Emerson: The Mind on Fire

University of California Press, 1995


An intellectual biography, written for the general reader as well as the academic reader. Edward Hirsch, reviewing it for the New Yorker (July 10, 1995) said it was “the first biography that locates the source of Emerson’s volcanic power in his emotional depth and searing intellectual intensity.” The book won the Parkman Prize from the Society of American historians, and the Melcher prize. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. David Robinson predicted the book “will quickly come to be regarded as the definitive biography of Emerson.” Mary Oliver wrote, “to read this book is to be touched on the shoulder by a thousand years of poetry and thought.”

Publisher’s Description:

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 unsettling power of his example continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Now Robert D. Richardson brings to life an Emerson very different from the 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 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 persists, owing to his respect for nature, his insistence that literature and science are not separate cultures, and his emphasis on the worth of every individual.

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. Through this book, Emerson unquenchable vitality reaches across the decades, and his hold on us endures.

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Francis Parkman Prize, Melcher prize, Washington Irving Award for Literary Excellence, Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for a Distinguished Literary Biography, National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee, New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1995, Winship/Pen New England Award Nominee. Paperback Edition, Sept. 1996. Chinese trans Emerson: Chongman Jiquing de Sixiangiia. Sichuan People’s Publication House, 2001.


“To read this book is to be touched on the shoulder by a thousand years of poetry and thought. I am grateful to Mr. Richardson for his company across this wide landscape, for his graceful and unobtrusive prose, his compendiums of a multitude of books and ideas and historical points, his occasional tinsels of humor, his diligence in the matter of sources, and, most of all, his spirited engagement and acumen, his own unflagging pleasure in following Emerson’s development and changes as a man and as a writer. Emerson has never been so alive to me. For those who understand Emerson, this book is unforgettable; it is essential.”
– Mary Oliver

“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

“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

“Scholars and general readers alike will return to this comprehensive and painstaking study for a long time to come.”
– Joel Porte


Kirkus Feb 1 ’95; Civilization, Mar. 95 (Edward Hoagland); Chicago Tribune Books, Apr 2 ’95 (John McAleer); Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Apr. 16 (Jeff Guinn); Minneapolis Star Tribune Apr. 2 ’95, (Paul Gruchow); Middletown Press, Mar 31, (Elizabeth Isele); Houston Chronicle, Apr 23 ’95, William B. Hunter; Hartford Courant, Apr. 14 ’95 (Linda Simon); Oakland Tribune, Apr 23, ’95; Washington Times, Mar. 26 ’95 (Barbara Packer);
Washington Post, Book World, Apr 9, ’95 (Michael Dirda); Boston Globe, Books, Apr. 9 (Wm. H Pritchard) Newsday Apr. 2 ’95 (Linda Simon); Publisher’s Weekly, Apr 3 ’95; American Heritage, Apr. ’95 Booklist, Dec 15, ’94; Library Journal Dec. ’94; Orlando Sentinel, May 7 ’95 (J. Russell White); Reader’s Review, May 10, 95; Indianapolis Star, May 28, ’95 (Dan Carpenter); Madison Capital Times Apr. 14 ’95; Wichita Eagle Apr. 23 ’95; Wilmington News Journal, Apr 16, ’95; Springfield (Mass) Republican, Apr. 9,’95; Columbia SC State Apr. 23, ’95; Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 31 ’95 (Merle Rubin); Christian Science Monitor, Feb 7 ’96; Cleveland Plain Dealer, Aug 20, ’95 (Steve Szilagyi); Charlotte Observer (NC), Apr ’95; London Review of Books, June 14 ’95 (Tony Tanner); International Herald Tribune, May 5, 95; Seattle Times, Books , July 9, ’95 (Richard Wakefield); New York Times Book Review, July 23 ’95 (David S. Reynolds); Guardian Weekly, July 9 ’95 (James Wood); Palm Beach News, May 13, ’95; Pleasanton CA Tri-Valley Herald, Apr. 23 ’95; Heyward CA Review Apr. 23 ’95 Alameda CA Times-Star Apr. 23 ’95; The New Yorker, July 10, ’95 (Edward Hirsch) CSPAN Booknotes Aug 13 ’95; Palm Beach Post, June 4 ’95; Times Union May 21 ’95; Lexington KY Herald Leader, July 9 ’95, (Milton Riegelman); Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 23, ’95 (Vicki Hearne); Boston Book Review, Aug ’95 (Llewellyn Smith); Times Literary Supplement, July 21 ’95 (Jay Parini); The News and Observer; Arts and Entertainment, July 16 ’95 (David Guy) New Scientist, Aug. ’95; America, Sept 9 ’95 (Len Gougeon); The Guardian, June 23 ’95; Independent Weekend (Eng) (C.J. Fox); Book World Review, Sept. 95; Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug 20, ’95 (Carlin Romano); Harvard Divinity Bulletin, vol 24 no 4 ’95, (Alan Hodder); Spectator (London) (Aug 5, ’95 (Raymond Carr); Current Books; Monroe LA News Star, Aug 6 ’95; Jackson MS Clarion Ledger, Aug. 8,’95; Gasparilla Gazette (FL) Aug 25 ’95; Arizona Daily Star, Sept. 10, ’95; Choice, Sept ’95 vol. 33 no. 1; The New Leader July 17 ’95 (Phoebe Pettingell); Middletown Press, Oct 27 ’95 (Eliz. Isele); Grand Rapids Press, Sept. 24 ’95 (Joseph H Dugas); The Senior Times (Boston (Ellen Lewis) vol 19, no 10; Harvard Magazine, Nov-Dec ’95 (Alan Pistorius); Publishers Weekly Best Books of ’95, Nov. 6, ’95; The Concord Journal Dec. 14 ’95 (Malcolm Ferguson); San Francisco Review of Books Critics Choice 95-96; New York, Dec. 25 ’95; American Spectator, Dec ’95 (David Von Drehle); Nat’l Book Critics Circle nominee , NY Times Jan 22 ’96; Library Journal, Feb 15 ’96; Raritan, Winter ’96 (James M. Albrecht); Books and Culture, Mar-Apr ’96 (Roger Lundin); Kansas City Star Feb. 18 ’96 (George Gurley); American Renaissance Literary Report, 1996; World Magazine Mar-Apr ’96 (Edward D. Scullen); The Journal of American History, Mar ’96 (Sam Worley); American Scholar, vol 65 no 1 ’96 (John P. Sisk); Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1995; News Sentinel (TN), May 26,’96; Magill’s Literary Annual, 1996, (Robert P. Ellis); The Review of Politics vol. 58 no 3 Summer ’96 (Andrew R. Murphy); The Freehand Press (Grinnell College) “Great Republic; Mr Emerson and the Clipper Ship” (a piece omitted from the book) Winter , ’96 The New Brunswick Reader (Telegraph Journal Sept ’96) (Douglas Fetherling); South Atlantic Review  (Theodore Hadden); Nineteenth Century Literature, Sept ’96 vol 51, no 2 (Jerome Loving); New England Quarterly, vol 69 Mar-Dec ’96  (Robert D. Habich); Theological Studies, vol 57 no 3 Sept ’96, (Donald L. Gelpi); Manoa, vol 8 no 2 ’96, (Daniel Duane); American Literature, vol 68 no3, Sept ’96 (Albert J. Von Frank); Emerson Society Papers, Fall ’97 (David M. Robinson);  Common Reader, Apr. ’97; American Literary Scholarship, An Annual, 1995(David M. Robinson); American Imago “Mourning Becomes Biography, (Brenda Wineapple) Winter ’97;); Southern Humanities Review, Spring ’97 (Susan L. Roberson). World (UU Journal) Feb ’97  “Understanding Emerson: A Conversation with RR” (Steve Forbes); The Exeter Bulletin, “Slumming among the Optimists” interview by Eric Gershon  Spring ’99 (repr. Concord Journal);

