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Albena Bakratcheva


In his lecture "The Transcendentalist", delivered in Boston in 1842, Ralf Waldo Emerson observed: "It is well known to most of my audience that the Idealism of the present day acquired the name Transcendental, from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Koenigsberg... The extraordinary profoundness and precision of that man's thinking have given vogue to his nomenclature, in Europe and America, to that extent, that whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought, is popularly called at the present day Transcendental." (The Complete Works I, 317). Emerson's words, on the one hand, pay tribute to Kant's philosophy and also point at the clarity of the term as used in his present-day America. Moreover, they explicitly address a knowledgeable audience, which hardly needs any further explanations at all. On the other hand though, Emerson's words express his inner resistance to a mode that tends to erase all the essential discrepancies in postkantian thought - both in Europe and in America. Emerson would therefore never speak of American "Transcendentalism" and would emphasize in his lecture that "what is nowadays popularly called transcendental, is actually idealism - idealism as it reveals itself in 1842" (The Complete Works I, 318). Obviously, by entitling his lecture "The Transcendentalist" (rather than "Transcendentalism"), i.e. by deliberately choosing the personification of the term for his title, Emerson was already making a point. Five years earlier, in 1837, he had proved himself preoccupied with "Man Thinking" and had named him "The American Scholar"; in 1842 he was already coming up with the more specified naming of "The Transcendentalist". Another two years later, in 1844, he would finally glorify Man Thinking by calling him "The Poet". (The adjective "American", although dropped, would always remain indispensable.)

It was not so much that for Emerson the word "Transcendentalism" only naturally denoted a transatlantic, alien philosophy, but rather that from his side of the ocean he was viewing that philosophy with proudly American transatlantic eyes. In fact, what interested Emerson most in the late 1830s/the early 1840s was not the philosophical doctrine of transcendentalism per se, but rather the creation of an image and, also, of a style of life. As a result, the transcendental reached New England already personified: the Transcendentalist became an announced and named figure in New England's spiritual and cultural life. In what follows I will argue that if the Emersonian figure of the American Transcendentalist was offering such an incredibly thrilling and rewarding "breath of mind" (Frothingham 134) to all New England intellectuals of the time, it was mostly because of its strongly emphasized transatlantic identity, i.e. because of its explicit belonging to New England - despite and beyond the influences of European postkantian thought.

Emerson tended to see the transatlantic physical remoteness as an essential difference; "trans" for him - and thence for all the transcendentalists, - meant also "trans" the transatlantic similarities: not only with regard to the preservation of the individual identity, but also for the sake of exposing its unique New England character. It was not that much because of the originality of his ideas, but mostly because of his intellectual and artistic glamour along with his dignified American self-recognition that Emerson was so significant for his country's culture.

Protestantism without the church, spiritual leadership without the institutional pulpit, democracy of and for the spirit - this is what Emerson pleaded for, declaring present - on a more idealistic rather than on a realistic level, - the new figure of the free and creative American intellectual. "Here, here in America is the home of Man" (The Complete Works XI, 540), he insisted, making it clear that his "Man Thinking", or "The Transcendentalist", was not only exceptional, but was exceptional mainly because of being located in America and not elsewhere. Emerson saw the advantages of an American place sense not simply in terms of a constant intellectual awareness, but mostly on the grand scale of the global puritan vision of the New World as the New Jerusalem - as the age-old European dream for new skies and a new land from John's revelation fulfilled. The transcendentalist sheer consciousness of America's genius loci was, in other words, traditionally overloaded with the founding fathers' visions as well as with a proud personal identification with their grand spiritual mission. "There are new lands, new men, new thoughts", Emerson exclaimed in Nature (Selected Essays 15) and in this echo to apostle John left no doubt that "there" could only mean America.

To see himself as the proud successor of a great and unique in its character deed in the history of humankind was an extremely productive self-esteem that instilled the New England Transcendentalist's vocation of a poet-priest with a specific pilgrim magnitude. The settlers' times provided him with the sense of a distinctively American tradition, they gave him a unique American archetype of a wholesome and productive life in nature, together with a rich - and distinctively American again, - metaphorical range of thought and expression.

