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  • 1 Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Transcendentalism
  • David M. Robinson

It is a measure of the present moment in literary studies that the political character of Transcendentalism, an important but somewhat secondary interpretive question from the beginnings of the movement, has now moved front and center as today's readers try to discern how the Transcendentalists thought and acted as political agents, and how they speak politically to us now. Margaret Fuller continues to mirror contemporary political concerns, with her activities in New York and Italy ever more prominent. A selected volume of Robert Hudspeth's invaluable edition of Fuller's letters will bring her a wider readership, and 20 new papers from a conference in Rome extend our knowledge of her Italian experience. In a new intellectual biography, Jevrey Steele sheds light on Fuller's development in the earlier 1840s. The political Emerson, a central and controversial figure for more than a decade now, is given further elaboration in a new collection ed. T. Gregory Garvey and in a number of other new essays. Insofar as the political Emerson is also in many respects the later Emerson, Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson's new edition of his Later Lectures will add significantly to the ongoing critical recovery of Emerson's later career. Thoreau studies have also been shaped by the political orientation of recent criticism, but the major critical events this year are Alan D. Hodder's reinterpretation of Thoreau's religious sensibility and Elizabeth Hall Witherell's edition of his essays and poems for the Library of America.

i Emerson

a. Emerson's Later Lectures

The publication of Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson's The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843–1871 (2 vols., Georgia) is a signal event, providing a more accurate delineation of [End Page 3] the development of Emerson's thought in his last three productive decades. As we are coming to recognize, these were indeed productive years in which Emerson's growing intellectual range met a widening national and international audience. These 49 lectures, which vary widely in topic, remind us of Emerson's commitment to the possibilities of the lecture as a tool of public education and provide important information on his response to the extraordinary developments in American culture between the middle 1840s and the early 1870s. While I have only begun to tap into these riches, I would call attention to three lectures from the 1848–49 series, Mind and Manners of the Nineteenth Century (1: 127–89), a significant revelation of Emerson's engagement with science at this period; and the related 1858 series, Natural Method of Mental Philosophy (2: 41–129). The original formulations of what James E. Cabot and Edward Waldo Emerson later assembled as Natural History of Intellect, these lectures in fact constitute the philosophical steps that Emerson took after "Experience" and must be seen as some of his most ambitious projects. Certainly the Later Lectures will enrich and accelerate the discourse about Emerson at mid-century, alter our map of his intellectual development, and augment our understanding of his cultural significance.

b. The Emerson Dilemma

In The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform (Georgia) T. Gregory Garvey gathers 11 new essays that explore "how Emerson's reform activism emerges out of his transcendentalism and how [his] transcendentalism . . . shaped his involvement in reform movements." Garvey's "Introduction: The Emerson Dilemma" (pp. xi–xxviii) surveys the history of Emerson's political reputation to show that the debate over his political identity was alive among his contemporaries. While Emerson's statements on reform are usually dated to the late 1830s, Susan L. Roberson in "Reform and the Interior Landscape: Mapping Emerson's Political Sermons" (pp. 3–13) reminds us that in 1830–31 Emerson "spoke out against slavery and the treatment of the Southern Indians" from his Second Church pulpit. Roberson links the sermons to Emerson's concern over the declining health of his wife Ellen, finding that Emerson worked out "symbolically his personal and philosophical struggle with mortality and loss" by delivering "jeremiads about the diseased social body—the nation—substituting it for the diseased body of the woman he loved 'too deeply.'" The...


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