Introduction
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} 1 Introduction This book emerged from reflection on three classic moments in the annals of American transcendentalism. The first is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s often-­quoted passage in “Self-­Reliance”: “On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend sug­gested— ‘But these impulses may be from below, not from above.’ I replied, ‘They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.’ ”1 The second is Henry Thoreau’s deathbed exchange with his Aunt Lou‑ isa: to her inquiry about whether he had made his peace with God, Thoreau’s re‑ sponse was, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”2 The third forms part of several striking episodes in Caroline Dall’s recollections of Margaret Fuller’s Conversations, in which Fuller expresses her preference for models of human behavior drawn from the classical rather than the biblical tradition. In one such exchange, the group’s discussion of the connection between wisdom and suffer‑ ing moves fluidly from Greek to biblical representations, and there is chuckling at the notion of a “Christian serpent.”3 For contemporary readers, these may be seen as cheeky or touching ripostes to conventional thinking, or bold moves to reach for Enlightenment models of behavior rather than biblical ones. But, looked at another way, they are startling, even shocking comments in the context of centuries of reflection and conflict about the place and origin of evil and the nature of humanity’s relation to the divine. No quarrel between divine and mortal? No ancient warfare between God and Satan for the soul of humanity? How is it that these writers and the circle to which they belonged could so readily see themselves as outside, or at the edges of, a vast tradition that had shaped Western culture and their own newly formed nation? This book is an effort to answer that question by posing another: what has become of the creative and reformist movement in the United States called transcendentalism? I use the present perfect tense “has become” to signal that American transcendentalism lived and lives beyond the dates of its historical life, roughly the 1830s to the 1860s. The title of this book, The Fate of Transcendentalism , is deliberately ambiguous. To the extent that the word “fate” suggests “unavoidable destiny or end,” it might lead to a sense that transcendentalism experienced a moment of literary and cultural ascendency, followed by a scat‑ 2 { Introduction tering of its energies, with efforts to recall its peak years through memoir and biography. Certainly the historical moment passed, its adherents aged and died, new social and economic challenges emerged in the postwar years. But an un‑ derstanding of transcendentalism as radical explosion followed by fragmenta‑ tion and decline confuses the individuals of the movement with the theory of the movement. So we might adjust the meaning of “fate” to suggest something less unidirectional: what did transcendentalism make, or prompt, or encourage to happen? This would make transcendentalism an agent rather than a recipient of change or victim of circumstance. What follows is an effort to discern the lineage of transcendentalism in the years after its historical moment. It is not another history of transcendental‑ ism, of which we have two recent excellent examples, Barbara L. Packer’s The Transcendentalists and Philip F. Gura’s American Transcendentalism: A History, both from 2007. We have had new material and fresh interpretations offered in essay collections edited by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright, Transient and Permanent : The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts, and by Jana L. Arger­ singer and Phyllis Cole, Toward a Female Genealogy of Transcendentalism. We have ongoing archival work in the papers of Mary Moody Emerson and Caroline Dall, and new researches into the work of Caroline Sturgis and Ellen Sturgis Tappan. All that is enriched by the continuing outpouring of journal articles, essay collections, anthologies, monographs, and biographies that accumulate yearly. I offer a dif‑ ferent approach, much as it is deeply informed by the works of many others. The central argument in The Fate of Transcendentalism is that transcendental‑ ism is an early example of secularity in American culture. I complicate this claim by emphasizing other distinctive aspects of transcendentalism, particularly its collective nature and its differing emphases when shaped by various practi‑ tioners. In tracing the movement’s secularity, I advance a theory of transcen‑ dentalism...


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