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Studies in American Fiction117 published elsewhere, and the rest could have been more appropriately placed in suitable journals. The reader who picks up this volume for the overview promised in the title will, I fear, be disappointed. Harvard UniversityJoel Porte Asselineau, Roger. The Transcendentalist Constant in American Literature. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1981. 189 pp. Cloth: $17.50. One approaches this book with high expectations. The subject is of great importance: everybody acknowledges the prominence of Transcendentalism as a motif in American literary history, but no one has charted it systematically. Roger Asselineau, long known to students of Transcendentalism as the author of the best study of Whitman's personal and poetic development (volume 1 of his Evolution of Walt Whitman, 1954, tr. 1960), would seem to be an ideal person to fill the gap. The Transcendentalht Constant, however, is not the book its title suggests. It is instead a loosely connected assemblage of twelve essays written over a period of years. It begins promisingly with "Dreaming on the Grass," originally an article in the Houston Forum (1976), discussing the pervasiveness of grass as symbol in American writing and the cosmic consciousness it betokens. But by itself the essay is not much more than a catalogue of instances; and it is followed up not by a thorough analysis but by eleven self-contained single-figure studies. Five are on Whitman; six are profiles of the "Transcendentalist" element in other American writers (Theodore Dreiser, Eugene O'Neill, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Walter Lowenfells). The quality of the separate chapters, furthermore, is uneven because the method of discussion is too similar throughout. The book adheres, for the most part, to what might be called an introductory overview style of presentation: tidy, hard-hitting generalizations intermixed with extensive quotation and anecdote. Asselineau handles this style with urbanity and resourcefulness, but it is not always appropriate. Where the subject or angle of interpretation is comparatively untapped, the method works well; where the field has been well ploughed beforehand the result is banality. To hear that Lowenfells is "the most neglected American poet of the twentieth century" (p. 163) is at least invigorating, if not convincing. To be told that Whitman is "nowadays . . . universally considered the greatest American poet" is unnecessary as rhetorical gesture and inaccurate as statement of fact (p. 17). Asselineau's theory of Transcendentalism is also somewhat defective. In his hands it becomes almost a rubber-band term, applicable to all who, as he says of Williams' characters, "prefer the infinity of dreams to the finite material world" (p. 160). On this level, everyone is a Transcendentalist sometimes, and the original Transcendentalists are not to be distinguished from romantics in general. This problem of watering down the meaning of "Transcendentalist" is of course something any literary historian must struggle hard to avoid when tracing the Transcendentalist presence in American writing. But what is especially troublesome here is that Asselineau betrays no awareness of the problem. Nevertheless The Transcendentalht Constant has merit in portions if not as a whole. The chapter on Lowenfells will not convince most readers that his poetry is as good as Asselineau thinks, but the essay does succeed in calling attention to Lowenfells' historical 118Reviews importance. The Hemingway chapter is built around a provocative comparison of the growth of the Hemingway hero and Hemingway's own identity to Carlyle's model in Sartor Resartus, although Asselineau greatly overestimates Hemingway's understanding of the nature of love. The Dreiser chapter usefully links Dreiser's mysticism with his admiration for the Transcendentalists and directs notice to his little-known experiments in free verse. The essay on Whitman's humor takes that subject one or two steps further than Richard Chase. Another Whitman chapter, the book's closest approximation to an intensive scholarly article, appraises his mixed feelings toward Taine's theory of literary history. And the first essay in the collection, on grass as cosmic symbol, is suggestive albeit underdeveloped . Were it not for Asselineau's prior reputation, this book would not have been published . American literary studies will not be much affected by its appearance. But now that the book exists, it is definitely worth at...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 117-118
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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