- Miles of Stare: Transcendentalism and the Problem of Literary Vision in Nineteenth-Century America by Michelle Kohler
With a rare combination of thoroughgoing erudition and playful close reading, Michelle Kohler redefines Ralph Waldo Emerson’s consequence for the American scene. First, Kohler argues that Emerson assigns “the imagination’s tasks to the eye” (5). Then, she shows how such “American seers” as Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, William Dean Howells, and Sarah Orne Jewett “critique, mock, ironize, fracture, reverse, or otherwise seek to work through the contradictions and equivocations within” Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” metaphor (5, 206). Kohler demonstrates that Emerson’s originality stokes his influence: what makes him great—his all-seeing eye—accounts for the difference he makes, especially through disagreement, to generations of American writers. A milestone in American studies, Miles of Stare establishes a focused but flexible outlook on the difficult fascination of American literary vision. [End Page 112]
Kohler’s case rests on the signature subject and predicate of Emerson’s Nature (1836): the transparent eyeball sees all. Emerson, she forthrightly states, “is as vested in locating this experience in the material world as he is in transcending the material world”—that is, his omniscience does not just climb to a world beyond, as in trans-scandere, but sees all here, as in trans-parere (25). Kohler acknowledges that not even Emerson believes he can “see all” all the time. She astutely points out, however, that the Emerson of his later, more skeptical essays, such as “Experience” (1844), can yet “behold,” “as it were in flashes of light” and without presuming to “make” the world, “what was there already” (qtd. in Kohler 40). This “dramatic reappearance” of what Kohler aptly calls Emerson’s “poetic epistemology” illustrates, with satisfying complexity, how perennially his resilient sensorium honors precisely “what is manifest” (40, 51, 136).
In Kohler’s narrative of Emerson’s philosophical development, his eye both departs from and improves upon Kant’s Reason and Coleridge’s Imagination. Kohler’s decisive placement of Emerson at the crux of a uniquely American high-cultural history discloses, importantly and surprisingly, how—by “simply perceiving rather than creating”—his “faculty of vision” turns “the inwardness of European romanticism” outward (18, 23, 26). Thus, in her version of what is distinctive about Emerson, his all-seeing eye reveals all he needs to know on earth and more than what suffices not just for his proper mode of sensory proceeding, but for that of his wide circle as well.
Kohler’s seers take their bearings from Emerson but write against him and morph his blithe correspondences of spiritual insight and natural sight into their own inimitable juxtapositions of obscure yearning and flawed, vexed perception. Languishing in a “horrible pit” with “no ladder” (Douglass’s images), Douglass finds Emerson’s “aerial omniscience” unattainable and arrogant (68). Hawthorne’s “feebly transparent” eye sees darkly, stays “limited to exterior, distant views of others” (80, 86). In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne prefers the occluded vision of provincial Hepzibah—her “dim optics” (Hawthorne’s phrase)—to the all-knowing but aggressive observation, the panoptical intrusiveness, of daguerrotypist Holgrave (103). And just as Emerson’s trademark trope exchanges loftiness for clear-sightedness, so do the novels of Howells and Jewett “resist transcendence” (140). Howells, however, in a belated mode, “writes to generate seeing rather than sees to generate writing” (151).
Throughout Kohler’s book, she discusses the poem she quotes in her title:
I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent- To wrap it’s shining Yards - [End Page 113] Pluck up it’s stakes, and disappear - Without the sound of Boards Or Rip of Nail - Or Carpenter - But just the miles of Stare - That signalize a Show’s Retreat - In North America -(Fr257)
Paraphrasing Dickinson’s deliberately anti-Emersonian words, Kohler asserts that “North America is typified by—and typically figured by—the blank stare of perplexed, abandoned viewers, who expected the ongoing revelation of ‘Heaven’ but find only their own objectless...