Emerson, American Democracy, and "Progress of Culture"

By Robinson, David M. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Emerson, American Democracy, and "Progress of Culture"


Robinson, David M., Nineteenth-Century Prose


Emerson's second Phi Beta Kappa Address at Harvard, now little known, was delivered in 1867, and has been regarded both in his day and ours as a conspicuous failure. In "Progress of Culture" Emerson spoke as a prominent, even revered, public figure, an American scholar and poet who had become an American patriot and an international sage. The historical characterization of the failure of Emerson's address is, however, derived largely from the circumstances of its performance, not from its now forgotten message. Emerson recognized in "Progress of Culture" that American culture was at a moment of crucial transition, under great challenge to sustain the costly but vital momentum for democratic social progress that was the potential legacy of the antislavery movement and the Civil War. Emerson attempts to tie the current historical moment in America to a larger philosophy of history which was consistent with a concept of social progress. Emerson had come to see the Civil War as a decisive moment, a turning point not only for America, but for the fortunes of progressive democracy. The lesson of the war was thus encapsulated for Emerson in a broader axiom about the nature of historical advance: "Mind carries the law; history is the slow and atomic unfolding" (W 8:223). But this is a fundamentally problematic proposition because of its implied determinism. In "Progress of Culture" Emerson seems at some moments to be proposing a version of history in which laws and principles, divorced from human actions, execute themselves, making progress the inevitable fulfillment or a preexisting transcendent order. Yet much of the energy of his address resists this deterministic theory of inevitable progress, insisting that human effort and accomplishment is the central fact of history.

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Emerson's 1837 address for the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society, "The American Scholar," is arguably his most famous lecture, and one of the most historically significant of his career. Canonized later in the century as "our intellectual Declaration of Independence," to use the influential phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes, the address became an anthology staple and a key point of reference in the narrative of an unfolding "American" literature. (1) In its own more particular historical moment the address also carried great import, giving an obscure former minister and spokesman for cryptic and (to some) troubling doctrines the opportunity to legitimize his "new views" on one of the most influential stages in New England. With "The American Scholar" Emerson placed Transcendentalism at the vanguard of American thought, and launched an intellectual movement that would have a profound impact on the development of American culture.

Emerson's second Phi Beta Kappa Address at Harvard, now little known, was delivered three decades later in 1867, and has been regarded both in his day and ours as a conspicuous failure. In "Progress of Culture" Emerson spoke as a prominent, even revered, public figure, an American scholar and poet who had become an American patriot and an international sage. His tour of England in the late 1840s, his ever-widening American lecture career, his growing list of books, and his entry into the political scene before and during the Civil War had widened his public recognition and augmented his authority. In the war's aftermath, he became the nation's leading intellectual voice. (2) In the three decades between the two addresses his lectures had become more pointedly aimed at the moral implications of public policy and the course of American cultural development, and he was thus accorded a public role that went beyond literature, philosophy, or theology. But the historical reputation of "Progress of Culture" now belongs principally to the narrative of Emerson's declension, a signal of his failing powers, and in a larger sense, of the curtailment of the fresh and defiant radicalism that had been the source of his original achievement. …

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