Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists

Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists

Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists

Emerson's Ghosts: Literature, Politics, and the Making of Americanists

Synopsis

It is increasingly commonplace to find scholars who circle back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his intellectual heirs as a way of better understanding contemporary social and aesthetic contexts. Why does Emerson's cultural legacy continue to influence writers so forcefully? In this innovative study, Randall Fuller examines the way pivotal twentieth-century critics have understood and deployed Emerson as part of their own larger projects aimed at reconceiving America. He examines previously unpublished material and original research on Van Wyck Brooks, Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen, and Sacvan Bercovitch along with other supporting thinkers. An engaging institutional history of American literary studies in the twentieth century, Emerson's Ghosts reveals the unexpected convergent forces that have shaped American cultural history in lasting ways.

Excerpt

My subject is the construction of Ralph Waldo Emerson by some of the most influential American literary critics of the twentieth century. Van Wyck Brooks, F. O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, and Sacvan Bercovitch have each relied on Emerson to further their critical projects—projects which in turn have reflected their wider social and political engagements with “America.” More broadly considered, this book attempts to provide an institutional history of American literary studies—and its disciplinary cousin, American Studies—throughout the twentieth century and occurring against the sweeping backdrop of national and cultural history.

As a result, I am less concerned with a teleological account of Emerson studies than with the changing models of doing American literary and cultural studies during its brief history. My contention is that Emerson’s vision of the nature and significance of intellectual work, especially as set forth in “The American Scholar,” has provided a fertile challenge to would-be (re)mappers of American literary and cultural history. My study accordingly demonstrates the rich heterogeneity of our critical heritage through a focus on what I take to be its central aspect, the complex involvement and identification with Emerson. It emphasizes certain critical “paradigm-makers” in the belief that close attention to their practice can deepen our understanding of the persistent aspirations and difficulties attending any effort to think through and express American literary history; and its analysis centers on the interaction of personal urgencies . . .

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