Building Their Own Waldos

Building Their Own Waldos

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By the end of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson was well on his way to becoming the a€œWisest Americana€ and the a€œSage of Concord, a€ a literary celebrity and a national icon. With that fame came what Robert Habich describes as a blandly sanctified version of Emerson held widely by the reading public. Building Their Own Waldos sets out to understand the dilemma faced by Emersona€™s early biographers: how to represent a figure whose subversive individualism had been eclipsed by his celebrity, making him less a representative of his age than a caricature of it. Drawing on never-before-published letters, diaries, drafts, business records, and private documents, Habich explores the making of a cultural hero through the stories of Emersona€™s first biographersa€” George Willis Cooke, a minister most recently from Indianapolis who considered himself a disciple; the English reformer and newspaper mogul Alexander Ireland, a friend for half a century; Moncure D. Conway, a Southern abolitionist then residing in London, who called Emerson his a€œspiritual father and intellectual teachera€; the poet and medical professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, with Emerson a member of Bostona€™s gathering of literary elite, the Saturday Club; James Elliot Cabot, the familya€™s authorized biographer, an architect and amateur philosopher with unlimited access to Emersona€™s unpublished papers; and Emersona€™s son Edward, a physician and painter whose father had passed over him as literary executor in favor of Cabot. Just as their biographies reveal a complex, socially engaged Emerson, so too do the biographersa€™ own stories illustrate the real-world perils, challenges, and motives of life-writing in the late nineteenth century, when biographers were routinely vilified as ghoulish and disreputable and biography as a genre underwent a profound redefinition. Building Their Own Waldos is at once a revealing look at Emersona€™s constructed reputation, a case study in the rewards and dangers of Victorian life-writing, and the story of six authors struggling amidst personal misfortunes and shifting expectations to capture the elusive character of Americaa€™s a€œrepresentative man, a€ as they knew him and as they needed him to be.There, he came upon an article entitled a€œEmersona€ and an extract from the essay a€œHistorya€ struck him a€œlike an arrowa€; ... It was, Conway wrote in his journal that evening, a€œthe most memorable day of my life: spent with Ralph Waldo Emerson!

Title:Building Their Own Waldos
Author:Robert D. Habich
Publisher:University of Iowa Press - 2011-03-15


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