Treasuring the pilgrim's spirituality, their first-hand experience, as Emerson put it in Nature, the New England Transcendentalist did also possess the artistry and the intellectual refinement of the early 19th century. No better combination could have been possible: the Transcendentalist personified a formula of succession, rewardingly enriched by the influences of European Romanticism. If he was able to resolutely change the institutional temple of the church for a new one - the temple of Nature, - it was because he had found a novel, contemporary perspective both towards his own self and the American, or puritan tradition behind him. From this perspective he could already see himself as the Poet, the Transcendentalist, the godly I, the scholar, the intellectual, the new spiritual leader. As for the puritan forefathers' tradition, he reformulated it this way: as a nonvisible for the pretranscendental mind visibility, now reinvigorated and refocused on the creative powers of the individual self whose true abode was nature. The image of the Emersonian Transcendentalist could not possibly have been more attractive.

Individualism in New England was influenced, of course, by postkantian thought that reached America through the writings of the British romantics, but before all it was a spiritual renaissance of the New England identity that flourished through the newly recognized and enormous creative powers of the I (as America also). It was Emerson's productive usage of the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle that certainly made these authors influential in his country; but it is more than clear that the productivity of Emerson's mediation was due to his constantly kept and always insisted upon differentiation from the British authors. Never ever during the decades of fruitful intellectual communication with them did Emerson lose his sense of criticism, i.e. his sense of personal merit that expanded far beyond any role of a talented follower. He never ceased sticking devotedly to his American otherness - to the transatlantic identity of the American Transcendentalist, - thus proving self-reliance as a truly working individual disposition with regard to authors he was undoubtedly fond of. Emerson's criticism for his contemporary British co-thinkers was mostly a matter of inner resistance against this inevitable and powerful presence that made it difficult for him (and for Thoreau too) to remain a authentic New Englander (Mackintosh 59).

Emerson's first trip to Europe was nothing but a disappointment (maybe a sought after one) with the already aged British authors. Emerson found them lacking an insight for "the religious truth" (The Journals III, 186), thus pointing at the reason for his disapproval: they were too narrow-minded, i.e. too English to be capable of reaching at the "higher laws" of the ultimate truth that he labeled "religious". Having realized this, Emerson felt free to plead for the cause of "new lands, new people, new skies". He did, however, highly estimate Wordsworth's works for what he called "the marriage of nature and mind" restored (The Journals III, 186): it was exactly Wordsworth (and not the German thinkers and poets of the time) whom Emerson, together with all 19th-century New England intellectuals, considered the modern poet of nature. I find it worthwhile noting here, that all the comparative critical studies of Emerson's and Wordsworth's works deal with the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and to a great extent with Wordsworth's poetry on the one hand, while on the other hand they focus entirely (with the only exception of Woodnotes) on Emerson's essays. The obvious reason for that is, of course, that as a poet Emerson is by no means equal to Wordsworth. In my thinking though the more important reason is the one pointed at by Emerson himself - namely, that it is the ideas that he treasures in Wordsworth and not their realization, which he seldom sees as "adequate" (this can be taken as another proof of Wordsworth's importance for the German transcendental thought reaching America). Moreover, this seemingly strange differentiation between worthiness and worthlessness in Wordsworth's works contains in itself a sheer self-observation on Emerson's part: it refers to both his inclination toward exceedingly abstract thinking (hence his criticism for Wordsworth's "too English narrow-mindedness") and his incapability of (and hence everlasting, sometimes even dramatic strive for) immediate sensitive experience. So Emerson's resistance against Wordsworth's power of influence follows both these directions: he would take the ideas that he likes, but will make them vastly spacious, while in the same time would quite deliberately not write poetry a la Wordsworth.

It is even more interesting and important to pay attention to something else here. When accusing Wordsworth of narrow-mindedness, Emerson definitely considers his own utmost abstractness an advantage; it won't take him long to realize this advantage as compatible with the "vast geography" of the New World. When considering Thoreau's writings though - and inevitably comparing himself with his younger co-thinker, - Emerson would treasure Thoreau's vivid, sensitive imagery and would definitely regard his own vagueness as a disadvantage already. So it turns out that the same characteristic is being dealt with in purely contrastive terms when transatlantic relations are considered - and when they aren't.

