THE NEW ENGLAND "CLUB OF THE LIKEMINDED": DISCORD
THE NEW ENGLAND "CLUB OF THE LIKEMINDED": DISCORD AND/IN CONCORD
James Freeman Clarke once dubbed the New England transcendentalists "the club of the like-minded: because no two of us think alike" (Thomas 1949: 130). The pun was good enough and moreover, truthful. Another contemporary, Noah Porter, noted with regard to the "club" that "the word Transcendentalism, as used in the present day, ... describes man, rather than opinions, since it is freely extended to those who hold opinions, not only diverse from each other, but directly opposed" (cit. Gray 1958: 97). Neither of these observations was actually meant to be critical, though. Instead of criticizing Concord's transcendentalists for being more discordant than concordant, both Clarke and Porter in fact praise them for that and, paradoxically enough, regard the very discord as a unifying basis, or a "club" distinction rather than the other way round. How paradoxical, however, such an approach actually was?
What lies behind it is Ralph Waldo Emerson's appeal for nonconformism, or "protest against usage and search for principles" (Emerson 1958: 25); it echoes the Emersonian "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist", or "Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world" (Emerson 1990: 151). In what follows I will argue that, extremely attractive as it was to all Concord's intellectuals of the time, Emerson's appeal for nonconformism pleasingly provoked all kinds of various and even contradictory responses, thus calling forth a sense of group/club belonging (Clarke's "us") in the form of utmost respect for the uniqueness of individual thinking. This 19th-century New England club-self-identification was thus the very manifestation of nonconformism itself. It reflected all the complexities - and bore all the practical consequences, - of Emerson's inspired imperative "Trust thyself!", "Insist on yourself!", "Be Self-Reliant!".
The "Hedge Club", or the group of the New England Transcendentalists, including Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Henry Hedge, George Ripley, Jones Very, Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and later Henry Thoreau, used to have it's irregular meetings mostly in Emerson's study. The Concord group took pleasure in regarding itself "informal", as this seemed closest to noninstitutional, or self-reliant. Yet, institutionally independent as it was, it was nonconformist and self-reliant in the sense of sticking to Emerson's idea - and this could not but cast it's members, these convinced believers in self-reliance, into Emerson's shadow - i.e., make them Emerson-reliant in many ways. It was Emerson exactly to warn against that: "The wise man must be wary of attaching followers - he wrote. - He must feel and TEACH that the best of wisdom cannot be communicated; must be acquired by every soul for itself." (Emerson 1960-1982: IV, 279). Still though, as his statement clearly shows, this was a matter of teaching to him. And teaching has always needed students: in fact, Emerson's warning against followers was one of those abstractions of his that could by no means be put into practice. Not that he was realizing that though. "Act singly - he would go on preaching in order to be listened to. - Your conformity explains nothing... what you have already done singly will justify you now." (Emerson 1990: 156). "Emerson's blindness about the dissonance between the message and the practice of his teaching" is how Lawrence Buell calls that in his brilliant recent book on Emerson (Buell 2003: 308). "Surely Emerson meant what he said when he declared that his goal as a teacher was not 'to bring men to me, but to themselves'" - Buell notes to conclude that "believing this repressed his [Emerson's] awareness of how the very act and scene of contact might plunge a serious auditor into a state of subjection, owing to the power of eloquence backed by the mystique of fame." (Buell 2003: 308).
The "Hedge Club" continued existing though, with neither Emerson, nor the club members seeing any contradiction between the sheer individualism they professed and the inevitable collectivity of their gatherings; the setting of Emerson's study and the presence of Emerson's authority figure, though possibly causing a sense of subjection at certain points, did always retain the irresistible attraction of free, dignified thinking and spiritual elevation. For, as it's first historian said, "Transcendentalism was... an enthusiasm, a wave of sentiment, a breath of mind" (Frothingham 1959: 134). And this enthusiasm, this wave of sentiment needed sharing, and was exceptionally rewarding and thrilling exactly as a SHARED "breath of mind". Moreover, the "Hedge Club" was entirely a New England product, New England's culture having always been a conversational culture, i.e. a culture of sharing. The "Hedge Club" could therefore nonproblematically combine "the new importance given to the single person" (Emerson 1990: 99), as Emerson put it in "The American Scholar", with the traditional puritan communal spirit, and not only accept, but desperately need a spiritual leader. Emerson was there to play the role and to play it perfectly. Without Emerson, the "Hedge Club" would have been impossible, of course; without the "Hedge Club", on the other hand, Emerson would have definitely been possible, though he would always have felt the need for a group or a club of co-thinkers anyway. So, differing in many of their opinions as they were - which, actually, was the major point of self-reliance, - the "Hedge Club" transcendentalists clung together and kept on making their daily journal entries with the clear-cut idea that these were written for the sake of becoming a "public domain", i.e. that the individual self, reflected in the journal, was finally to be shared with the club members - sometimes even with the readers of "The Dial", - and therefore had to wear a certain representativeness.
