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  • The New American Scholar
  • John Hansen

In his essay “Literary Vocation as Occupational Idealism: The Example of Emerson’s ‘American Scholar,’” Rob Wilson compares Ralph Waldo Emerson’s scholar with the present literary intellectual in American society. According to Wilson, rather than becoming the intellectual beacon of hope Emerson envisioned, the American (literary) scholar has become trapped in a kind of intellectual bondage by the very act of writing. That is, Wilson believes that the American scholar, because of the effect of Emersonian idealism, has been subjected to repeating Emersonian moral symbols and aesthetic tropes, which has resulted in the alienation of the critic from American society (Wilson 84). However, as will be seen, Wilson’s theory of “occupational idealism” is an invalid rhetorical device used to support his belief in dialectical materialism and determinism, whereby the scholar is trapped in a cycle of history and nature causing him to vainly attempt to demystify Emerson’s idealistic writings by simply producing more of them.

According to Emerson, one of the duties of the American scholar is to look to his inner light and through his rhetorical skills bring a conversion of the world whereby men would be taught the virtue of self-reliance: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak with our own minds” (Emerson 71). One of the purposes of Wilson’s essay is to elucidate the terms of Emersonian idealism that have been repeatedly used by the literary world ever since Emerson made his address at Cambridge:

According to the energizing image of power/knowledge from the Phi Beta Kappa address of 1837, the scholar’s word would be a regenerative deed for the sleepwalking populace. Literary criticism merges into social prophecy. Each trope would link the sublime energies of God and Capital to the sublime influx of emancipatory energies in the self, any self.

(Wilson 91) [End Page 97]

Thus, Wilson believes that the current state of American literary criticism has morphed into one in which the scholar is compelled to participate in a writing system that is based upon Emersonian symbolicity of speech and imagery with the scholar as a “troping genius” (92). Although Wilson thinks that Emersonian idealism has become a central role model for the literary vocation in America, ironically, the net effect of Emerson’s “conversion” of the literary world had been to subject the American scholar to an occupational idealism where he is bound into a recurring fate of rhetorical representations: “trying to demystify habitual illusions in the act of writing more of them, as if this above all constitutes a counterstrategy of rhetorical liberation” (Wilson 91).

In order to show how the current state of American literature is wrought with Emersonian idealism and its social irrelevance, Wilson gives the example of Frederick Exley—a high school teacher of English who yearns to become a transcendentalist author in the mold of Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Exley’s dream is to become a great American novelist and live a life of fame and fortune (87). According to Wilson, Exley’s vocational call serves as a paradigm of the literary intellectual who would interiorize the work ethos of capitalism as empowering Emerson’s god-believing self to accrue moral sublimity within labor (88). However, while Exley is summoned to an Emersonian career of letters that would set him apart from the masses, he becomes distraught about writing and never seeing his calling materialize. For Wilson, Exley’s vision of self-sublimity is founded in compensatory narcissism—with the same self-brooding in bars and libraries—and “repeats the marketplace disdain, suicidal introversion, and ‘discontent of the literary class’ . . . as portrayed in Emerson’s ‘American Scholar’” (89). Exley’s alienation from American society is only curable by looking to the inner self and converting to Emersonian transcendence. This type of conversion is not only typical for the scholar but inevitable given the “commodification” of nature that Wilson believes Emerson’s essay assumes (Wilson 89–90).

Wilson’s use of the term “commodification” as it relates to Emersonian idealism is somewhat obscure. In one part of his essay, Wilson suggests the term “commodity” refers to the...


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