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American Metempsychosis:Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

John Michael Corrigan

Publication Year: 2012

"The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were, but men and women are only half human." With these words, Ralph Waldo Emerson confronts a dilemma that illuminates the formation of American individualism: to evolve and become fully human requires a heightened engagement with history. Americans, Emerson argues, must realize history's chronology in themselves--because their own minds and bodies are its evolving record. Whereas scholarship has tended to minimize the mystical underpinnings of Emerson's notion of the self, his depictions of "the metempsychosis of nature" reveal deep roots in mystical traditions from Hinduism and Buddhism to Platonism and Christian esotericism. In essay after essay, Emerson uses metempsychosis as an open-ended template to understand human development. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman transforms Emerson's conception of metempsychotic selfhood into an expressly poetic event. His vision of transmigration viscerally celebrates the poet's ability to assume and live in other bodies; his American poet seeks to incorporate the entire nation into his own person so that he can speak for every man and woman.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

I have benefitted from the support and friendship of numerous people while writing this book—and I would have been unable to persevere without them. I begin by thanking Alan Ackerman for his sure-sighted counsel and steadfast belief in this project; Malcolm Woodland whose warm words of confidence and encouragement I will...

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pp. 1-10

In the painting Jacob’s Ladder (1800), William Blake illustrates the nature of the Romantic reconception of human consciousness. At the bottom of the canvas, Jacob lies sleeping, his head resting by the foot of a spiral stair that circles upward through the star-filled sky and finally into the sun itself. Upon the stairway..

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1 /The Metempsychotic Mind

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pp. 11-38

In the last three decades, the widespread understanding of Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher of metaphysical unity has given way to a more postmodern appraisal. Scholars have come to view Emerson’s thought as a contemplative progression where no determination can be final, since the process itself is perpetually...

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2 /The Double Consciousness

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pp. 39-72

According to many contemporary scholars, Emerson does not accept any preestablished philosophical position, but exercises a type of radical, individualistic freedom by taking various views in hand and escaping them. He is consistent only in one venture: he takes “the risk of exalting transition for its own sake.”1 Indeed, Emerson...

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3 /Reading the Metempsychotic Text

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pp. 73-103

In the last three decades, scholars have come to appreciate some of the complexity of perception in Emerson’s thought, questioning the earlier consensus that his notion of sight expresses primarily a desire for unity. Indeed, Emerson’s very first published pronouncement of the eye’s transcendent power evokes critical uncertainty because of its contradictory evocations: “I become a transparent...

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4 /Writing the Metempsychotic Text

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pp. 104-134

While there is a propensity to interpret Whitman’s poetry in the poetically secular terms of the twentieth century, a number of critics have come to emphasize the mystical and religious tenor of Whitman’s writing. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, scholars sought to uncover the Hindu influences in...

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5 /The New Poetry

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pp. 135-166

In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman portrays his own poetic evolution with the image of a stairway. Standing on the top rung of a flight of steps, the poet has earned, after “trillions of winters and summers,” a new power to “launch all men and women forward with [him] into the Unknown.”1 In mounting the staircase and assimilating...

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pp. 167-176

In the ancient world, the various types of metempsychosis that we see in Hinduism, Buddhism, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Neoplatonism are part of a cosmological scheme in which the soul or the self undergoes successive incarnations or transformations. The ultimate goal of the transmigrations that...


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pp. 177-224


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pp. 225-236


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pp. 237-248

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246625
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823242344
Print-ISBN-10: 082324234X

Page Count: 254
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 830023250
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Metempsychosis:Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

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Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Self-consciousness (Awareness) in literature.
  • National characteristics, American, in literature.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo, -- 1803-1882 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Whitman, Walt, -- 1819-1892 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Transmigration in literature.
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