Thus journal keeping, this usually private discipline of mind and spirit, acquired a significant public and collective aspect with the Transcendentalists. By 1838, when Emerson and Alcott agreed that autobiography was the best kind of book (Emerson 1960-1982: V, 99), Emerson had been keeping his own journal for eighteen years and, convinced of its inestimable value to his own growth, had encouraged others in his circle to do so as well. "Is not the poet bound to write his own autobiography?" - Thoreau asked. - "Is there any other work for him but a good journal?" (Thoreau 1906: X, 115). "Writing is worthless except as the record of a life", Margaret Fuller declared; one's "book should be only an indication of himself" (Fuller 1860: 26). To what extent though? Emerson maintained simultaneously that "the soul's emphasis is always right" (Emerson 1903-1904: II, 145) and that "the individual is always mistaken" (Emerson 1903-1904: III, 69), which could not but result in a rather strict self-censorship. Although they attached a great theoretical importance to the self, all the Transcendentalists shared a basic reluctance about revealing themselves. Rooted in their belief that the individual is valuable ONLY in his universal aspects, this inhibition about the specifically personal only naturally led them to what seems quite IMPERSONAL a tone in most of their writings, their private journals included (see Buell 1973: 268-269). At the meetings of the Transcendental Club, Bronson Alcott recalled, "It was the fashion to speak against personality... and the favorite phrase was 'Impersonality'" (Gohdes 1931: 17). Without disregarding the different degrees of privacy disclosed in different transcendentalists' journals, it was this focusedness on the impersonal, universal self that served as a unifying principle within the transcendentalist group; in fact, it was a major reason for the very existence of Concord's "Hedge Club". The personal "I" of each "Hedge Club" member strove for the sharable elevation of the cosmic "I": sharing it was not only possible and achievable in peaceful concordance, but also very much wished for, as it was considered spiritually rewarding and enriching beyond measure. So the "Hedge Club" conversations kept on going, and so did the club readings from the transcendentalists' journals: all in the heightening and liberating atmosphere the nonconformist Emersonian "Trust thyself!" could produce. And Emerson was there to keep on assuring the club members that "A trust in yourself is the height not of pride, but of piety" (Emerson 1960-1982: III, 279)...
The Transcendentalist paradox of self-focusedness against self-transcendence thus made it possible for Concordians who didn't think alike, as James Freeman Clarke put it, to establish their "club of the like minded". This sense of belonging to a group of quite varied "Trust thyself" nonconformist members must have been extremely powerful, as it did not only arise from within, but was also distinctly visible from the outside - regardless of how the impression of the group's unitedness was qualified. The conservative "Princeton Review", for instance, found it necessary to warn its readers "against this German atheism, which the spirit of darkness is employing ministers of the gospel to smuggle in among us under false pretenses" (Princeton Review, 1958: XII, 71: 101). Consolidated as it looked, the "Hedge Club" was obviously not only making enemies, but consolidating them too. In his "American Notes" Charles Dickens offered another "unifying principle" for the Transcendentalist group: "I was given to understand - he wrote, - that whatever was unintelligible would be certainly Transcendental." (Dickens 2000: 127). Unintelligible or not, however, German or not, atheist or not, the Transcendental Club had unquestionably declared its powerful presence in 19th-century New England, tightly bound as it was by its fundamental nonconformism.
