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Redeeming America: Politics, Culture and the Intellectual in the USA

Redeeming America: Politics, Culture and the Intellectual in the USA


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Published by Tim Shakesby
Doctoral thesis, examining the 'idea' of America, focusing on the so-called 'New York Intellectuals' and their thinking about politics and mass culture
Doctoral thesis, examining the 'idea' of America, focusing on the so-called 'New York Intellectuals' and their thinking about politics and mass culture

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Tim Shakesby on Feb 25, 2009
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Tocqueville was not isolated in his hopeful rendition of the tasks of the democratic

writer. In the mid-nineteenth century, many American writers were searching for the

frst great American novel, whilst simultaneously seeking to spread the recognition

that America had an authentic and valuable culture of its own, ft for its own heroic

literature and politics. Herman Melville, in ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses,’ published in

Literary World during the summer of 1850, stated: “Believe me, my friends, that men not

very much inferior to Shakespeare, are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio”.3

Melville argued:

But it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation … Let us believe it, then,
once for all, that there is no hope for us in these smooth pleasing writers that know their
powers. Without malice, but to speak the plain fact, they but furnish an appendix to
Goldsmith, and other English authors. And we want no American Goldsmiths; nay; we
want no American Miltons. … no American writer should write like an Englishman, or
a Frenchman; let him write like a man for then he will be sure to write like an American.
Let us away with this leaven of literary funkyism towards England …While we are
rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically
awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably

unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so … we should … duly recognize
the meritorious writers that are our own;—those writers, who breathe that unshackled,
democratic spirit of Christianity in all things, which now takes the practical lead in the
world, though at the same time led by ourselves—us Americans. Let us boldly … foster
all originality, though, at frst, it be crabbed and ugly as our own pine knots.4

Melville believed that America was destined for greatness through political supremacy.

He felt that this greatness ought to be accompanied by cultural supremacy, which could

only be achieved through originality. He discerned a potent capacity for originality which

seemed to refect the American political taste for liberty and independence. Melville’s

celebration of American achievements, however, was itself founded upon the rejection

of what had been achieved so far. American cultural greatness would, it seems, require

exceptional work. In the face of this confict between celebration and rejection, the need

for ‘American prophets,’ individuals capable of great deeds and visions, was deeply felt,

at least by those who felt themselves to be, however marginally, candidates for such a

role. These prophets would, it was hoped, discover originality by utilising materials that

had otherwise been abandoned as unsuited to the work of cultural creativity, or which

had never before been used for the purposes of cultural greatness. American prophets

would thus found a cultural revolution which would match America’s achieved political

revolution. Yet the means by which a cultural revolution could be propagated were far

from clear. Indeed, the need for these prophets to be American marks out their awkward

responsibility towards national life, where the very notion of responsibility can cut against

the pursuit of originality. The pressure of expectation threatens independence of mind.

The key ‘prophets’ who have lived out their lives under the pressure of such an

awkward responsibility, and who felt themselves to be under some special obligation

towards America, have canonically been identifed as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman,

and perhaps Melville and Hawthorne. These writers were hugely important in the

development of intellectual responses to America’s ‘errand into the future’. In particular,

their work was central to the self-consciousness of those intellectuals who dominated

American cultural life in the mid-twentieth century. This can be seen in the narrative

structure of F. O. Matthiessen’s groundbreaking American Renaissance, which was

widely infuential within the American Studies movement during the 1940s and 1950s.

Matthiessen argued that Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne and Melville were the

‘great minds’ who forged the ongoing patterns of American cultural life during a period

of remarkable creativity in the 1850s. He also felt that these fgures were the agents of

American cultural maturity. He argued:

It may not seem precisely accurate to refer to our mid nineteenth-century as a re-birth;
but that was how the writers [Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville]
themselves judged it. Not as a re-birth of values that had existed previously in America,
but as America’s way of producing a renaissance, by coming to its frst maturity and
afrming its rightful heritage in the whole expanse of art and culture.5

Such a position was accepted without dissent by many of the New York Intellectuals,

certain of whom were at one time or another colleagues of Matthiessen.6 For instance,

William Phillips agreed with Matthiessen’s judgement concerning the centrality of this

moment, when he argued:

The Concord school may be said to mark the frst appearance, in full intellectual dress, of
an American intelligentsia. Revolting against the all-absorbing commercialism of the day
and against the bleakness of the Puritan heritage, they set out quite consciously to form,
as Emerson put it, “a learned class,” and to assimilate the culture of Europe into a native

In this Phillips recognises in the ‘Concord school’ part of the origin of his own

generation’s intellectual life.8 Alfred Kazin’s magisterial An American Procession

demonstrates this impression of intellectual companionship, as does Irving Howe’s The

American Newness, in which it is argued that:

The Emersonian is the canniest of American vocabularies. As social creed it grew limp, a
soft harmless idealism of nostalgia—except when turned to the uses of Social Darwinist
reaction. … But the surprise of it all would be that, while declining in the America of
the Gilded Age, and all the later gildings, into a manipulable sentiment, Emersonianism
remained sharp, strong, and critical in our culture. It is everywhere among us, visible in
writers who align themselves with its claims, but also, perhaps still more, in those who
resist it, often after an earlier attachment…We are descendants, through mixed blood,
who have left home after friendly quarrels. Yet the patriarch’s voice still rings clear.9

This confict between a manipulable sentiment and a sharp and critical Emersonianism

refects tensions that the New York Intellectuals themselves were never able to

transcend. Critical self-consciousness grew out of, yet was in tension with, a need to

establish a tradition and cultivate an audience. Yet the audience had to be challenged,

and the distractions of manipulable sentiment confounded. This was recognised by

Phillips, Matthiessen, West and Bercovitch, who all agreed that the Concord school

was preoccupied with the dialectical work of creative critical appropriation for a wider


While such central fgures as Emerson, and perhaps to an even greater extent

Thoreau, often felt themselves to be ‘outcasts,’ who were ignored by a society drawn

to ‘scribbling women’ and literary sensationalism (as Matthiessen put it), they were,

as Bercovitch recognises, “simultaneously lamenting a declension and celebrating a

national dream” at a cultural centre of their own. For these writers and thinkers, the

process of coming to terms with America’s fate was also a process by which they could

come to terms with their own potential; they felt tied to the collective future of their

nation, bound to respond to its problems, and to bring an intellectual and independent

perspective to bear. They were celebrating an America about which they also felt terribly

ambiguous.11 In the process of a dialectial struggle to make sense of America, they thus

developed a sense of the problems of being an intellectual in relation to American culture

which has proved hugely infuential. In particular, Emerson and Thoreau presented

responses to the confdence of Jeferson and his colleagues in a harmony between the

individual and society. Like Tocqueville, they were coming to terms with the possible

degeneration of self-reliant individuality into a narrower, conformist individualism.

