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Comprising twenty essays by leading scholars, this insightful collection provides the best recent writing on the Transcendentalists, the New England religious reformers and intellectuals who challenged both spiritual and secular orthodoxies between the 1830s and the 1850s. The volume addresses Transcendentalism from many directions, illuminating the movement more clearly than ever before. The contributions consider aspects of the relationship between the Transcendentalists and their intellectual and social world, assess the movement's cultural legacy, and place Transcendentalism in the context of historical and literary scholarship, past and present.
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TRANSIENT AND PERMANENT
The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts
Edited by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright
Northeastern University Press
Copyright © 1999 Massachusetts Historical Society.
All rights reserved.
The Problem of the Transcendentalist
Movement in American History
Something strange has happened in American historiography. Transcendentalism, once a mainstay of surveys of American thought, has virtually vanished from the historical radar screen. This is somewhat ironic, since during the past decade prominent public intellectuals as disparate as Stanley Cavell, Richard Poirier, Irving Howe, Cornel West, Christopher Lasch, and George Kateb have made leading Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau the natal sources of their various post-1960s critical "genealogies." Nor have the Transcendentalists exactly starved for lack of scholarly attention. Joel Myerson's review of research on the movement for the Modern Language Association, published a little over a decade ago, lists nearly four thousand publications, while hefty biographies of both well-known and lesser-known Transcendentalists continue to pour from major presses. But neither critical acclaim nor academic productivity constitutes the history of a movement. That requires some sense of its contours, phases, and significance as a past, multiform, collective entity, interacting with other such entities in various "times." When one raises these questions about Transcendentalism, the recent literature, mostly written by scholars in American literature, shrinks down considerably. As a historical movement, Transcendentalism would seem to have entered into a long eclipse.
Long, of course, is a relative notion. In fact, this eclipse has been a fairly recent one, roughly since the 1970s. Also, the reasons for Transcendentalism's long life in American historical writing have hardly been trivial or ephemeral ones. For one, over the past three-quarters of a century the subject has often found secure, if changing, professional and methodological footholds in the major disciplines of both history and literature. For another, historical Transcendentalism has been long buoyed up by that protean trio of cultural configurations that Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the decade of the movement's rise in the 1830s (and completely ignorant of its existence), first virtually identified with "America" itself: liberal religion, individualist democracy, and national identity. Finally, these Transcendentalism concepts have been neither pristine nor static. On the contrary, they have been shaped, reshaped, and in some eases subverted by some of the nation's most important historians and critics, who have enlisted the Transcendentalists variously as allies or foils in their own successive Victorian, modernist, progressivist, "Americanist," liberal religious, and left ideological projects, and so have written Transcendentalism into the major designs of American history.
The prospective issue then becomes neither the isolated present moment nor past Transcendentalism scholarship as such, but two retrospective historiographic questions. How have these successive Tocquevillean and post-Tocquevillean conceptualizations of Transcendentalism maintained or undermined the movement's presence in American history? What are the prospects for Transcendentalism scholarship now that these discursive plots have lost something of their force in the last couple of decades? Armed with answers to these questions, and a little critical imagination, we then ought to be able at least to get (in the Transcendentalists' fellow traveler Almira Barlow's catchy definition of their movement) "a little beyond" its current historiographic eclipse.
When did the Transcendentalist movement become history? One could begin with the Transcendentalists themselves. Puritan and Revolutionary idealism, the birth of an American culture, the tradition of religious revivalism, the contemporary surge of antinomian reform movements, the rise of European Romantic literature and philosophy, the discovery of Asian literature, the spread of American democracy, the repression of the spiritual in rationalistic liberal Protestantism, the "modern" longing for an organic culturethese and other historical contexts for situating their movement, the Transcendentalists themselves articulated long before historians came along to do it for them. But these historicizations were sporadic and eclecticas one might expect from adherents, in Emerson's words, not of the party of "Memory," but of the party of "Hope." A better temporal vantage point from which first to observe historical Transcendentalism would be during the time of its afterlife following the Civil War. By then, after a decade of steady diffusion of Transcendentalist ideas and writings, the movement's most aggressively radical leaderssuch as Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parkerhad died, its avant-garde cultural edge had begun to dull, and its collective reform energies had been largely absorbed by antislavery impulses within the Union. Not surprisingly, it was around these years that several Transcendentalists wrote the first retrospectives of their movement.
The most justly famous of these was Emerson's "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England." He wrote most of its sections in 1867 and delivered a patched-together version of them thirteen years later, by which time he had become afflicted with aphasia. In the opening section, he establishes the period's central motif of self-conscious individualism.
The key to the period appeared to be that the mind had become aware of itself.... This perception is a sword such as was never drawn before. It divides and detaches bone and marrow, soul and body, yea, almost the man from himself. It is the age of severance, of dissociation, of freedom, of analysis, of detachment.
