being a minister in an institutional setting.
He went to Europe. He traveled through Europe to think things over. He became more and more convinced that the modern world was going to revolve around science. He came back and began a whole new career as a public lecturer on science -- or science was his first subject. He then rapidly branched out into other things, and he found the new lyceum movement, which was a sort of working people's lecture series movement, his new home, and so he began to travel around -- first around eastern Massachusetts and then more widely around New England and eventually wherever the railroads ran throughout the country, giving lectures. And he would give as many as 80 public lectures a year, and there'd be a train trip and a stay in a cold hotel -- this was always during the winter months, and he was on the lecture tour for four or five months every year for 25 years. So what Emerson really was, was a public lecturer, and then when he came home and he would recharge the batteries, read, try to write, get back to his family, but he would have to go out -- didn't have to go out -- he chose to go out on the lecture circuit every year for 25 years.
LAMB: Excuse the reach, but Ronald Reagan, I think, for 25 years spoke for General Electric all over the United States, giving lectures. What would be the difference?
RICHARDSON: The difference is probably the transportation is easier now.
LAMB: What about the message? And how long did he speak, for instance?
RICHARDSON: He would speak for an hour to an hour and a half, sometimes as much as two hours. It was evening entertainment. The lyceums that Emerson spoke at were really closest to what we would now call adult education, I think.
LAMB: Were they always different or did he give the same lecture ...?
RICHARDSON: He would often give the same series of lectures in different places, and he had to beg the newspapers not to print what he had written in each city because if they printed it too carefully or made verbatim transcripts, it would make the same lectures difficult to use. But he wrote a new set each year, and often, in a given year, would use sets from various years. He kept very careful track of where he had given what talk. But the general setting would be considered now, I think, sort of adult education. He did not go to universities. He was not a sort of -- the equivalent of what one now calls an airport intellectual, who goes from university to university and talks only to people in those places. The lyceums were really organized for working people, for people who were self-made or trying to be self-made, what we would now call a general audience. Not at all ...
LAMB: Let me ask one more then. We keep reading about Colin Powell getting $60,000 a speech to go all over the United States to speak to closed audiences. There's no television there. How would you relate what Emerson did to that today?
RICHARDSON: He wasn't as well paid, but ...
LAMB: Was he paid?
RICHARDSON: Oh, yes, he was paid. People would buy series tickets for these lecture series, and then Emerson would collect the receipts. He did all his own booking early on, and he would make arrangements and he would go to a certain city if they could guarantee him $50 a series of lectures or something of that sort. The figures aren't comparable because you need to use an inflator on it, of course. But if he might, for example, make $50 from a lecture series in New York City of seven lectures in the mid-1850s, that's comparable to a year's tuition at college now.
LAMB: What I was getting at is if you saw on a billboard “Ralph Waldo Emerson to speak” someplace in Cleveland, how would that relate today in importance to one of the many political figures that we see are coming to town to speak?
RICHARDSON: It would be rather similar. He was a very well-known figure and he was invited -- like some of the people that you mentioned, he was invited back again and again and again as a kind of leader of the billing. He went back to Ohio, I think, for 25 years. He was invited back each time to go, and gradually, more and more people heard him. It's really how he got his fame on this. He was a good speaker.
LAMB: How famous was he at the end?
RICHARDSON: Well, he became very famous, actually, rather early. In a piece called the Divinity School Address, he attacked what he called historical Christianity, meaning a view of Christianity that depended upon miracles and the Bible and a historical figure to have founded it rather than it's being based in human nature, and the piece drew immense attention. That was 1838, and from then on, he was really well-known. He was also well-known -- he was infamous as well as famous. Mothers would take their children and cross the street with them so that they wouldn't have to meet "Mad Dog" Emerson, who was considered by the religious establishment a completely wild man.
RICHARDSON: Because he had attacked institutional Christianity in public.
LAMB: You say at one point in the book that he was a pacifist.
RICHARDSON: He was a pacifist for a while in an era when it's a very complicated matter -- because the whole of Emerson's early career is under the shadow of the coming Civil War. One has to remember that 1860, the war breaks out and it engulfed the nation. Everybody had to take sides or felt forced to take sides. The movements that he was interested in -- anti-slavery and to some extent, women's rights and others -- inclined him toward new movements, and he was very sympathetic with the idea of peace and he gave a lecture at a peace conference. The lecture's called “War,” but it's actually about peace. But one has to say that as it became clear that there was going to be a fight between the North and the South, he came to think that perhaps it was necessary and inevitable. He was not willing to let slavery stand. He was not willing to sit by, and when the war came, he accepted it. He had a very hard time with the notion of his own son going, but gave his permission. The son eventually didn't go for other reasons. But if he began as a pacifist, he eventually came to see the Civil War as a necessary war, I suppose somewhat as a lot of people eventually saw World War II, as a necessary war.
