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Representative Men
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Goethe
Published by Joseph Simon in 1980
Book Review by Bob Matherne ©2002


In the title Emerson uses "representative" in its first listed dictionary meaning, "serving as an example for others of the same classification." Thus he chooses representatives for philosopher (Plato), mystic(Swedenborg), poet (Shakespeare), skeptic (Montaigne), man of the world(Napoleon), and writer(Goethe). Each person is commonly known by only one name, which is a good indication of the lasting fame of his choices.

This book was published as part of a series with Moby Dick, House of Seven Gables, Scarlet Letter, and Leaves of Grass. It was a rare pleasure to obtain a hardcover book of my favorite author that I had not heard of before. The writing is vintage Emerson, reminiscent of his early essays. He begins each chapter using such general terms to describe the type (philosopher, mystic, etc.) that it seemed that he would never get around to the individual man whose name appeared at the head of the chapter.

The qualities that Emerson finds in each of the six men are easily identifiable as qualities that are often used by writers since his time to characterize Emerson himself.

As a philosopher he was without peer in his time. As a mystic he founded the Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century. as a skeptic he penetrated to the heart of the presuppositions of his time to release the truth from its encrustations of culture. As a poet he could bring others to see "infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour." As a man of the world he was the Napoleon of Concord and the Goethe of the English-speaking world.

The joy of this book is to read Emerson talking about Emerson in the guise of talking about six other famous men. Emerson is like an architect discussing the pilings that support the edifice he has designed. Each piling is raised into the light of day and rotated for inspection from all angles. And finally we step back and observe the temple, a representative man who, as Myron Simon observes in the Foreword, was "not so much great in himself but the begetter of greatness in others."

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