- International ScholarshipFrench Contributions
French scholarship this year is highlighted by a departure from traditional canonical viewpoints, a move shaped by scholarship that has reached a high degree of maturity and by a reorientation toward synthesizing in a variety of ways historical, philosophical, linguistic, and religious approaches. In this mixing of perspectives, despite thoughtful consideration of the prevailing questions of literature as belles lettres, scholars have moved slightly off-center. Examples include a volume of essays revisiting and sometimes contesting central tenets of Transcendentalist scholarship, a book-length study of writers whose contributions to a new literature of place mark a departure from Henry David Thoreau’s idea of wildness, a collection of articles devoted to the problem of disambiguating literature through translation, and critical works on ethnic studies focused on the textual embodiment of the self. The most striking change, however, involves publication of several collections of essays focusing on the role of spirituality in American literature.
a. 19th-Century Literature
A noncanonical view of Transcendentalism is presented by Thomas Constantinesco and François Specq in “Relire le transcendantalisme, Whither Transcendentalism?,” a special issue of Revue Française d’Etudes Américaines (RFEA 140), in an ambitious attempt to highlight and historicize the diversity of current approaches to American Transcendentalism. Correcting the misconception that scholarship on Transcendentalism should be equated to “the Emerson industry,” the editors of this volume argue for a better understanding of the complex intellectual interactions both within the “Transcendentalist movement” and between Transcendentalism and a range of intellectual traditions. Bruce Ronda’s well-researched “‘Tender Spirits Set in Ferment’: Transcendentalism and the Aesthetics of Conversation” (pp. 11–23), argues that conversation, far from contradicting the emphasis commonly put on the power of individual intuition, actually complements it. Citing texts by Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller, Ronda shows convincingly that its primary effectiveness is derived from its constructing an experience of community. Equally important is David Robinson’s “The Movement’s Medium: Fuller, Emerson, and the Dial” (pp. 24–36), a challenging approach to the Transcendentalist movement. With a focus on the complex alliance of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, [End Page 434] Robinson looks at the Transcendentalist movement as having an internal intellectual dynamics extending beyond individual expression to encompass social transformation. Robinson’s essay could be considered as a revisionary attempt to politicize discussions of Transcendentalism. Particularly instructive is Robinson’s argument that Fuller contributed a political thrust to the movement, translating Transcendentalist critical thinking into an argument for women’s emancipation, and Emerson’s use of Transcendentalist language in the preface to the first issue of the Dial to call for revolution in New England. Joseph Urbas’s perceptive “In Praise of Second-Rate French Philosophy: Reassessing Victor Cousin’s Contribution to Transcendentalism” (pp. 37–51) offers a significant analysis of the decisive role that the writings of Cousin, a French philosopher and “a second-rate thinker,” played in the emergence of Transcendentalism in the 1830s. Particularly meaningful is the light Urbas sheds on “the structural resemblances” between Cousin’s philosophy and Emerson’s, showing usefully that they are grounded in their shared focus on “impersonality.” Urbas goes on to propose that Cousin was instrumental in helping the Transcendentalists define ontology as the “true metaphysical question” and open up a bridge from psychology to ontology. An original approach to Transcendentalism is Daniel S. Malachuk’s wide-ranging “Transcendentalist and Gothic Intentions” (pp. 52–64). Whereas Transcendentalism and the Gothic are commonly considered as paradigmatic opposites, Malachuk contends provocatively that they are deeply connected rather than antagonistic. To illustrate his point, he aptly emphasizes the various Gothic tropes employed by Fuller, Emerson, and Thoreau, persuasively arguing that the Transcendentalists did not refrain from the more extreme aspects of gothicism. Among his significant examples is the emphasis on “transcendentalized Gothic undoing” in Thoreau’s writings. Treading in the steps of previous work on the importance of developing the self prior to supporting charitable causes, Thomas LeCarner adopts an original and noncanonical perspective in “A Portion of Thyself: Thoreau, Emerson, and Derrida on Giving” (pp. 65–77), revising common assumptions about the Transcendentalists on this topic. LeCarner usefully differentiates Marcel...