LAMB: You made the point, though, more than once in the book that he -- in his words that this was not a war to save the union. It was a war to ...
RICHARDSON: It was a war to end slavery.
LAMB: In his mind.
RICHARDSON: In his mind, right, and those of his friends. As long as it seemed to be a war to save the union, his position was, “Don't. Let the South go.” But when it became possible for him to see the war as a war to end slavery, then he accepted it.
LAMB: What do you do full time?
RICHARDSON: Well, I've been a teacher -- a professor -- and what I do now is write.
LAMB: Where were you a professor?
RICHARDSON: Most recently at Wesleyan, at College of Letters, a nice general humanities department there. Before that, at the University of Colorado and then the University of Denver for a long time -- 23 years at the University of Denver. I've taught in China, the University of Szechwan. I've done little stints at Yale, earlier at Harvard, New York, Queens College, the Graduate Center of the City of New York.
LAMB: Where did you get your own education?
RICHARDSON: At Harvard.
LAMB: In what subject?
RICHARDSON: In English literature, it was then called, which means English and American literature.
LAMB: How much time did -- and by the way, what did they call Ralph Waldo Emerson? What did his friends call him?
RICHARDSON: Called him Waldo.
LAMB: Did they ever call him Ralph?
RICHARDSON: Apparently not. Waldo was -- it was the name that he chose. One reason was that there was a professor at Andover Seminary named Reverend Ralph Emerson, and he had that name sort of taken in the Boston area.
LAMB: How much time did Waldo Emerson spend at Harvard?
RICHARDSON: He was there four years. He went through what was then the regular undergraduate course starting at about age 14.
LAMB: When you went to school there, did they make a big thing out of the Emerson connection?
RICHARDSON: No, not really. There was a bronze statue of him over in the philosophy department, but they'd moved on to other things at the time, although they've sort of come back to him now. There's a man named Stanley Cavell there who certainly does Emerson in a big way. The English department, in general, took Emerson up, but I was taught or I picked up somehow that Emerson was a sort of king of the easy optimists, that what he had to say really couldn't stand the close scrutiny that he lacked, the tragic sense of life that he really didn't understand, the depths of how bad life could be.
LAMB: Hundred chapters, five pages each.
RICHARDSON: In the book.
LAMB: When did you decide to do that?
RICHARDSON: Well, I had a wonderful teacher at Harvard, W.J. Bate, who wrote very great biographies of Keats and then of Johnson, and his advice to me when he discovered that I was daring to write a biography was to write in short takes; if at all possible, to write in short pieces so that the reader feels that he or she is getting somewhere. I mean, that's a big, heavy book. And people have busy lives and they have lots else to do, and if you can sit down and read four or five pages and feel like you're getting somewhere instead of these big 30 or 40-page or 50-page chapters, it makes a book readable that might not otherwise seem so.
LAMB: Did you know that in the preface in the first paragraph, you were going to get our attention that quickly? Did you do that on purpose?
RICHARDSON: I certainly did, but I can't really take all the credit for that. My wife really insisted that that's how I start the book.
LAMB: And how did you start it?
RICHARDSON: I started the book with the moment when the young Emerson, who is a minister, is walking out to Roxbury to visit the grave of his wife, and he opens the coffin of his wife, who has now been dead a year and two months.
LAMB: How far is -- a couple things. How far is Roxbury from Boston?
RICHARDSON: It was about a four-mile walk then.
LAMB: And he did it every day?
RICHARDSON: And he did it every day.
LAMB: For how long?
RICHARDSON: For a year and two months, and then he continued to, even after this episode, when he opened the coffin and looked in.
LAMB: How did you find out he looked into the coffin? And what was the reason for it?
RICHARDSON: He says in his journal that he walked out and opened the coffin. Not the tomb -- he opened the actual coffin. And the reason for it has been speculated on a great deal. For some biographers and some readers, it seems so macabre an act that they've thought that perhaps he imagined it or hallucinated it, but it's right there in the journal. And there were a number of other people in the 19th century who did something similar -- who opened the tombs -- -- not the tombs -- the coffins of recently dead loved ones. And I think the reason -- one has to guess and one has to say that it's a guess, but I think it was because he couldn't really believe she was dead. He was writing in his journal to her as though she were alive. He really ...
