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TheCanadianReview of American Studies, Volume 12,No. 2, Fall 1981 Emerson and the Rhetoric of Belief h.enneth MarcHarris. Car(i:le and Emerson: ThcuLongDebate. Cambndge, Mass.,_and London: Harvard UniversityPress, 1978.194+ x1pp. Joel Porte.Representative Man: R~lph ~a/do Eme1:mn mHHlime.NewYork:Oxford University Press, 1979. 1{1!+XXIXPP· David Porter.Emerson and Litera1:vChange. . . Cambridge, Mass.,and London: Harvard University Press, JIJ78. 232+xvipp. \\tlham J.Scheick. The Slender Human Word: Emerson'.f Artist1y in Prose. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1978. 162 + xiv pp. R A.Yoder. Emerson and the Otphic Poet in America. Ber~eley, LosAngeles, and London: University of California Press, 1978. 240+ xiv pp. John Stephen Martin Emerson, despite the reverence given him for over a century, remains an elusive figure in American letters. In his own lifetime he was considered a moralsage and a quasi-religious leader for an entire region of the United States, and later he became the Spokesman for American Ideals, particularly ashepopularized individualism and democracy. Still later, beginning in the 1930s, the critical revival of Emerson studies sought to make readers conscious that Emerson was a man of worthy intellectual ideas as well.1 These studies were not, however, without major difficulties. First, if they hailed Emersonas a thinker, they had to contend with the fact (which was often treatedas a reason for his historical importance) that Emerson was hardly original and picked up his terms and ideas, so it was said, from Coleridge, Wordsworth and Kant, as well as from Orientals, Neo-Platonists and hosts oflesserlights, past and contemporary. But more importantly, if readers managed to excuse this "source-hunting" approach, it remained difficult for moderns to take Emerson seriously. InNature, for example, Emerson writes that our ideas "pre-exist in the mindof God," and in the later essays ''Experience" and "Fate," he tells us thatalthoughnature fully circumscribes man's life and will, language remains adivine gift by which men might get the better of this "great Necessity." Such notions go counter to our view of phenomenal existence and suggest that 210 John StephenMartin Emerson had a pre-modern bias of thought which precludes our fullcon CUr· rence;· the best that a modern reader can offer is a scholarly ''willingsus "· sion of disbelief" which, in turn, undercuts the point of reading hiswritfue~; For this reason, perhaps, there was a sigh of relief when E 0. Matthiess~• and his successors, influenced by the New Criticism, could speak ofthis el~'. sive writer as an artist, with emphasis shifted from what Emerson said 10 how he said it. But Emerson's essays, though eminently quotable, defv J satisfying esthetic analysis, for as Matthiessen and Vivien Hopkins discove~d. the study of metaphors and symbols could yield the "ideas" whichwere supposed to lead the reader to consider how intuitive insights explodeupor, his consciousness, but this analysis limited esthetics to stylistic concernsli[ effective organization and proper phrasing in the light of assumptionsabout Emerson's intellectual ideas-ideas which are, to be sure, the same ones that defy modern belief. 2 The fact is that until very recently no one wouldcon sider Emerson's forms and techniques unless they were already considered to be part of the modern canon, and if they were, they were assumed tobeuseJ for the same reasons that a writer today would use them. As for Emerson's poetry, the same traits of scholarly analysis are evident. as commentators generally emphasize such poems as "Merlin" and "Eac~ and All" which lend themselves to discussions of similar "tricks" of aheav,handed rhetoric and lofty "ideas," and scholars persist in such analysese,~n as they acknowledge how Emerson's call for a "metre-making argument" stifles the writing of exciting poetry. Invariably such studies concludeneg atively, implying Emerson's lack of what we moderns have been schooled tu appreciate-such factors as intentional ambiguity and tension, immedia~) of circumstances, density of symbols, and the dynamics of dramatic irony. In the end, this form of the esthetic approach compels us to apologizefor Emerson's art although it was his art which was to redeem him from havin~ ideas which outstrip our capacity to believe in what he wrote. Given...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 209-224
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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