Review: Lewis Leary. Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Interpretive Essay.
Published in Southern Humanities Review
Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Interpretive Essay is far more than an exercise in critical analysis. It is the virtuoso performance of a master teacher, the distillation of years of classroom dialogue and masses of criticism which caps the extraordinarily fruitful career of a teacher-scholar. To describe it as simple an "interpretive essay" is an understatement.
With Emerson, perhaps more than any other writer, it is crucial to realize that he and his ideas are being viewed through the eyes--and the I--of a living person, not an abstracted, "objectified" scholar. Lewis Leary emerges in this book as compassionate and thoroughly knowledgeable, bu above all, wise. As he says, each person "gets the Emerson he deserves." The Emerson LEary projects is a man dedicated to living the fullest possible life of the spirit within the limits of his crippling shortcomings, and using his art to incite others to go and do likewise.
The leading questions Leary poses for Emerson are: "What then is a man to do with his life, if he is to live it satisfactorily, honestly, perceptively? What is the measure of human greatness?" The answers lie not so much in the essays and lectures, but in the charged atmosphere between the words and the reader. Thus, as a great teacher would do, Leary highlights quotations that offer the essence of Emerson's thought, letting them speak eloquently for themselves to a reader well prepared by provocative questions and clarifying context. This ability to pull out the perfect lines comes only from years of "peering, absorbing, translating," as Whitman put it.
The essays are not analyzed individually, but recurring ideas are grouped loosely under the titles of "The Responsibility of Man," "Man Thinking," and "The Conduct of Life." These ideas are presented in rough chronological fashion, though the reader is reminded of this more by the excellent portraits which preface each chapter than by any effort to see phases of development or to relate ideas to details of Emerson's personal life. As Leary points out, Emerson's thought, on balance, remained surprisingly consistent--though not necessarily logical--without sacrificing honesty. The tendency of some critics to see an Emerson in crisis when confronted by the realities of experience is minimized by this teacher's vision of Emerson's underlying dedicated to the compelling thesis that each person should be all he or she can be.
Perhaps the greatest value of this book, especially for the teacher and translator of Emerson, is its personalized and highly informed perspective of a whole Emerson. The criticism has served its proper secondary role, to point the teacher to issues, ideas, and structure, but not to shape his perception of the text. IN turn, this teacher serves as a master who can communicate the essence of the whole Emerson both sympathetically and accurately yet retain the integrity of his own vision.
A favorite pastime of Phi Beta Kappa speakers for decades has been to ask "Who is the American scholar?" If they have truly wished to be faithful to Emerson's definition and not just ask a rhetorical question, there is no doubt but that Lewis Leary should earn a nomination with this book.
Ann Woodlief, Reviewer