LAMB: She was only 20 when she died?
RICHARDSON: Yeah. Well, no, younger than that I think, but about 20, very beautiful, very young. And he really couldn't accept the idea that she was dead, and I think this was his way of letting go of her. It also, I think, is the essential Emerson. He had to see for himself. He had to, with his own eyes, see. His hunger for personal, direct, immediate experience is really the basis of his whole life.
LAMB: You tell us later that he did the same thing 16 years after the death of one of his sons.
RICHARDSON: That's right.
LAMB: Which one? Do you remember?
RICHARDSON: His first boy was named Waldo, and he died at the age of five of scarlatina, which came on very suddenly and very tragically. Yeah, he was a very attractive little boy, and you can see him scowling there in the sunlight because when a picture was taken, you had to have quite a bit of sunlight to get the daguerreotype to come out properly, so that's why there's a little bit of a scowl in there. But anyway, he was a sunny, cheerful boy, and he died very suddenly, and that was another tragedy. Emerson's life was marred with tragedy.
After his wife died, his two younger brothers died, both of whom were considered more likely prospects for success in the world than he was. And then his first child, first son died, and he opened his coffin 15 years later, too, on the occasion of moving it to Sleepy Hollow, the new cemetery that you mentioned earlier. The boy was in another cemetery. And he wrote in his journal and he told his family when he came home that he'd opened the coffin and looked in, but he said, “No more.”
No, we never know what he saw in there, but one of the things that I noticed as I was putting the book together and assembling the chronology and the pieces for all this was that Emerson's real creative life, that volcanic outpouring, falls entirely between these two glimpses into the grave, these glimpses not simply of the dead but his dead. And from that, I came to see better than I ever had before that Emerson's achievement really was based on facing the abyss, on facing tragedy, on facing loss; that the idea of him as an easy optimist, the idea of him as someone who somehow hadn't earned his right to, say, be self-reliant, was nonsense. And that, in fact, this man's entire life was based on loss and on a kind of powerful facing up to loss that's not common. It's hard to imagine, hard to do.
LAMB: If you lived in Boston, how long would it take you to get to Concord?
RICHARDSON: In those days?
LAMB: Well, today. I suspect if somebody wanted to go to the Sleepy Hollow...
RICHARDSON: Oh, you can get out there -- it's 16 miles from Cambridge, and
you can get out there in 20 minutes, by Route 2.
LAMB: How much time have you spent out there?
RICHARDSON: Oh, we moved to Concord when I was 15, and though I was already away at school ...
LAMB: From where?
RICHARDSON: Medford, Massachusetts, which is -- it's right nearby. And I
spent summers and vacations in Concord and, indeed, my mother lives there to
this day. So I go back and forth to Concord all the time. I don't live
there now, but I've spent enough time there.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
RICHARDSON: I live in Middletown, Connecticut.
LAMB: The other -- the old mansion sits right next to the Old North Bridge.
RICHARDSON: Yes, right next to the old battlefield.
LAMB: What was the Old North Bridge or what is it?
RICHARDSON: The Old North Bridge was the bridge where the second battle between the British regulars and the colonial militia broke out to begin the War of Independence. And one field away from the bridge where the firing in Concord broke out was a house of Emerson's grandfather, who was a minister in the town at the time and also chaplain to the troops and went off with them and died young up in Ticonderoga.
LAMB: Walden Pond is how far away from the Old North Bridge?
RICHARDSON: Walden Pond is about two miles from there, a little over a mile from Concord Center if you walk along the railroad tracks. It's not far out at all.
LAMB: In what year did you do your biography on Henry David Thoreau?
RICHARDSON: That came out in 1986, and that's, I think, the best portrait of Thoreau -- it's called a maxim daguerreotype -- when he had just begun to grow whiskers to keep his neck warm.
LAMB: How did they meet?
RICHARDSON: It's not completely clear. There is no actual recorded moment of the first meeting, but Thoreau was a student at Harvard when Emerson was already becoming an important figure in Concord, and at one point, Emerson went into Harvard and may have met Thoreau. What's certain is that when Emerson's "Nature" came out in 1836, Thoreau, who was a senior, took the book out of the library and read it through twice. And so then when he came back to Concord, it's pretty clear that the friendship between them sprang up, and that's when Thoreau began to keep his journal.
LAMB: What's a transcendentalist?
