IN HIS BIOGRAPHY of Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson writes “the past can be understood only if we imagine each moment of it as present, with ourselves as the actors in it.” This emphasis on the value of personal experience is the core of Emerson’s message; “there is properly no history, only biography,” Emerson wrote. The appeal to individual empathy inherent in this outlook is also a hallmark of Richardson’s work, which, in addition to Emerson, includes biographies of Henry David Thoreau (The Life of the Mind) and William James (In the Maelstrom of American Modernism ). While Richardson’s scholarly mastery of these subjects — the founding fathers of American intellectual life — is impressive, what astonishes is his ability to provide the reader with a visceral experience of their lives. Richardson’s books bear the vivid energy of our most imaginative writers and belong, says John Banville, “among the glories of contemporary literature.”
Richardson was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent his early years in Medford and in Concord, Massachusetts. Today he lives in South Wellfleet and in Key West, where he and his wife, the writer Annie Dillard, are honorary directors of the Key West Literary Seminar. In this interview, which began on the Fourth of July and continued by email over the following weeks, Richardson discusses his work as a biographer, his own biography, and the points at which the two are woven together. We talk about John Keats’s theory of “negative capability,” about using Thoreau to find muskrats in the urban West, and about Dillard’s one-word key to understanding Emerson. Richardson, who spent a decade on each of the books discussed here and who has taught at the University of Denver, Harvard, and Sichuan University in China, also gives valuable practical advice about how to stay organized, where to look online, and when to start writing; and he reminds us why “we can and must trust our best selves.”
Arlo Haskell: In Emerson, you describe a meeting of the Transcendental Club that was held at Caleb Stetson’s house in Medford and attended by Emerson and Thoreau. Did I read this right? Is this the house you grew up in?
Robert D. Richardson: I did indeed grow up in the house at 141 High Street, and yes, it is the parsonage for the First Church in Medford and has been since 1789. But I’ve just recently learned that when Stetson was minister at Medford he lived in another house on the other side of High Street and 100 yards away. The house he lived in was torn down and there’s a Catholic rectory on the spot now. So Emerson did not attend a meeting at 141 High St. and the passage, one of the very few moments when I tried to insert myself into the book, has to come out. I hate to do it, but there it is. Nice spotting!
AH: I’d begun to wonder how literally I should take your remark that “all biography is at last autobiography.”
RR: I was thinking of Emerson saying all history is at last biography; it all comes down to what men and women have done. And if it’s not quite right to then say all biography is at last autobiography, it’s fair to say all biography is to be taken personally.
Biography certainly has an...