Long Walks on the Wild Side—Robert D. Richardson, Biographer
Biographers define themselves by the subjects they choose. Some compete for the few big fish who attract publishers and enhance a biographer’s reputation by association alone. Others, often humble academics, are obliged to angle in shallow water for fish they hope other fishermen will overlook. Sometimes they hook poor things with too little life in them to put up much of a fight, or make much of a story.
The biographer with a true vocation, the one whose books we read and remember, is unintimidated but unimpressed by big fish. Size alone—a subject’s fame and historical consequence—is never what he’s after. Invariably he chooses an individual whose story suits him as an adventure—a person whose life, examined at length, promises to shed light on things the biographer needs to know about himself. Biography is self-expression, really, by a writer wearing a mask; a wise choice means everything. The best biographers devote ten years or more to each project, and that’s a long walk without congenial, fit, and stimulating company.
These journeys of discovery aren’t overburdened with altruism. A commercial biographer who reimagines Marilyn Monroe, with his eye on a beach house at Hilton Head, isn’t necessarily more selfish than the scholar who truly needs to spend a decade walking in the footsteps—or in the shoes—of Ralph Waldo Emerson, however that might affect his other relationships and commitments. Readers are generally in the dark about the deeper connections between biographers and their subjects. They sense that Emily Dickinson and John of Gaunt would not have the same biographer, but they haven’t thought about it. The books they read don’t offer much help, on the surface, because one of the serious biographer’s professional imperatives is to keep himself hidden as much as possible. In the case of Robert D. Richardson (Bob, from here on), one of this country’s finest practicing literary biographers, I may be in a position to offer an insight or two that I hope someone will appreciate.
Richardson, author of the acclaimed new biography William James: In the Maelstrom of Modernism, has spent at least 30 years of his own life reconstructing the lives of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James—lives which were spent, for the most part, within a few miles of Harvard Yard, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Richardson himself, like all three of his subjects, was once a student at Harvard. A blue-collar critic might interpret this as evidence of a cloistered, parochial Bostonian bias, of the biographer’s reluctance to venture far from the privileged classes and the Harvard Alumni Association. This would be a spectacularly inaccurate interpretation of the spirit and intellectual essence of Bob Richardson.
I’ve read the books, and I’ve known the man behind them for 20 years. When Emerson was published in 1995, I went back and read Richardson’s biography of Thoreau. Knowing that William James was next, I allowed myself a grin of recognition at the way the biographer had structured his life’s work. There was never a Back Bay, Victorian stereotype that applied to his triumvirate. They were, in their separate ways, the three wild men of Massachusetts. Nowhere in 19th-century America were there three less conformist, complacent or predictable intellects. Thoreau was known in his time as the untamed hermit of Concord, a social renegade who preached civil disobedience and earned his living as a day laborer. He roamed the wilds of Maine with genuine Indians, studied civilization to see how much of it he could dispense with, and searched for the truth in the dust at his doorstep.
The Emerson biography is subtitled “The Mind on Fire.” When Emerson’s mind ignited, in those sleepy days when James Fenimore Cooper was the giant of American literature, he lit a fire under Boston’s Unitarian intelligentsia that still burns centuries later, and surely contributes to the fact that Massachusetts is the most progressive state in the Union. Richardson’s Third Man, the polymath James, is one of my particular heroes. He was the original wild card of late-Victorian Boston, a man whose thirst for experience led him to mescal and ghost-seeking, among other mind-opening extravagances, and whose unflagging tolerance for strange and unwelcome ideas form a large piece of the bedrock beneath modern science, psychology and philosophy. They were very different temperaments, these Bostonians, but they were all strong swimmers against the current, and what they had in common is what they have in common with their biographer.
I began to get the idea on the first page of Emerson, where Emerson, 28, opens the coffin to look at his deceased wife, fourteen months dead of tuberculosis. (Twenty-five years and 540 pages later, Emerson opens the coffin of his son Waldo, who had been dead for 15 years.) The point for me was that I would not have done this; my flash of insight was that Bob Richardson almost certainly would have. “He had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience,” Richardson writes of Emerson. “That’s what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe.”
