Book Essay - Autumn 2020

A Mind on Fire

In his acclaimed trilogy of intellectual biographies, Robert D. Richardson sought to help us overcome the burden of the past

By Sam Gee | September 23, 2020
Richardson, second from left with Joy Williams, William Wright, Rust Hills, Phyllis Rose, Annie Dillard, and Robert Stone (Laurent de Brunhoff)
Richardson, second from left with Joy Williams, William Wright, Rust Hills, Phyllis Rose, Annie Dillard, and Robert Stone (Laurent de Brunhoff)

Henry David Thoreau liked to compare himself to a rooster whose crowing wakes his neighbors, calling them back from sleep to an awareness of the present. “We cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past,” Thoreau wrote in his classic 1862 essay “Walking.” Robert D. Richardson, Thoreau’s biographer, embraced this sentiment and was himself such a rooster. Throughout his writing life, Richardson advocated for the sufficiency of the here and now over some imagined historical greatness lost in the mists of time—this even though, as one of the great literary biographers of his era, he was a connoisseur of the past.

A strange rooster, indeed.

Richardson, who died in June, was the author of intellectual biographies of not only Thoreau but also Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James. Taken together, wrote Irish novelist John Banville, these books represent “one of the greatest achievements in contemporary American literary studies.” Throughout his “New England trilogy,” Richardson sought to understand the life of his subjects primarily through their work. To do this, he identified the books that each of them had read during the course of their lives and methodically set about reading those works himself. Richardson’s larger subject was the “mind on re”—the life of the mind as passion, delight, and ultimately, liberation from intellectual glories of the past.


Richardson was born in 1934 in Milwaukee, the son of a Unitarian minister who moved the family to Medford, Massachusetts, when Richardson was still a boy. There the family lived across the street from where Emerson and Thoreau once attended a meeting of the Transcendental Club. Later, the Richardsons moved again, to Concord, the birthplace of 19th-century American intellectual life. The place was “pretty dull” and “a great bore,” Richardson would remember. “Everything was Emerson this and Thoreau that and Hawthorne and Alcott by the way. From a young person’s point of view, Concord was drowning in its own past.” Even at a young age, then, Richardson was acutely conscious of the deadening weight of a historical tradition that seemed to preclude anything interesting happening in the here and now.

As a student at Harvard, he studied with the literary scholar Walter Jackson Bate, the author of acclaimed biographies of Samuel Johnson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970). The notion suggested by its title—that past achievement constitutes something to be overcome by the present generation—reflected Richardson’s own nascent philosophy of history. After graduating from Harvard, he took a teaching job at the University of Denver, where he published several highly regarded scholarly works before writing his first biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986). The response to the book was better than Richardson could have imagined: he received a fan letter from the writer Annie Dillard (who shares Richardson’s ecstatic sensibilities), and soon, after “two lunches and three handshakes,” Dillard later recalled, they were married.

But Richardson would be the first to remind us that to understand the person, we must look to the work. Henry Thoreau was a powerful work of literary biography, but in retrospect, it is the trilogy’s weakest installment. The book—like the two that would follow it—is divided into short chapters, each one dealing with some aspect of Thoreau’s reading, writing, or activity. It begins somewhat late in Thoreau’s story, when he returns to Concord after graduating from Harvard. With Emerson’s encouragement, the young writer begins keeping a journal that represents the beginning of his intellectual life. Ignoring Thoreau’s youth, his family influences, and even his psychological development, Richardson tells us little of Henry David, focusing exclusively on the fully formed Thoreau—the Thoreau of Walden, of the Journal, and of his other books, essays, and letters.

Yet Richardson’s analytic powers are everywhere in evidence, even in this first effort. Through rigorous scholarship, insight, and ultimately sympathy, he presents Thoreau’s essence as a this-world-oriented preacher of renewal and wildness. Richardson writes of Walden’s call to “an awakening to daily renewal, not to eternal redemption,” and of the wild’s “vital, tonic effect of restoring man to emotional and cognitive awareness of his essential innermost self.” For Thoreau, he writes, “it is not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” But neither is Richardson above subtle critique: “‘The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward,’ Thoreau observed in this lecture given for money.” What the volume lacks in personal portraiture it more than makes up for in its artful evocation of mid-19th-century Concord and New England.

Richardson is at the peak of his form in Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995). Emerson once wrote to a correspondent who had asked about his life that “I have no history, no fortunes that would make the smallest figure in a narrative. My course of life has been so routinary, that the keenest eye for point or picture would be at fault before such remediless commonplace.” Richardson takes Emerson up on his challenge and proves him wrong. He does so not by ignoring Emerson’s outward life, but by examining the “routinary” aspects of his quiet life in Concord and on the lecture circuit as an expression of his “intellectual odyssey.” At the core of Richardson’s portrayal is the idea that Emerson not only accepts “the Greek idea that the universe is beauty, kosmos, but emphasizes the experience of that beauty as a wild delight. This inner wildness, this habit of enthusiasm, this workaday embracing of the Dionysian is quintessential Emerson. He is wild or he is nothing.” Emerson the preachy pedant, the pie-in-the-sky idealist, and the crypto-conservative evangelist of self-reliance: Richardson corrects all of these modern misunderstandings while proving that a great mind at work is no less exciting, no less passionately stirring, than the life of a military hero or a saint, and no less wild or surprising in its movement than the forces of nature.

