I love books. When I was a young woman, I wanted a house full of shelves filled with splendid books. Mama shopped the garage sales and estate sales on the weekends then, as she still sometimes does now, and she used to drag me with her. Once — only once — I hit the jackpot. At the estate sale of a majestic old home, I found a box full of gorgeous hardbound books covered in leather or cloth and labeled inside. The labels were glued inside the front covers, each volume numbered and dated by hand, once atop the shelves of the F. F. Duell Library. I’ve no idea who Duell might have been but I know F. F. Duell once existed because I hold a piece of that life in my hand. It’s an old book, purchased on November 15, 1913, for fifty cents, according to the meticulous label. It’s titled The Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I’m not the first owner, nor, most likely, the second. The copyright is 1900, so the book was thirteen years old before Duell picked it up. It has a red cloth cover and brittle, browning deckle-edge pages. The book is in poor shape and is probably worth nothing except to me.
I’d never paid much attention to Emerson before pulling that book out of the box. He struck me as vaguely important, probably because of my childhood Louisa May Alcott fixation. The frontispiece is a black and white photo of an old man in formal dress with white hair and a rather large nose. Then I began to read. Things like “Uriel”, “Bacchus”, and “The Sphynx”. My favorite by far is so short I can share it in full:
I fell in love with Emerson upon reading this poem. It’s perfect still to my mind. Especially at seventeen, I identified with the verse. Emerson loves someone. He doubts his beloved. He’s neurotic. He begins a sentence with “and”, a particular fault of mine according to my high school English teacher. Emerson was my first literary love.
So how could I possibly resist The Annotated Emerson?
The poetry is but a small part of this lovely volume. It contains those I’ve mentioned except “The Amulet”. The best bits and pieces of Emerson’s writing, collected by David Mikics into one lengthy, heavy, grand volume. There are essays on John Brown and Thoreau, a letter Emerson once wrote to President Martin Van Buren in defense of the Cherokee nation, and an address on emancipation in 1844. Emerson thought, wrote, spoke, and demonstrated his beliefs. The annotations are glorious. They range from noting that “empyrean” means heavens or sky, to illuminating, insightful comparisons of phrases in different pieces, accentuating strands of thought that course through Emerson’s belief system and his body of work.
Annotated collections aren’t on everyone’s list of must-read books. If you like Emerson at all, have an interest in his life’s work and the history of the time, or just love having a handsome, detailed, engrossing book to dip in and out of, this is a great volume to own. I had to have it.