RICHARDSON: A transcendentalist, in those days, was a person who belonged to a loose little collection of sort of outsider intellectuals who had a hard time with the reigning philosophy in the colleges, which was that everything in our heads has come there through experience. There's nothing in the human being of the famous Lackeyan tabula rasa, the mind is a blank slate on which experience writes itself. There really isn't anything in us except our collective experience. And the transcendentalists believe that there was already something in the mind which took experience in and which shaped it. And that's the beginning of the difference.
Transcendentalism came to mean something different for each of these people. It begins with an affirmation of the autonomy of the individual, and because it celebrates the autonomy and the freedom of the individual. Politically it meant that they had to fight for freedom for everybody else, and so it pulled some of them into the anti-slavery movement. It pulled others into the women's movement. It pulled others into education. One of them, Elizabeth Peabody, founded the kindergarten movement in this country. Others got interested in American Indian rights -- actually, the same woman. Margaret Fuller became the first full-time reviewer for an American paper. Thoreau got interested in anti-slavery. Emerson spent years on the anti-slavery thing. Transcendentalism began as a personal philosophy and ended up pushing all its members into reform. They became a group of reformers.
LAMB: If you were going to go into the bookstore and buy a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson to pass on to that beginner and you'd say “This is the best. Read this'?
RICHARDSON: I think I'd start with the essay called "Self-Reliance," and if they had a little bit of time, I'd say read the essay "History" first, but these are both in a book called "Essays: First Series."
LAMB: What year did he write those two?
RICHARDSON: Those came out in 1840.
LAMB: Making him in his 30s.
RICHARDSON: Yes. And then when you'd read those two, the next thing to read would be a little book called "Nature" written in 1836, which is the sort of philosophical center of it. But those would be places to start.
LAMB: I want to name some people that you write about -- and you even have chapter headings like this -- and tell us the relationship of Ralph Waldo Emerson to them. Abraham Lincoln.
RICHARDSON: He met Lincoln in Washington during the course of the war early on when the issue was whether or not and how soon to proclaim emancipation, and Emerson was there with a man named Sumner, invited to Washington to the Smithsonian to give lectures ...
LAMB: Charles Sumner?
RICHARDSON: Yes. And Emerson's hope was that -- oh, it's not Sumner. I can't remember who the other one is at the moment. But their hope at the moment was that they could get Lincoln to announce the Emancipation Proclamation and they could then publicize it and then he wouldn't be able to back down from it. It was really the politics of how to get the Emancipation Proclamation issued. And once it was issued, there were big public meetings in the North, and Emerson went to one in Boston and wrote a hymn for it and brought people roaring to their feet singing this thing called "The Boston Hymn."
LAMB: Walt Whitman.
RICHARDSON: Whitman was an unknown young poet and newspaperman in New York who published a little volume of his own poems at his own expense and had the very good sense to send a copy free to Emerson, and Emerson liked it very much and sent Whitman a wonderful letter, saying, “This is the greatest piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” It's the most wonderful letter Whitman had ever gotten and the most famous letter in American literary history. It was Emerson's announcement to Whitman that he had made it, and Whitman was so pleased that he went out and put out a second edition and stamped Emerson's words right in gold on the binding of the second edition.
LAMB: That didn't help the relationship, you say.
RICHARDSON: It didn't really hurt it. A few people in Boston raised eyebrows about it. It didn't bother Emerson. He went on defending Whitman, wrote letters for him.
LAMB: Coleridge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Who was he?
RICHARDSON: He was a great English romantic poet and religious writer. He's remembered more as a poet than a religious writer, but he really, in his own time, was probably better known as a religious writer. He was trying to revive the active sense of experience of religion inside a church that had gone formal and gone dead. Also, a very great poet. Emerson visited him on his -- Emerson's -- first trip to England. He went to see the famous Coleridge -- it was not long before Coleridge's death, so he was an old man and not in perfect health, but the picture that he left of him is very robust and interesting. Coleridge talked a blue streak and had his hair flying all over the place and snuff pouring all over his clothes. He was a mess, but he was mesmerizing.
LAMB: Throughout your book, there's constant references to what Waldo Emerson was reading at any given time -- probably hundreds of books in there. Did you read all those books?
RICHARDSON: Well, I read many of them. I spent many years reading Emerson's reading because both this book and my previous one on Henry Thoreau really were conceived as intellectual biographies, meaning really studies of what they read, then you'd look at their writings and interpret their writings and their lives in this way. That's what's novel about this biography, if you like, that I really did try to read Emerson's major reading and then see how it relates to the rest of his life and work.
LAMB: You say this book took eight years.
