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An Uneasy Solitude

An Uneasy Solitude: Individual and Society in the Work of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright Date: 1987
Pages: 506
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    An Uneasy Solitude
    Book Description:

    This subtle intellectual biography juxtaposes Ralph Waldo Emerson's revolutionary spiritual thinking with his elitist ideas of race and property--a contrast so sharp as to make his personality seem almost incoherent." Writing in (he great modern tradition of French anglicisles, Maurice Gonnaud compares Emerson's taste for solitude and the lyric ardor it awakened in him to his efforts to confront the social pressures of his times.

    Originally published in 1987.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5890-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. FOREWORD (pp. vii-xviii)
    Eric Cheyfitz

    When Maurice Gonnaud’sIndividu et société dans l’oeuvre de Ralph Waldo Emersonwas published in 1964, the figure of Emerson that dominated American literary history was resolutely disembodied, a quite literally antisocial Emerson, who transcended or repressed (depending on one’s point of view) the forces of history and politics. This was the “optimistic” Emerson projected by F. O. Matthiessen in his extraordinarily influentialAmerican Renaissance(1941): a “transcendental idealist,” who, although “the Yankee in his make-up kept pulling him back to a grounding in common fact” (43), could not, like “the Vedantist” (52), finally resist “the sweep of the divine...

  4. TRANSLATOR’S PREFACE (pp. xix-xx)
    Lawrence Rosenwald
    Maurice Gonnaud
  6. ABBREVIATIONS (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  7. PART I The Uncertainties of a Vocation
    • 1 THE FAMILY MILIEU (pp. 3-20)

      Two years after the Civil War, Emerson noted in his journal that “in old Boston, a feature not be [sic] forgotten was John Wilson, the town crier, who rung his bell at each street corner,—‘Lost! A child strayed this morning from 49 Marlborough Street; four years old; had on check apron, …’ He cried so loud, that you could not hear what he said, if you stood near.”¹ As coming from the pen of a venerated and supposedly austere man, the anecdote has all the charm of the unexpected; but at the same time it disorients us and stimulates...


      Emerson’s criticisms of the Harvard of his youth are well known: the instruction was mediocre, the pedagogical methods absurd, the formation of personality systematically thwarted. Looking in 1837 for an example to illustrate the lamentable human propensity for leading a conventional existence, Emerson thinks first of his alma mater:“Is not life a puny unprofitable discipline whose direct advantage may be fairly represented by the direct education that is got at Harvard College? As is the real learning gained there, such is the proportion of the lesson in life.”¹ A few years later, he concedes that a university is not necessarily...


      In October 1821, less than two months after leaving Harvard, Emerson became his brother William’s assistant and started teaching in the girls’ school at the Emerson house. He seemed to be embarking on a typical New England career. His father had begun so, as had his grandfather William, the minister-soldier. Though poor in prestige, schoolteaching offered to this son of poverty the advantage of immediate remuneration, with which he could later resume and finish his studies as he chose. For the best men and women teaching was simply an interlude, which by force of will they made the occasion and...


      On February 11, 1825, Emerson registered at the Harvard Divinity School. Five days later, the theological faculty accepted him as a second-year student.¹ By this double ceremony Emerson’s career among men seemed fixed, and fixed in the most docile and conservative manner possible. The young man was adding a link to the chain of ministers who in the past had given his name a more than common luster; and in choosing Harvard (he had for a time thought of the Andover Seminary, the new bastion of orthodox Calvinism), he indicated clearly that he was ready to go with the current...

  8. PART II The Discovery and Glorification of the Self
    • 5 THE ROAD TO CONCORD (pp. 111-146)

      By one of those brutal reversals that abound in the biography of his formative years, Emerson found in the abandonment of his ministry not the invigorating freedom he had imagined but the inexorable confirmation of his difficulties and doubts. After sustaining him at the decisive moments, the great image of Luther was now no longer useful, and grew faint.¹ No one now could take over Emerson’s responsibility for his own destiny, or choose for him the elements of which it was to be made. Then, when he had need of all his mental resources, and perhaps more need still of...

    • 6 PROPHECIES AND EPIPHANY (pp. 147-179)

      One cannot expect from Emerson the striking gesture or challenge that would all at once impose him on the attention of his contemporaries and would justify an easy division of his biography into a period of obscurity and a period of renown. Just as his choice of the ministry had led him to assume a role of moral director considerably before he had found his own self, so he was to succeed in giving to each of his audacities, once he had reached his full intellectual growth, the appearance of a matter-of-fact truth accessible to any person willing to pay...

