Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson and the Refounding of America

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson and the Refounding of America

Article excerpt

This essay attempts to contribute to the current debate over Emerson's "dilemma" as a public intellectual increasingly, and somewhat reluctantly, drawn into what he himself calls "turmoils of the earth" in the essay "Experience." Synthesizing recent work by Len Gougeon, Stanley Cavell, T. Gregory Garvey, Gustaaf Van Cromphout, Eduardo Cadava, and others, "Emerson and the Refounding of America" intends to refocus attention on Emerson's concern for the refining of political rhetoric in the service of a reconstituted notion of "America" as an ideal polity.

1. Emerson: From Problem to Dilemma

Some years ago--in fact almost three decades ago--I ventured to describe what I called "the problem of Emerson," which I defined as the tendency to substitute for a close and critical reading of Emerson's texts abstract categories (sometimes supplied by Emerson himself) such as Good, Evil, Cosmic Optimism, Spiritual Laws, the Oversoul, Compensation, Fate, and so forth. Although the outpouring of informed critical readings of Emerson's texts that followed the publication of my essay seemed to provide an adequate response to the problem I identified, (1) a refined post-modern approach to Emerson sometimes claims that his texts are "illegible." I do not belong to that school. But a more interesting turn in Emerson studies has replaced my "problem" with a "dilemma" that may take a while longer to resolve.

The issue, well-articulated and addressed in an interesting recent collection entitled The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform, ed. T Gregory Garvey (U of Georgia P, 2001), appears to be the hottest new trend in Emerson scholarship, though it has in fact been around for a long time. Was our "ghostly father" (Harold Bloom) or philosophical "founder" (Cavell) insufficiently or ineffectively concerned with the great socio-political questions of his time--in particular, chattel slavery? We are reminded that one of Emerson's first biographers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, downplayed the question, helping to create a tradition of Emerson as "conservative" or skittish on reform that has had a long life (the history of this tradition has been expertly reconstructed for us by Len Gougeon in Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform [U of Georgia P, 1990]; more on Gougeon's work below). Among the most persuasive--or at least most outspoken--recent proponents of this position have been George Kateb in Emerson and Self-Reliance (Sage Publications, 1995) and John Carlos Rowe in At Emerson's Tomb: The Politics of Classic American Literature (Columbia UP, 1997). In a chapter entitled "'Hamlet's Task': Emerson's Political Writings," Rowe constructs an Emerson trapped in his own "transcendentalism" (alternatively called "Emersonianism")--an Emerson "divided internally between transcendentalist values and practical politics":

   When treated together, Emersonian transcendentalism and Emerson's
   political commitments from 1844 to 1863 are fundamentally at odds
   with each other. What this suggests ultimately is that
   Emersonianism is ill-suited to social and political reform and that
   the scholarly reliance on such Emersonianism to interpret (even
   organize) the modern American literary tradition has effectively
   depoliticized that tradition.

Indeed, Rowe is willing to extend his critique by suggesting that the Emerson of "American Civilization" who calls for a "representative" political leader embodies "pure self-interest" and "verges on fascism." (2)

The first thing to be said about this kind of blinkered post-Marxian reading of Emerson is precisely that it is so vengefully presentist. It filters Emerson through a century and more of political struggle that has precious little to do with him, claiming that "the 'democracy' promised by industrial capitalism's progress and the 'liberty' offered by the strong political leader have both turned out to be horrible delusions of our modernity, pasteboard masks behind which exploitation, new forms of wage-slavery, and assorted fascisms have first paraded. …

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