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This chapter surveys the history of nature writing and the nature essay, from American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller to more recent writers such as Barry Lopez, Amitav Ghosh, and Camille T. Dungy. The author examines the political and scientific aspects of nature writing and the genre’s response to changing conceptions of “nature.”
In “Toward a Transatlantic Philosophy of Nature,” Samantha C. Harvey demonstrates how British Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge articulated a philosophy of nature in poetic form that would be reinterpreted in two central prose works of American Transcendentalism: Emerson’s Nature (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854). Through detailed analysis of the works of Wordsworth and Emerson, Harvey suggests that nature’s vital role in the nineteenth century becomes particularly pronounced when Romanticism is considered as a transnational movement that flowed beyond national boundaries. Harvey shows how a transcendentalist philosophy of nature crossed, recrossed, and crisscrossed the Atlantic in various directions, undergoing continual transformations along the way.
After tallying up what it cost to build his humble “abode in the woods” in Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau reflects on the far more substantial sums required to establish an institution of higher learning. The typical “mode of founding a college,” he writes, is to get up a subscription of dollars and cents, and then, following blindly the principles of a division of labor, – a principle which should never be followed but with circumspection, – to call in a contractor who makes this an object of speculation, and he employs Irishmen or other operatives actually to lay the foundations, while the students that are to be are said to be fitting themselves for it; and for these oversights successive generations have to pay.1 Although Thoreau himself had trouble paying tuition at Harvard, his primary concern here is not with the bill that students and their families are left to foot when colleges are founded as “object[s] of speculation.” Instead, Thoreau takes issue with the assumption that colleges should be construction sites like any other, a practice he feels is symptomatic of the American college’s misguided sense of mission. By shielding students from the vagaries of life, Thoreau charges, colleges substitute the platitudes of the classical curriculum for anything remotely concrete. There is no shortage of material “professed and practiced,” to be sure, but nothing that could be called useful. Thoreau’s critique was not unique in the mid-nineteenth century. Countless reformers argued against the classical curriculum’s focus on “dead languages” and potted metaphysics, while others railed at the toilsome pedagogy of recitation and “mental discipline” that treated Greek, mechanics, and English as interchangeable tools for training moral character. But if Thoreau is in good company in disdaining the antebellum college, the solution he proposes is far from conventional: students should be required to lay the foundation for their studies in actual concrete – by building the colleges they attend. The point, Thoreau argues, is not to replace the liberal arts with vocational education, but to ground college learning in lived experience. Doing so would help ensure that students do “not play life or study it merely” but “earnestly live it from beginning to end.” No longer shut off from reality, the American college would become a place of active engagement with the world beyond the campus and with “the art of life.”2
Though in some ways Ralph Waldo Emerson (1802–1882) and Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) are contrasting figures in the history of American Romanticism, scholarship over the past thirty years connects them as writers whose work articulates concerns over race and enslavement. Moreover, critical recognition that each writer engages such matters emerged only in the late twentieth century, after decades of work that effaced each writer’s political resonance. This chapter approaches these issues through some of the signal trends that have informed scholarship on Emerson and Poe over the past thirty years.
“Amidst his gray philosophizing, Life breaks upon a man like a morning.” Melville, Pierre or the Ambiguities1 In the decades since Stanley Cavell’s provocation in Senses of Walden that nineteenth-century American philosophy is perhaps best found in the “metaphysical riot of its greatest literature,”2 critics have charted with renewed interest how writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Melville, Dickinson, Douglass, and Whitman have responded to and challenged the philosophical tradition. They have explored how these writers anticipate philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Martin Heidegger, and Gilles Deleuze, and how contemporary philosophers from Giorgio Agamben to Slavoj Žižek have used pallid Melville as a cipher for their own conceptual systems.3 At the same time, critics have articulated how nineteenth-century American writers offer unique philosophies; how their writings blur literature and philosophy, as well as science and psychology; and how they develop their own philosophies of democracy, race, and sexuality.4 For Elizabeth Duquette, recent philosophical investigations of American literature have highlighted the importance “of the practice and place of philosophy in nineteenth-century American literature” and inspired scholars to “reexamine assumptions about abstraction, and what we do when we read a literary text.”5 It is not only a question of recognizing that writers such as Dickinson or Poe, Melville or Douglass are themselves perspicuous readers of philosophy, or that they make philosophical interventions of their own. These writers also push us to rethink issues of representation, interpretation, expression, style, and form. Given the wealth of recent philosophical readings of American literature, then, one might even be tempted to consider the study of American literature and philosophy as an emergent subfield.