Bellah has argued that:

The cramped self-control of Franklin’s ‘virtues’ seemed to leave too little room for
love, human feeling, and a deeper expression of the self. The great writers of what F.
O. Matthiessen has called the ‘American Renaissance’ all reacted in one way or another
against this older form of individualism. … Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne put aside
the search for wealth in favour of a deeper cultivation of the self.12

This deeper cultivation of the self was a move, in the case of these writers, towards a

more satisfying and productive conceptualisation of the duties of modern intellectuals.

In order to bring out the nature of this conceptualisation, and its relationship

to their hopes for America, I will in this chapter explore the idea of ‘self-reliance’ in the

work of Emerson and Thoreau. I will do this as a prelude to examining the vocation

of the cultural critic in American intellectualism as a form of tensed self-reliance that

is forced to mediate between self and society, inner feelings and external pressures,

intellectual commitments and the demands of the audience.13

An American Religion and ‘The American Scholar’

In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, in his essay The American Scholar, the “arrival

of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any more”.14 Emerson avowed

that “our dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a

close”.15 Freedom from dependence was destined, Emerson felt, to lead to the expression

of an uniquely American perspective within culture. Emerson had strong ideas about

what this uniquely American perspective would amount to. He reinforced the sense

of Americans as a busy, democratic people. He likewise emphasised the importance of

the lowly: “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or

Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrely; I embrace the common, I explore and

situate the feet of the familiar, the low”.16 Yet he was not emphasising the lowly so as to

denigrate the greatness of the elevated. He felt that American democracy could lead to a

new form of greatness and a new sort of redemptive individuality. He was not endorsing

an egalitarian position, so much as praising the daring and audacious efort to overcome

complacency in favour of (self-)invention which he hoped the freedom from convention

in a democracy would foster. He claimed:

We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American
freeman is already suspected to be too timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice
make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant …
We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own
minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual

Again, as with Tocqueville and Crevècœur, we have the perception that America, unlike

Europe, enjoyed special geographic, cultural and political conditions. America turned

its people to work and action, and engaged all in useful labour, thereby laying the basis

for individual inventiveness. Americans strove to “stand on [their] own feet”. Emerson

argued in ‘Nature’:

All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house,
Heaven and Earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler’s
trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and
point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fne names. Build,
therefore, your own world.18

Emerson, like Melville, was intoxicated with American potential. According to Cornel

West, Emerson asserted a ‘theodicy’ which saw sin as the only limitation upon human

capabilities, and which saw that this limitation could be overcome—and that this

overcoming was beautiful and good.19 He had a strong feeling for the providential

potency of America, as the chosen location for this revelation. He disclosed self-reliant

individualism as the ‘American Religion’.20 Emerson wrote in his journal:

What shall be the substance of my shrift? Adam in the garden, I am to new-name all the
beasts of the feld and all the gods in the sky. I am to invite men drenched in Time to
recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air. I am to fre
with what skill I can the artillery of sympathy and emotion. I am to indicate constantly,
though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life, the Forgotten Good,
the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl and sin. I am to try the magic of sincerity, that
luxury permitted only to kings and poets. I am to celebrate the spiritual powers in their
infnite contrast to the mechanical powers and the mechanical philosophy of this time.
I am to console the brave suferers under evils whose they that cannot see, by appeals to
the great optimism, self-afrmed in all bosoms.21

Emerson’s new-naming is a prototypically American act. Yet Emerson was not

comfortable with the America of the 1830s which was contemporaneously alarming

Tocqueville.22 The New England which had been represented as a ‘City on a Hill,’

peopled by deeply moral, virtuous and plain-living folk, was undergoing a series of

changes brought about by the increasing tempo of commercial, industrial and agricultural

life within the Jacksonian period. The immediate wilderness was vanishing, replaced

by a Western frontier, while small towns and villages like Concord experienced the

intrusion of the ‘iron-road’: an intrusion well marked by Hawthorn and Thoreau.23

The future for young men and women was not as clear as it may have been for their

parents. Options were increasingly apparent, yet faced fgures such as Thoreau with

huge personal problems: many left for the West, or for the larger cities; many stayed at

home, aware that they were choosing something in doing this, that they were abandoning

something unknown but mythically present. In this context, Emerson feared the growth

of conformity. Thoreau illustrated this fear in Walden, in a typical outburst: “We know

but a few men, a great many coats and breeches. Dress a scarecrow in your last shift, you

standing shiftless by, who would not soonest salute the scarecrow?”.24 The increasing

density of society brought with it an increasing density of pre-judgements, an apparent

tyranny of public opinion as Tocqueville would soon argue (just as did ‘the fashions

of London and Paris’ according to Thoreau). Emerson laboured against the bonds to

unimaginative rules which he saw in the guise of cooperative or utopian socialism.25 His

rhetorical rejection of society could become extreme and sweeping:

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members.
Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing
of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The
virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities
and creators, but names and customs.26

This was also a period during which the spirit of commerce became an object of

suspicion for those like Emerson.27 The retreat of the wilderness seemed to mark a

potential retreat of America’s freedom.28 Emerson consequently wrote:

A question which well deserves examination now is the Dangers of Commerce. This
invasion of Nature by Trade with its Money, its Credit, its Steam, its Railroad, threatens
to upset the balance of man, and establish a new, universal Monarchy more tyrannical
than Babylon or Rome. Very faint and few are the poets or men of God. Those who
remain are so antagonistic to this tyranny that they appear mad or morbid, and are
treated as such. Sensible of this extreme unftness they suspect themselves. And all of us
apologize when we ought not, and congratulate ourselves when we ought not.

Emerson hoped that he could escape the fate of the apparently mad or morbid, through

his new-naming and great optimism, yet he nevertheless believed that commerce was

upsetting the balance of man. As we shall shortly see in more detail, Emerson associated

the dangers of a slavishly conventional individualism with the rise of commercial society

in America, and he particularly feared the impact of what might be called social entropy

upon exceptional fgures. For Emerson, the great were in danger of being swamped

by public indiference, branded as madmen, despite commitments to individuality.

