Robert D. Richardson, one of America’s best intellectual biographers, died on June 16 at the age of eighty-four. Richardson’s three major works—Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986); Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995); and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006)—are models of the genre. Taken in total, they capture not just the lives and minds of his subjects but the life and mind of America itself: its blending of the spiritual and the pragmatic, the radically empiricist and the radically transcendental.
Another excellent biographer, Hermione Lee, has said that “the reader’s first question of the biographer is always going to be, what was she, or he, like? Other questions (like why, or how do you know, or do we approve, or does it matter?) may follow. But ‘likeness’ must be there.” Likeness is certainly there in Richardson’s three portraits. There is the sometimes grouchy, always paradoxical Thoreau, a man “very much fixed in his ways” who “was capable of saying, with blithe and utter injustice, that he had ‘yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice’ from his seniors, yet [who] could turn around and use Emerson as an oracle, opening his printed works at random and reading the first sentence his eye lit upon, a sortes Emersonianae.” There’s the impetuous, lovely Emerson himself, who “lived for ideas, but [who] did so with the reckless, headlong ardor of a lover,” whose “passion for friendship”—with Thoreau, with his wife Ellen, with many, many others—gave “new depth and a greater ease of access to his own best thought.”
And finally, there’s the endlessly energetic James, who was “astonishingly, even alarmingly, open to new experiences,” climbing mountains and attending séances and writing books up until his death. You want to know what James was like? Try this paragraph, which comes right after Richardson has quoted from an italics-laden passage of James’s late prose:
It is impossible, after reading James for any length of time, to refrain from using italics oneself. But even italics fail to do justice to this magnificent outburst, the last stand of William James for the spirit of man. What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? It is a scene fit to set alongside the death of Socrates. The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!
Forget the ideal of scholarly objectivity. A biographer damn well better love his or her subject. It should be a complicated form of love, not unthinking, not idealizing. But it should be love nonetheless. Richardson loved Thoreau. He loved Emerson. And he loved James. What fruits that critical love has borne.
Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind
University of California Press, 464 pp., $31.95
Emerson: A Mind on Fire
University of California Press, 684 pp., $33.95
William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Mariner Books, 656 pp., $18.95
Here’s a conundrum for the biographer. What do you do if you find yourself enchanted by one stretch of your subject’s life—the creative outburst of a young poet, for example—and bored stiff by another stretch—say, the long rise or fall, depending on how you look at it, into venerability?
If you’re Jonathan Bate in Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World, you first admit the problem upfront. In his apologia of a preface, Bate says he didn’t want his book to be too long. Recent biographies, he complains, have “reproduce[d] one of Wordsworth’s faults, namely the prolixity that was mocked by Lord Byron.” He then lists some of the conundrums he wants his own work to face up to: “How the first half of Wordsworth’s life was such an extraordinary adventure and the second half so dull; why the poetry of the first half is so memorable, that of the second so forgettable.” In the exciting first half of his life, you have Wordsworth getting caught up in the French Revolution (he initially supported it), Wordsworth having a child out of wedlock (in a soap-opera twist, the mother, Anette Vallon, was a royalist), Wordsworth writing the Lyrical Ballads with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and finishing a draft of The Prelude, his epic on the growth of the poet’s mind. As for the boring second half, there’s a fall into conservative politics, some passive-aggressive feuds with Coleridge, and the endlessly unfinished poem The Recluse. Not exactly the stuff of high drama.
Using a mountaineering metaphor (like William James, Wordsworth loved a good climb), Bate describes Wordsworth’s first thirty-six years as an “arduous but exhilarating ascent” followed by “forty-four years of crawling decline.” Bate writes that “[t]he second half of Wordsworth’s life was the longest, dullest decline in literary history,” and his workaround is to paraglide down the slope. Those first thirty-six years get about 350 pages, the remaining forty-four only about a hundred, followed by a coda tracing Wordsworth’s lasting influence on everything from the environmental and conservation movements to William James and Sigmund Freud. Wordsworth famously structured The Prelude around “spots of time”: moments from our past that form our selves and offer, as the poem has it, “a fructifying virtue.” Bate does the same in his light-footed biography, gracefully hopping from essential moment to essential moment, moving around time rather than sequentially through it.
Bate begins at the highest of heights, on Christmas 1806, with Wordsworth reading a draft of The Prelude to his sister, Dorothy, and his friend Coleridge. The poem “was and remains the original, the exemplary autobiographia literaria,” Bate writes, marking “an epoch in the history of the modern self,” turning the stateliness of blank verse towards the suppleness of the mind and memory at work. The book then circles back, talking about Wordsworth’s sorrow-filled childhood (his mother died when he was seven, his father when he was thirteen), his time traveling in France during the Revolution, his friendships with Coleridge and the essayist Charles Lamb, all leading up to this Yuletide reading. In a letter to his patron, Wordsworth described The Prelude as “a thing unprecedented in literary history,” bragging (admitting?) that it was almost impossible “that a man should talk so much about himself.” It’s no exaggeration to say that much of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry is a footnote to Wordsworth. The Prelude expressed a series of equivalences—between selfhood and memory and poetry—that have shaped, either through affiliation or differentiation, almost everything that has come after. Bate is right to describe Wordsworth as radical. The roots of modern poetic selfhood lie in the Lake Country with the Lake Poet.