- The Road Not Taken: From Edwards, Through Chauncy, to Emerson
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 1992
- pp. 45-61
- View Citation
DAVID ROBINSON The Road Not Taken: From Edwards, Through Chauncy, to Emerson Charles Chauncy had already split the Puritan heritage. —Perry Miller ITH disarming surrender, one key element of his rhetorical brilliance, Petry Miller admitted the apparent failure of pethaps his greatest essay, "From Edwards to Emetson," when it was republished in 1956, sixteen yeats after its initial appearance: "There can be no doubt that Jonathan Edwards would have abhorred from the bottom of his soul every proposition Ralph Waldo Emetson blandly put forth in the manifesto of 1836, Nature." In his headnote, Millet went on to claim the title "essay" fot his piece, "in the otiginal sense of an endeavoi ot an exertion that does not quite teach its goal," and called fot othets to try to provide the "volume of documentation" that he had nevei been able to assemble, "even though that shall prove my hunches wrong" (Miller, Errand 184). Miller's humility is a good indication that he did not expect to be proven wrong, and that he realized his essay had proven to be one of the gteat acts of synthesis in Ametican literary history. Its success lay in Miller's ability to provide, by force of will and rhetoric, continuity between aspects of a culture which might better have been defined as antagonistic. Millet's ihetoiical humility aside, he was right in surmising that Edwatds would have "laughed . . . ovet the discomfiture of the Unitarians upon discovering a heresy in their midst" (Errand Arizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 1, Spring 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 6 10 46David Robinson 184). Miller had asserted the presence ofcultural continuity to an intellectual community in search of one, and the continuing vitality of his essay lies in its yoking two of the sttongest intellectual forces in antebellum Ameiican culture, Puritanism and Transcendentalism.1 Millet could affoid to be humble about the obvious doctrinal chasm that separated Edwaids from Emerson because he had rejected explicit doctrine as a key to this cultural continuity. He aigued instead that "certain basic continuities peisist in a culture—in this case taking New England as the test tube—which undetlie the successive articulation of 'ideas'" (Errand 184-85). "Ideas," the rational articulation of values and petspectives, were therefore rendered a secondary and relatively inconsequential aspect of literary history, which paled in comparison to the exploration of the more obscure feelings and motivations that were culturally fotmative. "The history of ideas," Miller wrote, "demands of the histoiian not only a fluency in the concepts themselves but an ability to get underneath them" (Errand 185). Not only as a bold conjuncture of two forceful intellectual figures, but also as an attempt to wotk at a mote profound level of undetstanding of intellectual forces, Millet's essay validated a sense of American intellectual continuity whose peaks were Edwards's work during the Great Awakening and Emeison's launching of Transcendentalism. The ground that Edwaids shared with Emetson was the predisposition "to confront, face to face, the image of a blinding divinity in the physical universe" (Errand 185), a stance that established nature as the focal point of American culture and varying forms of mysticism or antinomianism as persisting responses to it. Foi Millet, it was less significant that Edwaids and Emetson came to different conclusions about the implications of the divinity revealed in nature than that they asked questions of this same fundamental experience. Emerson was thus "an Edwaids in whom the sense of oiiginal sin has evaporated" (Errand 185), a serious lack, but one that nevertheless helped to explain why one whose theology was a consistent denial of Calvinism might, even so, be taken as an heit of the Calvinist tradition. If Millet's metaphot of deeper investigation is turned on his own essay, however, another connection between Edwards and Emerson seems to oveishadow theit shared sense of the immanence of divinity. Millei's essay subtly but unmistakably paints Edwaids and Emetson as bound by theii sharing of a common enemy. Edwaids knew it as "that From Edwards, Through Chauncy, to Emerson47 degenerate Aiminianism,' the initial stirrings of which he had been the fitst to detect and to the desttuction...