Republican Pleasures: Emerson's "Circles," Oratory, and the Log Cabin Campaign

By Ganter, Granville | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), December 2002 | Go to article overview

Republican Pleasures: Emerson's "Circles," Oratory, and the Log Cabin Campaign


Ganter, Granville, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


In recent decades of Emerson scholarship, there have been primarily two ways of situating the political orientation of Emerson's writing: the first, and most widely held, proclaims Emerson's status as an architect of democratic individualism. Generally supported by readings of "Circles," "New England Reformers," and "Self-Reliance," scholars such as Richard Poirier, Sacvan Bercovitch, Stanley Cavell, and George Kateb have argued that Emerson's writing defines American democratic individuality as an endless process of personal renovation. These scholars hold that by saying no to whatever social forces threaten to foreclose upon the individual's potential for growth, the Emersonian poet is really saying yes to a dream of a better communal and democratic future. At best, this argument is a sophisticated and precarious enterprise, as several reviewers have noted (Wolfe, Rosenblum, Patell). Although Poirier, Cavell, and Kateb have emphasized the ways in which Emerson is antagonistic to the commercial greed of the Jacksonian era (and to unqualified, atomistic individualisms), their portrayals of Emerson's democratic individualism often sound more like descriptions of a genteel temper of mind than a recognizable politics. (1)

In contrast to viewing Emerson as a prophet of American liberalism, a second political movement in Emerson scholarship is best illustrated by Len Gougeon's work on Emerson's anti-slavery speeches and essays. In a book and several articles, Gougeon has recovered Emerson's activist commitment to the pressing political issues of his day, such as the Cherokee removals, abolition, and women's fights. The analysis of Emerson's interest in civic duty continues to be a minority voice in Emerson studies, but it is of longstanding tradition, and it provides a helpful explanation of the origins of the spirit of (social) reform that often animate Emerson's lectures and writing (see also Francis, Rose, Cayton). The problem with these civic recuperations of Emerson, however, is that they have difficulty articulating the aesthetic side of Emerson's work.

At the risk of trying to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, the contrast I have sketched is evocative of the recent liberal/republican debates in American historiography. At stake is whether Emerson represents the commerce-oriented individual of liberalism, or whether he is inspired by a legacy of republican civic conscience. Fortunately, in the last ten years, both liberal and republican historians have begun to see themselves as describing two sides of the same coin (Shalhope 39). The virtue of this rapprochement is that literary scholars have begun to hear strains of republican rhetoric in commercial discourse and vice versa. Grantland Rice's study of eighteenth-century authorship thus shows how the profession of author in the United States eventually came to be defined economically, albeit significantly inflected by ideological republican leftovers from an earlier age (10-11; also Teichgraeber). Daniel Malachuk's essay on Emerson's "cosmic" republicanism has also helped to put the liberal and republican faces of Emerson in dialogue. Similarly, Sam Worley, drawing on Michael Walzer's notion of the immanent or connected critic, has demonstrated Emerson and Thoreau's complex fusion of communitarian and individualist philosophies in their cultural criticism. In accord with these attempts to connect early national ideals of fellow-feeling with individualist spirit, I argue that Emerson's infatuation with oratory supplies an influential ethos of collective individuality in his mature essays. This socially-connected individuality is pivotal in "Circles," a text which is often invoked as a pragmatist manifesto of American liberalism. If the text is indeed a seminal moment in United States pragmatism, the communalist philosophy of that essay carries a political freight that contemporary liberal pragmatists, such as Richard Rorty, have had difficulty sustaining ("Intellectuals"; "Reply" 267). …

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