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Arsic, Branka. 2010. On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. $51.50 hc. xi + 387.

Greenham, David. 2012. Emerson's Transatlantic Romanticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. $85.00 hc. xiv + 213.

Habich, Robert D. 2011. Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson's First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. $29.95 sc. $29.95 e. xxviii + 186.

Levine, Alan M., and Daniel S. Malachuk, eds. 2011. A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. $40.00 hc. $40.00 e. xi + 487.

Writing for a nation that had recently ended Reconstruction with a devil's bargain that took the federal government out of race politics, Emerson's first biographers had little incentive to commemorate him as a religious rebel who became an abolitionist. Rather, Emerson's legacy was first written in the affirming terms of a literary nationalism built around the heroic independence of the private individual. But in 1882 when Emerson died, even that effort faced significant obstacles because his name, like the word "Transcendentalism," was already shorthand for a self-indulgent posture of mystical optimism.

Despite the emerging caricature, oracular sketches of the sage of Concord always competed with serious efforts to grapple with Emerson's writing. Friedrich Nietzsche's absorption of Emerson's essays and John Dewey's 1903 commemorative essay "Emerson: Philosopher of Democracy" began a continuing project of incorporating Emerson's thought into analysis of identity, aesthetics, epistemology, and spirituality. Partly because of the caricature, Emerson's relevance to politics has always been ambiguous. Philosophers with a particular interest in public life have often addressed Emerson's writing. But they have tended to assume that Emerson's thought is fundamentally self-reflective and that its importance for politics is more implicit than explicit. The priority that George Kateb gives to "mental" over "active" self-reliance, for example, characterizes this approach to Emerson's thought about liberal political identity (2002,33-36). In recent criticism, however, it has become common to assume that Emerson's essays make explicit political interventions. Thus, in addition to its relevance for subjectivity, spirituality, aesthetics, and epistemology, Emerson's writing also bears on questions of community, structures of public authority, situated selfhood, citizenship, civic obligation, the value of institutional memberships, and other questions related to political integration.

The distinction between Emerson's implicit and explicit relationships to political thought is important because it repositions his project in relation to civil society. It makes him less a critic and skeptic trying to defend individuality against the alienations of mass democracy and industrialization, and more an affirmative theorist of communal relationships trying to envision citizens living in an actually existing civil society.

In the 1990s, works such as Len Gougeon's Virtue's Hero (1990), Phyllis Cole's Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism (1998), and Albert J. von Frank's The Trials of Anthony Burns (1998) led to extensive reconstruction of the Transcendentalists' involvement in politics. This research has demonstrated the depth and breadth of their involvement in antislavery and their advocacy of women's and Native American rights. As a result, where it was once reasonable to dismiss Emerson as politically irrelevant and to treat Transcendentalism as an effort to withdraw from the politics of Jacksonian democratization, it is now much more difficult to do so. On the other hand, with the reconstruction of Emerson's thought about race and slavery, recent historicist work has also made it easier to argue that Emerson's politics are either aggressively racist or methodologically reactionary. For example, in her recent history of race in the United States, Nell Painter (2010) singles Emerson out as a uniquely pernicious advocate of Anglo-Saxon superiority. Sean Wilentz (2005), thinking about the procedures that were most influential in the rise of American democracy, accepts the political nature of Emersonian idealism but positions it as a rearguard defense of civic republican elitism reacting against the popular organizations that would embody mass democracy.

The authors of the books reviewed below all assume that Emerson's thought was an explicit effort to imagine community. In relation to the construction of an Emerson engaged in reimagining the public sphere, each addresses one of two broad topics. First, Habich's book on Emerson biographies and Levine and Malachuk's anthology A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson are invested in presenting Emerson as a philosopher of the public sphere intent on analyzing public relationships. Second, the books by David Greenham and Branka Arsic reinterpret Emersonian constructions of subjectivity, but also assume that the Emersonian subject seeks to reshape the public sphere.