Accordingly, Emerson ofered himself as a sacrifce, trusting in his own sense of moral,

spiritual and intellectual certainty that the genius he represented would fnally be

revealed as redemptive. The truly great men would be stars around which others would

orbit. Emerson immoderately stated: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one


He felt that since society was seldom ready to understand greatness, the

achievement of individuality would be a lonely struggle with one’s conscience. He wrote

in his journal (in reference to Thoreau):

Though we pine for great men, we do not use them when they come. Here is a Damascus
blade of a man such as you may search through nature in vain to parallel, laid up on the
shelf of our village to rust & ruin. It seems as if they were never quite available for that
very idea which they represented.31

America thus seemed destined to produce greatness, yet incapable of acknowledgeing

such greatness. Emerson appeared to be caught between the elegiac and the

apprehensive. He praised America’s destiny, yet was anxiously critical of the character of

the America he lived in. Although his faith in an ‘American Religion’ may have diluted

his critique of Jacksonian America, he still remained a ferce non-conformist. Ultimately,

he was a thinker who moved between neurotic anxiety and an extremely self-confdent

and idiosyncratic self-mythologisation. He “believes he is already on the right track

and moving towards an excellent destiny,” as Cornel West put it, yet there were signs in

some of his work of a darker helplessness.32 Thankfully, these ambiguities imparted great

power to his thinking; he was one of America’s frst intellectual outsiders, at once against

and with his world. Emerson succesfully established a new vision of the American

intellectual, which (as we shall see) foreshadows the New York Intellectuals’ experiences.

West has argued that Emerson’s life was in fact pledged to the foundation of the

organic intellectual as an exemplary American; that Emerson achieved his understanding

of this vocation by mapping the fgure of the self-reliant individual (in this instance,

the prototypical intellectual) onto the “very content and character of America”—“His

individualism pertains not simply to discrete individuals but, more important, to a

normative and exhortative conception of the individual as America”.33 Emerson felt

that the fate of American greatness depended upon the achievement and propogation

of individual self-reliance and integrity, and he understood this to be the defnitive

theme within American cultural life. He candidly wrote, expressing both his distrust of

government and his concern with integrity:

The less government we have the better—the fewer laws and the less confded power.
The antidote to this abuse of formal government is the infuence of private character,
the growth of the Individual…the appearance of the wise man; of whom the existing
government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation…To educate the wise man the
State exists, and with the appearance of the wise man the State expires. The appearance
of character makes the State unnecessary. The wise man is the State.34

Emerson is thereby, like Tocqueville and Jeferson, emphasising the centrality of the

private character of the individual within American political life. The State is conceived

primarily in terms of its educative qualities. Emerson’s emphasis upon the redemptive

power of the wise (or good) man gives to American culture an important task, since it

would be American culture which ultimately educated the wise man. American culture

already embraced this task. Emerson responded directly to the Enlightenment ideals of

self-mastery and self-fashioning, and hoped to bolster them in the face of new dangers.

Where Jeferson and his colleagues rooted the ideal of self-reliance within the ideal of a

broad and cosmopolitan society, Emerson recognised potential tensions between the self-

reliant individual and the drift of that society, and he began to examine the signifcance

of this for the intellectual. In particular, the intellectual would have to exemplify the

self-reliant individual, and thereby start to redeem American hopes independently of

society. Emerson believed that by founding and praising individuality against society, the

intellectual could come to an understanding both of his own personal condition, and of

America’s destiny. The intellectual (who is for Emerson neither a traditional intellectual

nor an academic) would become the perfect American, the exemplar of America’s ‘errand

into the future,’ by refusing what America had become in reality.

This line of thinking was lent great force by the perceived impact of the division

of labour upon American life. Emerson claimed “the state of society is one in which

the members have sufered amputation from the trunk, and strut about like so many

walking monsters,—a good fnger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man”.35 This

rather conventional analysis of the impact of the division of labour upon modern society

was particularly pressing in a society that hoped to do away with artifcial hierarchies.

The impact of the division of labour even extended to those who may have imagined

themselves too cultivated to become culturally amputated. The intellectual or scholar, as

‘Man Thinking’ within the division of labour, faced the same danger as the ‘good fnger’ or

‘neck’ of becoming a walking monster.36 The division of labour threatened to compound

the impact of conformity, such that thought too would bewitch itself.37 Nevertheless, for

Emerson it was axiomatic that thought possessed the capacity to transcend the empirical

world.38 Emerson understood himself to be freeing thought from the constraints

of utility and science, where man looked too quickly to his mundane needs and his

immediate concerns, and failed to consider the eternal and the exceptional. Thought

needed to strain to express the unknown or inexpressible. In ‘Nature,’ Emerson argued


The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis
of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent
but opake (sic). The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is,
because man is disunited with himself.39

Man becomes disunited with himself, by means of specialisation, and surrenders his

longing for improvement, for the unknown and unexpected. All he sees is a terrible

condition of disunity, yet he is the cause of that disunity, and accordingly of its potential

redemption. The ‘drab’ amputated beings whom Emerson saw around him would,

he felt, never possess the openness of spirit or originality of imagination required to

recognise the disunity of modern man for what it was. Only that ‘Man Thinking’ who

had overcome the constraints on thought could possess these qualities. For Emerson this

freedom of thought amounted to a refusal to accept the limitations of the modern world.

Intellectuals had to choose to overcome their timid slavery to limits.

Emerson demonstrated this idea in relation to the tyranny of books. Books,

disclosing ‘Mind Past,’ could ideally inspire, yet could equally enslave. As Emerson

argued, “thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail

nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though towns of gold, can never countervail

the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this and our American colleges will recede in

their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year”.40 Just as the scholar is urged

to turn away from a bondage to books, Emerson, prefguring American pragmatism,

underlines the importance of experience and experimentation.41 Through the practical

exercise of personal will, human life passes from an unconscious state into a conscious

one, he argues, where theoretical knowledge cannot determine what is possible or what

is not: “Only so much do I know, as I have lived … Life is our dictionary”.42 Emerson

hoped that the tradition of established usage would be replaced by the tradition of ‘life’.

He was transforming the Enlightenment faith in cognition into a new faith in freedom.

So as to make this freedom possible, the scholar had to abandon thoughts of

success and popularity, and instead embrace isolation and self-trust: “But the great man

is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of

solitude”.43 Emerson thought that solitude and integrity were of crucial importance

for the intellectual in a democratic and egalitarian world. Intellectuals were endlessly

distracted by chatter and false prophets. Given this, the quietness of a thought which is

able to govern itself is a central part of the intellectual’s resistance to conventional truths.

Emerson asserted, in his search for character, the need to be truly ‘free,’ even from public

defnitions of freedom, and he felt that this demanded a capacity for bravery. Around the

scholar there amassed ‘bugs’ and ‘spawn,’ the ‘men of history’.44 Self-trust was required to

render freedom possible. Emerson declared:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart
is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the
universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our frst thought
is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgement. … Trust thyself: every
heart vibrates to that iron string.45

Self-trust suggested a further liberation of the present self over the past and a

commitment to the future.46 The self had to be free from tired constraint in order to

live up to its potential. It is within this rhetoric of self-actualisation that the expressive

side to Emersonian individualism can be recognised, which emphasises an increasingly

aesthetic and personal, rather than political and collective, dimension to individualism.47

Emersonian individualism may appear in this guise to amount to little more than an

exhortation to do as you please.