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006) culminates the trilogy, and with James—perhaps the most intrinsically interesting figure in all of American history—Richardson works from an embarrassment of riches. Here he embraces the necessity of writing about both the work and the life, offering many chapters on the James family (including William’s brother, Henry, the novelist) and on James’s youth, temperament, and emotional development. James was himself devoted to the notion that philosophical ideas are little more than expressions of their authors’ personalities—and Richardson is clearly taken with this particular personality. Toward the end of his life, as he was dying of painful heart trouble, James sent a testy letter to his friend Henry Adams, excoriating him for having applied the second law of thermodynamics in a darkly deterministic way to human history in his 1910 Letter to American Teachers of History. Describing James’s plea for the meaningfulness of human life in time, Richardson cannot help but catch his subject’s endearing enthusiasm:

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 t to set alongside the death of Socrates. The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!


James was, in some sense, a departure for Richardson in that he was not a transcendentalist, but his similarities to Thoreau and Emerson become clear when refracted through the lens of his biographer’s sensibility. Like them, James possessed a “great experiencing nature.” All three men were preternaturally open to new experiences and intense states of consciousness, but James made this the basis of his own revolutionary philosophy, which he called “radical empiricism” (related, though not directly, to his more famous philosophical development, pragmatism). And like the Concord thinkers, James believed, in Richardson’s words, “not just that our minds are active rather than passive but that mind is activity”: humans are not merely victims of circumstance and pawns in a cosmic game of chess, but actively shape their own lives and worlds. Richardson’s James, like his Thoreau and Emerson, preaches the philosophy of the rooster: Wake up! Live! Do something today, right here, right now, and do it with all the willful exultation and wild self-abandonment of Rainer Maria Rilke’s later “Spanish Dancer,” whose “dance begins to flicker in the dark room. / And all at once it is completely fire.”

Richardson’s biographies evoke the same sense of delight and play that was so important to his subjects. He tells us that Emerson, a passionate gardener, was so bad at his chosen hobby that the Massachusetts Horticultural Society sent a special envoy to Concord to find out how someone with such good stock could produce such awful fruit. Thoreau, however, was well known around town for his talent at growing delicious melons, and in the summers, he would throw melon parties for a select group of neighbors and friends. James’s wild side came out in the summer, too. One hot Cambridge midnight, James ran naked around his yard while his good friend Josiah Royce blasted him with the garden hose. That Richardson can so deftly balance these narrative moments of levity and joy with his characteristically serious intellectual commentary is one of the many reasons to read the New England trilogy.

The work has made an important contribution to the popular understanding of American thought. Where Thoreau, Emerson, and James are often considered distinctively American figures, Richardson shows that their thought was anything but uniquely American. Emerson, for example, formulated his thinking under the influence of Goethe, Kant, and Coleridge. In his later work, he was deeply influenced by Islamic philosophy and poetry, and he was just as proficient in the works of Ferdowsi, Saadi, Hafez, Omar Khayyam, Rumi, and others. Thoreau’s transcendentalism was far more indebted to Hindu scriptures than to Judeo-Christian ones. James’s major intellectual influences were French, British, and German, and he too was well versed in ideas from the world’s religions. Richardson’s books thus anticipated more recent works that have shown American intellectual history to be a transnational flow of import and export.

But even if Richardson is not interested in defending the notion of an American tradition, his subjects sometimes were. All three figures were immensely conscious of their nationality, and though not uncritical of their country, they were decidedly invested in it. As James once wrote, “All I know is this, that my heart is American.” Much of Emerson’s work in his old age had to do with comparing America with England, not always to the latter’s advantage. And Thoreau delighted in what he saw as the distinctively American poetry of Walt Whitman, which seemed to glisten with the morning freshness that Thoreau sought to evoke in his own writing. Unsurprisingly, Richardson’s biographies reflect the ambivalence of his subjects on this score: they simultaneously propagate the idea of an American tradition while acknowledging the mind’s porous boundaries.


A related, more evident tension runs through these biographies between a love of the historical past and a rejection of it. To understand this seeming contradiction in both Richardson’s thought and in that of the writers he loved, we must look to the work of the teacher who most in influenced Richardson. Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet asserted that “the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness, before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past, has become the greatest single problem that modern art … has had to face.” According to Bate, for the modern mind, the crushing weight of past achievement threatens to overwhelm the validity of present experience. We might unburden ourselves, and thereby reach our full potential, by seeking out what English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called a “habitual vision of greatness.” “By caring for the kinds of things that they did,” Bate wrote of the great minds of history, “we are not only ‘imitating ’ them, in the best and most fruitful sense of the word, but also ‘joining them.’ ” For Bate, it is the biographer who is in the best position to provide a despairing age with a sense of how the great artists and intellectuals cultivated their own habitual visions of greatness. The most pressing problem for modern culture, Bate wrote, is “how to use a heritage, when we know and admire so much about it, how to grow by means of it, how to acquire our own ‘identities,’ how to be ourselves.”

Similarly, Richardson means to help contemporary readers make use of the past without bowing down before it. His subjects’ abandonment of what they perceived to be dead tradition was not a rejection of history but a validation of their own experience. If Richardson dwells on the past, then, it is to show how history can provide models for overcoming problems in our own time. His New England trilogy stands as a fundamentally life-affirming work—a prompt to live our lives with respect for the past, but in the knowledge that we must not be beholden to it, lest we sacrifice the possibilities of the present.

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