Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845

Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845

Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845

Emerson's Emergence: Self and Society in the Transformation of New England, 1800-1845


As the culture of commercial capitalism came to dominate nineteenth-century New England, it changed people's ideas about how the world functioned, the nature of their work, their relationships to one another, and even the way they conceived of themselves as separate individuals. Drawing on the work of the last twenty years in New England social history, Mary Cayton argues that Ralph Waldo Emerson's work and career, when seen in the context of the momentous changes in the culture and economics of the region, reveal many of the tensions and contradictions inherent in the new capitalist social order. In exploring the genesis of liberal humanism as a calling in the United States, this case study implicitly poses questions about its assumptions, its aspirations, and its failings.

Cayton traces the ways in which the social circumstances of Emerson's Boston gave rise to his philosophy of natural organicism, his search for an appropriate definition of the intellectual's role within society, and his exhortations to individuals to distrust the norms and practices of the mass culture that was emerging. She addresses the historical context of Emerson's emergence as a writer and orator and undertakes to describe the Federalism and Unitarianism in which Emerson grew up, explaining why he eventually rejected them in favor of romantic transcendentalism.

Cayton demonstrates how Emerson's thought was affected by the social pressures and ideological constructs that launched the new cultural discourse of individualism. A work of intellectual history and American studies, this book explores through Emerson's example the ways in which intellectuals both make their cultures and are made by them.


This book has been ten years in the making. It began at a time when I had not heard of the New Historicism in literary criticism, and when historians were debating whether the intellectual history that examined figures such as Emerson was a dead endeavor.

When I began this study, my purpose was to synthesize the material available on the New Social History of early national New England and to reexamine Emerson's career in the context of that information. My impression was that most historians of Emerson had started by considering the individual in isolation (taking their cue from Emerson), and had added an historical, contextual overlay when it helped them to explain otherwise difficult problems. My intent was the opposite: to foreground the emerging urban, capitalist order of the Boston region, and to look at Emerson as a product of that particular time and place. I would start with New England and see how Emerson fit in.

In the years since the manuscript was completed, my point of view has changed somewhat. From 1982 through 1988, I worked as a temporary faculty member in an institution no better and no worse in its treatment of those on the margin than most in the country. During that period, when I accomplished little else besides teaching new and different courses in new and different ways, I became interested in what theory can teach us about the overarching assumptions of disciplines and modes of discourse. I found myself stuck for a while asking questions about the nature of intellectual discourse and about its value for those who do not engage in it formally. Mostly I wondered about its relation to a dominant social and economic order which it often purported to undermine, but which it ironically seemed to reinforce in very subtle ways. The central question of the study evolved over the years from "How can we put social history and literary criticism together?" to "How much do intellectuals have the power to act as transformative . . .

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