- Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Transcendentalism
Two important essay collections, historically grounded and textually mindful, continued the remarkable momentum in the scholarship on Transcendentalism. Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts, ed. Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright (MHS), collects 20 papers from a 1997 conference at the Massachusetts Historical Society, a signal event in the history of Transcendentalist scholarship. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris have gathered 13 new essays on all facets of Emerson's works and influence in their Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson (Cambridge). Other important work included Jonathan Levin's contribution to the pragmatist reading of Emerson and Gustaaf Van Cromphout's study of Emerson as an ethical thinker. Newer biographies of important Transcendentalist women, Mary Moody Emerson and Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley (see AmLS 1998, pp. 4-6), are now joined by Gary Williams's revealing study of Julia Ward Howe and Bruce A. Ronda's reassessment of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.
a. Emerson's Intellectual Contexts
Gustaaf Van Cromphout's erudite and judicious account of Emerson's Ethics (Missouri) situates Emerson's ethical thought in the productive transition between 18th-century moral philosophy and the rise of Romanticism. For Van Cromphout, Immanuel Kant is the central influence on Emerson's ethical thought, for whether one concludes that Emerson read Kant directly or absorbed him from Coleridge and others, it was Kant who established the terms for ethical discourse in Emerson's day. Kant's "critical idealism" and his emphasis on the authority of practical over pure reason are embodied in [End Page 3] Emerson's development of an ethics of "self-realization." Envisioning a self that expressed its identity in a quest for harmony and universality, Emerson developed a moral theory that centered on the essentially interchangeable concepts of "will" and "character." For Emerson, "a victory of the will always amounts to making Reason and rational law prevail over necessity." Van Cromphout's incisive exposition reminds us of the systematic and comprehensive nature of Emerson's philosophical positions, often obscured by Emerson's cultivation of the image of an undisciplined poet who disdains consistency. Emerson's Ethics is a major contribution to the growing recognition that the conduct of life is Emerson's central philosophical concern.
Barbara Packer ("Emerson and the Terrible Tabulations of the French," Transient and Permanent, pp. 148-67) explores Emerson's important but little understood engagement with French philosophy, emphasizing his study of the systematic and deterministic philosophies of Pierre Laplace, Charles Fourier, and Adolph Quetelet, each of whom presented a different form of the concept of "fate" to him. Struggling to reconcile these systems with will and moral choice, Emerson eventually recognized an "impersonal Theism" in "Laplace's atheistic Necessity," saw Fourier's phalanx as "the wistful symbol of the insatiability of human desire," and found in Quetelet's laws of statistical probability an assurance "that genius can never be extirpated from the race." In "Emerson and Nature" (Cambridge Companion to Emerson, pp. 97-105) Robert D. Richardson Jr. describes Emerson's lifelong devotion to nature as a context for both philosophy and lived experience, emphasizing his 1832 encounter, after the death of his wife Ellen, with the extensive range of botanical forms at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris as a "decisive moment" in the reformulation of his life and vocation. Recognizing that "nature is in continuous change or flux," Emerson "also understood that there were laws governing appearances and that things in nature are unified and whole, though not always in obvious ways." Of particular importance was his sense of the "radical and comprehensive connection between nature and mind," a principle that was the grounding of his new theology and his ethical stance.
Eric Wilson's Emerson's Sublime Science (St. Martin's), an original extension of our understanding of Emerson's formative early reading in scientific literature, traces Emerson's response to 19th-century theories of electricity expounded by Sir Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. As Wilson explains, Faraday regarded his 1831 discovery of electromagnetic [End Page 4] induction as evidence that matter could be explained in terms of force or energy, a thesis that confirmed Emerson's faith in...