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  • The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism
  • Mark Schoening
The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism. Jonathan Levin. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Pp. xviii + 222. $49.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Another book can be added to the long shelf of books on antifoundationalism. Early in The Poetics of Transition, Levin writes that “the poetics of transition offers not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts,” a “restless” attitude stimulated by “a core dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures” (x). Since Levin knows that this “poetics” is antifoundationalism (“a practice of belief that encourages skepticism of particular beliefs” [14]), his book is not a look at a new idea but a “history” of a familiar one that begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson and continues in certain American pragmatists (William James, George Santayana, and John Dewey) and literary moderns (Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens). But like the idea it explores, the history in Levin’s book is familiar: many readers have noted the “unsettled, unsettling quality” of American pragmatism and literary modernism (xii). More importantly, the history Levin develops is thin in a way that keeps his book from the kinds of questions that might have given it life as a study of antifoundationalism.

To take the first problem first: in his opening chapter, Levin writes that “Emerson is a great believer, but he is also a careful skeptic, and he is more interested in the ways in which we [End Page 190] believe and doubt, in the actual flow of experience, than in systems of belief or a systematically sustained skepticism” (18). I find this right and elegantly stated, but Levin goes on to say that “this dimension of [Emerson] has proven somewhat elusive to his critics” (18). Well, no. Many readers of Emerson have noted his famous claim in “Circles” to “unsettle all things.” 1 At the outset of his own discussion, Levin writes that “every attentive reader already knows that Emerson, like Whitman, contradicts himself,” and he goes on to cite one attentive reader (Stephen Whicher) to the effect that Emerson does so because he is committed to “a total truth of experience larger than any truths of statement of which it is composed” (17). If “every attentive reader” already knows that Emerson “contradicts himself,” and if at least one of them has properly identified (according to Levin) the reason for this, how “elusive” is the “unsettled” dimension of his work?

Not very. Or perhaps—to be fair—“somewhat” elusive. But the qualifier that saves Levin’s sentence about Emerson confirms the problem of familiarity that plagues the discussions in his book. How many readers of William James will find “elusive” the idea that his work allows for “shades or degrees of truth while denying the possibility of certain truth,” or the idea that his pragmatism “emphasizes the unfolding processes within which truths and ideals are continuously generated, modified and reformulated?” (59) How many readers of Santayana (particularly after Samuel Levinson’s recent biography) will find novel the idea that he “rejects a metaphysical idealism, along with all the intellectual and spiritual trappings of that idealism, in favor of a pragmatic conception of the ideal as a transitional agency in experience?” (92) Readers of Dewey have heard before that he was “committed to a rigorous program of perpetual reconstruction” (94), while readers of Henry James have been told that he made an art of “tracing the slowly unfolding process of transition as characters’ perceptions of their worlds evolve,” an art that eventually came to be reflected in the “endless unfolding” of his prose (117). Finally, readers of Stein have entertained the thought that her writing is “designed to resist the repose that would put an end to the continuous movement of perception and understanding” (152), while readers of Stevens have considered the idea that his poems embody “a style of attentiveness to things that recognizes their dynamic relationship to unfolding, imaginative processes,” specifically the “processes” by which “imagination” interacts with “reality” (169).

Levin’s book does contain local points...

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pp. 190-192
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