RICHARDSON: It took eight years to write. I'd been working on some of the material before that, and I'd worked for about nine years on the Thoreau biography before that with a lot of the same material.
LAMB: When did you read all this?
RICHARDSON: I've been reading this material for the last 30 years.
LAMB: I always wanted to ask somebody this. How do you survive financially when it takes eight years to do a book like this? And you say that's what you're doing full time now, writing books.
RICHARDSON: That's what I'm doing now, but I was a full-time professor all that time.
LAMB: I mean, is there enough money in this kind of work and this kind of book in order to stop doing everything else? Or are you retired now?
RICHARDSON: No, I'm retired. I'm retired from teaching.
LAMB: What is the motive, though, for you when you go into something like this? Do you do this to make money or do you do it because you're in love with reading or writing?
RICHARDSON: Oh, you do it because you want to get it straight. I mean, there are lots of biographies of Emerson and there are many terrific ones, in fact, earlier, but I never found one that got it right for me. And it began to matter to me that Emerson was so condescended to and so dismissed as a kind of minor figure to Henry Thoreau, who was the great hero of the moment. And it took me a long time to work up the nerve to think of writing a biography of Emerson because, as I say, there are so many and so many good ones, but I finally thought maybe I could do it as a study of his reading and as a kind of an inside narrative to try and work it from the reading and the journals and get as close as I could to doing an inside book.
LAMB: Coleridge -- you've got this in the book here -- said there are four different kinds of readers. He says, “There's the hourglass, the sponge, the jelly bag and the Golconda.”
RICHARDSON: The Golconda, yeah.
LAMB: We could start in the first, meaning the hourglass.
RICHARDSON: The hourglass.
LAMB: “Everything that runs in runs right out again.”
RICHARDSON: Yeah. It's like going in one ear and then out the other. You turn the hourglass upside down, and it just passes right back through.
LAMB: “The sponge gives out all it took in, only a little dirtier.”
RICHARDSON: Yeah, a little dirtier, yeah. You know how when you dip a sponge in water and you work on -- you put it back in the bucket, the bucket's a little dirtier. So the mind takes everything in, but then when it comes back out, it's not quite as nice as it was.
LAMB: “The jelly bag keeps only the refuse.”
RICHARDSON: Right. I don't know how many people make jelly this way anymore, but you used to make jelly by getting a whole bunch of pulp -- fruit pulp and stuff and putting it in a bag and then hanging the bag in the kitchen, and the jelly dripped out and you caught it in things, and then you threw away what was in the bag. It was what dripped out that was valuable.
LAMB: “The Golconda runs everything through a sieve and keeps only the diamonds.”
RICHARDSON: Yeah. We would call it a high-grader. It's somebody who goes into a mine and just picks up the best nuggets.
LAMB: What are you?
RICHARDSON: Well, I've tried to be a sort of Golconda reader because that was what Emerson was, and it's the only way you can get through thousands of books.
LAMB: This is what I wanted to ask you, because you go on to say that, “Emerson was not a systematic reader, but he had a genius for skimming and a comprehensive system for taking notes.” How do you do it when you read? You read all those books and then you had to figure out how he read the books and how he wrote.
RICHARDSON: Well, I'd read all of his stuff through a couple of times before I really went to work on reading his stuff, and so I kind of knew what I might be looking for, and you can read rapidly looking for something that might connect up. He also advised a young student at Amherst once on how to read, and I took that to heart. And he said, “Read something for what's in it for you. You don't read every word, and if you find yourself becoming engrossed in something,” he said, “you should stop.” I found that astonishing. Many people read in order to become engrossed in something else, but Emerson said, “If you find yourself becoming engrossed in something, that's when you should stop because you're reading only to start your own team,” he said.
LAMB: You also say that he read rapidly, looking for what he could use. Where did you read? If we found you the happiest and reading the most comfortably, where would that be?
RICHARDSON: Oh, that'd probably be at home with a big pile of library books or deep in Widener Library or the University of Denver library.
LAMB: Where's Widener?
RICHARDSON: Widener is the big library at Harvard -- that or the Boston athenaeum, which has many of the books that Emerson himself looked at. That was a wonderful place to go and work. And ...
LAMB: Writing in the margins -- marginalia?
RICHARDSON: Well, he was pretty good about that and didn't, in general, but he -- instead of writing in margins -- would write in his notebooks, so you had the notebook alongside and you'd have the book and you could look at the very page and the very book that he'd been reading. And you sometimes got this little uneasy sense that you were really walking in his footsteps and tracing some of these books through. And sometimes you could look at a big, long book and tell that he really hadn't gotten much out of it, and you could look at his checkout record and notice that he'd checked out the same book over and over and over again and never made a note on it. I think he took a lot of those books home the way I do sometimes, intending to read it and never getting around to it.