I should explain that before I’d read a word of Richardson’s biographies, I had sailed with him in the North Atlantic—once through a 50-knot gale—and followed him in a kayak through 100 miles of Idaho whitewater. Richardson is an intellectual’s intellectual, a scholar for whom ideas form all the road signs of the world he walks in. But his path through this world is not for the faint of heart. He writes of “the soldierly quality Thoreau admired, the courage to live deeply and suck the marrow out of life.” He discovers that Thoreau was an admirer of Sir Walter Raleigh, arguably the most butch of all canonical English writers: “His writing had boldness it could only have gotten from life, Thoreau thought, and from a life that was, above all else, active.”
Once you get the picture, confirmation is everywhere in Richardson's work. One of his finest portraits is Emerson's eccentric aunt Mary Moody Emerson—Richardson's books about men never shortchange the women—who slept in a bed shaped like a coffin and wore her burial shroud when she traveled. “Always do what you are afraid to do,” she counseled her nephews. Richardson praises “her hunger for personal experience of the strongest, most direct kind” and speculates that Emerson “was pushed onward by her undrownable spirit.” William James, a depressive who was often in poor health, personified one of Richardson's dearest themes, the triumph of pure will over fears and infirmities. From James's essay “Is Life Worth Living?”, he quotes “It's only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.”
The essay continues, “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which we may withdraw at will.”
Take courage, in short, and take action. When I began to understand what Richardson admired most about his subjects, I remembered that Bob himself experimented with parasailing in his late sixties—I'm a witness—and inadvisedly climbed a mountain in China a few months after heart-valve surgery. But the Richardson I'll always remember was the skipper of a 38-foot sloop we were trying to anchor off the coast of Cape Breton, as night fell and the wind picked up alarmingly. Six, seven, eight times the anchor failed to catch; another failure or two and we'd have been drifting across the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the dark, praying that we could raise the Coast Guard on the radio. Some of us were cursing and considering whiskey, some were fingering their rosaries; Richardson, in charge, was weighing our odds in his calmest voice and smoking a cigar as if he were day-sailing across Cape Cod Bay.
The anchor caught, we survived, I was indelibly impressed. Bob Richardson is a walk-the-walk biographer of impetuous, tempestuous, “undrownable” spirits. He sees life as a physical and intellectual adventure with no guarantees, no safe passage or special favors for the wise or the privileged. Sometimes I suspect that his fearless stoicism was formed by spending so much time with the 19th century, when life was so uncertain and sturdy spirits seized it with a passion that seems almost neurotic today. (Both Emerson and James were traumatized by the loss of young sons, and Emerson lost his first wife and his dear friend Thoreau to TB; one arresting thing I learned from Richardson is that in 1825 half the adults in Boston were infected with tuberculosis, which was the cause of one-third of all deaths.)
But these books are more than philosophical chest-beating, demonstrating that 19th-century males, even writers and intellectuals, were much richer in testosterone than their descendants. Richardson's wild men were as creative as they were brave, and they're blessed with a biographer who navigates the swirling cross-currents of 19th-century thought as deftly as I remember him navigating the currents in the Straits of Canso. Whatever you thought you knew about transcendentalism, pragmatism, German idealism or radical empiricism, Richardson will expand and clarify it in an unpretentious prose style that sticks to the layman's ribs.
In the James book he even pauses, endearingly, at a tricky philosophical intersection, and allows, “This is not easy stuff.” These are intellectual biographies, which means that Richardson attempted to read everything his subjects read—which also means that he works just as hard as these death-haunted, pressed-for-time 19th-century giants who fascinate him. It's a formidable combination. He's a writer who rewards your trust, for the same reasons we learned to trust him on those sailboats far from shore—he knows what he's doing, and because he's restless, curious and fearless, he can take you where you might never travel on your own.