It would be wrong, however, to see Emerson as a writer who turned away from

collective life. As we have noted above, he attempted to found new conventions and new

traditions in order to redeem America. This side of his work can easily become obscured.

In a famous passage, Emerson wrote:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good
situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the
dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do
not belong. … Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity,
much as they would pay a fne in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their
works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and
the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to

live. My life is for itself, not for a spectacle. 48

Emerson was not here arguing for a cruel and selfsh individualism. On the contrary,

he was bringing his thought to bear upon the notion of ‘possession’ (or what we might

call membership or belonging). He was arguing against automatic obligations without

a deeper degree of involvement or active choice. As Cornel West noted, “the aim of

Emersonian cultural criticism—and subsequently, most of American pragmatic thought—

is to expand powers and proliferate provocations for the moral development of human

personalities”.49 Emerson hoped to provoke development by emphasising that human

life must be imaginatively willed. The resistance of Jeferson and Codwallder Colden to

the untested acceptance of Professors marked a similar concern, as we saw above: mere

status is no guarantee of truthfulness, and often a good sign of the opposite. Emerson

was underlining the inadequacy of obligation without a co-belonging that required one to

treat one’s fellows as things rather than individuals. As he put it:

Let us afront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the
times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and ofce, the fact which is the upshot
of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a
man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things.
Where he is, there is nature…50

Thus, the self that is able to reach within and achieve self-reliance, is also able to achieve

a condition of greatness which can provide the very basis upon which American hopes

can be redeemed.51 The confict between the individual and conformity aims to redeem

yet also keeps at a distance America’s utopian ambitions. Bercovitch has summarised the

importance of this:

The journal entries of November/December 1842 may be said to have launched Emerson,
fresh from his “heretical” Essays: First Series, on a journey from utopia to ideology;
but … the relationship between these two sites was dynamic rather than linear. The
journey from one to the other was not so much a progression (or regression) as it was an
oscillation … Emerson’s abiding utopianism demonstrates the radical energies potential in
American liberal ideology. … Emerson’s role as prophet was to carry the basic premises
of “America” as far as they would go, to the hither verge of what was ideologically
conceivable—and thereby to challenge his society in the act of drawing out (furthering,
in the double sense of the word) its grounds of consensus. … Emerson discovered in his
culture’s symbols, values, and beliefs the agencies of change, reform, and “the new” that
expressed the utopian dimensions not only of his own society but of modern liberal
culture at large … Emersonian dissent reminds us that ideology in America works not
by repressing radical energies but by redirecting them into a constant confict between
self and society: the self in itself, a separate, single, non-conformist individuality versus

society en masse, individualism systematized.52

For Bercovitch, Emersonian dissent is a form of utopian consciousness developed within

the premises of liberal culture. It develops an “appeal to subjectivity as the sine qua non

of union”.53

Consequently, Emerson was committed to attacking ‘society en masse,

individualism systematised’ in the name of non-conformist individuality. The seat of

measurement and of judgement lies within one’s own breast; one must exercise the

faculty of self-trust if one is be a true scholar, and evade the corruptions of convention.

This fgures a turning-inwards, a revolution of the spirit, to guard the self against the

instrumentality of making something of oneself in society. Emersonian self-reliance

originally stood not as a poem in praise of the individual’s liberty, but as a statement

of the need to resist society in order to stand in a true relation with authentic human

society. Emerson, as Bercovitch recognises, is exploring a utopian space where socialism

and individualism meet. One must refuse society so as to live properly in society—one

must become the sort of person who can see society clearly so as to live a life that allows

human social life a future. This is a clear statement of responsibility for intellectuals—

live against the grain, yet remember that this life of opposition is bound to the life of the

society that surrounds you as your only stage and arena; one’s criticism has to negotiate

between extreme individualised withdrawal and an abandonment of criticism in favour

of conformity. Emerson is writing a refection upon the demands of integrity and non-

conformity for the sake of society in a society that imperils integrity and non-conformity

for the mass of people; he is thus one of America’s many troubled and dissenting


Thoreau’s Redemptive Writing

These issues can be traced clearly in the work of Thoreau, particularly in Walden, and

Resistance to Civil Government. Daniel Walker Howe has recently summarised Thoreau’s

message as “the necessity of individual self-realization”:

[Thoreau] calls upon each member of his audience to obey the fundamental laws of his
or her own being, without regard for neighbours, nation, church or custom. Observing
Nature and reading great literature can help one discover these laws; the chief hindrance
is society. Organized society is especially dangerous: businesses, clubs, political parties,
philanthropic associations, and, of course, the State.54

In Resistance to Civil Government, Thoreau presents a justifcation of his refusal to pay poll

tax to the state government of Massachusetts. That government was implicated in the

war on Mexico and the continuance of slavery in the South. Thoreau stated clearly that,

“[u]nder a government that imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a

prison”.55 He was exploring the importance of conscience:

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and
wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the
rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least
degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I
think that we should be men frst, and subjects afterward.56

People are alone in their experience of moral responsibility. (“You must live within

yourself, and depend upon yourself, always tucked up and ready for a start, and not have

many afairs”.57) This is partly because Thoreau felt, like Jeferson, that:

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all
governments are sometimes, inexpedient. … The government itself, which is only the
mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused
and perverted before the people can act through it.58

Thoreau’s distrust of government appeared initially to refect a strong anti-political

stream in American culture. Personal fate was deemed to be an individual’s responsibility,

such that government—and collective life more generally—became a shadow of the

individual. Freedom stood as the ultimate representation of America: yet the ideal of

freedom threatened to undo America’s capacity to function as a collective society.

