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Emerson: The Mind on Fire

4.46  ·  Rating Details ·  402 Ratings  ·  50 Reviews
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 the unsettling power of his example continue to influence us more than a hundred years after his death. Now Robert D. Richardson Jr. brings to life an Emerson very different from the old stereotype of the passionless Sage o ...more
Paperback, 684 pages
Published November 6th 1996 by University of California Press (first published 1995)
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Sep 01, 2014 Caroline rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, biography
This is a very difficult book to review because there’s so much to talk about; I’m going to condense it and just say: read it.

The Mind on Fire is an intellectual biography of Emerson, although Richardson says that he ended up including more routine biography than he intended to in order to help the reader understand the development of his thought. Also to the point for Goodreads members: you’ll end up doubling or tripling the length of your ‘to-read’ list. I started off listening to this, but qu
Jun 08, 2014 Steven rated it it was amazing
Shelves: home-inventory
For a man who believed that biography is the only history worth reading, Emerson must have smiled in his grave when Robert Richardson, a modern master of the genre, published The Mind on Fire. Richardson is discriminating, tasteful, honest, rigorous, empathetic, and to the point. Whereas scholars tend to crunch and collate the Essays, Richardson gives us what we really want: a story. The Mind on Fire is about the unique, irreducible experience of Emerson: what he read, who he loved, where he wal ...more
Keith Skinner
Nov 11, 2012 Keith Skinner rated it it was amazing
I read this several years after reading Richardson's biography of Thoreau, A Life of the Mind, and after my first visit to Concord. In fact, I found this book in one of the Concord bookstores and immediately snatched it up, motivated partially by my memory of the Thoreau book and and partially by my visit to Emerson's house earlier that day.

The title of this book says it all. When you crack open the cover and turn past the flyleaf, you will embark upon an incredible journey in witnessing the de
Victoria Weinstein
Jul 29, 2008 Victoria Weinstein rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Emerson fans
Shelves: non-fiction
This is the definitive bio on Emerson and well-deserves all the praise it has earned. A marvelous and gripping read, not to be missed by any of RWE's admirers.
Aug 19, 2009 Bruce rated it it was amazing
In this fine biography Richardson not only presents factual data about Emerson’s life but also explores the philosophical strands and influences that played upon him, summarizing and explicating those influences so that the reader can in turn begin to appreciate how they wove themselves into Emerson’s existing ideas to make an ever richer tapestry of thought. It is difficult not to reflect upon one’s own ideas and the process of one’s own intellectual and philosophical development in response to ...more
Jul 07, 2008 Tom rated it it was amazing
As with RR's excellent Thoreau: A Life of the Mind," this is a bio of a reader more than a chronological account of a life, and if indeed we are what we read, then RR provides a fascinating portrayal of one of the country's most important thinkers. (one small but intriguing detail: RWE often didn't finish books he was reading; rather, he claimed to have developed an ability to find what he considered most useful in a given work, and put aside the rest. That's quite liberating for any devoted rea ...more
Jan 15, 2010 J rated it it was amazing
Let's face it. I'm never going to finish this book. Too many distractions. I should just click five stars and call it a day.

From the preface:
This book was originally planned as an intellectual biography, a companion piece to Henry Thoreau; A Life of the Mind. My approach to both Thoreau and Emerson has been to read what they read and then to relate their reading to their writing. The story, however - and it is a story - of Emerson's intellectual odyssey turned out to be incomprehensible apart
Jean Poulos
Jul 31, 2015 Jean Poulos rated it really liked it
Richardson says he wrote an intellectual biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) but had to include the normal biography information so the reader would have context to the events. Richardson has, as much as possible, let Emerson speak for himself through his published works, his journals and note books, his letters and reported conversations. The author not only covers Emerson’s writings and his influence on others but his life as he experienced it. Richardson gives careful attention to th ...more
Michaela Wood
Oct 23, 2008 Michaela Wood rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: James Jandek Wood
"Emerson: A Mind on Fire" by Robert Richardson gives the intellectual journey of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his days at Harvard, through a brief - though successful - church career, and to his celebrated radical writings - revolving a firery abolitionist, stauch idealist, and sometimes feminist, transandentalist. Emerson himself is potrayed as a fearless, good-humored, deeply interested philosopher as well as a prophetic reader. He seems wonderfully open to new information, growing his journals a ...more
Yesterday's Muse Bookstore
Apr 27, 2010 Yesterday's Muse Bookstore rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
This is THE biography of Emerson. Not only does it cover the complete expanse of Emerson's life and work, it accurately and unapologetically follows the development of Emerson's skills as a writer and thinker.

