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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 666-686

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Raw, Ripe, Rot:

Nineteenth-Century Pathologies of the American Aesthetic

The primary pitch of this article centers on the heated debate taking place throughout the nineteenth century between American art lovers, who were struggling to formulate an updated aesthetic grounded in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty worthy to express the ideals of the newly formed nation, and their often hostile opponents in the fields of physical sciences, whose fierce commitment to the rules of rigorous scientific inquiry disdained intellectually trivial pursuits such as the creation and evaluation of the plastic arts.

I like what Charles Darwin had to say at the conclusion of Chapter 14 in The Origin of the Species: "It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us" (Darwin 174; emphasis added). As we know, the publication in 1859 of Darwin's Origin caused both fret and excitement. It threatened established philosophical positions, whereby "science" was defined by its ability to confirm a universe governed in its physical and spiritual sense by a priori absolutes; it wrenched open scientific inquiry to methods that stressed the randomness of process and nullified the monolithic certainties of progress. Nonetheless, the Crayon, the first art journal published in America and a major proponent of German Idealism, had nothing but praise for the "beautiful quotation" descriptive of that entangled bank: "There is a grandeur in this view of life . . . that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved" (May 1860, 150).1 However much Darwin's notions might shake previous notions of how one responds to the "science" of God's natural [End Page 666] world, this science had the power of opening one's eyes to the transcendent aesthetic principles endowed upon the physical world by Nature's God. Entanglement was good, as were "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" (Darwin 174). It was a world in which birds, insects, and worms of various kinds, "so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner," thrive according to the "laws acting around us" (174). It was a world, in short, of diversity enclosed within one overarching theory of existence.

Many thinkers have tried to discover verifiable methods that will make it possible to systematize everything—the impossible dream to achieve Unity found in Albert Einstein, yes, and Henry Adams, of course, who suffered mightily once he recognized that Multiplicity defies Unity. It is most famously stated in the introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature of 1836, one of America's premier cultural documents: "All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature. . . . Whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence. Its test is, that it will explain all phenomena. Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex" (7). The universe—that "entangled bank," that unfathomable fact which scientific knowledge yearns to grasp—is the not me comprised of both "nature" and "art" (8). The point here is not simply that Emerson's neo-Kantian critique, whereby judgment mediates between the dual powers of Understanding and Reason, approximates concerns voiced in 1884 by Thorstein Veblen's essay "Kant's Critique of Judgment." Rather, it is the way in which Emerson's declaration that "All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature" became the challenge that drove many mid-century American art critics to attempt to devise a workable aesthetics that could bind together astute scientific observations of nature with a deepened theory of art, created by, and...


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