It would be wrong, however, to read Thoreau as an anti-political thinker, as Howe

makes clear, just as it would be wrong to read Jeferson in this manner. Thoreau was

examining the personal roots of resistance to conformity. He followed Emerson, who

argued in ‘Politics,’ that the core role of the state was the education of the wise man,

and that the State was ultimately subordinate to ‘eternal morality’. For Howe, Thoreau

“undertook to show how moral individuals could enlighten and redeem the State, even

against its will”.59 Howe concluded:

‘Resistance to Civil Government’ is the work of a prophet. The message of the great
essay is existential rather than philosophical … Be clear about your priorities in life,
he constantly challenges his audience. Set these priorities for yourself. Simplify your
life by sticking to what you really believe in; refuse to be distracted by other people’s

Thoreau’s stance as a prophet, attempting to educate the State, was grounded in the

idea of integrity: “I came into this world, not chiefy to make this a good place to live in,

but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not every thing to do, but something; and

because he cannot do every thing, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong”.61

Integrity was valuable in and of itself, since Thoreau was opposed to the orthodoxy of

liberal utilitarian arguments: “What is once well done is done for ever”.62 Thoreau’s

politics can be understood as an attempt to redeem society by making his own life an

example of integrity: he hoped that such an example would help others. Yet Thoreau

thereby found himself in a paradoxical situation:

In all his writings, Thoreau was in the somewhat self-contradictory position of one who
exhorts his audience not to listen to others. His way of resolving the paradox was to rely
upon his own example, leaving others to apply it as they saw ft. His symbolic action of
going to jail … functions in this way, as does his symbolic withdrawal to a cabin in the
woods in the book Walden.63

Thoreau thus presents a claim that integrity entails a careful refusal of the automatic

claims of society, of the pieties of liberal political sentiment, which echoes Emerson’s

desire to found a new intellectual tradition which redeems America by refusing its actual

condition. This is a call for the enactment of freedom by men and women who fancy

themselves free: “If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which

is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot

fatally interrupt him”.64 Freedom allows one to see things right, to cut through rhetoric,

distraction and evasion, to get to the core of things. Both Thoreau and Emerson were

fundamentally concerned with the achievement of a ‘truthful telling,’ so to speak. By

cultivating personal non-conformity, and by opening the self up to the world, they hoped

such a ‘truthful telling’ would be made possible. Thoreau restates Jeferson’s suspicion

of systems, and Emerson’s debunking of infuence, through a desire to get beneath the

surface of things. As he states:

They who know of no purer sources of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher,
stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink it there with
reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake
or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its
fountain-head. 65

These are themes that are more fully developed, in a powerfully metaphoric manner, in

Walden, as Stanley Cavell has argued.66 Cavell notes that:

The drift of Walden is not that we should go of and be alone; the drift is that we are
alone, and that we are never alone—not in the highest and not in the lowest sense. In the
highest sense, we will know a good neighbourhood when we live there; and in the lowest,
‘Consider the girls in a factory—never alone, hardly in their dreams’ … The quest of this
book is the recovery of the self, as from an illness.67

He feels that “Walden is … a tract of political education, education for membership of

the polis,” such that it “locates authority in the citizens and it identifes citizens—those

with whom one is in membership—as ‘neighbors’. What it shows is that education for

citizenship is education for isolation”.68 Thoreau’s model for the citizen is the neighbour:

someone who can make claims on you, and upon whom you too can make claims. His

politics thereby threatens to be unsuited to a world of strangers, an urban world that

was engulfng America at this time. He seems to possess the suspicions of a backwoods-

man (Jeferson’s Republican) who cannot accept the easy yet fckle mobility of the

cosmopolitan urban élites. For Thoreau there are deeper commitments to places and

forms of life than the shifting forces of urban life can apparently generate. He fears that

modern men and women are unable to fulfl the task of citizenship.

Thoreau’s sense of the importance of isolated self-determination is highly

sophisticated. He states, in the frst paragraph of Walden, that he is (at present) “a

sojourner in civilised life again”. He was at home in Walden, yet Walden was an

experiment, through which Thoreau hoped to discover how to spend his time; how to

return to a sense of being a pilgrim; how to be a stranger in America, fnding his way,

or a double to himself. Thoreau speaks of searching, pursuing, and tracking: he merely

sojourns; he is a wanderer, yet, unlike the ‘man of the crowd,’ or the faneur, Thoreau is

observing himself, wandering through a succession of selves. (In ‘Economy,’ he notes that

“perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged and dirty the old, until we

have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the

old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting

season, like the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives”.69) Cavell argues that:

Walden’s phenomenological description of fnding the self, or the faith of it, is one of
trailing and recovery. This is the writer’s interpretation of the injunction to know thyself.
His descriptions emphasise that this is a continuous activity, not something we may
think of as an intellectual preoccupation. It is placing ourselves in the world. That you
do not know beforehand what you will fnd is the reason the quest is an experiment or an

Thoreau, like Emerson, feels that “most men, even in this comparatively free country,

through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and

superfously coarse labors of life that its fner fruits cannot be plucked by them”.71

Systematised individualism has generated conformity, ignorance and weakness. America

needs intellectual leaders to lead a cultural revolution or reformation, since “[t]he mass of

men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confrmed desperation.

From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself

with the bravery of minks and muskrats”.72 This ‘quiet desperation’ is the mark of a

society too desperate to achieve its ends, such that it is unable to begin the ‘learning of

resolution’. Americans have lost their feeling for their own ideals, in a world which is

displaying its growing complexity and imperfection, and where conficts, between races

and classes, have become painfully abrupt.73

It is often claimed that Thoreau was a proto-anarchist who rejected the America

he saw around him. Yet Thoreau does not abandon society; his retreat to Walden is not

that of a hermit grappling with enlightenment through silent contemplation. Hermits

don’t write, let alone write Walden. Walden brims with conversation and neighbourliness.

We have here, as with Emerson, a commentary on the vicissitudes of attempting to

maintain critical autonomy, where that autonomy is understood as something more

complex than a mere act of will, as something that is built up by one’s use of language,

one’s habits of description, the pace of one’s life: one’s character, which is itself a

distillation of one’s country and one’s nature. Thoreau’s work is designed to rekindle

the Utopian hopes which had earlier ignited the striving for American greatness, by

extending the revolution in American culture into new linguistic and personal domains.

He ofers himself as an example, hoping to show that quiet desperation can be overcome

by understanding the ways in which people determine to follow fate. Things are

mistaken for what they appear to be: society (a collective experiment) for fate, such that

society becomes fate. Again, Cavell has seen this clearly:

Society remains as mysterious to us as we are to ourselves, or as God is. That we are the
slave-drivers of ourselves … is an open realisation of what we have made of the prophecy
of democracy. It is what we have done with the success of Locke and the others in
removing the divine right of kings and placing political authority in our consent to be
governed together. That this has made life a little easier for some, in some respects, is a
less important consequence than the fact that we now consent to social evil. What was
to be a blessing we have made a curse. We do not see our hand in what happens, so we
call certain events melancholy accidents when they are the inevitabilities of our projects,
and we call other events necessities because we will not change our minds. The essential
message of the idea of a social contract is that political institutions require justifcation,
that they are absolutely without sanctity, that power over us is held on trust from us, that
institutions have no authority other than the authority we lend them, that we are their
architects, that they are therefore artefacts, that there are no laws or ends, of nature or
justice, in terms of which they are tested. They are experiments.74