William Molyneux's question to John Locke about whether a blind man restored to sight could name the difference between a cube and a sphere without touching them shaped fundamental conflicts in philosophy, theology and science between empirical and idealist answers that are radically alien to current ways of seeing and feeling but were born of colonizing ambitions whose devastating genocidal and ecocidal consequences intensify today. This Element demonstrates how landscape paintings of unfamiliar terrains required historical and geological subject matter to supply tactile associations for empirical recognition of space, whereas idealism conferred unmediated but no less coercive sensory access. Close visual and verbal analysis using photographs of pictorial sites trace vividly different responses to the question, from those of William Hazlitt and John Ruskin in Britain to those of nineteenth-century authors and artists in the United States and Australia, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Cole, William Haseltine, Fitz Henry Lane and Eugene von Guérard.
Chapter 9 gives attention to some of the voices and groups that were often excluded during the founding period. From the destitute dreams of a complete make-over of property laws, to individuals mistrusting all governments, to Native Americans, to women, and—last but not least—African Americans; what was their place and role in the body politic? The chapter includes selections from Thomas Skidmore’s The Rights of Men; from the American Transcendentalists; from speeches by Native Americans, including Tecumseh and Pushmataha; and from the early nineteenth-century women’s rights movement as represented by Abigail Adams, Mary Wollstonecraft, who as widely read among American women, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The arguments of these authors reveal inherent tensions between the liberal and the republican view of society, i.e., between the idea of fundamental equality of all individuals, regardless of their race, gender, or beliefs, and the classical republican recognition of diversity among members of society. The chapter thus raises questions about the relative merit of abstract and descriptive representation.
This chapter shows that biblical criticism encouraged some figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, to abandon what they perceived as transient historical grounds for what they understood as a transcendent moral sphere. Many scholars have stressed the ahistorical aspects of Transcendental belief and emphasized the ways in which Transcendentalism outgrew its Unitarian roots. In doing so, however, they have often neglected to note how historical arguments freed heterodox thinkers such as Emerson and Parker in their attempts to build atemporal worlds. While most biblical scholars used historical readings to ground universal truths in a biblical past, these Transcendentalists employed historical explication to unmoor such truths from that historical setting. The growing perception of historical distance assisted them in that effort. As these and other thinkers drew attention to the shiftiness of historical evidence, the limitations of time, and the remoteness of the past, they exposed the transience of the historical grounds on which American Protetants based their faith.
Assertions of the Civil War’s meaning began well before the formal cessation of hostilities. In poetry, prose, and oratory, Unionists and Confederates staked out claims for the legitimacy of their cause. We continue to lay out these claims well into the twenty-first century, in large measure because we cannot agree on the stakes, let alone on what they mean. Literature has played an outsized role in these conversations in part because of its popularity and accessibility. Equally important, literature has an immediacy that other genres and disciplines lack. By surveying canonical and lesser-known literary works, this essay outlines how generations of Americans have written about the war. And by highlighting narratives and counternarratives, it makes clear that alternative visions always challenged the dominance of the Lost Cause trope.
William James was one of the most influential American psychologists and philosophers. His writings remain thought-provoking and relevant more than a century after his death. His seminal ideas range from free will, determinism, the nature of consciousness, the mechanisms responsible for our emotions, religious and spiritual experiences, psychic phenomena, and the veracity of mediumship. This chapter focuses on what is less well known, that behind the appearance of success he lived a life burdened with recurrent depression, hypochondria, and myriad physical afflictions, most of them psychosomatic in nature. His search for a career path was long and torturous. At different stages in his life, he was a frustrated artist, a reluctant physician, and a drifter. He found his calling in teaching. His lifelong search for the nature of the mind and the soul was deeply entangled with his father’s, whose tragic and accidental loss of a leg in childhood led to a relentless lifelong quest for “real” answers. The chapter also touches on Ralph Waldo Emerson, his godfather, and includes brief descriptions of William James’ famed novelist brother, Henry James, Jr., as well as his sister, Alice James, the brilliant reclusive diarist.
