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Reviews195 simple distinction between intrinsic properties of a medium and the aesthetic use to which the medium may be put. Then there is Richard Rorty, whom one might suppose an ally for Norris in the enterprise of mutually accommodating philosophy and deconstruction. And indeed Rorty does gain favorable mention on occasion. Peculiarly, though, Norris begins by stating that "nearly all the ideas in this book have been arrived at through disagreement with Rorty" (p. vii). What the nature of this disagreement is, however, is never made plain (unless it be, in an essay on Rorty, another of Norris's ad hominem rituals: "Rorty's 'liberal' assumptions have a great deal in common with 'conservative' thinking on issues of culture and politics" [p. 152]). In the end, this lack of clarity about disagreement is symptomatic of the entire book. Norris prefers discursion to argument. This of course reveals his "contest of faculties" as a hugely enigmatic affair: mystery contestants somehow engaged in a game with undeclared rules. And that is hardly a way to "rescue philosophy." University of Otago, New ZealandPeter Leech TAe American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson, by Irving Howe; 99 pp. Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1986, $12.50. For over a century, Emersonian transcendentalism has been an elusive ghost haunting the house of American culture. Worshippers commune with this protean spirit, while skeptics come flailing truncheons to drive the ghost from the house, but without success. Even the ghost-bashers know the spirit of Emerson belongs there, perhaps even rules the house. The problem has been to define the significance and influence of the presence. There are several "Emersons," and over the years his scripture has been invoked by ideologues of every stripe, from bellicose nationalists to sourdough spiritual recluses. In the Massey Lectures presented at Harvard, Irving Howe claims the essential Emerson, and the most abiding presence in our culture, to be the idealistic Emerson of the 1830s and 1840s. Scholars generally accept this view, but against those who see Emerson as a visionary spokesman for elitism, Howe argues that young Emerson's idealism was rooted in a shrewd, practical reading of the mood and potentialities of the times. The 1830s and 1840s were the times of the "American newness," according to Howe. Allegiance to orga- 196Philosophy and Literature nized religion was waning, but spiritual idealism abounded, and the democratic mainstream — young, expansive, self-confident — bristled with possibilities of spiritual regeneration, of realizing the dream of the "New Man" in history. It seemed one of those rare "moments" when aspiration seemed to coalesce with historical possibility, the kind described by Nick Carraway in his vision of the first Dutch settlers at the end of The Great Gatsby. Emerson intuited the significance of the moment, Howe claims, and tried to galvanize its potentialities; his essays were a summons to the "newness" addressed to the whole democratic culture. Yet Howe also acknowledges that as a young idealist Emerson was inclined to disbelieve in historical situation as necessary for realizing the "Central Man." For Emerson, the house of the past— of tradition, habit, and convention — was something to abandon and ignore. Selfrealization of the "newness" could be achieved by consciousness alone, and here we see the gnostic impulse underlying the transcendentalist rejection of history, an impulse that fed Emerson's delusion that a "new country" could produce a new man, self-redeemed by his own mind. Hawthorne knew better. Emerson's dream of creating the Central Man and a "democratic sublime" was overtaken by history, Howe shows, especially by the accelerating industrial growth and political conflict over slavery in the 1850s. The abolition issue pushed Emerson into active engagement with historical circumstance, and reluctantly into the role of social critic. But engagement meant an attenuation of that lofty ahistorical vision of spiritual transformation Emerson dreamed of, though the dream persists. Enter: the ghost. Nevertheless, though the moment of "newness" passed (if indeed it ever really existed), Howe claims that Emerson's vision left its mark on three main currents in American literature : the literatures of work, of anarchic utopianism, and of defeated aspiration . Howe's elegantly-phrased lectures offer a complex view of Emerson the man...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 195-196
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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