When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.
With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.
On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.
Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.
Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.
This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.
In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.
In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)
I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.