The chapter shows that Emerson and Whitman refined their poetics by probing the truth claims and reality effects of photography. It expands our understanding of American romantic literature by connecting the romantic concern with intuition, firsthand experience, and organic expression to the emergence of photography. Claims to authenticity and immediacy were central to the reform efforts of the transcendentalists because they enabled them to resist social conventions, to counter the commercialization of literary culture, and to renew literature’s democratic ethos. The chapter identifies photographic discourse as an important testing ground for this orientation. Emerson repeatedly reflected on photography to think through the relations between knowledge and mediation and to define the cultural role of literature. At first, he held that the camera’s capacity to record optical reality without distortion realized his ideal of intuitive insight and original expression. His attitude towards photography grew more ambivalent, however, as his commitment to a poetics of process deepened. Seeking to represent a world in flux, Emerson grew wary of photography’s stabilized records of reality.
This chapter discusses the effect of the war on Holmes’s attitude toward life. It refutes the conventional view that it made him cynical and detached. This view has been echoed through fifty years of scholarship, each retelling increasing the dimension of the war’s harmful effect on his character. To the contrary, I argue that the war did not diminish Holmes’s exuberance or his ability to form relationships. He was still the Emersonian idealist – eager to encounter life and engage with it intellectually. As evidence, I cite his close relationship with William James and contrast him with his cousin Johnny Morse and his friend Henry Adams.
This chapter explores Holmes’s emerging theology. Holmes was deeply agnostic; he had a modern and scientific view about the limits of human understanding. At the same time, he was inspired by a spiritual conception of human life. In these views, he was influenced by the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Understanding Holmes’s views thus requires recognizing their connection to Eastern philosophy as well as their origins in New England Puritanism and the Unitarian movement.
Sally Bayley traces Plath’s emerging relationship to her journal persona and creed. Bayley focuses on the intense period of Plath’s late teenage years and early adulthood, including the beginnings of university education. She also reveals the importance of the diarists Plath read to Plath’s own journal activities and larger poetic practices. Of special importance is Virginia Woolf, and Bayley helps us to see afresh Plath’s off-quoted exhilaration at Woolf’s reference to cooking haddock and sausages, which says more about Plath herself than it does the subject of her comments. Bayley shows us how Plath’s ideas about the ‘melting’, emerging self, move from the journals and into poems such as ‘Ariel’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’.
Lydia Sigourney is often misunderstood as an excessively sentimental and possibly not very smart poet and a writer of ponderous advice handbooks for mothers and daughters. In the poem, To a Shred of Linen Mrs. Sigourney displayed having an unexpectedly witty, even iconoclastic, streak. Ralph Waldo Emerson found himself hankering after such worthier bards. He disliked poetry in which the meter influenced what the poet wants to say. Emerson's closest ally was Margaret Fuller who had written an unrhymed poetic sketch titled Meditations. Margaret Fuller's spirit of love quietly rebels against one of the most iconic images of Transcendentalism before Emerson had even had time to formulate it: the image of the solitary eyeball melting into the horizon. The works of other poets including Osgood, Waldo, Saadi Shirazi and Henry David Thoreau are also discussed.
Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century was lousy with poets. At the apex of respectable high cultural ambitions, the Atlantic Monthly, under the editorship of James Russell Lowell and with the nods of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes among other worthies, was publishing poetry vigorously. At some point in the 1860s, each poet separately composed a self-consciously major poem on the summer chorus of the crickets. The other voices of mid-nineteenth-century American poetry could scarcely be more other than Thomas Hill's transcription of Martian verse. The journalistic branch of American poetry was closely related to other modes of gaining access to authorship: Walt Whitman began his authorial career in social movement writing, with a temperance novel, and John Greenleaf Whittier moved through stints as a school teacher and a newspaper editor before becoming one of the major poets of nineteenth-century social movements.
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