In ‘The Ponds’ Thoreau discusses the theme of grounds and dreams. Walden pond can be

sounded, measured; there are bottoms everywhere, as Thoreau has it: like Wittgenstein,

he knows that explanation has to stop somewhere, that bedrock will turn the spade; yet

as long as men believe in the infnite, they will fnd bottomless ponds.75 Human ambition

and hope transcends the apparently fnite world; the sparks of Utopia exist in the

mundane debris of everyday life, yet these sparks need to be stoked into fames by means

of a larger recognition of reality. Thoreau memorably wrote:

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and
slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion
which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and
Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we
come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and
no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui, below freshet and frost and fre, a place
where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not
a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams
and appearances had gathered from time to time.76

It is Thoreau’s task, and by extension, the task of the writer, to bring the reader to a sense

of where the bottoms are, of what it is to have a true conviction, of the requirement of

the citizen to seize their sense of the true necessities that society entails. Thoreau is

gesturing towards the idea (also notably explored later by Wittgenstein) that the many

important aspects of life which are vague and difcult to understand must not be avoided

by a philosophical culture desperate to establish validity before or increasingly against

God.77 The writer is presenting reality not through careful and reproducible dissection

but by referring to some common context of experience, some specifc cultural tradition.

Kafka wrote:

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fst hammering on our skull, why
then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if
we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves.
But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress
us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must
be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.78

For Kafka books may intervene in one’s life; writing can have a literally redemptive

power.79 Likewise, for Thoreau writing can be disclosive; it can be an extension of one’s

nature and one’s senses, a way of seeing. By fnding the right way to speak, America

can be brought to its senses. The capacity writing has to become part of life, can be

approached when it is able to catch a common context or specifc cultural tradition in

such a manner as to bring alive the problems people face, to show as Thoreau would have

it, their force and necessity. It is undoubtedly a troubling task facing the writer to give

people a way of speaking clearly about things that are murky and difcult to grasp; to

develop a translucent, clear quality to one’s writing. It is also, however, just as important

to give people a way to recognise what it is that they do not in fact understand; to be

ambiguous and rhetorical when mere facts ofer little solace. Prudence depends upon

the recognition of the limits to one’s clarity. Thoreau is exemplary in his troubled

understanding of this problem.

Thoreau hoped to bring to the surface the nature of writing in his work. This is

perhaps clear, for instance, in Thoreau’s sense of ‘words’. In the ‘Economy’ chapter of

Walden, Thoreau talks of commerce. One of the central features of modern civilisation is

the vastly augmented power of the language of commerce. Society is read as a ‘contract’;

people ‘exchange’ love and hate, they ‘invest’ their feelings as much as their time and

money. These words, as Marx understood, became fetishized; as the abstract laws of

capital wind themselves up into a simulacrum of life, the tracks of the machine age mark

more than the path of industry. Thoreau said of the steam train:

When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with snort like thunder, shaking the
earth with his feet, and breathing fre and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged
horse or fery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if
the earth had got a new race worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made
their elements their servants for noble ends!80

Words are, for Thoreau, precious because they can ofer a resistance to this

determination to embrace fate; they need to be listened to, for the prophetic sound of

the owl, or the glimmer of dawn. Words embody the sociological fate of America, since

a democracy needs “clarity and precision in public discourse”.81 For this reason, words

need to cut through convention. In ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,’ Thoreau

expresses what he felt it could be like when words truly disclose the world:

If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both
its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart
and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career.82

The task of the writer is to distort the language of commerce and the clothes habitually

embraced and conventionally chosen. For America, Cavell argues, “an epic ambition

would be the ambition to compose the nation’s frst epic, so it must represent the

bringing of language to the nation, words of its own in which to receive instruction, to

assess its faithfulness to its ideal”.83 This is the attempt to revitalise language; to bring to

it a sense of the gap between what is exchanged in words and what remains. (This means

that an American epic isn’t going to be able to achieve its efects by massing the detail of

a way of life, as in, say, the writings of Balzac, but by reconfguring the world as it appears,

bringing out its proper but hidden meanings.) Thus the march of commerce noted by

Tocqueville can be answered by a critical articulation of the incompleteness or lack of

self-evidence of the fully realised commercial life. Thoreau wrote:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that
they can understand you … I fear chiefy lest my expression may not be extra-vagant
enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience,
so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. … The volatile truth
of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement. Their

truth is instantly translated; its literal monument alone remains. The words which express
our faith and piety are not defnite; yet they are signifcant and fragrant like frankincense
to superior natures.84

Thus, as with Emerson, the intellectual is to be committed to truth above all; he or

she is not to try to speak “so that they can understand you,” for that would be to

merely reproduce the positive language of ‘opinion and prejudice’. Thoreau not only

supplements Kantianism with a language of moods—as with Emerson—but also with

a recovery and quest for ‘facts,’ things-in-themselves, which surely would cut through

appearances, or the shrouding conventions of gentility. Integrity stands as the invocation

of this quest, its mode. The shucking-of of unnecessary clothes and the grasping of

the neighbouring of self and world combine in a form of active revitalisation: a calling

to arms that hopes through a fronting of the facts of the ‘activity’ of knowing thyself,

to deepen the possibilities of a ‘fragrant’ experience of words. The tracks this process

follows are laid down by the apprehension of nature and the contemplation of the

writer’s response; but more than this, they are given by the self-conscious efort to put

into words subordinated for other purposes a sense of the world.85 What is important

here is the expression in Thoreau of the duty of the writer or the ‘serious reader’ to

pursue a lonely course, to strip away convention and obey an inner conscience. We have

here a critical perspective, one that resists the utilitarian mode that would enslave truth

to know-how. Thoreau follows Emerson in concentrating on the need for individuals to

see things clearly for themselves.86 He is re-presenting and expanding upon Emerson’s

notion of the self-reliant scholar; healing language, bringing “our ordinary assertions back

into a context where they are alive,” a context, it would seem to Thoreau, where society

is ‘transparent’ to Man.87 Thoreau tells us Fate is overcome by developing within reason

a distinct relationship between human reason and its conditions, a development only

accessible to the ‘sojourner’ who has visited his or her own Walden.

