Emerson Handbook

Emerson Handbook

Emerson Handbook

Emerson Handbook

Excerpt

In his famous Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler lists "Compendium Literature" as one symptom of the "Extinction of Spiritual Creative Force" which accompanies the decay of every great civilization. And surely the publication of a series of handbooks for the major American authors might seem to confirm his diagnosis. But in the present state of American literature, handbooks can do no more than describe the incompleteness of scholarship and the differences of the interpretations of their subjects. Therefore, they must point the way to further investigations while suggesting tentative solutions. Professor Allen Wait Whitman Handbook suggested new approaches, not only to the interpretation of Whitman, but of American literature. And the study of Whitman's "master," who proclaimed himself an "opener of doors to those who come after" must attempt to do likewise.

Indeed an Emerson Handbook, in the traditional sense of the word, is a contradiction of terms, for Emerson's thought perpetually escapes systematization. "I am too young yet by some ages to compile a code," he said. Like Whitman, his world view remained aggressively and purposefully unsystematic, answering closely to Spengler's definition of the "Springtime" of a Civilization: "Earliest mystical-metaphysical shaping of the New World Outlook"; rather than to his definition of its "Decline." Like those other mystics, Plotinus and Eckhardt, whom Spengler lists as spokesmen of the early, "springtime" period of other "Civilizalions," Emerson sought to foreshadow some new ideal. Indeed, his was the recurrent dilemma of American idealists, who have struggled to realize their dreams of a new, equalitarian democracy, at the same time that they have found themselves involved in the traditional patterns of a privileged aristocracy. By temperament and by philosophy Emerson prophesied that American dream which no handbook can codify.

But if an Emerson Handbook cannot finally summarize its subject and define his philosophy it can point some of the problems and suggest some of the alternatives. If, like many Americans, Emerson lived in an ideal democracy, at the same time that he . . .

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