Robert D. Habich's Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson's First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age speaks to biographers' construction of Emerson's reputation during the decade after his death. Habich analyzes six biographies. Three were written by friends or self-styled disciples: George Willis Cooke, Alexander Ireland, and Moncure Conway. Two were written by men who were more or less Emerson's social peers: Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Elliot Cabot. The sixth was authored by Emerson's son Edward. In both Britain and the United States, Emerson's reputation as a serious social critic hung in the balance. As Habich writes, "Emerson's subversive individualism had been eclipsed in his later years by his celebrity, making him less a representative of his age than a caricature of it" (2011, xiii) Though there is a dimension of cashing in on Emerson's celebrity in a couple of the biographies, all six of them have serious motivations related to defining Emerson's long-term relevance.

In the first half of his book, Habich analyzes biographies that were produced quickly and that sought to amplify the case for Emerson's seriousness as a critic. As Cooke, Ireland, and Conway were all working on biographies at the same time, Habich situates them in direct dialogue. Alexander Ireland and Moncure Conway emerge in a particularly vivid counterpoint. Conway, a Southern abolitionist whose enthusiastic Transcendentalism endeared him to Emerson's family, articulated the inspiration that Emerson provoked from those in his circle. "The net effect of Conway's personal approach to Emerson," Habich concludes, "once we get beyond the purple prose and self-serving posturing, is to humanize Emerson by placing him always in the company of others" (68). Of these early biographers, Conway alone stresses the intellectual importance of the women in Emerson's community: Mary Moody Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Mary Rotch.

In contrast to Conway's personal devotion, Habich defines Alexander Ireland's In Memoriam (later titled Ralph Waldo Emerson) as a book presenting Emerson as a practical, sociable, middle-class reformer like himself. Ireland, a newspaper editor based in industrial Manchester, England, constructs an Emerson who is both self-contained and civic-minded, a model of balanced character. But Ireland's real agenda, Habich emphasizes, is to describe how this balance supported a progressive politics of social reform. Ireland's Emerson lacks the intensity of Conway's, but through his interest in social reform he gains relevance. The Manchester Emerson, Habich writes, "is a decidedly safe thinker. ... If Emerson is a great moral teacher, Ireland argues, it is through his example, not his ideas." The value of Emerson's life lies in the deep harmony that comes from a progressive spirit engaged in "practical activities in the real world of public affairs" (56).

The stakes and context change when Habich addresses his second set of authors, all of whom had extensive access to Emerson's papers and family. Holmes, Cabot, and Edward Emerson are less interested in memorializing Emerson and more invested in writing biographies that would outlast the caricature of the dreamy Transcendentalist. Equally, though, they aim to avoid displacing the oracle with anything that resembles a political radical. Habich's reconstruction of the personal relationship that produced Oliver Wendell Holmes's Ralph Waldo Emerson is especially telling in regard to Emerson's legacy in political thought. Holmes was a well-known skeptic of the Transcendentalists and his parodic poems had even publicly mocked them. Also, his politics were more conservative than Emerson's. Holmes had supported the compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law. This same law motivated Emerson to stand with the radical abolitionists. Grappling with these tensions in writing about a man he had known since the 183os, Holmes converts Emerson's religious rebellion and antislavery activism into a benign "amiable radicalism" and "gentle iconoclasm." Habich writes: "Holmes effectively manages the troubling problem of Emerson's philosophical anarchism by moderating it with socially responsible actions. Emerson becomes for Holmes a tamer of his own radicalism" (91). In the process of repressing his internal conflicts--which Habich studies through a fascinating analysis of Holmes's clinical defense of Emerson's sanity--Emerson's imagination emerges as a metaphor for a deeply conflicted nation grappling with its own internal divisions. The effort to mediate Emerson's public persona defined some of Emerson's central accomplishments, but also reveals how his first commentators' intentional suppression of texts and strains of thought insulated him from politics.