LAMB: Margaret Fuller. Who is she? Who was she?
RICHARDSON: Well, she was the most important woman writer of this whole time. She's one of the major transcendentalists. She was the editor of the journal that the transcendentalists set up for themselves, a journal called the "Dial." And she then went on to be the first full-time female book reviewer on a New York paper. She eventually went to Italy and became involved in the Roman revolution. She married there or may have married a nobleman named Ossoli, and she died tragically in a shipwreck on her way back to this country early, so she never really lived to fulfill her promise. But she's a major figure among these people and a woman whose chief work, called "Woman in the 19th Century," is still a very powerful statement of the rights of women.
LAMB: What I couldn't -- and there are other women that you write about that had a relationship with Waldo Emerson. What I couldn't figure out is whether he had any physical relationship with anybody besides his two wives. Could you?
RICHARDSON: I couldn't either, though the matter certainly came up with at least two other women.
LAMB: Which ones?
RICHARDSON: Well, with Margaret Fuller. There's a whole correspondence back and forth in which Fuller wants a closer relationship and Emerson keeps saying, “Well, how much closer? And what kind of closer?” And she pushes a little too hard and he backs off a little too fast, and it was a difficult relationship, but mere friendship wasn't quite enough. And then there was another woman named Caroline Sturgis, who was a younger friend and disciple of Fuller's, and with her, too, the very strong letter writing passion seemed to spill over into something even stronger. But there's no evidence that anything physical happened, although emotionally he was certainly very much involved with more women than he was married to.
LAMB: If he didn't have a physical relationship, what traits did he have to avoid that? Where do you think he got whatever constitution he had?
RICHARDSON: Well, I think he was, indeed, very much -- I mean, he was passionately in love with his first wife, and I think he was deeply attached to his second wife -- that's Lydian there -- and they were, in their own way, very much in love. Lydian was always aware that she had come after the early, beautiful, tragic, gifted Ellen, and she always felt a little inferior on that account. But there's lots of evidence that despite their rough patches that marriages have, they stayed together and were good for each other.
LAMB: Which of the -- now this is not fair, but which of the 100 chapters -- are there three or four of them that you particularly like, things that you think are new and different and you have an insight that no one else has had?
RICHARDSON: Well, there are some in there that I'm fond of. I like the opening. I like the scene of opening the coffin. I mean, I think it gets us immediately to a live human being.
LAMB: Has that ever been done before like that?
RICHARDSON: Not in that way. It's not been sort of put at the front of a book and sort of pushed into the reader's face in saying, “Here, now you've really got to deal with this,” right off.
LAMB: Does he describe, by the way, what he saw in that coffin?
RICHARDSON: No, no.
RICHARDSON: No, never. And one just has to imagine it or elide it or go over it. I also like the last chapter where he puts out the fire in his study and goes upstairs, and that's the last time he was ever in the study. I like the -- there's a chapter on a wonderful, wild poet in there named Jones Very, who was somewhere on the border between genius
and insane and was both an inspiration and a trial to Emerson, and I like the challenge that writing about a difficult figure like that presents.
LAMB: You've got some support on this from the National Endowment for Humanities or Arts?
RICHARDSON: I believe the press got some help from them. I got some help from the Guggenheim people. I got a fellowship to work on this book, and then I believe the publication was partly underwritten by NEH.
LAMB: Both of you -- both Ralph Waldo Emerson and you -- how do you -- what did you find out or learn about where he wrote and how he wrote? There were typewriters in those days?
RICHARDSON: No, he wrote by hand. The typewriter hadn't come in, and he started out writing with feather -- with pens that were quills made of feathers, and in the middle of his career, he switched over to the steel pen, and you can see it. You can see the ink splattered all over from these horrible, scratchy, early steel pens that were just beginning to be made. That's in his journal, it's in his letters. The letters of all his family have been saved. The Emersons saved everything. There's a mountain of material on Emerson. His own notebooks and journals run to over 250 volumes, each one with 300 or 400 pages, and indexes to each one of these, and his correspondence now runs to nine published volumes, and nobody's even begun to collect the correspondence to him, but there's a lot of material.
LAMB: How about you? Where did you write this and on -- and what way?
RICHARDSON: I wrote this with a pen by hand on yellow sheets of paper mostly in Middletown and Cape Cod and ...
