on June 3, 2007
The purpose of this book is to survey the literary art and criticism of the American Transcendentalists and to contribute in the process to a better understanding of the relationship between style and vision in all nonfictional literature.
Most of what the Transcendentalists wrote falls into this category of nonfictional literature, presenting a mixture of piety, poetry, and sententiousness that is neither art nor argument but a compound of both. Their criticism shows a similar ambivalence. Largely for this reason, their aesthetic is still imperfectly understood, even though much scholarship has been devoted to various aspects of the movement. It is relatively easy, for example, to picture Emerson as a romanticized descendant of J Jonathan Edwards or as a harbinger of America's literary independence; it is harder to explain how his combination of the roles of clergyman and poet distinguishes his work in its own right, because he did not realize either role in a profound or consistent way. Compared to the great European romantics, Emerson seems provincial and inhibited; compared to Edwards, he seems dilettantish, a gourmet of spiritual ideas. The Transcendentalist movement as a whole, by the same token, has appealed to scholars more as a symptom of New England's intellectual flowering or decay-than for its intrinsic merits as a body of literature or as a system of thought.
From one point of view this consensus is justified: undoubtedly Emerson and his circle are more important for historical reasons than for the quality of their achievements in art, philosophy, and theology. As is often pointed out, however, their stature increases when one considers them as "thinkers" or "prophets" rather than in terms of a particular intellectual discipline. One then begins to get caught up in the excitement of their vision; their very lack of discipline begins to seem a source of greatness; and it is the critics of their impure art or shallow theology who begin to seem parochial. Even those readers who are fundamentally unsympathetic to Transcendentalist idealism often come to respect the suggestiveness, rhetorical power, and fineness of discernment in works like Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and Theodore Parker's Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity. Neither is fully satisfying as an exposition of theology or as a work of art, yet one feels that such classifications do not matter, that the two discourses are in any case impressive literary-religious performances.
Criticism needs to find better ways of measuring the qualities of such works, in order to account for the impression of excellence they convey and to explain their impact upon large numbers of readers both then and now. This book attempts such an inquiry. Through a combination of intellectual history, critical explication, and genre study, it undertakes to outline the nature and evolution of the Transcendentalists' characteristic literary aims and approaches, and the ways in which these express the authors' underlying principles or vision.
So far the word "Transcendentalism" has been used in a very general sense; to avoid confusion, it should be defined more precisely, since the term is notoriously vague.