Alan M. Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk, editors of A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, treat the tradition of depoliticizing Emerson as their antagonist. As they put it in their introduction, from shortly after his death Emerson was understood primarily an advocate of "apolitical individualism" (2011, 15). Levine and Malachuk structure their collection around a historical division between four "Classics on Emerson's Politics," which treat public life as an implicit rather than explicit topic of Emerson's work, and nine original essays that make the case for seeing Emerson ian self-reliance as intentionally political.

The "classic" essays by Wilson Carey McWilliams, Judith N. Shklar, George Kateb, and Stanley Cavell present an Emerson who endorses democracy but who is also deeply concerned that politics--especially democratic politics--is antithetical to individuality. Though Emerson sees a grand but alienated brotherhood in humankind, as McWilliams argues, Emerson's writings advocate "individualistic romanticism, not democracy." Since his interest was in individual freedom and because politics addresses collective life, according to McWilliams "government and politics moved him only to disdain" (49, 48). Kateb also acknowledges Emerson's validation of democratic equality on the grounds that it provides "protections and encouragements for individuals to become individuals, rather than the servants of society" (75). But Kateb, like Shklar, emphasizes Emerson's concern that "modern democracy is the regime of docility" (87) and thus it militates against authentic individuality. These four essays function less as classics and more as a prehistory for thinking of Emerson as a student of the public sphere. They all embrace Emerson's democratic reflexes, but also find deep ambivalences about the compatibility of democracy with authentic individuality. Hence, they see Emerson advocating a stance of disengagement. As Levine and Malachuk write, this set of authors take "Emerson's calls for individuality to be more than just pleas for privacy." But despite their recognition of a public Emerson, "in their work, [he] emerges instead as ... the explicator of the political value of the disengaged individual" (21).

The original essays are divided into sections on "Self-Reliance," "Idealism," and "Liberalism." Individual chapters address specific issues in Emerson's relationship to politics. Jack Turner, in an essay on Emerson's thought about complicity in the buying and selling of human beings, analyzes Emerson's suggestion that the nation compensate slaveowners for manumission. Len Gougeon connects Emerson's transcendental spirituality to his intense support of the Union war effort. Other essays work to identify the limits of self-reliance as a model of political community. James H. Read and Shannon L. Mariotti isolate gestures through which Emerson turned himself away from the material circumstances of degradation. Though Emerson was often able to represent vividly the facts of sadism and misery, for example, as Mariotti puts it, "Emerson's gaze travels in a trans-scending motion, moving up and out, over and above" (305). His process both amplifies ethical thinking and pulls away from confrontation with material facts. These essays add important perspective to a collection intent on tightening connections between Transcendentalism and theories of political action. Two essays work to rebut the long tradition of criticism that associates Emerson with skepticism. Alan M. Levine treats Shklar and Kateb (and Russell Goodman) as representatives of a critical consensus that places skepticism at the core of Emersonian politics. Levine tries to put as much distance as possible between Emerson, on the one hand, and Montaigne and Nietzsche on the other. Also, the closing essay of the book, G. Borden Flanagan's "Emerson's Democratic Platonism in Representative Men," tries to rewrite Shklar and Cavell by replacing Montaigne's skepticism with Plato's idealism as the source of Emerson's commitment to democracy.

A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a highly cohesive argument: Emersonian Transcendentalism represents a democratic political ethic grounded in an idealism that expects each person both to pursue individuality and to recognize the spiritual equality of all human beings. This dual obligation, Levine and Malachuk contend, represents the inherent but paradoxical political agenda of Transcendentalism--that it simultaneously mandates radical autonomy and, in its commitment to universalities of spirit, demands that citizens defend broad standards for political equality.