Obviously the genius loci of America was a decisive factor in Emerson's thinking. And if this was so clear in his attitude toward Wordsworth, it was not less valid for his approach toward Coleridge and Carlyle. This was an entirely intellectual relation though, that was - unlike the case with Wordsworth, - far from any emotions. And it was exactly the intellectual sphere where Emerson would never feel threatened. His differentiation from Coleridge and Carlyle he would seek - and find - through "americanizing" the thoughts he shared by appropriating them to categories like vast spaces, democracy, or freedom, but before all - through personifying his British co-thinkers' ideas. The transatlantic response to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, or Percy Byshe Shelley's "A Defense of Poetry", came as Emerson's "The Poet", or "The American Scholar": even the mere placing of the transatlantic titles together would serve to exemplify how Emerson's personifying mechanism unfolded, as well as to once again prove, that no matter how much Emerson's thinking owed to Postkantianism and its British versions, it can be adequately measured only by the distant horizons of the American landscape and the deepest New England tradition of puritan self-focusedness.

Emerson's idea of the Poet-Priest, or the American Transcendentalist, was so influential among the members of Concord's Transcendental Club, that indifference to it was impossible: no matter how the different transcendentalists' opinions crept between messianism slightly touched by artistry and artistry slightly touched by messianism, the Emersonian Poet-Priest remained the unquestionable center of the transcendentalist movement - its absolute ideal. Emerson's idea was vague enough and lacked the clarity a tight aesthetical system would require, simply because it was not a part or category of a disciplined intellectual construct, but was itself the mirror reflection of what it personified - the poetic inspiration. This was the Transcendentalist's sanctum sanctorum, his true aesthetical-religious cult. Understanding poetry as a supreme sanctification activity equal to religion was what actually made him see himself as the immediate heir of the great Mayflower forefathers. The rehabilitation of intuition, of the irrational element in man's spiritual experience, served therefore as the linking bridge between Massachusetts of the inspired puritan new settler and Massachusetts of the inspired Emersonian Transcendentalist.

In fact, the very word "Transcendentalism" was more disconnecting rather than unifying the New England intellectuals of the time. Its personification therefore came to counterbalance what in the inherent abstractness of the borrowed European term could not be responded to in New England of the 1840s. More important than that though, its personification came to counterbalance what the borrowed European term could not respond to in New England of the 1840s: namely, the need for transatlantic intellectual self-identification. By giving New England horizons to postkantian thought, Emerson declared the true transatlantic identity of the American Man Thinking. By naming him "The Transcendentalist", he bestowed the American intellectual of his time with a rewardingly self-reliant individual and cultural independence.

"I am a mystic, a transcendentalist and a natural philosopher to boot", Henry David Thoreau wrote in his Journal (V, 4-5) a few years after Emerson had delivered his lecture. Thoreau was not simply echoing Emerson; he was already deeply intensifying the personification of the idea by identifying his own self with it. The Emersonian 3d person was already replaced by a 1st person expression: the transcendentalist was no longer spoken about, but began speaking in his own voice. "A man must find his occasions in himself...", Thoreau wrote in Walden (83) and did, in fact, find his occasions to be a Transcendentalist in his own self. He never wished to write an "Ode to Dejection" a la Coleridge, as he made it clear in Walden, and in his only work concerning his British co-thinkers, the essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works", blamed Carlyle for not being able to create a transcendent hero because of living in London and not in the open spaces of America. Thoreau's Transcendentalist led the purely transatlantic life of a New Englander; Thoreau the proud New Englander led the purely rewarding and enriching life of the transatlantic Transcendentalist.

Personifying the transcendental idea, Emerson came up with an ideal, theoretical construct that inherently belonged to New England. Thoreau went even further and installed the personified idea with his own life - a life unthinkable without and outside New England. Both men, followed by the rest of Concord's transcendental group, did actually add an extra "trans" to the European transcendental idea: they made it transatlantic not by simply borrowing it, but by adjusting it to a specifically New England visibility beyond the visible - and moreover, in Thoreau's own words, in a most important "nick of time" (The Journal IX, 160).




Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 12 vols., ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols., eds. William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960-1982.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Jr., New York-Toronto-London-Sydney-Auckland: Bantam Books, 1990.

Frothingham, O. B. Transcendentalism in New England, 1876; rpt. New York: Harper, 1959.

Mackintosh, James. Thoreau As Romantic Naturalist. His Shifting Stance toward Nature. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 14 vols., eds. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963.



© Albena Bakratcheva
© E-magazine LiterNet, 27.12.2007, № 12 (97)