A Common Emerson: Ralph Waldo in an Ethnohistorical Context
Cheyfitz, Eric, Nineteenth-Century Prose
The work of this essay is to denaturalize or de-universalize (render local) the tradition of reading Emerson from Parrington to the present. In attempting this work, the essay asks a fundamental question: What are the limits of Emerson's thinking, the limits of his representativeness? Pursuing this question, I articulate various facets of Emerson as a figure committed in his writing to the communal, both in the theory and practice of social action, and in a nascent theory, of extended kinship, which he terms "hospitality." What inhibits the development of this theory of kinship, my essay concludes, is Emerson's inability to think ethnohistorically, that is, to imagine, in contradistinction to his hero Montaigne, any positive content for indigenous cultures, specifically Native American and African. What conditions this inability, this failure of Emersonian irony, is Emerson's unswerving commitment to Western imperialism as a civilizing force, even as he opposes the very institutions (slavery and the Indian removals) that are the ground of the mission civilsatrice.
A Man is a little thing whilst he works by and for himself.
Emerson, "Lecture on Slavery, 25 January 1855" (1)
It is the day of the populace; they are wiser than their teachers.
Emerson, "Civilization at a Pinch" (2)
The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign,--is it not? of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic ... I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.
Emerson, "The American Scholar" (3)
Writing in the late 1920s in his voluminous Main Currents in American Thought, Vernon Parrington asserted what would become a critical commonplace of American literary criticism: "the master idea of the Emersonian philosophy is the divine sufficiency of the individual." (4) Yet as another passage from Parrington, taken from the same essay on Emerson, suggests, the individual in Emerson is grounded, perhaps paradoxically, in the common, "a common human nature with common interests":
The single, vital, principle on which the true republic must found itself, [Emerson] insists, is the principle of good-will. Since "governments have their origin in the moral identity of men," the recognition of a common human nature with common interests must induce rational men to enter a common political brotherhood; and until men become wise enough voluntarily to cooperate to the common wellbeing, no good government is possible. (5)
Within the academy Emerson criticism from Parrington forward has noted the elements of the individual and the commonal as constitutive of Emerson's thought, though with shifting emphases on one or the other of these twin elements.
In his American Renaissance (1941), a book that held sway for almost forty years in defining American literary study, F.O. Matthiessen characterized Emerson as a "transcendental idealist," influenced, though finally not significantly, by the gravity of "the Yankee in his make-up [that] kept pulling him back to a grounding in common fact." (6) In his exceptionally influential 1953 study of Emerson Freedom and Fate, Stephen Whicher noted the potential congruence of the individual and the commonal in the central Emersonian notion of Self-reliance, while still distinguishing between them and separating their force:
Such Self-reliance ... is clearly not the same in mood as the religious sentiment, the glad submission to the dominion of the law ..., even though both are mutually reconcilable inferences from the same doctrine. According to the second, the Soul within is the Universal, the One Mind that unites all men, the Reason or moral nature of mankind, in which all private peculiarities are forgotten; in so far as man obeys it he leaves his individuality behind. According to the first, on the other hand, it is an original intuition of the private man, a principle of independence, creativity and youth, the mainspring of all heroism and greatness; in this sense, "the individual is the World." If the one stresses the divinity of the Soul, as opposed to the weakness of mortal nature, the other stresses the subjectiveness of the Soul, as opposed to all external power or authority. (7) [emphasis added].
Rather than explore the dialectical relationship between the individual and the commonal position of the Emersonian Soul, Whicher, as we know, chose to separate the two positions chronologically as a trajectory in Emerson's thought between 1836 and 1850 that moved from "[t]he doctrine of the infinitude of the private man" (46-47) to an "accept[ance of] the skeptic's argument that true character appears, not in heroic rebellion from society, but in a stark and sufficient participation in society" (131). "... Emerson's social philosophy perforce becomes corporate" (130), in what appears in Whicher's estimation as "a defeat" (109) for the "revolutionary" (55), "radically anarchic" (56) energies of the early Emerson, the Emerson of Nature (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), and the Harvard Divinity School "Address" (1838). Essays: First Series, which appeared in 1841, already "shows internal evidence that his thought is in a state of transition" (94). For Whicher, this radical shift in emphasis from the individual to the commonal is a "tragic" (109) fall, from transcendence into history, from the ideal into the real.
But Whicher, who makes no mention of Emerson's anti-slavery speeches, which began in 1837 and continued until the Civil War, or his 1838 letter to President Van Buren protesting the Cherokee removals, reads Emerson as a figure who "found forced on him an open repudiation" (78) of all social action, when he declined to join the socialist experiment at Brook Farm in 1840. This, to say the least, is an exceptionally partial Emerson: a figure for whom in Whicher's estimation the period of the Brook Farm rejection and the Harvard Divinity School "Address" mark a "farewell to action" (82) rather than one of the first sallies against what Emerson had understood from the time of his critique of the Lord's Supper and his resignation from the Second Church of Boston in 1832 as the "deformity" of crucial social forms:
And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh quenched fire on the altar. The evils of the church that now is are manifest. The question returns, What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason,--to-day, pasteboard and fillagree [sic], and ending tomorrow in madness and murder. Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul. A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can uplift and vivify. (EL 91)
The passage from the Divinity School "Address" begins with revolutionary figures of rekindling fires and an indictment of institutional "evils" but then turns to an indictment of revolution itself in the figure of the French Revolution's "madness and murder" and a recommendation instead for reform ("let the breath of life be breathed by you through the forms already existing). The "you" called to reform the already existing forms is ambiguous, at once singular and plural, individual and communal; and the method of reform proposed is certainly vague: "soul" expressing "virtue.'" But whatever the focus of its ambiguous rhetoric, "An Address" is a call to common action ("What shall we do?") by someone who has taken the action he is calling for, and who will pay for the action with ostracism from the institution he is addressing. Thus, in a way, by the act of publicly protesting the dying institutional forms of Christianity in the very place where he senses them dying, Emerson has made the call unequivocal.
In contrast to Whicher's partial portrait of an Emerson withdrawing from social action and turning increasingly to skepticism after the 1830s, we have Emerson's own declaration of the importance of such action from a lecture on slavery given on January 25, 1855: "But whilst I insist on the doctrine of the independence and the inspiration of the individual, I do not cripple but exalt the social action." And in the same lecture, Emerson finds that slavery "rests on skepticism," a relation, in this instance, of purely material expediency to the world, which he rejects for a moral idealism grounded in social action. Len Gougeon notes in his recent historical sketch of Emerson as activist: "Despite his consistent emphasis on the importance of the individual, Emerson was responsive to the influence and concerns of his immediate community regarding social issues. The record shows that he often joined his neighbors in expressing positions on national affairs, especially slavery." (8) One such communal expression was his Cherokee letter, the rhetoric of which, as opposed to the ambiguities of "An Address," rose to a revolutionary pitch: "We only state the fact that a crime is projected that confounds our understandings by its magnitude,--a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country; for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country, any more?" (W, XIV 700). And there is no equivocation in his stand against slavery either, though in both this stand and the Cherokee letter there are issues of race, which I will take up at the end of this essay.
In global terms, the risk Emerson took in these cases was hardly extravagant, the economic and social risk of alienating a part of his public. But in a climate, then as now, …
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Publication information: Article title: A Common Emerson: Ralph Waldo in an Ethnohistorical Context. Contributors: Cheyfitz, Eric - Author. Journal title: Nineteenth-Century Prose. Volume: 30. Issue: 1-2 Publication date: Spring-Fall 2003. Page number: 250+. © 2001 Nineteenth-Century Prose. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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