Whereas the effort in A Political Companion to assert that Transcendentalism is oriented toward civil life minimizes the ambivalence that many critics consider definitive of Emerson's engagement with politics, monographs by David Greenham and Branka Arsic carry ambivalence and resistance deep into Emerson's thought. In Emerson's Transcendental Romanticism, David Greenham tracks a logocentric theory of Romantic subjectivity from Kant through Carlyle, Coleridge, and Emerson, to Stanley Cavell. The result of Emerson's confrontation with orthodox Protestantism and European empiricism during the 183os and 1840s, Greenham holds, is an "epistemology of form" that shifts the ground of selfhood from the private realm of intuition to the public realm of language. Like recent books by Patrick Keane and Philip Gura, Greenham emphasizes Emerson's movement away from Christianity, but in Greenham's reading Emerson's intellectual apprenticeship is conducted with his aunt as preceptor and occurs as a debate between faith in biblical authority and confidence in science. Greenham provides a very original analysis of the debates Waldo and his aunt had over Hume, Coleridge, and Carlyle, vividly reconstructing Mary Moody's conviction that empiricism and romanticism necessarily lead to skepticism. Coming out of these debates, Greenham writes, Emerson chose to be the devil's child, inching "toward a refined skepticism which accepts God's existence but refuses any way to him that is not individual" (16).

Treating skepticism as a kind of original position, Greenham argues that the subject's limited ability to claim knowledge of things-in-themselves, a condition that Kant understood as a limitation, changes when the field of action shifts from matter to language. In Emerson's effort to push beyond skepticism, "the Designer God of the deists returns but now he shares the stage with an Artist God as Emerson tries to balance poetry and science" (2012, 31). Narrowing the gap between subjectivity and creativity, Emerson's reading in a host of European Romantics--Carlyle, Coleridge, Cousin, Fichte, Schelling, to name a few that Greenham addresses--drives him to see knowledge as a series of organic analogies. Through an "alembic of analogy" (102), the self creates and projects itself onto the world. At its center, the epistemology of form permits Emerson to reconcile empiricism with romantic creativity by understanding empirical experience as the source of language and the formal manipulation of rhetorical forms as a continual act of exerting power in the world. Unlike things-in-themselves, over which the individual has no power, each has significant control over the words he or she uses to know the world.

Greenham's project has an important implication for the movement of Emersonian thought into the realm of political theory. His book engages the deepest themes of the disengaged individual--spiritual skepticism, the construction of subjectivity, Romantic antagonism to social convention--but rather than situating the formal ground of selfhood either in relation to a Transcendental Spirit or to an alienated inner divinity, Greenham situates it in language. This gesture defines the construction of Emersonian selfhood as an act that inherently mediates public and private. Expanding Stanley Cavell's claim that Emerson's essays reveal how "every word in our language stands under the necessity of deduction" (81), Greenham treats romantic creativity as an act of verbal mediation rather than as an expression of inner discovery. The society, the self, and the nation must all be constituted in rhetorical forms. This movement of the self into language blunts skepticism because it places the analogic quality of language at the center of epistemology.

Subjectivity is also at the center of Branka Arsic's On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson. Rather than finding the stability and stillness of universality at the center of Emerson's aspirations, Arsic finds the central act of Emersonian thought to be leaving or turning away from things. Self-consciously developing the line of thought introduced by Sharon Cameron in her essay "The Way of Life by Abandonment: Emerson's Impersonal" (2007, 79-107) and Stanley Cavell's construction of Emersonian aversive thinking (1989), Arsic works from "one simple and commonsensical question: what does it really mean to hold that everything fluctuates, and being relational, changes its identity?" (2010, 9). In her method, Arsic takes a series of excursions set in motion by questions about leaving:
  I will follow the paths created by departures and ask questions such
  as: How is leaving of one's own consciousness to be performed,
  actually? What kind of love relationship or friendship is predicated
  on the necessity of leaving? How do we organize a household and live
  ordinarily[?] ... What does it mean for our system of values, for
  our ethics and for our political allegiances to be on the way and on
  the move?" (Arsic 2010, 12)

Arsic situates this process as a reversal of her construction of Hegel's aspiration for the individual to see him or herself in the context of a national spirit: "What Hegel conceives of as the moment of the ethical--the sublation of individual differences into the generality of spirit, through communal union--becomes for Emerson the manifestation of oppression" as the national "negates the multiple and the different" (39).

