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 [End Page 127] 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...