Epilogue
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} 197 In 1999, historian and biographer Charles Capper offered a sur‑ vey of the historiography of transcendentalism and a thoughtful set of sugges‑ tions for scholars and students of the movement. Capper’s essay is marked by the claim that transcendentalism, “once a mainstay of surveys of American thought, has virtually vanished from the historical radar screen” and “entered into a long eclipse.” A series of historians and literary critics once saw in the nineteenth-­ century movement a kind of refinement and condensation of “American” values and traits, which “Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the decade of the movement’s rise in the 1830s (and completely ignorant of its existence), first virtually identi‑ fied with ‘America’ itself: liberal religion, individualist democracy, and national identity.”1 Each of those traits was systematically interrogated and disassembled in the last decades of the 1900s and beginning of the new century. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, American Studies and other American literature and culture scholars had identified transcendentalism as a prime example of how cultural criticism worked in the antebellum nineteenth century, exploring the way writ‑ ers and reformers used culture’s rhetoric to criticize society’s shortcomings. By the mid-­1960s American literary scholarship seemed, if anything, overinvested in transcendentalism’s writers and the other American Renaissance–era writers. That same American Studies movement, or rather its younger members, rose up in the early 1970s against a “Concord Complex” in scholarship and succeeded, by the last decades of the century, in reorienting American culture studies toward more hemispheric, transoceanic, and global perspectives and texts. In the hands of the New Americanist critics, a literary and social movement that was once seen as offering a prime example of cultural criticism now ap‑ peared as a perfect illustration of how such criticism, throughout its various literary and social forms, was itself a repetition of the values and behaviors it sought to critique. Sacvan Bercovitch, for example, writing of authors who were either in the transcendentalist movement or engaged with its premises, pro‑ posed “that the country’s major writers were not subversive at all, or that they were radical in a representative way that reaffirmed the culture, rather than under‑ mining it.”2 John Carlos Rowe called “Emersonian transcendentalism” to task Epilogue 198 { Epilogue for having “an important ideological function to serve in nineteenth-­ century America: the legitimation of those practices of intellectual abstraction required to rationalize the contradictions of the new industrial economy.”3 For Richard Hardack, “transcendental” and “transcendentalism” function most often as modifiers, as in “transcendental pantheism,” or as a noun begging an adjective, as in “Emersonian transcendentalism.” In Hardack’s reading of Emerson and Melville, nineteenth-­ century male writers projected onto nature and onto the humans most associated with nature—Africans and African Americans, Native Americans, women—libidinous and creative forces which were at odds with the emerging hypermasculine “American” identity.4 Peter Carafiol saw transcenden‑ talism less as a historical event with impact on successive figures as an inven‑ tion of literary historians bent on locating and defining a distinctive American literature.5 Except for Carafiol’s more extensive attack on transcendentalism as a (largely invented) movement, most of these critics were content to focus their critiques on individual writers and let the label “transcendentalist” spill over onto others in the vicinity. Despite the fact that transcendentalist texts still ap‑ pear in university teaching canons, they are often subject to much more gimlet-­ eyed scrutiny than in the immediate postwar decades. Emerson’s essays and Thoreau’s Walden, for example, now are likely to appear as regional, historically specific texts, jostling for place with any number of others. These critical, sometimes hostile, decenterings of transcendentalism have not been limited to academia. Indeed, New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz re‑ peated and elaborated many of the standard charges against Thoreau in an essay called “Pond Scum.” “Any serious reading of ‘Walden,’ ” she writes, will reveal a Thoreau totally unlike the “national conscience” of popular reputation, a Tho‑ reau who was in fact “narcissistic, fanatical about self-­ control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” For Schulz, Thoreau is less the ancestor of movements for racial and economic jus‑ tice than the forebear of libertarians, survivalists, and the Tea Party: “the mature position, and the one at the heart of the American democracy, seeks a balance between the individual and the society. Thoreau lived out that complicated bal‑ ance; the pity is that...


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