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Literary Transcendentalism

Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance OPEN ACCESS

LAWRENCE BUELL
Copyright Date: 1973
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 352
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt1g69x7r
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  • Book Info
    Literary Transcendentalism
    Book Description:

    Broader in scope than any previous literary study of the transcendentalists, this rewarding book analyzes the theories and forms characteristic of a vital group of American writers, as well as the principles and vision underlying transcendentalism. All the movement's major literary figures and forms are considered in detail.

    Lawrence Buell combines intellectual history and critical explication, giving equal attention to general trends and to particular works and individuals. His chapters on conversation, religious discourse, catalog rhetoric, and literary travelogue treat intensively topics that have been relatively neglected. His analyses of Ellery Channing's poetry and the use of persona in Emerson and Very are also innovative. In the final section, he offers the first systematic account of the autobiographical tradition in transcendentalist writing.>pp>

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-0766-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction (pp. 1-20)

    The purpose of this book is to survey the literary art and criticism of the American Transcendentalists and to contribute in the process to a better understanding of the relationship between style and vision in all nonfictional literature.

    Most of what the Transcendentalists wrote falls into this category of nonfictional literature, presenting a mixture of piety, poetry, and sententiousness that is neither art nor argument but a compound of both. Their criticism shows a similar ambivalence. Largely for this reason, their aesthetic is still imperfectly understood, even though much scholarship has been devoted to various aspects of the movement. It...

  2. PART I. BACKGROUND AND GENERAL PRINCIPLES
    • The outstanding symbolic event in the history of Transcendentalism is Emerson’s resignation from his Boston pastorate in 1832 in order to become a scholar-at-large. Most of the other Transcendentalists were also Unitarian ministers or in some sense lay preachers who came to distrust the institutional aspects of religion and were drawn to the literary life. A number of those who began as clergymen defected like Emerson; most of the rest pursued literary avocations on the side. The writings of laymen like Thoreau, Alcott, and Margaret Fuller also have a religio-aesthetic cast. The best-known Transcendentalist periodical was rightly subtitled “A Magazine...

    • Since the Puritan ministers were traditionally the cultural as well as the religious leaders of their people, it was natural that their successors should participate actively in the so-called flowering of New England letters during the early nineteenth century. The best of the literary and intellectual periodicals which mark the first stage of this process were thus run and written largely by clergymen: theMonthly Anthology and Boston Review(1803-1811), theNorth American Review(1815-1939), and theChristian Examiner(1824-1869). What is more noteworthy about these experiments is that their clerical supporters were almost exclusively Unitarian ministers. The Orthodox Congregationalists...

    • We have witnessed the Transcendentalists’ admiration for the vocation of the poet-priest. But what exactly does such an individual do? What sort of utterance is demanded of him, and what sort of discipline must he master if he is to achieve it?

      At first sight, the Transcendentalists’ ideas about literary method seems rather desultory, even abortive. The couplet inscribed on Emerson’s graves tone would have made a good epitaph for the group as a whole: “The passive Master lent his hand / To the vast soul that o’er him planned.” All Transcendentalist attempts to describe how art is to be...

  3. PART II. THE LIVING WORD
    • When it came to putting their literary theories into practice, the Transcendentalists naturally relied to a large extent on the models most readily available to them. The next two chapters describe two such models, conversation and preaching, which may be regarded as those forms of self-expression most familiar to such provincial and aesthetically unsophisticated men and women as the Transcendentalists were upon entering adulthood. Generally speaking, they were far more sensitive connoisseurs of conversation and preaching than of the fine arts, and they tended to adapt the two forms for their own special purposes. Although the leading literary figures in...

    • If a writer believes that inspiration is more valuable than expression and that it cannot be fully expressed in any case, he is bound to ask himself at times, “Why bother to write at all?” The Transcendentalists often did. Partly for that reason, much of the spirit of the movement was never recorded in a lasting and memorable form. As an organized movement, Transcendentalism can almost be said to have begun and ended as a discussion group. Much of its internal ferment and a good deal of its external impact can be attributed to talkers like Aleott and Margaret Fuller;...

    • One of Hawthorne’s minor tales, “Passages from a Relinquished Work,” presents the confessions of an itinerant storyteller who finds that he has an alter ego, a wandering preacher. The storyteller is a runaway from home, a novice at his trade, painfully self-conscious of his inadequacies, aware that he is a charlatan. Even as he is telling his most famous story (which just happens to be called “Mr. Higgenbottam’s Catastrophe”), he has to admit to himself that he has no idea how it will end. Altogether he feels shamefaced and guilty about his calling, which he has taken up against the...

  4. PART III. WORD AND WORLD:: NATURE AS A MODEL FOR LITERARY FORM
    • Students of American literature have often commented on its solipsistic tendency. Following Emerson’s advice, many of our authors seem to have built their own fictional universes. Well before Yeats and Joyce invented private mythologies as a substitute for orthodox Christianity, Melville, Whitman, and Emily Dickinson had begun to devise for themselves esoteric vocabularies and symbolic systems. One scholar has even sought to trace this practice back to the Puritans.¹ Carried to its fulfilment, it has led to such works asEureka, Moby-Dick, The Bridge, Paterson,andGiles Goat-Boy,which A. D. Van Nostrand aptly calls “cosmologies,” or attempts to reconstruct...

