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  • Emerson’s Politics of Uncertainty
  • Jennifer Gurley (bio)

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Ralph Waldo Emerson. A daguerreotype by Southworth and Hawes, c. 1870. From A Commentary on Emerson’s Early Lectures (1833–1836), by Kenneth Walter Cameron (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1961), i.

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Much of the recent scholarship on Ralph Waldo Emerson explains his connection to—and so his importance for—the various reform movements of his day. A formerly aloof Emerson is fast becoming political. His realignment accompanies the broader trend in the humanities to argue the “political relevance” of literary study, during times when the value of such inquiry increasingly is being called into question.1 That Emerson has been revised in this way is telling. Of all the nineteenth-century American writers we might describe as political, he is the one who perhaps most despised politics, proclaiming they are “odious and hurtful” and seem “like meddling or leaving your work.”2 But if the work of even this persistent speaker for things “not marketable or perishable”3 could be rendered politically useful (or so the thinking might go), then, by extension, any humanistic pursuit could. In other words, recruiting the famously abstract thinker for politics might rally support for the humanities in general.

But Emerson’s new turn disregards the decisive question that should have preceded it. Namely: What for Emerson—not for his contemporaries, not for us—constitutes political activity? In what follows, I propose an answer to this question as I assess his recent metamorphosis.

Critics made Emerson political in two stages: first the “transparent eyeball” was shown to be a pragmatic thinker, [End Page 323] and then he was reshaped as a political agent. Early on, Perry Miller helped make stick his conviction that Emerson cannot acknowledge that “ideas are born in time and place, that they spring from specific environments, that they express the force of societies and classes, that they are generated by power relations.” 4 But Miller’s transcendental drifter, like F. O. Matthiessen’s fervent optimist, eventually became earthbound, strategic, and trapped.5 Richard Poirier most richly accounted for this “pragmatic” Emerson who is fully aware that human knowledge is limited, namely by what we can say: truth as we know it is bound to linguistic “conventions.”6 Faced with the loss of absolute truth, Emerson works within the bounds of these conventions to alter convention. Michael Lopez has more recently “detranscendentalized” Emerson by demonstrating his understanding of power as a force expressed through the language that creates and maintains institutions, and Eduardo Cadava similarly has revealed him negotiating and reinventing the rhetoric that sustains the ideologies upholding public institutions and traditions.7

Impatient with this analyst who merely thinks pragmatically, a notable wave of critics over the last fifteen or so years has made Emerson political by establishing his involvement with the reform movements of his day.8 Len Gougeon and David Robinson most forcefully have directed our attention to Emerson’s protests against slavery and the treatment of native peoples, and to his (albeit lukewarm) public support for women.9 This important work offers us a side of Emerson that had been ignored, highlighting his appeal to higher law (over human law) in order to condemn the immorality of slavery, and thus translate a transcendentalist principle into a political claim. In Robinson’s view, for Emerson, “each act or event always point[s] beyond itself, to an ideal,” and it was the “challenge of [his] era to . . . reestablish the connection between ethical principle and public policy.”10

Current scholarship also has generated arguments that starkly contest all notions of a political Emerson and instead revive a heady elitist or an unwitting capitalist who is more former than reformer: who complies with, or even underwrites, bourgeois values and state oppression.11 John Carlos [End Page 324] Rowe vehemently “‘reprimand[s]’” Emerson for fanning the ideologies that enabled nineteenth-century America’s sociopolitical and economic violence;12 he equally indicts readers who do not regard Emerson in this way.13 For Rowe, “Emersonian transcendentalism had an important ideological function to serve in nineteenth-century America: the legitimation of those practices of intellectual abstraction required to...


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