Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson and the Gothic

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson and the Gothic

Article excerpt

Although typically recognized for his Transcendental idealism, Ralph Waldo Emerson was also deeply engaged with the Gothic, a literary mode that prior to the Civil War ran parallel to Transcendentalism but is rarely used in the same breath with Emerson, or any other Transcendentalist for that matter. Exploring his relationship with the Gothic, this essay shows how Emerson, who began writing under a long Calvinist shadow, reproduces the gloom-and-doom rhetoric of the Puritans while simultaneously drawing inspiration from European Gothics like Goethe, Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Yet after becoming a leading Transcendentalist, Emerson condemns Calvinism while evincing a postcolonial determination to cast off European influence. Nevertheless, he continues to draw lavishly from the Gothic lexicon, this time to assail religion and anything that imperils originality. The essay concludes by looking at Emerson's full return to the Gothic in his fatalistic work The Conduct of Life, a bleak and brutal text that anticipates the pessimistic naturalism of the fin-de-siecle.

Early in "Self-Reliance" (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson recalls asking a trusted advisor the following question: "What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?" The counselor warned Emerson that such "impulses may be from below, not from above," and Emerson replied, "if I am the devil's child, I will live then from the devil" (321). Emerson's recollection is one of many instances where he becomes darkly romantic, even a little Faustian. A little later, Emerson wages his famous attack on small-minded consistency. "A foolish consistency," he sniffs, "is the hobgoblin of little minds" (324). This curiously Gothic phrase, haunted by the ghoulish hobgoblin, would have been darker had Emerson expressed his true feelings. Decrying the social taboo on cursing, he wrote in his journal that "Damn Consistency" would have been better, adding that the best reply to "foolish" remarks would be: "The devil you do" or "You be damned" (JMN 7:524).

Such sharp-tongued assertions may not immediately come to mind when thinking of Emerson. Devils, damning remarks, and hobgoblins more readily find their way into works by Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Yet the New England Transcendentalist, who once blithely envisioned himself as a transparent eye-ball, was not some always-smiling Pollyanna. He did, to be sure, revel in the romantic optimism of his day. He was messianic insofar as he saw himself as Christ transfigured and the guiding light of Transcendentalism. (1) But for all his optimism and spiritual affirmation, Emerson was not immune to darkness--to "grimmest midnight" as he put it in Nature (1836). Not only that, but he once attributed all meaningful creation to the black and yawning void: "There must be the Abyss, Nox, and Chaos out of which all come, and they must never be far off. Cut off the connexion between any of our works and this dread origin and the work is shallow and unsatisfying" (JMN 9:325). Given this unbridled embrace of dark energy, might we infer that Emerson's writings, even the most sanguine, derive from dread origins?

Based on early opinions of the Transcendental leader, the answer would be "no." Due to the supposedly lightsome nature of his works, Emerson was for years pigeonholed as a naively confident, yea-saying Yankee. Contemporaries acknowledged his genius for optimism, but they thought that he could not, or refused to, see evil in the world. Troubled by Emerson's sunny view of nature, Melville once spouted, "I do not oscillate in Emerson's rainbow" (35). (2) Because Emerson didn't admire Hawthorne's brooding talents, Henry James doubted his moral depth and complexity. "Hawthorne's vision," wrote James, "was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which Emerson's eyes were thickly bandaged," blinding him to "the dark, the foul, the base" (627). James was awed by the "accident that made them live almost side by side for so long . …

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