Many biographies adopt a perspective of adulation towards their subject, which in some cases can cloud the reality of things. Richardson maintains an objectivity that allows him to paint an accurate portrait.

In addition, Richardson's decision to approach Emerson in this way highlights how
Ashley Adams
Robert D. Richardson also wrote a biography on Thoreau that got great reviews. Indeed, Richardson knows what he is talking about. His facts are solid, and his story clear. I finished the reading with a greater appreciation for the relationships Thoreau cultivated with other transcendental figures of his time.... It was kind of boring.

Emerson himself put a strong emphasis on the art of writing biography. Boldly, Emerson said, "All history is biography." With that in mind, I think Richardson's bio
Oct 12, 2014 Kate rated it did not like it
Do not read. Unreadable.
Oct 21, 2016 Ben rated it it was amazing
O Bacchus, make them drunk, drive them mad, this multitude of vagabonds, hungry for eloquence, hungry for poetry, starving for symbols, perishing for want of electricity to vitalize this too much pastime; and in the long delay, indemnifying themselves with the false wine of alcohol, of politics, or of money. Pour for them, O Bacchus, the wine of wine. Give them, at last, Poetry.
May 05, 2014 Julia rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Robert D. Richardson is an incredible biographer, and this story of the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson is mesmerizing.

He understands that just going chronologically from birth to death is not the best way to understand another human being. Richardson begins Emerson: The Mind on Fire with the story of Emerson visiting his dead wife's tomb in 1832. He was just 28, and Ellen had married him when she was 18 and died at 20 of tuberculosis. In the year since her death, he had walked from Boston to Roxbur
May 25, 2010 Chris rated it really liked it
Richardson's main talent lies in his critical eye -- in his ability to identify the central points of Emerson's often eclectic essays, and to weave these themes into a world view that is uniform yet evolving. In addition to illuminating Emerson's published works, Richardson mines, with great care, the cavernous depth's of Emerson's journals, which were prolific in their size and organization. From a very early age, Emerson was a diligent diarist, and took care to index nearly everything he wrote ...more
Apr 11, 2010 Sarah rated it really liked it
This book is an enlightening, enriching read, but it takes some time to get into--like the first 100 pages. Richardson's structure and writing style ingeniously echo Emerson's own reading and writing practices. The biography is made up of 100 brief chapters/essays that are organized more thematically than rigidly chronologically. Emerson felt it was important never to lose one's self and become immersed in a book. No matter how much you get caught up in any essay, it's over in 4 or 5 pages, whic ...more
Bill Dockery
Mar 24, 2008 Bill Dockery rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people with an interest in the intellectual history of the 19th century.
Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire is a masterful biography of the 19th century's most famous American public intellectual and philosopher. Richardson presents to the reader a man who makes idealism (in both the literal and the philosophic sense) a way of life and a justification for life. While I find the pragmatism of William James (Richardson's most recent biographical subject) much more appealing than the Transcendentalism of Emerson (and hence enjoyed reading the James bio much more), R ...more
Mary Jo
Sep 06, 2010 Mary Jo rated it it was amazing
I ordered this when two smart friends, Sandy and Elizabeth, both gave it their highest marks. But I was a bit daunted when it arrived- 684 pages! I figured I could slog through it in two years, but I'm about one fourth of the way through (in a couple of months of sporadic reading). Haven't read any in it for a few weeks -- it's obviously not a book you carry around with you all the time. But I feel the way I used to feel about Smithsonian magazine articles (and now about most anything in The New ...more
Shasta McBride
Sep 20, 2011 Shasta McBride rated it liked it
This Emerson book was recommended in Paul Hawken's talk so desiring to further grasp the transcendentalists as last thorough education on Emerson was a freshmen required course (and how thorough was Emerson seeping into my 17 year old fresh from the beach mind I'm not so sure...) ...My dad stopped through LA the other day and saw the book on my table and said he was hearing all about Emerson these days, that it seemed everywhere he listened in there was t ...more
K.C. Davis
Apr 11, 2016 K.C. Davis rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Excellent bio that brings a radiant intellect to life, and with it an era in American history.