    • Nature as a literary pursuit was an acquired taste for the Transcendentalists, sometimes never acquired at all. The majority of Transcendentalist ministers, for example, were content to celebrate “nature” and “cosmic unity” as splendid abstractions and perhaps dash off a few poems in their spare time on the “tender flush of vernal dawn” or the sublimity of Niagara Falls.¹ The prestige ofWaldenhas taught us to associate Transcendentalism with a “return to nature,” but in fact Thoreau was a less typical figure in this respect than Margaret Fuller, who “delighted in short country rambles” (Ossoli,I, 263) but was...

    • No element in Transcendentalist style is more responsible for its appearence of anarchy than what is generally called enumerative or catalogue rhetoric—that is, the reiteration of analogous images or statements in paratactic form, in prose or verse. Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Fuller, Parker, and Bartol all habitually express themselves in a barrage of aphorisms. This creates an impression of vigor and excitement, but also of rambling and redundancy. It seems that everything moves parallel, nothing moves forward. This suspicion is raised even more strongly by the poetry of Whitman, who cannot sing his “Song of Occupations” without naming them all:...

    • Most of Thoreau’s works might be described as catalogues extended through time and space. His favorite form, as noted earlier, is the romantic excursion: a ramble (“Walking”) or trip (Cape Cod) or sojourn (Walden) which takes on overtones of a spiritual quest as the speaker proceeds. Thoreau’s later journals have the same rhythm. Like the conversation, the sermon, and the essay, the excursion is also a potentially encyclopedic form. Though somewhat more controlled by the obligation to describe a particular setting, it tends to become, in effect, an account of the whole universe as it appears to the speaker, particularly...

    • Written largely during his years at Walden Pond,A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Riverscomes closer than any of Thoreau’s later writing to an unguarded expression of his relationship to nature.¹ InWaldenthe speaker is obviously much more familiar with his surroundings, but he is also more detached in his presentation of them: he begins and ends in polemic and the account of his experiences is subsumed within an analytical framework throughout. Much ofA Week,one feels,mighthave been taken straight from a journal, but very little ofWalden.This helps to makeWaldena...

    • To most students of American literature, William Ellery Channing II is known only as the protégé of Emerson, the friend and biographer of Thoreau, and the joke of criticism from Poe to the present.¹ He has been cited regularly, even by fellow Transcendentalists, as a case history of the dangers of taking Transcendentalism too literally. “Whim, thy name is Channing,” said Bronson Alcott (JA, p. 420), and he seems to have been right. Channing neglected his wife and children; he lived by sponging off his father, Emerson, and others; he was capricious with his friends. In his poetry, too, he...

  5. PART IV. THE FIRST PERSON
    • In the last two sections we have approached Transcendentalist literature as inspired utterance and as a form of nature. The Transcendentalist was no more deeply interested in spirit and nature, however, than he was in the human consciousness which experiences their power and the relationship between them. “Persons alone interest us,” affirms Emerson (JMN, VIII, 13). “Nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,” says the poet in Song of Myself” (1. 1271). William B. Greene rightly observed that “Transcendentalism sinks God and nature in man,”¹ in the sense that the Transcendentalists were ever-conscious of the centrality...

    • A recent critic of Melville has rightly remarked that “the American writer continually sings a ‘Song of Myself.’”¹ A number of American literary classics are autobiographies, from Benjamin Franklin to Richard Wright. In Afro-American literature, autobiography is the dominant genre; the tradition of the slave narratives of the nineteenth century has its contemporary analogues in Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Much of the best American fiction is also first-person narrative, in which the persona often seems strongly autobiographical:Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises,andInvisible Manare representative examples. American poetry is overwhelmingly lyric; American drama—the...

    • When comparing Emerson and Thoreau one inevitably wants to see the two men as representing the complementary sides of Transcendental individualism. Thoreau was self-reliant; Emerson was God-reliant. Emerson was diffident, Thoreau pugnacious. Emerson’s essays seem comparatively diaphanous and impersonal; Thoreau’s are concrete and crotchety. Roughly speaking, Thoreau seems to epitomize the colorful, abrasive, renegade side of the movement, along with Parker, Brownson, Ellery Channing, and perhaps Margaret Fuller; Emerson seems rather to speak for the more genteel, refined, contemplative side, along with most of the Transcendentalist ministers and Bronson Alcott.

      Since the main basis for these stereotypical images of Thoreau...

    • Jones Very and Walt Whitman would certainly have disliked sharing a chapter with each other, even though one of the Very family’s cats, “an enormous grey woolly” animal, was named after Walt.¹ Very’s austere pietism and Whitman’s metropolitan expansiveness do not mix. But they resemble each other in the lengths to which they go in experimenting poetically with the idea of the self. Emerson invented the equation which all such experiments assume, i = 1 (or self = Self, soul = Soul), but modestly refrained from exploiting it in his own person, except in a limited way. Thoreau presented a...

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This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
Funding is provided by National Endowment for the Humanities