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BEYOND DECONSTRUCTION: AMERICA,STYLEANDTHE ROMANTIC SYNTHESIS IN EMERSON J. Trevor McNeely For much of this century Emerson has not fared well at the hands of critics. Philosophical optimism without apparent ambiguity is not an intellectual stance that is congenial either to the modernist or postmodernist tempers. For more than fifty years, therefore, Emerson has faced a barrage of revisionist criticism which has been determined, at the very least, to disturb his complacency, if unable quite to dislodge the idol from the pedestal on which his own century placed it. In the academy Emerson rests at present in a kind of limbo--the Transcendentalist movement of which he is the personification remains the defining philosophy of America, while our age affects a sophistication to which Transcendentalism's romantic certainties have become an embarrassment. Attempts to deal with the Emerson problem take various forms. Yvor Winters' assault in 1947 was probably the most extreme, as well as the least worthy, requiring a manipulation of his own sacred doctrine of "reason"far more blatant, I submit, than anything his subject was ever guilty of, in labelling him a "fraud." 1 Stephen Whicher, writing in 1953, is more temperate, simply finding Emerson's "notion of an automatic moral compensation ... unacceptable ... and a major cause of his present decline of reputation." 2 More representative, perhaps, than either of these is the response of Hartmann in 1980, to whom Emerson is still a "giant"--"thereis no getting around him: we must think him through, allowhim to invade our prose"--but a giant who, like others of his generation, is now being "revalued."3 This revaluation of Emerson is what most of his criticssince the 1930s have been engaged in, and it has taken generally a deconstructive form, either in terms of the writing itself (it fails structurally to do what the critic thinks it was trying to do) or in terms of the philosophybehind the writing (it is radically flawed or even ephemeral to begin with; its deep inner failure 62 J. Trevor McNeely cannot but be reflected in the manner of its expression). Ralph Yoder would show that the trne dialectic in Emerson is not the universal philosophical principle, "oneness and otherness," set out in the "Plato" essay, but an essentially superficial matter of rhetorical technique, "a device or structure that ... changes as he changes."4 Maurice Gonnaud focuses his critique also on an "evolution" in Emerson's style, "expansiveness" in the early work becoming "concentration" in the later, as he "faced about ... reluctantly and began a long tussle with reality."5 Eric Ingvar Thurin has written two books demonstrating that the "bipolar unity" of sexual intercourse is Emerson's central hidden metaphor, and one that, because it fails frillyto cohere, in the end marks a "fundamental inconsistency" in his thiking. 6 There are even those who feel that what Emerson needs now is not deconstruction but reconstruction: Gertrude Reif Hughes, in Emerson's Demanding Optimism (1984), takes the polemical (for our century) position that the later essays like "Fate" and "Experience" do not undermine the optimism of the work of the 1830sso much as they confirm it.7 Comparing any of these views to the typical later nineteenth-century assessment of Emerson, when his eminence was supreme, one immediately discerns a qualitative difference between the two critical approaches. A brief quotation from John Jay Chapman, writing in 1897, will illustrate my meaning: The silent years of early manhood ... were years in which the revolting spirit of an archangel thought out his creed. He came forth perfect, with that serenity of which we have scarce another example in history .... There was only one thought which could set him aflame, and that was the thought of the unfathomed might of man. This thought was his religion, his politics, his ethics, his philosophy .... When he came to put together his star-born ideas, they fitted well, no matter in what order he placed them, because they were all part of the same idea.8 Some would call this kind of thing uncritical, an expression almost of religious awe but, at any rate, the contrast it makes with the previously cited examples of representative modern critiques of Emerson...


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