Wasn't this shared "Trust thyself" nonconformism, however, still getting close to a certain form of conformism, if conformism only with regard to the very idea of nonconformism? The ambivalent message in "I say unto you, be self-reliant" must often have felt confusing, even to Emerson himself. Hence his emphatic concern - predominantly theoretical, however, - about firsthand experience and being neither a follower, nor a one having followers. "All the mistakes I make arise from forsaking my own station and trying to see the object from another person's point of view" - Emerson wrote in his Journal in the early 1830s and resolutely concluded: "Henceforth I design not to utter any speech, poem, or book that is not entirely and peculiarly my work." (Emerson 1960-1982: IV, 274-335). Although this must have seemed to him a firm, if not even a revolutionary decision, it was nothing more than just another articulation of the previously said and written, and not only wasn't it a sensational revelation, but was already a generally followed transcendentalist assumption. How influential it was is indisputable; moreover, its influence spread in quite a span of time, as well as in various spheres of transcendental thinking and writing. Written almost ten years later, Margaret Fuller's essay on Shelley, for instance, offers a clear Emersonian echo in literary criticism: "It was not when he tried to express opinions which the wrongs of the world had put into his head, - Margaret writes, - but when he abandoned himself to the feelings which nature has implanted in his own breast that Shelley seemed to us so full of inspiration..." (Fuller 2000: 319). It seems that conforming to transcendental nonconformism, or self-reliance, was the self-reliant way that made Concord's "Hedge Club" possible; not a big wonder then, that after spending an evening with the newly married Ralph and Lidian Emerson, Alcott found but a "striking CONFORMITY of taste and opinion" between his views and theirs (Alcott 1838: I, 68-69).
Of course, when he wrote at midlife not with regret but with profound satisfaction that after "writing and speaking... for twenty five or thirty years, he had "not now one disciple" (Emerson 1960-1982: XIV, 258), Emerson was exaggerating; but the point is, as Lawrence Buell sheerly observes, that the thought of having "no school & no follower" was a "boast" rather than a lack (Buell 2003: 306). This was theory for theory's sake, entirely satisfactory as theory and having no regard to the practice: Emerson would never think of self-reliance in whatsoever terms of mentorship, as this would sharply contradict his insistent appeal for "acting singly". It was Emerson, however, who brought the teacher-student relation into focus as early as 1837 and ever since the "American Scholar" it was to remain a central transcendentalist issue: Bronson Alcott's educational policy, or Margaret Fuller's Conversations with Women were only to affirm its importance to the transcendental mind. In Emerson's thinking, though, "scholar" meant both teacher and student (see Sealts 1982: 180-190): this, on the one hand, provides a clue to Emerson's own understanding of his role in the Transcendental Club, and, on the other hand, offers, perhaps, an adequate approach to the most significant intellectual relation in the transcendentalist circle - that between Emerson and the 14 years younger Thoreau.
Was Thoreau an Emersonian? Or was he an anti-Emersonian? Was the influence only one-way? These question were very much present in 19th-century Concord already. The following story comes from Emerson's journal: "One of Thoreau's mother's boarders was holding forth on how Thoreau resembled Emerson. "'O yes', said his mother, 'Mr. Emerson had been a good deal with my Henry, and it was very natural that he should catch his ways'" (Emerson 1960-1982: XV, 490). How much was the Emerson-Thoreau relationship a matter of "catching" ways though?
"... if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him" (Emerson 1990: 100), Emerson proclaimed in his speech "The American Scholar" in 1837. A few years later Thoreau wrote in WALDEN: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.". (Thoreau 1963: 245). Thoreau's words as if echo Emerson's; in fact though, they don't. Thoreau is making a statement, while Emerson, addressing Harvard's "young men of the fairest promise" (Emerson 1990: 99), is actually making a fairest promise himself. While Emerson is offering an electrifying intellectual construct, Thoreau is speaking from his own, and moreover successful, life experience. What lies between Emerson's too general "single man" and Thoreau's too personal "I", is Thoreau's very own way from Emerson to Thoreau, i.e. his nonconformist way to nonconformism, or to the true experience of self-reliance. No doubt the electricity of "The American Scholar" - as well as that of NATURE a little earlier, - did reach young Thoreau at the time, provoking him intellectually, as it did the rest of the "Hedge Club" transcendentalists; first of all though, it affected him existentially - in a way it affected noone else. In 1837 Thoreau joined the "Hedge Club" in order to become the most "unlike minded" of its members. Two facts indicate that it was in this same year that he deliberately started to create his autobiography: first, he changed his name from David Henry to Henry David and second, he began his journal. While the second fact has always attracted a sheer critical attention, the first one doesn't seem to have been of more interest than either to be mentioned as a typical romantic gesture or to be just taken for granted and therefore not discussed. And it is exactly Thoreau's change of name that I will bring into focus here as Thoreau's earliest manifestation of nonconformism.
