Book Traces: A Reader’s Understanding of Emerson

After searching for nearly two hours for a book that fit the criteria for this Book Traces project, I was just about ready to give up. Though I had found a lovely poem written in a copy of John Erskine’s ‘Adam and Eve: Though He Knew Better,’ the book was published in 1927; 7 years after the set Book Traces time period.*

However, just as I was about to abandon all hope of finding a book with any traces in it, I found a small book with “Essays” written on the binding in chalk, with “Emerson” written directly below it. The book’s original cover seemed to have been damaged, and so a forest green type of tape was used to repair it, either by the library or by an original owner.

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The book of essays was the second of a series and was published in 1900, though the essays it contains – 9 in all, including an Emancipation Address – were all written and published individually much earlier. Some of the essays have minimal markings, while others have an abundance of marginalia. It was interesting to see which essays appealed more to the reader who made these marks, as well as what statements made by Ralph Waldo Emerson left an impact.

The essay I saw that contained the most marginalia was the essay entitled, “Experience.” Many important statements were underlined, and the reader placed check marks and small stars next to passages they probably believed were important. The check marks and stars were interesting to me because it showed me that people in the past studied and took note of the same things I study and take note of. As I read some passages of the essays in order to gain a better understanding and context of it, I found myself going to mark the same statements and passages they had already been marked, simply out of habit.

The most interesting piece of marginalia I found in the “Experience” section of the book was the simple writing of “death of son.” On the previous page, Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of the death of his son and the grief that accompanies death, but it seemed odd to me that the reader would simply write “death of son,” and that’s it. Did the reader of this series of essays also experience the death of a son? It seems a little far-fetched, but it’s very possible.

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Though “Experience” was the essay that was most marked up, several other essays in the small series were also marked. The underlines, checkmarks, and stars remained, but added to those were much more small comments in the margins of the essays. The most interesting thing I found written in the margins was, “Our whole life is but a pursuit,” written on a page of an essay entitled, “Nature.” The statement is found nowhere in the essay but was instead an original statement from the reader. The essay “Nature,” deals with the nature of humans – our drives, desires, hungers, etc – so this statement made by the reader suggests that they truly understand what Emerson is trying to convey.

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The marking up of Emerson’s essays shows that whoever read them enjoyed and agreed with the statements he was making. Though Emerson led the Transcendentalist movement in the mid-19th century, the marginalia in these essays shows that his ideas were still widely studied, understood, and spread in the early 20th century.

*Here is a photo of the poem I found. Though it was past the time period we needed, and I didn’t do my blog post on it, Andrew Stauffer asked me to upload it. 

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