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  • Feudalism, Individualism, and Authority in Later Emerson
  • Robert Yusef Rabiee (bio)

Why need we copy the Doric or the Gothic model?

—“Self-Reliance” (1841)

In modern Europe, the Middle Ages were called the Dark Ages. Who dares to call them so now? They are seen to be the feet on which we walk, the eyes with which we see. ’Tis one of our triumphs to have reinstated them.

—“Progress of Culture” (1867)

memorial hall: gothic boston

My epigraphs dramatize how Emerson’s Transcendentalist rhetoric shifted, initially rejecting premodern European models but, after the Civil War, embracing them as signifiers of Northern cultural and political hegemony. As he eschewed the liberalism that Nature and “Self-Reliance” foreground, the dialectical relationship he posited between society and the individual gave way to a doctrine of natural aristocracy that he theorized in English Traits (1856), the public addresses published as The Conduct of Life (1860), and the Phi Beta Kappa address “Progress of Culture.”1 Emerson found in his voyages to England and studies of English history a way to resolve the central paradox of his view of the individual: [End Page 77] a political and economic neo-feudalism “derive[d] from medieval English history.”2 This neo-feudalism has, finally, a pedagogical purpose: to prioritize the well-ordered estate as the core educational principle shaping the country’s future leaders. This shift is not uniquely Emerson’s, but instead mirrors a more general trend among other Northern intellectuals who formed the cultural vanguard of the coming Gilded Age.3

My argument concerning Emerson’s “feudal turn” proceeds in three stages. First, by reading “The American Scholar” against his later address “Progress of Culture” and the manuscript fragments of his unpublished lecture “Chivalry,” I demonstrate how his vision of the individual’s relationship to culture altered. The subsequent section explains this change by highlighting how English Traits marked the moment when Emerson’s social vision first fused liberal and feudal elements. Finally, I establish that The Conduct of Life applies the neo-feudalism that Emerson theorized in English Traits. I aim ultimately to acknowledge Emerson’s complex thinking on social issues while revealing the contradictions that complicate the social schemes he theorized later.

Before employing Emerson’s texts to explore his neo-feudalism, I would like to offer an illuminating example from architectural history: Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt’s Memorial Hall at Harvard College. Emerson’s personal involvement in this project demonstrates how pervasively the neo-feudal spirit permeated the post-Civil War U.S. cultural imaginary. The July 18, 1865 Morning Edition of the Boston Daily Advertiser proclaims that the proposed building represents part shrine, part auditorium, and part dining hall, a material testament to high national sentiment and Yankee pragmatism. The article’s author evokes John Trumbull’s neoclassical Picture Gallery at Yale University as an ideal model: a good Enlightenment building—Roman (but not Catholic), severe, and egalitarian.4 Emerson’s [End Page 78]

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Memorial Hall, Harvard University.

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives, HUV 166 Memorial Hall (3-8A).

[End Page 79]

letters and journal entries between 1865 and 1870 evidence an active, all-encompassing interest in the Hall’s funding, development, and design. The author even petitions R. W. Barnwell, a Harvard classmate and Confederate champion who enjoyed close personal ties to Jefferson Davis, to join the effort: “I dare not hope we shall win you this year, the time is so near; but this year completes another lustrum, &, as we are summoning our men, I use the occasion to say thus much.”5 Emerson’s efforts finally succeeded: in July 1869, John G. Palfrey, former editor of the North American Review, reported to the Daily Advertiser that Harvard had secured $398,000 toward completing Memorial Hall. This sum, combined with a $40,000 influx from the estate of Harvard’s recently deceased Steward, enabled construction to begin.6

The building Cambridge finally saw was not pragmatic and neoclassical like Yale’s gallery, but instead a soaring Gothic cathedral inspired by John Ruskin’s aesthetic principles. In an 1899 article for The Harvard Register, Henry Van Brunt explains his “technically medieval...


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