SIX } Truman Nelson: Rage
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} 143 From the mid-­ 1830s to the start of the Civil War, transcenden‑ talist writers and reformers were regularly lambasted as atheists, cranks, free‑ thinkers, and radicals. Often maligned in their own time, theirs is precisely the tradition that mid-­ twentieth-­ century working-­ class novelist and polemicist Truman Nelson would vigorously embrace. Nelson, champion of John Brown’s activism and the social critiques of Henry Thoreau, saw in nineteenth-­ century transcendentalism an American tradition of radical cultural criticism reborn in the mid-­ twentieth century. Nelson’s work illustrates the way many Americans from the mid-­ 1950s to the early 1970s found in transcendentalism not only a crucial piece of literary and social history but, even more, a valuable resource in movements for social change and individual expression. Transcendentalism certainly did not expire in the post–­ Civil War decades. It was the subject of protracted debate among Free Religionists; it hovered over the Concord School of Philosophy as a shaping (and, for some, unhealthy) influ‑ ence; it braced Elizabeth Peabody in her advanced years for further reform on behalf of kindergarten-­ age children and indigenous people; it prompted Caro‑ line Dall, Ednah Dow Cheney, and Julia Ward Howe to keep Margaret Fuller’s name in front of feminists and other reformers. Transcendentalist figures were memorialized, and some were ossified, in the pages of scores of biographies and reminiscences published in the last decades of the century. Still, for some reformers, activists, and intellectuals at the turn of the twen‑ tieth century, transcendentalism’s experimental and episodic method seemed insufficiently rigorous, its surviving members’ frequent recourse to grand gen‑ eralizations on the one hand and preference for individual solutions equally use‑ less in a new era with new social strains and new scientific insights. To these observers, transcendentalism appeared to be a moribund movement: awash in reminiscence, afraid of controversy, ambivalent about its own radical heritage, and fatally subject to dismissive humor. At least, this is what George Santayana thought at the beginning of the new century. Reflecting this understanding of a movement gone to seed, Santayana called it one of the sources of a “genteel tradition” in American thought. In an address delivered to the Philosophical Union of the University of California at Berkeley in August 1911, Santayana contrasted the “American Will,” which con‑ Six } Truman Nelson: Rage 144 { Chapter Six quered the continent and created a new built environment, with the “American Intellect,” which, as he put it, “has floated gently in the backwater.” For San‑ tayana, the sources of such outmoded American thinking were twofold: one, a kind of attenuated Calvinism that continued to focus on the drama of the in‑ dividual soul, the “agonized conscience.” The other has been transcendental‑ ism, not so much a system or set of facts as a method, “a point of view from which any world, no matter what it might contain, could be approached by a self-­ conscious observer. . . . Knowledge, it says, has a station, as in a watch-­ tower; it is always seated here and now, in the self of the moment. The past and the future, things inferred and things conceived, lie around it, painted as upon a panorama. They cannot be lighted up save by some centrifugal ray of atten‑ tion and present interest, by some active operation of the mind.” Much as he ad‑ mired this method and made use of it, Santayana argued that the transcendental method tells us nothing about the world beyond the self. Even Emerson, note‑ worthy for his “love and respect for nature,” saw the natural world as a projection of the self, Santayana claimed, likely on the basis of a reading of Nature. It would take a William James, he thought, steeped in the romantic and transcendentalist heritage, to break the grip of the genteel tradition and pivot American thinking to an engagement with the material world.1 Santayana’s critique of transcendentalism paralleled those offered by the New Humanists and the Young Americans, whose male-­ only versions of the movement have already appeared in the discussion of Charles Ives in chapter 4. But the disparagement offered by Irving Babbitt and Van Wyck Brooks, among others, and Santayana’s dismissal of transcendentalism as a source of the gen‑ teel tradition were not the only versions of the nineteenth-­ century movement on offer in the early twentieth. In Santayana’s wake, both the New Humanists and the Young Americans were equally appalled by transcendentalism, but for Lewis Mumford the main stream of American...


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