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ELH 68.4 (2001) 991-1021

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Individualism and the Place of Understanding in Emerson's Essays

Kerry Larson

The true poem is the poet's mind; the true ship is the ship-builder.

--Emerson, "History"

We admire that poetry which no man wrote,--no poet less than the genius of humanity itself.

--Emerson, "Quotation and Originality"


A Gothic cathedral, the work of human hands, is nonetheless the work of nobody we happen to know. "But we apply ourselves to the history of its production," Emerson writes in his essay on "History" (1841), "we put ourselves into the place and state of the builder." 1 A two-step process is implied: first we attach a doer to the deed and then we attach the doer--"our fellow, our proxy"--to ourselves. The point of doing so, as Emerson sees it, is not to enhance our knowledge of the past but to make that knowledge possible. On his view, historical understanding is the name we give to the act of affirming a correspondence between the inclinations and actions of agents in the past with the inclinations and actions of agents at a later time. "History," says Emerson, "must be this or it is nothing" (240).

The archaeologist who "digs and measures in the mummy-pits and pyramids of Thebes" (241) provides a further illustration of the same idea. What he's apt to call research into "the emphatic facts of history" Emerson presents as a search for empathic opportunities. So far as the archaeologist has a chance of understanding "the monstrous work," he must be able "to see the end of the difference between the monstrous work and himself." For the "problem" of the mummy-pits and pyramids will be "solved" only when the interpreter has satisfied himself that such things were "made by such a person as he, so motived and so armed, and to ends to which he himself should also have worked" (241). You might say that those who do not repeat the past are condemned to show no understanding of it. [End Page 991]

These examples suggest that Emerson takes the individual to be the building block of historical interpretation. Figuring out the meaning of a particular event in the past evidently involves figuring out what a particular agent or collection of agents meant by bringing it about. In this respect, the method espoused by "History" is reductionist in character. For complex, large-scale social phenomena like "a French Reign of Terror," or a "fanatic Revival" to "yield their secret sense" (240), they must be broken down into their constituent parts, which is to say the beliefs and desires of the particular actors involved. The justification for this practice would seem straightforward enough: where history is taken to be an inquiry into the actions and interactions of people from the past and where beliefs and desires are taken to be the cause of action (e.g., "every revolution was first a thought in one man's mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era" [237]), then the historian seeking to explain the past will need to identify the beliefs and desires relevant to the case at hand. And, according to Emerson, the only way for the historian to do that is by reproducing within him or herself "the place and state" of the agent whose action he or she is trying to comprehend.

Saying that Emerson takes the individual to be the building block of historical interpretation can give rise to a variety of misapprehensions. One of the most persistent is that such an outlook restricts the subject-matter of history to little more than the exploits of exceptional individuals--the Great Man theory of history. But apart from the fact that Emerson was probably aware that it takes more than one to construct a cathedral or pyramid, it is worth noting that "History" does acknowledge the importance of non-individualistic considerations when venturing its own interpretations of the past. A case in point would be the passing...


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