- 1 Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Transcendentalism
The year brought advances in our understanding and recognition of the women of Transcendentalism, with several new essays on Fuller supplemented by Helen Deese's important portrait of Caroline Healey Dall, Daughter of Boston, Megan Marshall's new biography The Peabody Sisters, and Tiffany K. Wayne's Woman Thinking, which explains the formative influence of Transcendentalism on the 19th-century women's rights movement. New work on Thoreau extended last year's recognitions of the sesquicentennial of Walden, and substantial scholarship on Emerson continued apace, with a notable selection of Emerson's lectures by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson and a number of new analyses of Emerson's politics, ethics, and impact on modern philosophy. I am also happy to welcome a new essay by Conrad Wright on the Unitarian cultural and religious contexts that illuminate the emergence of Transcendentalism.
a. Emerson as Lecturer
The crucial role of lecturing in Emerson's intellectual development and cultural influence is convincingly illustrated in Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson's The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Georgia), a collection of 25 lectures and addresses that span Emerson's career. As Bosco and Myerson point out, the texts of Emerson's lectures and his practices in delivery, insofar as they can be reconstructed, provide "the laboratory of Emerson's intellectual and compositional [End Page 3] processes." They also help us understand his contemporary reception as an intellectual in ways that his published texts cannot. Bosco and Myerson describe Emerson's "lack of physical gestures and flourishes" and his habits of shuffling manuscript pages from the rostrum and "speaking in a discontinuous, even abrupt, fashion." This approach, which countered 19th-century oratorical standards, amounted to a rhetorical strategy that "forced the audience to concentrate on his words, not his performance." The volume includes 7 lectures from Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams's earlier edition of Emerson's Early Lectures and 18 lectures included in Bosco and Myerson's recent edition of Emerson's Later Lectures (see AmLS 2001, pp. 3–4). Bosco and Myerson, however, provide new texts for the earlier lectures, aimed at presenting "Emerson's last delivery of a lecture that he always construed as a work in progress."
b. Emerson's Philosophical Affiliations and Modern Impact
Over the past two decades a portrayal of Emerson as a decisive figure in modern philosophy has been established. A cornerstone of this understanding of Emerson's significance has been Stanley Cavell's advocacy of Emerson's articulation of "moral perfectionism" and his anticipation of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. In addition to his recent Emerson's Transcendental Etudes (see AmLS 2003, pp. 14–15) Cavell has also published Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Harvard, 2004) and Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (Harvard), both of which are grounded in Cavell's understanding of Emersonian "moral perfectionism." In Cities of Words Cavell makes Emerson a "touchstone of interpretation and an object of interpretation," employing passages from "Self-Reliance" to initiate a dialogue of philosophers from the perfectionist tradition with classic American cinema. Cavell is alert to the "utopian moment in moral thinking" in which the individual is challenged to consent to the established social norms or think in "aversion" to the conformity that they require. Emerson's visit to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and his response to Shakespeare's demonstration of "learning how to let objects become impressive to us" are detailed in Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, a collection of new and recently published essays.
Herwig Friedl ("Ralph Waldo Emerson und die Erosion der Metaphysik," pp. 53–78 in Volker Kapp et al., eds., Subversive Romantik [Duncker, 2004]) sets out a persuasive case for Emerson as a groundbreaking postmetaphysical thinker whose work, with that of Nietzsche and [End Page 4] John Dewey, marked an end point in the Western metaphysical tradition. Friedl describes the powerfully innovative thinker whose work described a profoundly pluralistic world, with multiple sources of new power and meaning, a world in which both definable origins and teleological direction remained absent. Modern...