LAMB: Is there one of those -- did you ever go to Concord to write?
RICHARDSON: No, I never went to Concord to write, but I would go to Concord to read, to walk around, just to feel the place, to look at the house again, to look at pictures, to talk to friends up there. There are a lot of experts on various aspects of Emerson, Emerson's life and family up there, a lot of wonderful friends there. No, this was written mostly in Middletown.
LAMB: How many children total did he have?
RICHARDSON: Four if you count Waldo, but Waldo died, so three survived.
LAMB: When did his wife die -- his second wife?
RICHARDSON: Lydian outlived him by nearly 20 years. She died in the 1890s.
LAMB: If we saw him today giving a lecture, our cameras were to roll in and pick him up, what would we see? How tall was he? How much did he weigh? What would his speaking style be like?
RICHARDSON: He was a fairly tall man. He stood six feet tall, which was tall in those days. He dressed, various people said, like a prosperous farmer. He wore black suits, but so did farmers in those days, and he had a coat and tie, but so did his farming friends. They were much more, to our eye, formally dressed, but his clothes were sort of shabby and they didn't fit terribly well. When he took out his money to pay for his trans-Atlantic passage, the captain noticed that he had twine wrapped around his wallet many times, and he had to unwrap it all, take out the passage, pay for the money, wrap the wallet back up, put it back away. When he stood up to lecture, he had a very plain style, and he read his lectures, though he practiced them and he knew where the emphasis would come in any given word. It wasn't, “Hitch your wagon to a star,” it was, “Hitch YOUR wagon to a star.”
And the emphasis would make all the difference in something, and everybody said that he had one gesture, which was -- he would take his left hand in a fist and lower it slowly in a gesture of bridled power, and various people, including Hawthorne's son Julian, said that, “When he looked at you, it was like the glance of an eagle.” Evidently his eyes were just something. And he, at his height, could just mesmerize audiences. His daughter once went to a lecture and described how you could feel the rapport between the speaker and the audience. There'd be this audible takings out of breath or people would catch their breath at something particularly good, and you could hear a pin drop, and there'd be applause sometimes in the middle of a lecture and also at the end, too.
LAMB: Would he be political today? And what party would he belong to?
RICHARDSON: Well, Emerson was the one who said that there are always two parties. There is the establishment and there's the movement. And the establishment is, by definition, what's there and what's in and what's being defended, and the movement is what's trying to happen.
LAMB: Where would he be?
RICHARDSON: Well, he'd be with the movement, but that would depend on what you think is the movement today and what's the establishment. He was always more interested in what was coming next, and he always sort of deprecated merely defending property and merely defending the status quo.
LAMB: In schools today, how much Emerson is read? And what do young people think of him?
RICHARDSON: Well, there's not a lot, and he's taught now in somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of American literature courses, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was that he seemed to me to be losing his place in American literature, and I didn't write this book as a political act, but because I have found Emerson personally inspiring. I mean, Emerson and Thoreau are the people that I read when I'm feeling bad. They are people -- I come away from reading them feeling better about myself and the world and my friends and the country, and this ability of Emerson to reach the individual, to reach me alone, not as part of a party or a group or anything else, but just the individual I think is something he still has. And I find that when one puts this in front of young people, they respond and they take it up.
LAMB: So what is he saying, though, that you feel uplifted when you read. What are the words -- what's the concept?
RICHARDSON: The concept is that you can't really be rejected because each of you have the universe inside you. We're none of us outsiders to it. We're all of us insiders. He divided the world up into children of time and children of the fire rather than the old Reinhold Niebuhr children of light and children of darkness. And the children of time -- we can all be the children of time, which means we get caught in daily life and all the requirements of daily time, but when we remember that we are children of the fire, that we have -- all of us, each of us -- we have what all people have -- there's a little of Shakespeare in every person. It was Voorhees who said that every person is capable of writing poetry two or three times in his or her life. Emerson says something very similar in his essay on the poet. What he says is that there is more in each individual than you've dreamed of.
LAMB: How many trips to Europe?
RICHARDSON: Two really, though I'm hesitating because there was a third trip very late in life when he went to Europe very quickly but then went on to Egypt, up the Nile, and that was essentially a Far Eastern trip.
LAMB: One of the things we find almost in every book here is -- again, it was in this book -- is that the name Tocqueville -- Alexis de Tocqueville -- and he had dinner with him in Paris. What was the reason?
RICHARDSON: By the time he met de Tocqueville, Emerson was simply crashingly famous, and if he was in town, people would want to see him. And it was -- I don't know who arranged the meeting between Emerson and de Tocqueville, but it was on his schedule of things that he had to do in Paris.