Emerson's self-consciousness fuse set, he then lets it explode into a historical bricolage of antebellum "severances": from tender child worship and burly free trade to hypertender come-outers and "genial" mesmerism. But at this point something remarkable happens: after recalling that this age of separation brought forth "young men ... born with knives in their brain," he wanders into a surprisingly warm parlor-room reminiscence of his once "corpse-cold" intellectual Boston Unitarian fathers and a tenderly patronizing portrait of the leading Transcendentalists and their socialist compatriots. Then, suddenly, their circle disappears. "There was no concert," he assures us, but "only here and there two or three men or women who read and wrote, each alone, with unusual vivacity." Finally, he concludes, not with a hopeful prophecy of "seedling brains" and "admirable radicals," as he had twenty-five years earlier in his lecture "The Transcendentalist," but with a very different kind of prophecy. After contentedly observing that the socialist Brook Farmers' "prophecies" were now being realized by giant corporations and cheap rooming houses, he closes with the pleasing thought "that our American mind is not now eccentric or rude in its strength ... but normal, and with broad foundation of culture, and so inspires the hope of steady strength advancing on itself, and a day without night." So, in the end, the old Transcendentalist trickster takes his crew and together they go marching gently into post-Civil War Victorian America.
Emerson's failure to connect his self-consciousness soil and its flourishing antebellum wildflowers with the more manicured landscape of the posthellum years was not only, or perhaps not even mainly, a function of his worsening aphasia and the haphazard circumstances of his essay's production. Like all other Transcendentalists linked to the past through memory, he was caught between two opposite and equally problematic pressures. One was the temptation of a soft triumphalism. These were the years, after all, when old abolitionists, who had once chafed at the circle's political aloofness, were now crediting it with constructing their crusade's philosophy; when liberal Christian Transcendentalists such as James Freeman Clarke were applauding their Unitarian denomination's progressive shedding of its old dualistic rationalist-supernaturalist dogmas; when Clarke and Samuel Johnson were producing their pioneering studies of comparative religion; and when even more theologically radical second-generation Transcendentalists were joining with ex-Unitarians, free thinkers, and assorted "spiritualists" to help found the period's two most important intellectual reform organizations, the Free Religious Association and the American Social Science Association. On the other hand, there was the temptation of despair, since below this surface Transcendental assimilation one could hear some highly discordant rumblings. Not idealist philosophy, individualism, "amateur" social science, and an intuitively understood fire of faith, but science, institution building, academic professionalism, and an anxious moralism were fast becoming the lingua franca of Victorian liberal intellectuals. No longer America's avant-garde, the now dead Transcendental greats seemed to many Unitarian establishment young bloods absurd, if not incomprehensible. The North American Review's editor, the up-and-coming Harvard historian Henry Adams, characteristically explained to its readers in 1876, in calculated deadpan, what the Transcendentalists had been up to:
Transcendentalists ... renounced allegiance to the Constitution, continuing the practice of law; went through a process when they bought a piece of land which they called "releasing it from human ownership"; sought conspicuous solitudes; looked out of windows and said, "I am raining"; clad themselves in strange garments; courted oppression; and were, in short, unutterably funny.
It is not, then, terribly surprising, given this contradictory situation, that Emerson seized on a plot of ironic "descendentalism" as a way out. New England Transcendentalism was not exactly dead, but it was rapidly ceasing to be (in the term of that post-Transcendentalist William James) a "living option." To survive, it had to become something more than ironic or incongruous memory. It had to become history.
That could not be professional history, of course. Institutionally focused and culturally provincial, the newborn profession was decidedly unwelcome turf for Transcendentalism historians. Inevitably, then, the first historians of TranscendentalismOctavius Brooks Frothingham, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Caroline Healey Dallwrote their narratives in an older tradition of "amateur" or "literary" history. As former Transcendentalists, they also wrote "insider" history. Yet this was not, except for Dall's, highly apologetic history. Even the insistent Dall in her polemical 1897 lecture on the movement quite originally traced Transcendentalism back to Anne Hutchinson and onward to the later women's rights movement. And the more intellectually surefooted Frothingham and Higginson, although hardly disinterested, strove at least to keep their more substantial accounts of the movement both comprehensive and dispassionate, while preserving an immediacy (as good insider histories often do) that professional historians can usually only envy.
As the son of a prominent anti-Transcendentalist Unitarian minister and the first president of the non-Christian and vaguely scientistic Free Religious Association, Frothingham was the consummate religious liberal insider-outsider, and so in many ways was his 1876 Transcendentalism in New England: A History. Covering all the movement's European Romantic philosophical and literary antecedents, major phases, and leading figuresas well as maintaining an intellectually capacious and lucid yet also ideologically engaged and personally knowledgeable perspectivehis History remains the only book on the subject ever written truly deserving of that subtitle. Furthermore, despite his genteel slighting of the Transcendentalists' radical literary figures, such as Thoreau (whom he only once barely mentions), the book's perspective on the movement's (to him) more eccentric figures, such as Bronson Alcott and Fuller, often manages to be both sober and empathetic.