Whilst Thoreau touches at one end of the American experience; Melville reaches

towards the other. Melville’s Moby-Dick rehearses the weight of fate—Ahab rages against

Nature and Fate, such that “This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by

thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ Lieutenant;

I act under orders. Look though underling! that thou obeyest me.”88 Thoreau, on the

other hand, hopes to fnd a way out, and feels that a way out is near by. Where Thoreau

transcends society through nature, Melville brings us a modern capitalist carnage. We are

not without hope—Marshall Berman has written of Marx:

The great gift he can give us today, it seems to me, is not a way out of the contradictions
of modern life but a surer and deeper way into these contradictions. He knew that the
way beyond the contradictions would have to lead through modernity, not out of it. He
knew we must start where we are: psychically naked, stripped of all religious, aesthetic,
moral haloes and sentimental veils, thrown back on our individual will and energy, forced
to exploit each other and ourselves in order to survive; and yet, in spite of all, thrown
together by the same forces that pull us apart.89

It is this very image of the naked human thrown back upon itself, that sits so

ambiguously at the centre of American culture. In America a terrible price is paid for the

incessant stripping of moral haloes and sentimental veils. Yet American culture is not

only subjected to the dominion of this singular image; there are also many attempts to

make sense of community in America, and of intellectual and republican virtue; attempts,

as Thoreau and Emerson demonstrate, to bring the power of a revitalised individuality

to bear upon the life of the community. Thereby, momentarily and occasionally, a sense

of society as a collective project, as a hazardous journey or a dangerous voyage, becomes


Emersonian dissent seems peculiarly central to grasping the condition of the liberal

intellectual, who is torn between self-reliance and a search for acknowledgement from

others. Before a greater understanding of this condition is possible, however, it is

necessary to grasp the impact of two romantic visions, each cutting across the other,

upon American intellectuals: the frst was that of democracy, as it was potently presented

by Whitman, the second was that of pragmatism. The counterpoised yet related forces

of self-reliance, pragmatism and democracy seemed to many intellectuals to defne

America’s destiny.


1 W. Whitman, ‘Democratic Vistas,’ p. 496.
2 S. Bercovitch, ‘New England’s Errand Reappraised,’ p. 99.

3 Cited L. Bersani, The Culture of Redemption, p. 136.
4 Cited ibid., p. 137.
5 F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (Oxford: 1968),
p. vii.
6 Kazin was rather scathing in his attacks on Matthiesson’s later complicity with the Stalinst left—see A.
Kazin, New York Jew (London: 1978). However Kazin’s On Native Grounds followed in Matthiesson’s footsteps,
in terms of its scale, ambitions, and dialectial openess. See M. Dickstein, Double Agent: The Critic and Society
(New York and Oxford: 1992), pp 106-108; 153-4.
7 W. Phillips, ‘The Intellectuals’ Tradition,’ The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. by George B. de
Huszar, (Glencoe, Ill.: 1960), p. 480.
8 Kazin and Howe have echoed this sense of the past in the last decade—I. Howe, The American Newness:
culture and politics in the age of Emerson
(Cambridge, Mass.: 1986), A. Kazin, An American Procession (London:
9 I. Howe, The American Newness, pp. 88-89.
10 It was dialectical because it resisted the tendency to give in to either the audience, or the autonomous
demands of the supposedly transcendental artist.
11 Grasping this sense of identifcation yet simultaneous otherness was crucial for the New York intellectual
group in this century; the experience of the ‘Concord school’ was a signifcant episode in the formation of
their sense of American identity.
12 R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart, p. 33.
13 I would like to emphasise here that although I am straying into a well studied and reconstructed period
and topic, I am not doing so as a literary critic or even (quite) as an intellectual historian. I am trying to
examine the ambiguities concerning society and the pursuit of happiness, that the discourse concerning
the notion of self-reliance often brings to the surface; to relate aspects of the American literary canon to
the interests of the political theorist and cultural critic. My primary concern is with the manner in which
certain languages of criticism have prospered, and the extent to which this prosperity can be linked to the
achievement and embodiment of cultural values that have not lost their currency. I am interested in the
ways in which thinkers earn articulacy. This dissertation is an implicit, but not explicit, meditation upon
the relevance of canons. Of course, I am claiming that canons are not external features of the world much
like storms; they are tools that we can learn to use, or that we can fail to use. We are only as intelligent, one
could say, as we are able to collectively become intelligent. This is an important point that I will return to
later. I have drawn inspiration most readily from the thinking of Stanley Cavell, since he has attempted to
take Emerson and Thoreau seriously as American thinkers, and has not done so in a narrowly analytic, or
political, manner: see especially S. Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago:
1988); Conditions handsome and unhandsome: the constitution of Emersonian perfectionism (Chicago: 1990); ‘An
Emerson Mood,’ The Senses of Walden, (Chicago: 1992a), pp. 141-160; The Senses of Walden (Chicago: 1992b), and
S. Mulhall, Stanley Cavell: Philosophy’s recounting of the ordinary (Oxford: 1994).
14 R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), p.
15 Ibid., p. 53.
16 Ibid., p. 69.
17 Ibid., pp. 70-1.
18 R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), pp. 5-49.
19 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (London: 1989), p. 17. Note also the
argument of Philip Nicolof: “More and more Emerson was inclined to explain the human past, present, and
future in terms of some long-range destiny implicit in racial seed and the fated cycle of circumstance. The
dominant concern was no longer with the possibility of private ecstasy, but rather with the endless pageant
of racial man advancing irresistibly out of his “dread origin” in “the abyss” towards a ripeness of vision which,
once held, could only ebb away into over-fneness and loss of power.” Cited p. 35.
20 As West calls it following Sydney Ahlstrom and Harold Bloom, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 17.
21 Cited in V. L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: 1930), vol. 2, p. 386.
22 R. Lebeaux, The Young Man Thoreau (Amherst: 1977), esp. chp. one, pp. 9-27.
23 S. Danly and L. Marx, The Railroad in American Art: Representations of Technological Change (Cambridge, Mass.:
1988), R. Lebeaux, The Young Man Thoreau, L. Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral in
(London: 1967). On the ‘Gilded Age’ see A. Trachtenberg, ed., Democratic Vistas, 1860-1880 (New York:
1970) and The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: 1982).
24 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ Walden, and Resistance to Civil Government, Authoritative Texts, Thoreau’s Journal,
Reviews and Essays in Criticism,
ed. by William Rossi, (New York: 1966), pp. 14-5.
25 See S. Bercovitch, ‘Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,’ South Atlantic Quarterly, 89:
Summer (1990) 623-62.
26 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), p. 261.
27 See P. Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge, Mass.: 1950).
28 One is reminded, perhaps, of Wordsworth’s poem of loss, ‘Tintern Abbey,’ and the failure he felt of
childhood memories in the face of adult life.
29 (my italics), cited in V. L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York: 1930), vol. 2, p. 306.
30 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ p. 267. His friendship with Carlyle perhaps allows us to locate his sense of