Readings & Talks

Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Jan 31; North Carolina State Univ. Biography Symposium, Feb 1’95; Barnes and Noble, Princeton N.J. Apr.5, ’95; Barnes and Noble, 82nd St NY, Apr.6,’95; Concord Book Store, Apr.8, ’95; Penn State Univ. Apr. 9 ’95 Clean Well-Lighted Place, San Francisco, Apr. 26, ’95; Barnes and Noble, Berkeley, Apr. 27, ’95 Borders, Philadelphia, May 16, ’95; Chapters, Washington D.C. May 18, ’95; Harborfront Book Festival, Oct 14m ’95; North Shire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT; Tattered Cover, Denver, Carleton-Willard Village, Bedford MA, May 31 ’95; Wesleyan Univ. Nov. 1 ’95; 92nd St Y, Biographers and Brunch, Jan 12 ’96; Concord Center for Am Studies, Sept 28 ’96; Grinnell College, Oct 29, ’96 NYU, Philosophy and Biography Conference, Oct 10, 11, ’96; Falmouth (MA) Forum, Jan 17, ’97; Cambridge Forum, Mar 12 ’97; Calhoun College, Yale Univ. Master’s Tea; Sanchez Lecture, Texas A&M International, Laredo, Apr 15 ’98

Interviews & Media

WADN (Concord MA) Robert Mitchell, Coffee and Conversation, Mar 28 ’95;WNYC (NY) Leonard Lopate, New York and Co. Apr. 6 ’95 WBUR (Boston) Christopher Leyden, The Connection July 15 ’96; KQED San Francisco, Apr. 27 ’95; WBCN Boston Sunday Review, May 9 ,95; WMUZ St Louis, AI Kresta May 25, ’95; CSPAN, Booknotes, Brian Lamb, July 12 ’95, partially printed in Booknotes, ed Brian Lamb, NY Times Books 1997, with another part printed in Booknotes: Life Stories, ed Brian Lamb NY 1999; CT Public Radio, Faith Middleton Show, Oct 26, 95; Mars Hill Audio Magazine, Ken Myers, Nov 27 ’95; BBC “America as a Civilization, Feb 29, ’96; Discovery Channel, Great Books, Walden, Sept. 13 ’97; Bride Media, The New England Transcendentalists, Film and CDROM versions, 1997. “How, What and Why we Teach” by Martha Kennedy in Inside English vol25 no 4 May ’98