WHEN RALPH WALDO EMERSON lectured on the conduct of life, great men, history, the spirit of the age, his listeners had no doubt they were hearing something very special and elevating: "It began nowhere, and ended everywhere, and yet, as always with that divine man, it left you feeling that something beautiful had passed that way -- something more beautiful than anything else, like the rising and setting of stars. . . . He boggled, he lost his place, he had to put on his glasses; but it was as if a creature from some fairer world had lost his way in our fogs, and it was our fault, not his."

Thus James Russell Lowell to Charles Eliot Norton in 1867, paying the grudging tribute of Cambridge to Concord. But almost the same year, the future editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells, would refer to Emerson as "a national joke." If Emerson's homilies were going out of style among thinking persons then, what can be said of them in our impious age? When today we read the most famous of the essays, Self-Reliance, Emerson's lofty prose, despite the clear genius of a few lapidary lines like "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" or "an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man," seems opaque where it is not trite, a musty evocation of the Sunday morning sermons of the forgotten creeds of our childhood.

Gay Wilson Allen, in Waldo Emerson: A Biography, wants us to give the sage of Concord his due. But his biography replaces the previous standard life, by Ralph L. Rusk, mostly in its up-to-date documentary citation rather than its narrative quality. Yet, Allen's is an important book. Emerson is, or should be, always of interest. Preacher, poet, philosopher, essayist, patron of the Transcendentalists, he was the generous friend and secular chaplain to Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Margaret Fuller and Bronson Alcott during the greatest period of our national literature.

Emerson's message is not difficult. Rejecting the "corpse-cold Unitarianism of Harvard College," he asserted that traditional Christianity by relying on past revelation spoke as though "God were dead" and no longer in direct contact with man. In fact, he argued, God is everywhere in nature and especially within each soul, inviting every person to experience infinity through intuition and love. Self-reliance was necessary because the great business of life was not to get ahead but "to know ourselves." Protestant to the core, this doctrine was a revolt against what came to be called the Protestant ethic, the necessity for work. Literary historian Perry Miller called it "the first outcry of the heart against the materialistic pressures of business civilization."

Born in 1803, Emerson graduated from Harvard in 1821, studied divinity and was "approbated to preach" in 1826. In 1832, telling his Boston congregation that he could no longer in good conscience administer holy communion, he resigned his ministry, toured Europe, formed his great friendship with Thomas Carlyle and settled down to a half-century of contemplation in Concord, his peace of mind broken only by periodic lecture tours to earn money. The tours took him to lyceums as far west as Dubuque, Iowa. Everywhere he went he represented Boston, the American Athens, to the outlanders. ("What, then, is his secret?" asked Lowell. "Is it not that he out-Yankees us all?") At home, when not picking apples or taking the children on a hayride down to Walden Pond, Emerson continued to ask the supreme question -- what is the meaning of life? -- and recorded his answers in the journals that are his masterpiece. In his last years, his memory collapsed. At Longfellow's funeral, he asked, "Who is the sleeper?" He died in 1882, and, as the news spread through town, the bell of the Unitarian church tolled 78 times, once for each year of his life. He was buried near Thoreau and Hawthorne in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, of which he had said, "In this quiet valley, as in the palm of Nature's hand, we shall sleep well when we have finished the day."

Writing Emerson's life would daunt the most superior talent. Henry James said this life "stretched itself out in enviable quiet -- a quiet in which we hear the jotting of pencil in the notebook. It is the very life of literature . . . fifty years of residence in the home of one's forefathers, pervaded by reading, by walking in the woods, and the daily addition of sentence to sentence."

The solution to the biographical problem presented by Emerson is, of course, to place him firmly in his century, much as James R. Mellow did last year for Hawthorne in his superb Nathaniel Hawthorne in His Times. Though Allen struggles manfully to elucidate Emerson's speculative thought, so austere in its heroic individualism, he only sketches the intellectual, social and literary background. His portraits, even of such gorgeous eccentrics as Thoreau and Alcott, never come alive. He tries too hard to make Emerson out as a precursor of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung.

Merely to ask for more richness of detail is to express the interest in Emerson aroused by Allen's admiring biography. By retelling his life, Allen forces us to appraise anew a thinker who helped make America what it is; what, paradoxically, he warned against its becoming.

The Portable Emerson is the successor in the Viking Portable Library to the earlier volume of that title edited by Mark Van Doren Malcolm Cowley in his note on the selections explains that Van Doren was "an admirable scholar . . . but not by temperament an Emersonian" who omitted the "famous essays in which Emerson came closest to stating his philosophy."

The present edition contains all that one could desire as an introduction to the thinker and writer, except extracts from the journals. The introduction and editorial notes by CarlBode are informative models of concision. The suggestions for further reading point to the latest scholarship, including Allen's new biography. At the price, it is an absolute bargain, excelled in a modern text only by the definitive, and of course very much more expensive, editions of the journals and collected works now underway by Harvard University Press.

Among the selections are The American Scholar address in which Emerson prophesized American intellectual and artistic independence from the Old World; The Divinity School Address, so scandalous to Unitarian orthodoxy; many of the essays; portions of English Traits, reputedly the best book on 19th-century Britain written by an off-islander; Emerson's own discussion of the Transcendentalists; various fugitive pieces, and a copious selection of Emerson's verse, so readable in its own right. A sample, from ahma:

If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near; Shadow and sunlight are the same; The vanished gods to me appear; And one to me are shame and fame.

Two of the fugitive pieces are of special merit, as crisp and as contemporary as the best of E. B. White. One is Emerson's eulogy of his step-grandfather, the Rev. Ezra Ripley, of which here is a portion: "It is no reflection on others to say he was the most public-spirited man in town. The late Dr. Gardiner, in a funeral sermon on some parishioner whose virtues did not readily come to mind, honestly said. 'He was good at fires.' Dr. Ripley had many virtues, and yet all will remember that even in his old age, if the firebell was rung, he was instantly on horseback with his buckets."

The other is his haunting eulogy of Thoreau, then practically unknown, which must be acclaimed as the finest thing one American writer ever said about another. "The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task, which none else can finish. . . . But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home."