‘great’ here with more precision. See R. Williams, Culture and Society (London: 1982), and H. James, ‘Emerson
and Carlyle,’ The American Essays, ed. by Leon Abel, (Princeton, NJ.: 1989). Carlyle was a huge infuence on
Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.
31 Cited in J. Porte, Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time (New York: 1979), p. 304.
32 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, pp. 12-13.
33 Ibid., pp. 12-13.
34 R. W. Emerson, ‘Politics,’ Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. by Joel Porte, (New York: 1983), pp. 567-8.
35 R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar,’ p. 54.
36 See, in particular, M. M. Sealts Jr., Emerson on the Scholar (Columbia: 1992).
37 Which would lead to a condition where “all of us apologize when we ought not, and congratulate ourselves
when we ought not”. C.f. discussion of Cavell in chapter 4 below.
38 R. B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition (Cambridge: 1990), pp. 34-58. As Emerson
put it, “in fne, the ancient precept ‘know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘study nature,’ become at last one
maxim”. R. W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar,’ p. 56. In a revision of Kant, the Romantics attempted to
extend the notion of ‘experience’ to include emotions and ‘moods’. They suggested that above and beyond
a level of action and engagement adequate to the reproduction of the world as it was, there stood a possible
relationship to the world, willed and far from necessary, that recognised some ‘higher’ unity, some ‘natural
supernaturalism’. (See M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature
(New York: 1971).)
39 R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature,’ p. 47.
40 Ibid., p. 59.
41 See R. B. Goodman, American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, especially pp. 34-57. The notion
of bondage here resonates with the ‘slavishness’ to the past which would later be understood as an
instrumentalisation of thought by Theodor Adorno, as we shall see in chapter 5 below.
42 R. W. Emerson, ‘Nature,’ p. 61. The similarities between this position, and that developed amongst
Jeferson and his colleagues, are obvious enough.
43 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ p. 263.
44 C.f. M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays (London: 1981), J. O. Y. Gasset, The Revolt of the
(Notre Dame, Indiana: 1985), and V. Havel, ‘Politics and Conscience,’ Václav Havel, or, Living in Truth,
ed. by Jan Vladislav, trans. by E. Kohák and R. Scruton (London: 1987).
45 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ pp. 259-260.
46 Consistency implied to Emerson a conformity to past images. As with Nietzsche one can recognise a
belief in the redemptive power of action and will, as if Emerson thinks that good action depends upon
clearing away the ties of social habit: daring to be diferent; such that being diferent delivers all the good
consequences that count in a conventional world. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power (New York: 1968).
47 However, it must be noted that both Nietzsche and Emerson were operating in contexts that they believed
were primarily characterised by the existence of stagnant conventions: at times in which a ‘revolution of the
spirit’ was necessary, audacity was legitimate. See, classically, F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance.
48 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ pp. 262-3. See, also, the discussion in S. Cavell, ‘An Emerson Mood’.
49 C. West, The American Evasion of Philosophy, p. 37.
50 R. W. Emerson, ‘Self-Reliance,’ p. 267.
51 As Thoreau put it, “Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength”. ‘Walden,’ p. 7.
52 S. Bercovitch, ‘Emerson, Individualism, and the Ambiguities of Dissent,’ p. 342.
53 Ibid., p. 345.
54 D. W. Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience: An Inaugural Lecture delived before the
University of Oxford on 21 May 1990
(Oxford: 1990), p. 21.
55 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Resistance to Civil Government,’ Walden, and Resistance to Civil Government, Authoritative
Texts, Thoreau’s Journal, Reviews and Essays in Criticism,
ed. by William Rossi, (New York: 1966), p. 235.
56 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 227.
57 Ibid., p. 237.
58 Ibid., p. 226.
59 D. W. Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience, p. 18.
60 Ibid., p. 31.
61 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 234.
62 Ibid., p. 235.
63 D. W. Howe, Henry David Thoreau on the Duty of Civil Disobedience, p. 2.
64 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Resistance to Civil Government,’ p. 243.
65 Ibid., p. 244.
66 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden. See also J. Bennett, Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Thousand
Oaks: 1994), M. E. Moller, Thoreau in the Human Community (Amherst: 1980), S. Paul, The Shore of America:
Thoreau’s Inward Journey
(Orbana: 1972), H. D. Peck, Thoreau’s Morning Work: Memory and Perception in A Week on
the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden
(New Haven: 1990).
67 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 80.
68 Ibid., pp. 85-6.
69 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ pp. 15-16.
70 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 53.

71 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 3.
72 Ibid., p. 5.
73 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 99.
74 Ibid., p. 82.
75 Ibid., pp. 73-77.
76 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 66.
77 For Wittgenstein’s argument, see F. Ciof, ‘Why do empirical methods bypass ‘The Problems which
Trouble Us’?,’ Philosophy and Literature, ed. by A. Phillips Grifths, (Cambridge: 1984).
78 Cited in G. Steiner, Language and Silence (London: 1985), p. 88. Also, see E. Canetti, The Conscience of Words
(New York: 1979).
79 Such expectations are perhaps far too immoderate to act as anything more than a vague irritant for a
writer. Yet the quality of compulsion Kafka here expresses is of great interest. Both George Steiner and
Elias Canetti, for instance, felt that this compulsion makes explicit the manner in which a book can become
a character in the narrative of a human’s life—a participant in that life. See Canetti’s autobiography: The
Tongue Set Free
(London: 1987); The Torch in my Ear (London: 1989); and The Play of the Eyes (London: 1990).
80 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ pp. 78-9.
81 M. P. Kramer, Imagining Language in America: from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton, New Jersey:
1992), p. 120.
82 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ p. 66.
83 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden, p. 13.
84 H. D. Thoreau, ‘Walden,’ pp. 216-7.
85 This may very well be mysticism: Thoreau’s texts are, however, still remarkably powerful. They derive this
power, it may be surmised, from the subtle confounding of expectations that his use of words conveys.
86 That is, it is not enough to just concentrate on bringing everyone into the conversation; seeing things
clearly also matters. Dewey recognises that everyone needs to be given the best education, to instil the
right sorts of habits and values, yet he fnally relies upon a ‘procedural’ solution—that is, he hopes that
conversation in the public sphere will be able to resolve all problems. This subdued Hegelianism fails to
recognise that ‘wording the world’ is an open-ended task that requires a more critical and less sanguine
attitude towards the possible strengths of democracy. See J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the
Public Sphere
(Cambridge: 1989).
87 S. Cavell, The Senses of Walden.
88 Cited in C. L. R. James, American Civilization (Oxford: 1993), p. 82.
89 M. Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air, p. 129. C.f. the vision of political integrity—the stripping of
haloes—exemplifed in the work of Karl Kraus and H. L. Mencken.
90 See M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays (London: 1981).

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