Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions

Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions

Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions

Above Time: Emerson's and Thoreau's Temporal Revolutions


In Above Time, James R. Guthrie explores the origins of the two preeminent transcendentalists' revolutionary approaches to time, as well as to the related concepts of history, memory, and change. Most critical discussions of this period neglect the important truth that the entire American transcendentalist project involved a transcendence of temporality as well as of materiality. Correspondingly, both writers call in their major works for temporal reform, to be achieved primarily by rejecting the past and future in order to live in an amplified present moment.

Emerson and Thoreau were compelled to see time in a new light by concurrent developments in the sciences and the professions. Geologists were just then hotly debating the age of the earth, while zoologists were beginning to unravel the mysteries of speciation, and archaeologists were deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. These discoveries worked collectively to enlarge the scope of time, thereby helping pave the way for the appearance of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859.

Well aware of these wider cultural developments, Emerson and Thoreau both tried (although with varying degrees of success) to integrate contemporary scientific thought with their preexisting late-romantic idealism. As transcendentalists, they already believed in the existence of "correspondences"-affinities between man and nature, formalized as symbols. These symbols could then be decoded to discover the animating presence in the world of eternal laws as pervasive as the laws of science. Yet unlike scientists, Emerson and Thoreau hoped to go beyond merely understanding nature to achieving a kind of passionate identity with it, and they believed that such a union might be achieved only if time was first recognized as being a purely human construct with little or no validity in the rest of the natural world. Consequently, both authors employ a series of philosophical, rhetorical, and psychological strategies designed to jolt their readers out of time, often by attacking received cultural notions about temporality.


We ordinarily understand the term transcendentalism to mean a favoring of idealism over materialism, or an emphasizing of ideas rather than things. Yet for the American transcendentalists, at least, the term also denoted a transcendence of temporality. Consequently, their larger philosophic and literary project incorporated, especially in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, a probing critique of the nature, significance, and structure of time. During the decades in which the transcendentalists were active, the times themselves were ripe for raising such issues. The still-nascent republic's pervasive spirit of reform was proving receptive to all sorts of new ideas—even, or perhaps especially, those touching upon fundamental assumptions about how life was to be lived. Within their lengthy agenda for personal and societal improvement, then, Thoreau and Emerson included temporal reform, a term we might interpret as comprehending such allied concepts as change, memory, and history.

The transcendentalists' reconsideration of temporality received added impetus from contemporary scientific discoveries that were inevitably beginning to contradict traditional notions of chronology long promulgated by Christian orthodoxy. In a sense, the responsibility for determining the origin, duration, and meaning of time was gradually shifting away from the church to the sciences. This trend culminated in the 1859 publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, in which time was effectively transformed from a rationalization for man's being and development to a vast, directionless, and impersonal mechanism within which the twin cogs of accident and competition meshed to produce man, his predecessors, and potentially even his successors.

A new uncertainty about the earth's true age and doubts about whether time reflected any sort of telos tended to refocus the transcendentalists' attention upon the immediate moment. Rather than concerning themselves overmuch with a neat, linear sequence of past, present, and future, Emerson and Thoreau began reenvisioning time as an endless series of present instants, or what Carlyle, in Sartor . . .

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