Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson, Modern Literature, and the Question of Goethe

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Emerson, Modern Literature, and the Question of Goethe

Article excerpt

Emerson's publication of "Thoughts on Modern Literature" in the newly established Dial is of particular importance because of his treatment of Goethe, whose life and work were at the center of a critical dispute that was crucial to the emergence of Transcendentalism. The importance of the essay is magnified when we remember Margaret Fuller's advocacy of Goethe as a modern master, a project that she undertook in the face of heavy moralistic criticism from the New England intellectual establishment. In an interpretation that seconded the New England resistance to Goethe in an unexpected and singular way, Emerson argued that Goethe had failed, despite his vast accomplishment, to uphold what Emerson regarded as the crucial element of "hope" in the human character. Emerson's indictment of Goethe's "Olympian self-complacency" suggested the direction of his evolving thinking on ethics and political engagement over the next two decades.

I.

"I have advertised my new Course & call it the Present Age," Emerson wrote to Elizabeth Hoar in early November 1839. "But alas it is still Future Age to me" (L 2:231). (1) Fearing that he had promised more than he could deliver, he nevertheless launched the series a month later at the Masonic Temple in Boston, and made it a definitive statement of the aims and principles of Transcendentalism. Building on his earlier lecture series on "The Philosophy of History," "Human Culture," and "Human Life," Emerson described the course of history as the continuing revelation of human possibility. But as these series developed, his focus shifted subtly from the unleashing of individual potential to the promise of cultural progress and social reform. In "The Present Age" he portrayed the course of history in terms that seemed to provide a rationale for the avant-garde position of his emerging Transcendentalist cohort. While it was a "multiplex and evanescent" era, he admitted, in which there are "many souls-contemporary; many activities; many unlike ends," this variety existed within a greater duality. "There are two parties to one of which all men belong. The party of the Past and the party of the Future." He then renamed these "parties" in a way that further politicized them for the turbulent 1830s and 1840s. "Men range themselves here and elsewhere and everywhere either with the Movement Party or the Establishment" (EL 3:187).

As this lecture continued, and others followed on such subjects as "Politics," "Private Life," "Reforms" and "Education," it became clear that Emerson was both defining the "Movement Party" and setting its agenda, and doing so while simultaneously projecting a confidence that these ideas represented an inevitable future, whose coming was as certain as night turning to day. It is of some significance, then, that he chose to place two lectures on "Literature" immediately after his introductory lecture, thus placing literature at the forefront of the era's key issues. Questions of theology have usually been considered the originating concerns of Transcendentalism, and these were still sizzling in 1840. Theodore Parker's central sermon on "The Transient and the Permanent" was still a year away, and for many, the religious elements of Transcendentalism remained central. Emerson also placed the lectures on literature before other lectures such as "Politics" and "Reforms" as well, a decision that is also somewhat surprising, given the growing urgency of political and reform issues among the Transcendentalists, and the founding of the utopian community Brook Farm in 1841.

Emerson soon revised the opening lectures on literature into the essay "Thoughts on Modern Literature" for the newly established Dial. He and Dial editor Margaret Fuller had intended the essay for the first issue, suggesting their sense of the piece as a somewhat programmatic statement for both the new journal and the movement that it represented. Planning problems for the initial issue of July 1840 prevented the essay's appearance in that first issue, so it appeared instead in the second issue in October 1840. …

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