NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE pictured Ralph Waldo Emerson -- his neighbor at the other end of Concord, Massachusetts, that garden spot of mid-19th-century American literature -- as "the mystic, stretching his hand out of cloud-land in vain search for something real." That impression of moral loftiness and distance from life was confirmed by several of Emerson's friends, contemporaries and later critics. "Oh you man without a handle!" Henry James Sr. once complained to Emerson himself. The writer John Jay Chapman maintained that a visitor from another planet would learn more about human life from an Italian opera than he would from Emerson's books. Among other things, Chapman claimed, the visitor would learn from the opera "that there were two sexes." Few men questioned Emerson's morals or his motives; it was his altitude and not his attitudes they found so disconcerting. Emerson seemed to exist on a higher plane than ordinary mortals.

Now that we have John McAleer's spirited and thoroughly informative biography of "the Sage of Concord" -- a title the sage himself disowned, with characteristic modesty -- there is little doubt about Emerson's essential humanity. McAleer, a professor of English at Boston College, and the author of an earlier biography of Theodore Dreiser, gives us an earthly Emerson -- from his craggy visage, large nose and sweet smile down to his squeaking boots. This is an ingratiating portrait of the man in his personal and impersonal relations with his Concord neighbors -- Thoreau, Ellery Channing, the local farmer-cum-philosopher, Edmund Hosmer; his intellectual pilgrimages abroad, where he met Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and his sharp-tongued wife, Jane Welsh, who noted Emerson's tendency to avoid confrontation and claimed that, so far as argument was concerned, Emerson gave in "with the softness of a feather-bed." She spent two days trying to provoke "this Yankee seraph"; her only remedy was to escape to her bedroom and soak her head in cold water.

In highly readable fashion, McAleer explores the philosophical and religious issues of the day -- necessary topics in the biography of a minister who quit the ministry early but carried his theological baggage through a lengthy secular life. Some of the more subtle psychological episodes of the book deal with Emerson's relationships with his two wives: the first, Ellen Tucker, a beautiful, wealthy invalid whom Emerson adored but, with Yankee foresight, badgered into making out her will naming him as beneficiary before she died of consumption after 16 months of marriage; the second, Lydia Jackson -- Emerson's "Queenie" -- who, for 46 years, lived in the shadow of her husband's abject devotion to his first wife. McAleer gives a good accounting, as well, to that chilliness of temperament that most commentators noted in Emerson's character and which he himself deplored. Sadly, he once observed: "What is called a warm heart, I have not."

The cradle-to-the-grave approach in biography is strictly a literary convention. Only in biographies and never in life do we get to know about another human being in that consecutive fashion. Even in our most intimate relationships -- with parents, friends, lovers -- we start with the immediate personal impressions and then, piecemeal, by accident or design, through family anecdotes or personal confessions, we begin to learn about the past histories and private experiences of others. Narrative, therefore, plays a vital role in human relationships. In a sense, the picaresque novel in which a stranger, met on the road, begins to recite his adventures is closer to the truth in its techniques than a biography.

In structuring his book around a sequence of roughly chronological vignettes and personal encounters -- family relations, childhood friendships, literary encounters -- McAleer has broken out of the conventional biographical mold. The method has distinct advantages; it allows the biographer to dispense with the day-by-day details and concentrate on the most vivid incidents in the life. He can harvest in the best anecdotes and the liveliest quotes from the documentary material. In Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter there are a number of marvelously recreated episodes -- Emerson's visit to Stonehenge with Carlyle, his walking tour with Hawthorne to a Shaker community near Concord -- which are like holidays from more serious matters but are incisive character studies as well. And there are some delightfully sly, almost Dickension, skits -- (Emerson, who despised novels, thought Dickens lacked "dramatic talent") -- such as the vegetarian dinner party Emerson gave in his Manchester, England, boardinghouse in 1848, for as odd an assortment of failed poets, social misfits, cranks and opportunists as he regularly gathered in Concord, where he attracted eccentrics in the way that a powerful magnet draws iron filings. McAleer's method had some disadvantages as well; the flashback technique -- establishing the opening episode, looking back on prior encounters and ahead to future meetings occasionally becomes too noticeable a formula; and there are times when the reader feels the need to reach out and grab hold of a steadying chronological fact. But by and large, McAleer has handled the technique -- particularly for so long a book -- with unmitigated cleverness and this is as human -- and humane -- a biography of Emerson as we are likely to get.