In her "Memories of a Sculptor's Wife" Mrs. Daniel Chester French writes: "Thoreau I was never fortunate enough to see... I loved to hear the farmers talk about him. One of them used to say: 'Henry D. Thoreau - Henry D. Thoreau', jerking out the words with withering contempt. 'His name ain't Henry D. Thoreau than my name is Henry D. Thoreau. And everybody knows it. His name is Da-a-vid Henry and it ain't been nothing but Da-a-vid Henry. And he knows that!" (French 1990: 42). What young Thoreau obviously knew better though, was that he already wanted to live deliberately; thus the change of name comes out as his very first deliberate act, the first announcement of a life to be lived deliberately. In fact, this was not a gesture of self-renaming, but the deliberate act of SELF-NAMING: twenty-year-old Thoreau transformed his given name into a self-expression of his personal choice. The change is seemingly insignificant, just a rearrangement; behind it though there is a whole universe turned upside down - the first becomes last, the last becomes first, the choice is no more made for, but by Thoreau. Concentrated as he already was on his own ego as the beginning of all beginnings, young Thoreau could not but feel the need for proper naming. His desire for adequacy between self and name is more than clear: both should be the result of deliberate choice and creative work. From such a viewpoint the very acceptance of the given name looks as conformism and Thoreau would by no means allow that: he chooses to be named Henry and from this moment on 'David' becomes no more than a euphonic transition to his family name, the sequence Henry David being definitely more harmonious than David Henry. Thoreau undoubtedly had this in mind, the born master of language, of all its nuances and melodious soundings, that he was. Hardly though, the musicality of his name has been the major reason for young Thoreau's decision.
But we can only guess here, as Thoreau provides no comment on changing his name. This fact can most likely be explained with young Thoreau having not yet formed the habit to write down his thoughts, and later - with the lack of interest towards something already taken for granted. The absent comment should not, though, undervalue the very act of Thoreau's self-naming. It is true, of course, that no author David Henry Thoreau ever existed and that the great writer to be, the future master of language and style, comes into the world already named as Henry David Thoreau; it is also true that Thoreau's critics have always been spoiled by the overabundance of written words that fix his "moments of being" and thus provide practically endless possibilities for interpretation. No less true, unfixed in words though it is, remains Thoreau's self-baptizement. This deliberate choice of name can and should be seen as the first step towards the great choice of Walden: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately" (Thoreau 1963: 67)...
In fact, Thoreau's self-naming is his earliest deliberate act of establishing adequacy, or "correspondence", between self and self-expression, i.e. between life and art. Thoreau's self-chosen self-name can therefore be thought of as a LITERARY WORK itself - the very first of Thoreau's works, all of them dominated by the confession made in WALDEN: "I should not talk as much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well." (Thoreau 1963: 1). Thoreau's life-long "talking about himself" actually begins with the creation of a self-name. This is how he first announces what he will always stick to - the organic relation of self and verbal self-expression.
"A man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth and his desire to communicate it without loss." (Emerson 1990: 29) This statement from Emerson's NATURE has obviously affected young Thoreau deeply; but as the pattern will soon be settled, Thoreau already specifies Emerson's abstractness, applying it to his own, real self. Twenty-year-old Thoreau already "connects his thought", his own being, with what he takes to be "its proper symbol" - his upturned given name, - and thus, "without loss", utters his own, absolutely nonconformist truth of himself. "Words are signs of natural facts" (Emerson 1990: 27), Emerson states in NATURE. Obviously between the two there should be a perfect harmony. The "natural fact" Henry David Thoreau comes to existence in exactly this perfect harmony with his chosen as adequate self-name; the verbal act of self-naming turns out to be the earliest announcement of this "natural fact" coming to life. Had this been the only example of the kind, the conclusion would still have been most certain: concentrated on his own "I" as he was in his early youth already, Henry David Thoreau could be noone's follower, i.e. could conform to noone, not even Emerson.
