Emerson, Labor, and Ages of Turbulence
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Emerson, Labor, and Ages of Turbulence

I was born a seeing eye not a helping hand.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (1837)

When the financial panic of 1837 devastated labor in the United States,1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, like so many antebellum commentators, reflected on this sobering loss in print. “Young men have no hope,” he observed in his May 1837 Journals. “Adults stand like daylaborers idle in the streets. None calleth us to labor.”2 As he probed the issue, however, he came to a surprising realization: although the crisis affected labor, it seemed to be caused by labor as well. He believed in particular that Americans had misunderstood the nature of their work; indeed, they had construed labor as a material—rather than an ideal—process whereby they created salable property. Emerson concluded that this pervasive error, which had turned man into a “money chest,” was the panic’s “causal bankruptcy” (JMN, 5:332). By August 1837, participating in what Nicholas Bromell has described as the era’s “broad cultural contestation of the meaning of work,”3 Emerson sought to reinvigorate labor—scholarly labor in particular—in his now iconic address “The American Scholar,” presenting his notoriously impracticable Transcendentalism as the “remedy” for the panic.4 [End Page 251]

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The Times. Lithograph by Edward Williams Clay, Published by Henry R. Robinson, 1850.

Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ds-04507.

[End Page 252]

In our own age of turbulence, scholars’ vexed relation to the market drives debate in crisis-ridden humanities departments. A new field devoted to explicating the various crises afflicting the profession—what literary scholar Jeffrey J. Williams terms “critical university studies”—indeed has eclipsed critical theory as the ultimate form of intellection among humanists. Defined as a “gathering place” for work that “that focuses on [sic] the consequences of corporate methods and goals” on the university, especially “corrupting research and increasing managerial (as opposed to academic control)” and, more to the point, “cutting labor through reducing regular faculty positions (while increasing adjunct positions),” critical university studies takes an oppositional stance on these issues.5 Such works proceed in the mode of critique, exposing how corporate logic pervades university administration, research, and teaching. In my view, related to this criticism writ large, in Americanist literary scholarship there is also what David Zimmerman identifies as an ongoing “economic turn.” Commenting on a recent issue of American Literary History devoted to literature and economic crises, Zimmerman asserts that the financial crisis in 2008 has encouraged a revitalized economic criticism, one that seeks a more dynamic account of how economics impinges on literary production than allowed by the “complicity criticism” of the 1990s.6

What animates both the economic turn and critical university studies is a belief in critique’s social efficacy; as Zimmerman observes about Cecilia Tichi’s contribution to the issue, critics now invite “socially relevant economic criticism,” which recognizes that “literary texts are capable of performing [sic] socially progressive work.”7 Writing and lecturing in response to the severe dislocations caused by the panic in the late 1830s, Emerson had such critical ambitions in the antebellum era as well, unfurling an economic program rooted in philosophical Idealism not only in “The American Scholar” but also in several lesser-known addresses from his 1837 and 1838 lecture series. Historicizing Emerson’s panic-era work, in what follows I argue that his work from this turbulent era constitutes an attempt to critique political economy, showing how he imagined the discipline to shape the American [End Page 253] commercial psyche. Previous scholarship has demonstrated that, in Barbara Packer’s words, the 1837 panic led Emerson to explore the individual’s relationship to “his social and economic system,” but here I am interested in how Emerson theorized labor as a process with immaterial implications and I want to argue that Emerson’s panic-era writing sought to exalt in particular scholarly speculation as work.8

“The man of strong Understanding,” Emerson complained in his May 1837 Journals, “always acts unfavorably upon the Man of Reason, disconcerts, and makes him less than he is” (JMN, 5:331...