The pathways Arsic follows through Emerson's "Journeying" both keep this text close to the ground and allow it to range far and wide. Exploring Emerson's thought about death, for example, leads to an analysis of graveyards, which leads back to the topics of abandonment and transformation. Thinking about love and intimacy leads to analysis of households, small talk, gossip, and faux pas. Culling unnoticed detail from familiar and obscure texts alike, Arsic draws an Emerson who constantly turns back and forth from public to private--but who inevitably inhabits the public as a foil for transformation. Arsic treats as a given the fact that Emerson's thought is rooted in public experience. But she also assumes that public and private are continually collapsing into each other as experience forces thought, forces transformation, and forces new excursions.

Arsic generalizes the pattern of abandonments, leavings, and turnings away into a "non-identity politics" (35) grounded in the universalizing gestures of Transcendentalism. The universality and equality in the spirit that is at the very heart of Transcendentalism, Arsic holds, assumes a cosmopolitan openness as a model of citizenship. Emerson's cosmopolitanism, however, is not a generic universality, but "cosmopolitan life is a series of 'ready domestications,' and as such a series of ethical and intellectual investments in the communal and societal issues raised by different localities" (253-54). Transcendentalist universalization thus becomes not so much a political identity as an ethical posture: "Cosmopolitanism thus requires a process of existential transformations reflecting Emerson's ontology of becoming and psychology of a fluctuating personal identity" (253).

At the end of On Leaving Arsic interprets Emerson's response to the Cherokee Removals crisis. This event, though early in Emerson's career, epitomizes the cosmopolitan ethics that Arsic finds at the center of Emerson's writing. Connecting the Removals to bodily crisis caused by illness and to social crisis caused by legal conflicts, Arsic presents this event as a perfect inversion of the ethics that Emerson sought to articulate. With willful disregard for obvious facts, the United States treated the identities involved on all sides as fixed and immutable. Rather than creating a culture in which individuals can "domesticate" themselves in a constantly mutating range of provisional identities, Euro- and Native Americans in the Cherokee crisis were juridically defined and then separated by force of arms. Emerson could object to the Removals, but he had no control over the events. They nonetheless forced him to abandon a discredited ideal of citizenship and confirmed his commitment to a transformational and cosmopolitan ethics.

It may be plucking at low-hanging fruit to say it, but as Habich and Arsic demonstrate, readers have proven very nimble at shifting Emerson's writing from one critical environment to another. These four books, whether or not they purposefully argue for Emerson's relevance to theories of collective life, all fundamentally assume that Emerson was not only speaking to individuals, but also to members of communities. This is a new assumption about his work and it has allowed a kind of reintegration of critical contexts, as Emerson the Transcendentalist and Emerson the reformer begin to speak to each other more and more directly. As Daniel Malachuk notes in his contribution to the Political Companion, while detranscendentalizing Emerson risks making him "just another political liberal" (299), it has not undermined the ability of critics to reread traditional themes in ways that realize Emersonian thought as a subject in motion.


Cameron, Sharon. 2007. Impersonality: Seven Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cavell, Stanley. 1989. This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson and Wittgenstein. Albuquerque, NM: Living Batch Press.

Cole, Phyllis. 1998. Mary Moody Emerson and the Origins of Transcendentalism: A Family History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gougeon, Len. 1990. Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Kateb, George. 2002. Emerson and Self-Reliance. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Painter, Nell Irvin. 2010. The History of White People. New York: Norton.

von Frank, Albert J. 1998. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilentz, Sean. 2005. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: Norton.

T. GREGORY GARVEY is Professor of English at the State University of New York at Brockport. He is the author of Creating the Culture of Reform in Antebellum America (2010) and editor of The Emerson Dilemma (2000).
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Title Annotation:'On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson', 'Emerson's Transatlantic Romanticism', 'Building Their Own Waldos: Emerson's First Biographers and the Politics of Life-Writing in the Gilded Age' & 'A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson'
Author:Garvey, T. Gregory
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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