Emerson In Context

“Whence and Whereto?”
February 12, 2014

Collection of New Essays Shines Light on Emerson’s Process

Outside the broadly drawn banner of “Transcendentalism,” the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson still eludes many. His influence covers an enormous spectrum of fields, ranging from literature to spirituality to epistemology: the nature of thought itself. Professor Wes Mott continues to be at the forefront of modern Emerson understanding with his recent publication “Ralph Waldo Emerson In Context” (Cambridge University Press, Dec 2013).

Unlike many previous analyses of Emerson’s work, “In Context” attempts to accomplish what its name implies: to show where in his life and philosophical development the author was at the times of some of his most noted writings.

“The book is part of a series called ‘Literature in Context,’” says Mott, professor of English. “The press approached me to edit it because of my previous scholarship on Emerson.”

It’s a great honor to be included in one of Wes’s projects…

That scholarship includes organizing the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society in 1989, and publishing its official newsletter, Emerson Society Papers (ESP), out of WPI for 20 years. That society is still active and is now an international scholarly organization with members in more than a dozen countries. Additionally, he has published and/or edited several books on New England Transcendentalism and pre-Civil War New England literature, in general, and Emerson, specifically.

After Cambridge University came to him with the idea, Mott submitted a proposal to the press’s board and other Emerson scholars, spending two years recruiting contributors for the book’s 32 chapters. Many of those came from the Society; one came from closer to home.

“In the case of Professor Boudreau,” says Mott. “She had recently published an excellent book dealing with Emerson’s influence on Henry James’s theory of mind and creativity, so she was an obvious choice to write the chapter on ‘Human Mind.’”

Kristin Boudreau is associate dean and head of Humanities and Arts department at WPI. Her chapter attempts to capture Emerson, as she puts it, “thinking about thinking. I tried to convey his efforts to describe human thought, to grapple with what it is we know, and how we know, and the limits to what we can know.”

She is quick to point out, however, that this is Mott’s venture. “It’s a great honor to be included in one of Wes’s projects; he’s such an important figure in American literary scholarship. He’s also a very generous scholar, someone who has supported other Emerson scholars over the years.”

In addition to overseeing the entire project, Mott also contributed one of the chapters, entitled “Britain.”

“Having advised IQPs in London three times,” he says, “my teaching of American literature has taken a more transatlantic turn. I decided to write the chapter ‘Britain’ myself because I wanted to find out more about how Emerson and other New Englanders thought about what, for many, was the ‘Mother Country’ against whom we had fought a War for Independence.”

Mott’s chapter explores the ambivalence many New Englanders felt when choosing where to stand amid burgeoning conflict with England. This consideration of the individual’s mindset facing societal expectation and patriotic obligation is at the heart of Emerson’s evolving transcendental philosophy. “He began to develop a ‘cosmopolitan’ attitude toward the very idea of nationhood,” he says, “believing that shared human ideals and truths were more important than national boundaries.”

The book, available now through the publisher (http://www.cambridge.org/), blazes the new trail of illuminating the process by which one of America’s greatest thinkers came to conceive of his greatest ideas. As Boudreau points out, “This is new work and it will be an important reference for students and teachers of Emerson.”