penguins

Some Penguin Classics are updates or revisions of things that were themselves already classics, and that can be nerve-racking for a long-time fan of the Penguin line such as myself. I love the ongoing march of new editions, don’t get me wrong – I’m always the first person telling my bookish friends that some new version of X, Y, or Z is coming down the pike. But they worry me, too (the new editions, that is, not the bookish friends, most of whom are past helping); it can be a very tricky business, updating or even re-assessing an old landmark.

New from Penguin Classics is a case-in-point: The Portable Emerson, edited by Jeffrey Cramer, who gave us a truly exceptional edition of Thoreau’s essays a couple of years ago. His Portable Emerson is a typically pretty thing all decked out in its Penguin Classics black spine with an eye-catching cover design showing the rings of an old tree with a famous Emerson quote superimposed over them. But it appears in the lengthy shadow of its seventy-year-old predecessor, the great Viking Portable Emerson edited by Mark Van Doren in 1946. That book has been a staple in thousands of libraries – mine very much included – for a very long time; any revision can’t help but feel like an act of daring, maybe even sacrilege.

Part of that feeling comes from how personal a writer Emerson always feels, to each new generation of readers. He very much had that effect in his own lifetime – among other things, it’s what made him such an unprecedented hit on the secular lecture circuit – and it’s threaded its way steadily through three generations of scholars. Back in 1946, Van Doren could write:

He was always somehow personal, generous and candid, but his nature was ventilated to the core. His modesty was equal to his pride. He was an aristocrat who thought all could be aristocrats. When he said there was no common people he meant that he was not common and that he had never met a man who was.

And in this new edition, Cramer is just as heartfelt adding his own variation on the same theme:

The “fairest fortune that can befall a man,” Emerson realized, “is to be guided … to that which is truly his own.” Emerson is such a guide. “To believe your own thought,” he wrote, “that is Genius,” but he never lost sight of the fact that “the moral discipline of life is built” on the “perpetual conflict between the dictate of this universal mind and the wishes and interests of the individual.” It is the essence of a person’s character that he or she can be true and responsive to the pull of both understanding and reason, of the individual and the universal, of the me and the not-me.

And it’s surely this same intimate prodding that worked in the opposite direction with Houston Baptist University literature professor Micah Mattix, who wrote a quick screed about Emerson in a recent issue of The Weekly Standard deriding his prominence in American literature:

But now that his Collected Works is complete, I’d like to suggest that we close the book on the Emerson Revival. Earlier scholars got Emerson right: He may serve “to swell a progress, start a scene or two,” but he is not American Hamlet, and his work is not great matter.

Mattix is hardly the first to call for such a retirement – Emerson’s fellow New Englander John Updike regularly called for the relegation of the Bard of Concord to the footnotes of history. Those footnotes have claimed Updike instead, and Emerson’s scattered subsequent critics face a similar fate; this writer is more alive than they are, and he’ll go right on impressing that life on readers long after his last carper has fallen silent.

The breadth of that literary life is on abundant, energizing display in Cramer’s new Portable Emerson. As gasping as it is to report, this is in every way an improvement on Van Doren’s sturdy hardcover from the wonderful Viking Portable line. Cramer not only includes far more than any comparable “collected” Emerson (there are very generous helpings of letters, poems, lectures, and essays), but he’s also a very attentive host, introducing each of his sections in turn. Penguin Classics has featured collections of Emerson’s essays in the past, but this volume includes all the famous essays like “The Over-Soul” and “Self-Reliance” but also huge amounts of everything else the man wrote, all of it full of boundless happiness and the exact kind of systematic brilliance he himself was sometimes wary of in other world-class thinkers:

Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of his bother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God. Every new mind is a new classification. If it proves a mind of uncommon activity and power, a Locke, a Lavoisier, a Hutton, a Bentham, a Fourier, it imposes its classification on other men, and lo! A new system.

In short, this new Portable Emerson is a great success, the perfect one-volume Emerson whether you’re a student or a scholar. And for Emerson’s own New England, currently bracing itself for a gigantic snowstorm, the book makes a perfect storm-day companion because, as I noted here at Stevereads on the eve of an earlier storm, the key to such books is that they be good company, and Emerson is always that – even when he’s having the bad grace to like snowstorms:

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,

Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,

Seems nowhere to alight: the white air

Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,

And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.

The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet

Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit

Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed

In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry.

Out of an unseen quarry evermore

Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer

Curves his white bastions with projected roof

Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work

So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he

For number or proportion. Mockingly,

On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;

A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;

Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,

Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate

A tapering turret overstops the work.

And when his hours are numbered, and the world

Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,

Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art

To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,

Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,

The frolic architecture of the snow.

  • Robert

    Dammit, you’ve gone and made me unhappy with my blizzard reading. Now I wish I had Emerson… Wait a second. I do! The Library of American edition of the essays. I’m off to read.

© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue