In this Book
The strangeness of nineteenth-century poetic vision is exemplified most famously by Emerson’ s transparent eyeball. That disembodied, omniscient seer is able to shed its body and transcend sight paradoxically in order to see— not to create— poetic language “ manifest” on the American landscape. In Miles of Stare, Michelle Kohler explores the question of why, given American transcendentalism’ s anti-empiricism, the movement’ s central trope becomes an eye purged of imagination. And why, furthermore, she asks, despite its insistent empiricism, is this notorious eye also so decidedly not an eye? What are the ethics of casting a boldly equivocal metaphor as the source of a national literature amidst a national landscape fraught with slavery, genocide, poverty, and war?
Miles of Stare explores these questions first by tracing the historical emergence of the metaphor of poetic vision as the transcendentalists assimilated European precedents and wrestled with America’ s troubling rhetoric of manifest destiny and national identity. These questions are central to the work of many nineteenth-century authors writing in the wake of transcendentalism, and Kohler offers examples from the writings of Douglass, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Howells, and Jewett that form a cascade of new visual metaphors that address the irreconcilable contradictions within the transcendentalist metaphor and pursue their own efforts to produce an American literature. Douglass’ s doomed witness to slavery, Hawthorne’ s reluctantly omniscient narrator, and Dickinson’ s empty “ miles of Stare” variously skewer the authority of Emerson’ s all-seeing poetic eyeball while attributing new authority to the limitations that mark their own literary gazes.
Tracing this metaphorical conflict across genres from the 1830s through the 1880s, Miles of Stare illuminates the divergent, contentious fates of American literary vision as nineteenth-century writers wrestle with the commanding conflation of vision and language that lies at the center of American transcendentalism— and at the core of American national identity.