    • 7 ORGANIZING VICTORY (pp. 180-220)

      This passage of the journal, written while Emerson was working on his first book, expresses with singular concentration the central intuition of Emerson’s thought. Two metaphors are symbolically mingled—that of the eccentric satellite and the emptiness of space, and that of the plenitude associated with the ocean—as if to suggest by their incompatibility the twofold character of human existence, which springs up from a rigidly bounded world and returns to it after having tasted divine abundance and fertility. Emerson thus places in vital opposition the single principle of all creation and the infinite variety of created forms; he...


      One can argue, and not paradoxically, that one of the salient traits of “The American Scholar,” despite its often pungent vigor, is a certain vagueness, an absence of precise and concrete directives. Not only does Emerson reserve his rather brief remarks on the America he lives in till the end; he refrains from anything that might look like a personal stand on any of the problems of his time. The economic crisis holding his countrymen by the throat is never mentioned, not even as background or by way of preterition. Emerson exhorts, rouses, sometimes scolds, but nowhere is he concerned...

  9. PART III From Ideal Democracy to Natural Aristocracy
    • 9 MALAISE (pp. 259-297)

      Emerson had no sooner bidden farewell to the approximately four hundred persons who had attended his lectures on “The Present Age” than he drew up in his journal an inexorable account of his failure:

      These lectures give me little pleasure. I have not done what I hoped when I said, I will try it once more. I have not once transcended the coldest selfpossession. I said I will agitate others, being agitated myself. I dared to hope for extacy & eloquence. A new theatre, a new art, I said, is mine. Let us see if philosophy, if ethics, if chiromancy, if...

    • 10 EXPLORING THE PROBLEMS (pp. 298-340)

      Despite the continuity of intention and attitude brought out in the previous chapter, this account of Emerson’s thought can make no further use of the terms appropriate for discussing “Compensation” or “The American Scholar.” Something new has come into being, and the reader is aware of it even when he does not choose to analyze it. Not that Emerson’s fundamental doctrines have changed—one could hardly claim that after 1840 he became less idealistic or optimistic. But the equilibrium of his philosophy was subtly modified by the introduction of new elements; and what is perceived in the bare reading as...

    • 11 EQUILIBRIUM REGAINED (pp. 341-384)

      If one seeks in Emerson’s work only the dialogue of an individual soul with the world’s soul, and, in the name of the impersonal idealism Emerson had by this time come to profess, if one considers the uncertainties and disturbances of history as negligible, it is legitimate to situate the final stabilization of his thought around 1844:

      My faith in the Writers as an organic class, increases daily, and in the possibility to a faithful man of arriving at statements for which he shall not feel responsible, but which shall be parallel with nature. Yet without any effort I fancy...

  10. PART IV Individual and Citizen
    • 12 THE THORN IN THE FLESH (pp. 387-406)

      Almost all critics concerned with the development of Emerson’s thought have argued that after a period of intense fermentation it gradually stabilized in the decade between 1840 and 1850.¹ There is, to be sure, a good quantity of scribbling after that decade, but it is for the most part lectures Emerson is composing or recomposing at need from passages in his notebooks. The two works he published before the Civil War,English TraitsandThe Conduct of Life, do attract one by the rugged firmness of their style, their sound and often penetrating judgments, and by a certain form of...

    • 13 A SURROGATE OPTIMISM (pp. 407-442)

      In the last part of Emerson’s career there is a striking disparity between the abundance of biographical fact and the paucity of critical interest.¹ Rusk fills three of six fat volumes with letters written after 1847; Whicher sees that date as the end of Emerson’s creative period, the beginning of the time of reaping and garnering. But the productivity of this last phase demands further reflection. Are so voluminous a correspondence, so copious a flow of speeches, simply the compensations Emerson consciously or unconsciously permits himself for the onset of profound sterility? Or can one perhaps see in them an...

    • 14 THE LAST STRUGGLE (pp. 443-462)

      Any attempt at criticism of Emerson’s last writings runs up against two obstacles. There is first a dissipation, an extreme fragmentation of the literary material. Despite certain inconsistencies,The Conduct of Lifehas to be considered Emerson’s last real book;¹Society and SolitudeandLetters and Social Aims, though published during his lifetime, are simply collections of essays, without a trace of even the most rudimentary organizing idea. The unpublished lectures written after 1861 are numerous and to some extent original, but have undergone much revision—it may be Emerson’s own, in a recasting of his notes for a new...

  12. INDEX (pp. 469-477)
  13. Back Matter (pp. 478-478)