Gura’s book paints a portrait of the brahmins behind the Brahmins in antebellum Boston.
Or, to say it differently, this is the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but cast into a “making of” documentary to be included with the DVD or the iTunes Extras. The main players are trotted out for a review of their best scenes—we get Emerson, we get Thoreau—but the focus rests squarely on how the work of behind-the-scenes players makes them stand out the way they do.
The research is sweeping, the writing clear (if dense!), and the narrative ties together various strands of knowledge into a whole that is genuinely illuminating. The early chapters on German Higher Criticism are an especially fascinating example of this.
The book genuinely changed how I think about this period.
I’ve wanted to read Montaigne’s essays for awhile but the sheer size of the volume has been an obstacle to getting started. My edition, which is trade size and has very small type, runs to 1,336 pages. So leaping in is a commitment, and one I’ve put off for a couple years now.
A friend who knew I was balking gave me Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne a few years back as a kind of stand-in for the real thing I think. He also suggested I just read a few of the essays. This wasn’t what I wanted. I couldn’t explain it, but if I was going to read one or two, I wanted to read them all and in the order Montaigne had arranged them.
Well these past few weeks, I’ve finally taken the plunge and am shocked how much I like them.
The first few essays are rough going. They are impersonal and analyse political hypotheticals that feel disconnected from my world. But slowly things shifted, and by the time Montaigne was talking about lying or speaking slowly or quickly, I’d become caught up in his digressions, his comparisons and his odd leaps from one subject to another.
Several hundred pages in—which barely makes a dint in the book—I’ve realized that I really like the person on display in these essays. If he was like this in real life and alive today, I’d want to be his friend.
I suspect my commonplace book may be univocal for a bit.
It is good that he should have his pupil trot before him, to judge the child’s pace and how much he must stoop to match his strength. For lack of this proportion we spoil everything; and to be able to hit it right and to go along in it evenly is one of the hardest tasks that I know; it is the achievement of a lofty and very strong soul to know how to come down to a childish gait and guide it. I walk more firmly and surely uphill than down.
—Michel de Montaigne (cf. Cicero)
Tinderbox is a great place for good intentions.