Research Programs: Summer Stipends

Period of Performance

6/1/2004 - 8/31/2004

Funding Totals

$5,000.00 (approved)
$5,000.00 (awarded)

Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson's First Biographers and the Politics of Genre

FAIN: FT-52677-04

Robert D. Habich
Ball State University (Muncie, IN 47306-1022)

I am writing a scholarly book on the first biographers of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) as a way of exploring the construction of literary reputation and biography during the American Gilded Age. My work complements existing cultural critiques of Emerson’s image by focusing on the biographies as biographies, narrating the story of Emerson's six biographers in the 1880s, and investigating those developments in photography, mass media, and book publishing that shaped their work and Emerson’s public image. My work will thus contribute not only to our understanding of a major American writer but also to an awareness of how life-writing as a genre intersects with publishing history and the fine arts.

Media Coverage

same (Review)
Publication: Choice
Date: 10/1/2011

Associated Products

Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age. (Book)
Title: Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson’s First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age.
Author: Robert D. Habich
Abstract: Drawing on never-before-published letters, diaries, drafts, business records, and private documents, Habich explores the making of a cultural hero through the stories of Emerson’s first biographers— George Willis Cooke, a minister most recently from Indianapolis who considered himself a disciple; the English reformer and newspaper mogul Alexander Ireland, a friend for half a century; Moncure D. Conway, a Southern abolitionist then residing in London, who called Emerson his “spiritual father and intellectual teacher”; the poet and medical professor Oliver Wendell Holmes, with Emerson a member of Boston’s gathering of literary elite, the Saturday Club; James Elliot Cabot, the family’s authorized biographer, an architect and amateur philosopher with unlimited access to Emerson’s unpublished papers; and Emerson’s son Edward, a physician and painter whose father had passed over him as literary executor in favor of Cabot. Just as their biographies reveal a complex, socially engaged Emerson, so too do the biographers’ own stories illustrate the real-world perils, challenges, and motives of life-writing in the late nineteenth century, when biographers were routinely vilified as ghoulish and disreputable and biography as a genre underwent a profound redefinition. Building Their Own Waldos is at once a revealing look at Emerson’s constructed reputation, a case study in the rewards and dangers of Victorian life-writing, and the story of six authors struggling amidst personal misfortunes and shifting expectations to capture the elusive character of America’s “representative man,” as they knew him and as they needed him to be.
Year: 2011
Primary URL:
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 978-1-58729-9