WILLIAM JAMES said that Emerson's journals were

one long conversation with God. They are certainly prodigiously long. In all, his notebooks and diaries form an almost continuous record of 55 eventful years, from 1820 to 1875; and among the famous American diaries, they are exceeded in length only by those of John Quincy Adams. Page after page reflects Emerson's passionate concern in his earlier years with conventional Christianity, and in his later years with what might be called the higher verities. Undeniably, for today's reader, they are heavy-going stuff. But elsewhere in the journals there are hundreds of beautifully written passages of exceptional forcefulness that rank their author among the great philosophical observers of human behavior.

It's cause for celebration, therefore, that a one-volume, thoroughly readable selection from this American classic, keenly alive to modern taste, makes its appearance. It is a volume that every serious reader or lover of American literature will want to own. Scrupulously culled by Professor Joel Porte of Harvard from the manuscripts and the 16 volumes of the definitive edition of Emerson's journals and notebooks, Emerson in His Journals confirms once more that the Sage of Concord, with Franklin and Jefferson, was surely one of the most interesting and brilliant persons ever to inhabit these shores.

In the journals, three Emersons can be discerned, each eminently quotable: the Yankee curmudgeon, the burning radical, and the somber romanticist. "Readers familiar with Emerson the Guru--a seldom-smiling public man of indeterminate antiquity," observes editor Porte, "may find it a little hard to believe that this distant figure, descendant of generations of Puritan divines, was capable of unburdening himself privately with the unflinching candor of a Montaigne and the passion of a Rousseau or a Byron."

The problem with the journals is in deciding when to stop quoting:

"I like to have a man's knowledge comprehend more than one class of topics, one row of shelves. I like a man who likes to see a fine barn as well as a good tragedy."

"Ah my poor 19 countrymen! Yankees and Dollars have such inextricable association that the words ought to rhyme."

"Why should we dread to die when all the good & the beautiful & the wise have died & earth holds nothing so good as that which it has lost?"

"After thirty a man wakes up sad every morning excepting perhaps five or six until the day of his death."

"Now for near five years I have been indulged by the gracious Heaven in my long holiday in this goodly house of mine entertaining & entertained by so many worthy & gifted friends and all this time poor Nancy Barron the madwoman has been screaming herself hoarse at the poorhouse across the brook & I still hear her whenever I open my window."

"The only poetic fact in the life of thousands & thousands is their death. No wonder they specify all the circumstances of the death of another person."

"Yankee. John Richardson got a living by buying odd bits of land near good dwelling houses & removing to them some old crazy barn or wretched shop & keeping it there until the proprietor of the house paid him a round sum for the land."

"The days come & go like muffled & veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, & if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away."

"How to spend the day nobly, is the problem to be solved, beside which all the great reforms which are preached seem to me trivial."

"Between narrow walls we walk: insanity on one side, & fat dulness on the other."

"I like dry light, & hard clouds, hard expressions, & hard manners."

At 61 he wrote, "Within, I do not find wrinkles & used heart, but unspent youth."

One reason there is no satisfactory biography of Emerson, though Gay Wilson Allen's Waldo Emerson, published last year, tries very hard, is that it is almost impossible today to enter fully into the mentality of early 19th-century New England Protestantism, with its revivals, Bible-reading and the preaching of the Word. When Emerson was born in 1803, the Congregational and Unitarian clergy in their steeple-pointed towns were the intellectual elite of New England. By the middle of the century, this was no longer true, and the tide of traditional faith had ebbed, displaced by the commercial bustle of a nation stretching to continental limits.

Emerson's thinking paralleled this secularization. Influenced by a reading of the European romantics and classic philosophers, he rebelled against the "corpse- cold Unitarianism & Immortality of Brattle street & Boston." He did not, however, convert to the pursuit of wealth, and he vigorously condemned the excesses of his times: slavery, the uprooting of Indians from their ancestral lands, and the lust for conquest and imperial destiny. In these concerns Emerson speaks directly to our own age, but it would be a mistake to separate him too much from the early Victorian climate of ideas. In that pre-antibiotic age, death was a frequent visitor; and nothing in his journals is more chilling than the solitary, unexplained entry of March 29, 1832, when, mourning his young bride dead for over a month, "I visited Ellen's tomb & opened the coffin." This gothic entry was suppressed in Bliss Perry's condensation of the journals published a half-century ago.

Educated for the ministry, Emerson left his pulpit at Boston's Second Church in disgust, took the Grand Tour of Europe, remarried, and settled down to a lifetime of meditation in Concord. The path his thought-- his "joyous science"--led, was recorded almost daily in the journals, his "private scriptures," which were quarried, often years later, for the famous lectures and essays. In the end, he was venerated by the cold-roast, State Street Boston he despised, and in fact his only daughter entered the Brahmin aristocracy by marrying a Forbes.

Emerson in His Journals, a book to own and cherish, is the best of companions as its hero walks the fields around Concord on spring days, at summer dawns, in October woods under an amber moon, on winter afternoons thumping stones across the frozen surface of Walden Pond. Life is a dance and all creation is recommencing, proclaims Emerson, and that is why men should stop clinging to their weary routines and idolatries, the money, the alcohol and the politics. Listen, he writes, and the celestial music will free the will and touch the imagination.

What is this intoxicating vision but a form of Christianity without Christ? For Emerson the preacher, in the end, is not far beneath the philosopher and poet. One can skip the pantheist exultation of the latter and still appreciate the sturdy freethinker, a not very tenderhearted defender of the individual. As Van Wyck Brooks noted long ago in The Flowering of New England, "Anyone who challenged Emerson's freedom would have discovered that his village mildness masked, like any woodland creature's, a sharp retractile claw."