Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Conduct of Life
– Introduction
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Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) poet, essayist, and lecturer. From about 1840 to the early 1900s, Emerson undoubtedly was one of the most famous names in America. Now, except to a relatively small number of teachers, elderly readers, intellectuals, and students, his name is hardly known. More than a shame, this is a tragedy. During much of his adult life, Emerson was the single most popular public lecturer in America and one of the nation’s most widely read and quoted authors. Why? Because more than any other man of his time-more than Thoreau, more than Whitman, more than Abraham Lincoln himself -Emerson inspired Americans with a vision of what life could be like if ordinary people only would aspire to live up to the promise of freedom and democracy.

I first read some of Emerson’s essays in 1971, on a beach on the island of Kauai, Hawaii . Suffering from an acute case of world-weary pessimism, I had abruptly decided to abandon a promising teaching career, and I had no idea what to do next. I was thirty-one. Vividly I recall that time of anger, confusion, and sadness, and I recall, too, my impressions of Emerson. Often his words were charming, inspiring, and hopeful. But just as often they seemed to be a puzzling and obscure jumble.

In the spring, 2005, I returned to Kauai to spend some quiet time thinking about paths I might follow after my impending retirement from Boise State University . A collection of Emerson’s essays, which I had not read in nearly 25 years, was the only book I had brought with me. Sitting on that same beach, reading those essays, I found his words much less puzzling and obscure and frequently so thrilling and beautiful they brought tears to my eyes.

That is when I realized that Emerson’s vision was still relevant to American life. Indeed, in a society increasingly dominated by squeals and shouts in praise of shoddy goods, shoddy goals, shoddy religions, shoddy pleasures, and shoddy people, our need for Emerson’s distinctive, powerful message probably is greater than ever.

Alas, I also realized that even educated modern Americans who know of Emerson often find his writings tedious, obscure, and confusing. This is hardly surprising. Many of Emerson’s friends and close contemporaries had the same problem. But put another hundred and fifty years between his words and his potential readers and much of what he writes seems murky and almost incoherent.

That is when it occurred to me that adapting and abridging some of his most important essays might make them more accessible to a much larger audience than ever before. Creating modern “translations” of Emerson’s essays has of course entailed some drastic editing. Though I have tried to be true to both Emerson’s writing style and, especially, his meaning, I expect that many (most?) readers who already love Emerson will be inclined to regard these free adaptations as almost sacrilegious. I want to assure these readers that whatever shortcomings they may find this my enterprise, I have embarked upon it because I share their admiration for the unedited Emerson.

Some of Emerson’s admirers may even see merit in what I am trying to do. But whatever the case, they are not my intended audience. My goal is to bring Emerson to readers who gave up on him after English 101, or who have never read him at all. These readers, of course, will not be as moved by my adaptations as I was by reading the original essays. Emerson was a poet and a genius, and I am neither. I do hope, however, that I have been able to preserve and convey enough of his brilliance, magic, and majesty to engage readers who otherwise would never have been exposed to his wisdom.