Yet therein lies the book's central problem: Frothingham cannot seem to get over Transcendentalism, and especially its ethical élan, but he does not know what to do with it historically. The result is that his history' is strangely fractured. This characteristic is most glaringly apparent in his failure to connect the long first third of his book, on European Romantic thinkers, to its subsequent chronicle of New England Transcendentalism: after he begins the latter, he virtually never refers back to the former. Indeed, he tells us, in an astonishing concession that opens the second part, "it may be said that there never was such a thing as Transcendentalism outside of New England," because only in New England did it address popular and practical concerns. But why that was or how it made a difference in the way the Transcendentalists addressed the philosophical questions he chronicled in the European chapters of his book is not at all clear. So, in the end, Frothingham's Transcendentalists float far away, not only from the new spirit of his scientific, "sensuous," and "external" Victorian world, but from America altogether. "Their philosophy may be unsound," he concludes his book, "but it produced noble characters and human lives. The philosophy that takes its place may rest on more scientific foundations; it will not more completely justify its existence or honor its day." If' Emerson's ethical prophecies about Transcendentalism were ironically triumphal, Frothingham's were uncertainly elegiac.
By contrast, Frothingham's Free Religious Association colleague, "minor prophet," and fellow Transcendentalism memorializer Higginson, who wrote on the movement in the following two decades, had all the qualities of a counter-elegy-maker: humor, vigor, and a recollected fondness for his youthful militant abolitionist activism. Almost inevitably, the two also had very different takes on the Transcendentalist movement. Whereas the sober Frothingham had taken up his cousin Henry Adams's European-minded cosmopolite preoccupation with modern "science" and had been unable to find a clear historical space within it for his Romantic Transcendentalists, the left-mugwump and popular "man of letters" Higginson took up instead the other preoccupation of Victorian New England intellectualsAmerica's uplifting cultural nation buildingand confidently construed the Transcendentalists as its bumptious forerunners. First, he said, explicitly countering Frothingham, the Transcendentalist movement's primary object was not a European-inspired philosophy, but a new American literature. Second, its form was not, as Frothingham implied, a compact intellectual coterie, but a loose association of highly individualistic figures who interacted with a broader social and cultural movement. Finally, that movement was principally created, not by the ideas of a few European writers, nor by a theological crisis within Unitarian liberal Protestantism, but by something called "the newness." As he portrayed it, this was a sudden awakening in the early 1840s of religiously liberal, middle-class New England young people, who earnestly experimented with new semi-bohemian, egalitarian, and "self-reliant" lifestyles and vocational identities. Poetically summing up his argument in his 1884 biography of Margaret Fuller, Higginson wrote:
What is called the Transcendental movement amounted to essentially this: that about the year 1836 a number of young people in America made the discovery that, in whatever quarter of the globe they happened to be, it was possible for them to take a look at the stars for themselves.
Excerpted from TRANSIENT AND PERMANENT by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright. Copyright © 1999 by Massachusetts Historical Society. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
|Transcendentalism and the Historians|
|"A Little Beyond": The Problem of the Transcendentalist Movement in American History||3|
|Transcendentalism and the New England Religious Tradition|
|"A Religious Demonstration": The Theological Emergence of New England Transcendentalism||49|
|Theodore Parker and the 28th Congregational Society: The Reform Church and the Spirituality of Reformers in Boston, 1845-1859||73|
|Transcendentalism and the Cosmopolitan Discourse|
|Schleiermacher and the Transcendentalists||121|
|Emerson and the Terrible Tabulations of the French||148|
|English Nature, New York Nature, and Walden's New England Nature||168|
|Concord Orientalism, Thoreauvian Autobiography, and the Artist of Kouroo||190|
|Transcendentalism and Society|
|Transcendentalism and the Spirit of Capitalism||229|
|The Celestial Village: Transcendentalism and Tourism in Concord||251|
|"A Chaos-Deep Soil": Emerson, Thoreau, and Popular Literature||282|
|Transcendentalism in Print: Production, Dissemination, and Common Reception||310|
|Transcendentalism and American Reform|
|Mrs. Brackett's Verdict: Magic and Means in Transcendental Antislavery Work||385|
|Woman Questions: Emerson, Fuller, and New England Reform||408|
|Brook Farm, Fourierism, and the Nationalist Dilemma in American Utopianism||447|
|Beyond Transcendentalism: The Radical Individualism of William B. Greene||471|
|Transcendentalism's Cultural Legacy|
|"Our National Glory": Emerson in American Culture, 1865-1882||499|
|Transcendentalism from the Margins: The Experience of Caroline Healey Dall||527|
|Christopher Pearse Cranch: Painter of Transcendentalism||548|
|Later Manifestations of Concord: Charles Ives and the Transcendentalist Tradition||574|
|Transcendentalism and the Critics|
|Transcendentalist Literary Legacies||605|