The ending was handled so well - I don't recall another biography that packed so much emotion and poignancy into its final chapter.

My only critique (and it's a small one) is that the constant listing of what Emerson read year by year slowed down the pace. It tied in well with charting out his evolving thinking, but made for some patches of rough sledding.
Nov 29, 2009 Jamie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Here is from a recent review in The Guardian

John Banville

The best book I have read this year is Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D Richardson Jr (University of California Press), a superb biography of the great American philosopher and prose-poet. Richardson's scholarship is exhaustive, he writes a straightforward yet mesmeric prose, and his gift for tracing the development of Emerson's mind through apposite quotation is uncanny. This is, simply, a great book.
Oct 10, 2014 Kay rated it it was amazing
Superlative rendition of the life and the philosophy of Emerson. What comes across first and foremost is Emerson's generosity of spirit. There was no promising young intellect that he did not extend a helping hand and encouragement. Whitman called him "the gentle man." The people he loved were what grounded him to the world. Nature and books propelled his always churning mind. Emerson was truly a great soul.
David A. Beardsley
Apr 15, 2013 David A. Beardsley rated it it was amazing
This is the definitive biography of Emerson by someone who obviously loves and has a thorough knowledge of him and his times. Emerson and his circle of friends were responsible for originating so much of what we take for granted as Americans, and this book will give you a much better appreciation for their contribution. (Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Dr. Richardson; however, I believe my assessment would be the same if I weren't.)
Feb 09, 2014 Thor rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
I learned more from Richardson's essays about Emerson's essays than I did from reading the latter. For reasons that remain inexplicable to me, I find Thoreau much, much easier to read than Emerson. I read this book a decade ago. On this re-read, I was able to comprehend so much more than before. Richardson is my go-to biographer for challenging thinkers.
Aug 17, 2008 Erin rated it really liked it
um...if you're not obsessed with emerson's writings the way i am then this may not be the book for you, but its a good book. definitely thought provoking and gives you a little better look at what the man emerson was like. i love it.
Dave Maddock
A thorough biography of Emerson with a heavy focus on explicating his intellectual development. A solid overview of his thought and life, but sometimes tediously focused on lists of books he read each year.
H.g. Callaway
Aug 13, 2012 H.g. Callaway rated it it was amazing
If you can only read one book about Emerson's life and work, then read this one. It is stronger on the early Emerson, weaker on late Emerson, but a very engaging book.
Steve Allison
Feb 04, 2015 Steve Allison rated it it was amazing
enjoyed it very much. would recommend to anyone. hope to continue learning more about what emerson said and did and how he helped form the american mind
Mary Morony
Jun 12, 2014 Mary Morony rated it really liked it
Lots and lots of facts about what RWE read and thought. Although it was slow going, it was worth it. It did put skin on the man.
David Weller
May 17, 2013 David Weller rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those students of early 1800's thought
A very entertaining read about an American sage. Gone are the days of the transcendentalists, but his wisdom is shared by many today; on Twitter, he is the most popularly quoted of all.
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