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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.2 (2004) 245-268

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Mechanical Means:

Emersonian Aesthetic Transcendence and Antebellum Technology

In January 1839, after frequently defending Ralph Waldo Emerson against the attacks of the Unitarian establishment, Orestes Brownson offered his own critique of the Concord transcendentalist. Insisting that "the scholar must have an end to which his scholarship serves as a means," Brownson contended that "Mr. Emerson and his friends seem to us to forget this. Forgetfulness of this is the reigning vice of Goethe and Carlyle. They bid the scholar make all things subsidiary to himself. He must be an artist, his sole end is to produce a work of art. He must scorn to create for a purpose, to compel his genius to serve, to work for an end beyond the work itself. All this which is designed to dignify art is false, and tends to render art impossible." Best known as the proto-Marxist author of "The Laboring Classes," an 1840 analysis of class relations in the capitalist North, Brownson insisted that the artist or scholar must serve the cause of democracy, must work "to secure the complete triumph of the democracy, and to enable every man to comprehend [End Page 245] and respect himself, and be a man." Prefiguring late-twentieth-century critiques of Emerson, Brownson's sociological criticism indicted Emerson for withdrawing into an aesthetic realm and abandoning his true duty as a scholar to change society.1

A less familiar criticism of Emerson's transcendental aesthetics appears in an 1841 review of his first book of essays in the conservative Princeton Review. After describing the book as "void of real meaning"—"the air of philosophical profundity which is thrown over it is the obscurity not of a deep but a muddy stream, and the brilliancy of the surface is little else than the iridescence on a bowl of soapbubbles"—the anonymous critic turns to what he sees as the atheistic tendency of Emerson's philosophy. Connecting Emerson, as Brownson does, with German Romanticism, he argues that "the legitimate end of [their focus on nature] is the recognition of the all-present Jehovah in his works; but, in default of this, poetry worships the phenomenon. It is a form of counterfeit religion which has re-appeared in every age, and among the most godless men; the devotion of Art." This devotion, he concludes, ends with "a God from whom moral attributes are thus abstracted, an impersonal, changeful, aesthetic divinity, among whose lineaments every taste may make selection."2 From the other end of the religious and political spectrum, this critic, like Brownson, attacks Emerson for his devotion to art above morality, religion, or politics.

I begin with these two critical examples to provide context for Emerson's transcendental aesthetics and his attempt to imagine such an aesthetics as potentially transforming society. While Brownson does not use the term aesthetic, he does cite two of the names most often connected with aesthetic thought in antebellum America, Goethe and Carlyle. Where Emerson clearly sees his project as ethical in some sense, both of these critics intimate that, in some fashion, Emerson imagines [End Page 246] art as a separate realm from what Americans saw as the traditionally political, moral, or religious domain of literature. More recent critics have recognized the ethical dimension of Emerson's project but have frequently read his transcendentalist project in somewhat similar terms, either as withdrawing from the central political questions of his age or as providing a key model of capitalist individualism necessary for the development of corporate America.3 These critiques participate in a broader contemporary redescription of aesthetics as replicating or obscuring dominant power relations and the oppressive regimes of race, gender, and class. I am greatly indebted to this work. But to understand literary texts in a truly historical manner, we should not simply dismiss aesthetic claims or embrace texts as historically transcendent objects of beauty. Instead, I propose that we examine aesthetic claims as historical structures of feeling, thus taking seriously the idea that aesthetics might foster...