LAMB: Did you get any sense of what he thought of him or what they thought of each other?
RICHARDSON: No, Emerson was quite old at that time and not taking very good notes. And I think it was at a public dinner and probably more of a nuisance than anything else. It's a shame because it would have been a nice interchange.
LAMB: Where are -- let me first ask you about Concord. How do you think they've done in Concord with preserving what was Emerson if you go there to visit now? What kind of marks do you give them?
RICHARDSON: Oh, very high.
LAMB: And what would you go see if people are interested in him there in Concord? What's there to see?
RICHARDSON: Well, there's a great deal to see. One of the interesting things is that Concord doesn't look all that different from the Concord of the 19th century. I mean, compared to -- if you go hunting for Poe's house in Baltimore or in New York or Whitman's place in Brooklyn and you just can't find anything that reminds you of these times, but Concord is still full of slow-moving rivers and marshes and fields. And so the physical surroundings of Concord, the natural world, the nature that meant so much to Emerson is still very much there in Concord. You can take long, long walks through the woods in Concord still to this day, so there's that. But then there's also his house, and his house is very much as he left it. There's a wonderful place to visit in Concord called Orchard House, which is really where I'd start if I were going to Concord because they do the most wonderful tour. There's a very strong presence of Thoreau. There's the Thoreau Society. There's the new Thoreau Institute that's moved out to a new place near Walden Pond. There's Hawthorne's house. There's the old North Bridge. They have a lot of visitors.
LAMB: Did he know Louisa May Alcott?
RICHARDSON: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Did he know Nathaniel Hawthorne?
RICHARDSON: Yes. Yes. And went on walking trips with him.
LAMB: And from what you've seen -- I want to ask you -- which one of the two would you rather spend an evening with, Thoreau or Emerson, from what you know? You've written two books about them -- one about each.
RICHARDSON: Well, I have to say Emerson now, but that, I guess, is because the Emerson book's the new one, but to give you a real answer, as I said a moment before, it struck me that without Thoreau, there would still have been an Emerson, but I'm not sure that without Emerson, Thoreau would have been Thoreau.
LAMB: What was it that attracted the two of them? Why were they -- was there a romantic involvement between Henry David Thoreau and Emerson's second wife?
RICHARDSON: There was certainly -- they were very close, and it may have been something that, in this post-Freudian age, we could call a romantic attraction between Henry Thoreau and Lydian. He certainly wrote very warmly about her. And in a way, he sort of took Emerson's place in the house when Emerson went to England for a second trip. The reason Thoreau left the pond, left Walden Pond was to go and stay at Emerson's house and look after things while Emerson went to England to lecture. That was the reason he left, so there's a very close thing, and it was Lydian, according to my reading of letters and things, who suggested that they get Henry to come and stay in the house.
LAMB: Now what was the attraction between the two -- Thoreau and Emerson? What ...?
RICHARDSON: Between those two -- well, I think they -- hmm. It's hard to put quickly because I think Thoreau early recognized in Emerson somebody for whom, as he once said, “ideas were tangible things.” He never met somebody for whom ideas were more material and more tangible. And the thing most quoted about that Emerson said of Thoreau is that he saw in him his own ideas only acted out and put into active practice when they were sometimes, for him, just ideas. So I think they were really two sides -- they saw each other every much as complementary.
LAMB: Which one of the two men have had the most influence on political thought?
RICHARDSON: Thoreau -- in an obvious way. "Civil Disobedience" has been an enormously important text. Gandhi picked it up, Martin Luther King picked it up. It was important to the Danes in World War II when the Nazis said, “We're going to put stars of David on all the Jews.” The Danish king said, well, he'd wear a star, and then everybody in Denmark wore a star, and so the labeling was useless, and he'd learned that from Thoreau. And "Civil Disobedience," as an idea, has been very strong. Emerson's political importance is nothing so obvious as "Civil Disobedience," although he also came to the point of saying when the law was wrong, you had to disobey the law. And it was Emerson who said, “Good men should not obey the law too well,” meaning that there are times when conscience has to be over the law.
LAMB: By the way, where is this cover drawing from? What photo? How old was he here? Do you know?
RICHARDSON: Barry Mosier did that woodcut from a sort of a series of composites, but it's essentially Emerson in his early 50s, right at the height of his power.
LAMB: Robert D. Richardson Jr., author of "Emerson: The Mind on Fire," thank very much.
RICHARDSON: My pleasure.
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