Another side of Thoreau's self-naming also deserves attention here. As his gesture is not one of assuming an entirely different name, but rather of rearranging his given name, Thoreau in fact does not come up with a pseudonym. In other words - and also etymologically speaking, - he doesn't coin a false name, but simply inserts a personal note in the name with which his life under the sun was begun. This fact is interesting and significant enough, especially when considered with respect to what Emerson calls "the new importance given to the single person" (Emerson 1990: 99), i.e. with respect to romantic individualism and the typical romantic preoccupation with proper names and namings. It is this sheer need for linguistic adequacy that brings forth Coleridge's idea of "organic poetry", close to which is the idea of establishing an "organic" relation between the poet and his name. European Romanticism offers a lot of examples here: thus, Friedrich Leopold Freiherr von Hardenberg becomes Novalis, so as to create the mystic beauty of his blue flower poetry and prose; Amantine-Aurore-Lucille Dupin gains fame as the talented and scandalous writer George Sand; Johann Paul Friedrich Richter comes to the world as the critic and writer Jean Paul... This can be continued, of course, the case remaining the same, though: what is being chosen, is a pseudonym, i.e. a false, untruthful name, as it differs from the given name. The result is a person, having actually two names - the artistic pseudonym as a writer and the given name in everyday life. This is the typical situation and, usually, it turns out to be very convenient; with the romantics though, it is overemphasized in terms of the impossible compatibility between the ideal world of art and the real world of life. Even more than that - the notions of truthful and untruthful change places as belonging to these two worlds with the result that the romantic imagination makes the pseudonym, the untruthful name, look a lot more truthful. The self-renamings of the European romantics are actually part of their favorite juggling with incompatible contrasts - a gameplay that involves the author's personality and moreover, becomes its utmost expression.
Such a thing is absolutely impossible with Thoreau; when it goes about existential truths, whatever games are simply unthinkable. That seriousness with which all the "Hedge Club" transcendentalists took the idea of art as an expression of character, is definitely most visible in Thoreau and already shows in the way he establishes adequacy between himself and his name: Thoreau's way to do that is not pseudonymic, but authenticonymic. Thoreau switches the places of his "natural" names, so as to achieve what he feels to be his most "natural" name: not long after that, in WALDEN, he will freely declare himself "a part of Nature". Thoreau's self-naming is aimed at the ONLY NAME - that name which will never ever be split into "artistic" and "real" and will be recognized as the only true one.
The name "Henry David" needs no clarifications and receives them not, not even in the literary encyclopedias, while "David Henry", if mentioned at all, remains a mere biographical detail. More than a biographical detail it cannot be, as Thoreau's autobiography begins as Henry David. And it is man's autobiography that Thoreau truly values - the personal choice of a deliberate, nonconformist life. Thoreau marks the beginning of his autobiography by naming himself; this is an act of self-initiation, a second birth just as natural as the first one, but this time including his deliberate participation. With the years Thoreau will go on looking at his name - as well as at other, especially Indian names, - and will discover inspiring quasietymologies: be it some distant relation between "Thoreau" and "thoroughness" that would lead him to pronouncing his name with the stress on the first syllable, be it some special closeness to the Scandinavian god of thunder and agriculture Thor. All this though originates in mostly a philological, rather than existential interest. Thoreau can afford it, as he has already become the "language maker" and the "namer" that Emerson wants the American poet to be; moreover, he has already given life to Emerson's intellectual construct - his own life. What will become important to young Thoreau from that moment on will be to keep on putting in words his already identified and named self. Henry David Thoreau begins his Journal as a nonconformist - not as an Emersonian, but already as a Thoreauvian.
In his recent book on Emerson Lawrence Buell sees the Emerson-Thoreau relation as reciprocal (Buell 2003: 300). This seems to really have been the case, especially in Emerson's eyes, no matter that Thoreau saw things differently and never quite got beyond the rebellious pupil stage (Buell 2003: 307). Convincing as it is with regard to the Emerson-Thoreau relation, the idea of reciprocity provides quite a good viewpoint towards the Emerson-"Hedge Club" relations too: it pictures an Emerson ready to teach, but also ready to learn, and it pictures him among a group of thinkers, all aiming at intellectual and spiritual mutuality. And although these thinkers might not always have been co-thinkers - conforming as they were to the Emersonian appeal for nonconformism, - it was the elevating atmosphere of spiritual sharing that they were all after. And so inspiring this shared "breath of mind" of Concord's Transcendental Club was, that it could make a mere visitor to New England like Charles Dickens confess, "If I were a Bostonian, I think I would be a Transcendentalist." (Dickens 2000: 131).
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© Albena Bakratcheva