Consciousness and Culture

Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

Joel Porte
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Consciousness and Culture
    Book Description:

    Emerson and Thoreau are the most celebrated odd couple of nineteenth-century American literature. Appearing to play the roles of benign mentor and eager disciple, they can also be seen as bitter rivals: America's foremost literary statesman, protective of his reputation, and an ambitious and sometimes refractory protégé. The truth, Joel Porte maintains, is that Emerson and Thoreau were complementary literary geniuses, mutually inspiring and inspired.In this book of essays, Porte focuses on Emerson and Thoreau aswriters.He traces their individual achievements and their points of intersection, arguing that both men, starting from a shared belief in the importance of "self-culture," produced a body of writing that helped move a decidedly provincial New England readership into the broader arena of international culture. It is a book that will appeal to all readers interested in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13057-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. ONE Emerson, Thoreau, and the Double Consciousness
    (pp. 1-10)

    It was Thomas Carlyle who in 1834 advised his readers to close their Byron and open their Goethe, thereby suggesting that Goethe—“the keenest star in a new constellation,” to use Margaret Fuller’s phrase—was pre-eminently the man of his age. By 1850 Emerson was only summarizing cultivated opinion when he called Goethe, inRepresentative Men,“the soul of his century.”¹

    But to many outraged critics that soul was irreparably corrupt. As early as 1817, somewhat distressed by much “which needs must be called stuff ” inFaust,Edward Everett pronounced it a masterpiece only “with some hesitation.” And Emerson...

  5. TWO Transcendental Antics
    (pp. 11-27)

    Henry Thoreau notes in his essay on Carlyle that “the transcendental philosophy needs the leaven of humor to render it light and digestible.” The hint is worth pursuing, for I would insist that the comic impulse is a significant component of Transcendentalism. Its abundant presence within the movement itself testifies to a self-awareness, a self-criticism, an ability to see oneself in the round, a fundamental balance and sanity, which are important characteristics of the great burgeoning of American consciousness we know as Transcendentalism. And one should add that the susceptibility of Transcendentalism to comic criticism from the outside is equally...

  6. THREE The Problem of Emerson
    (pp. 28-54)

    “The more we know him, the less we know him.” Stephen Whicher’s wistfully encomiastic remark epitomizes the not entirely unhappy perplexity of a highly influential group of scholars and critics, beginning perhaps with F.O. Matthiessen, who, returning to Emerson’s writings with enormous sympathy, intelligence, and sensitivity, attempted to discover a real human figure beneath the bland (or pompous, or smug) official portrait. Predictably, in view of the compensatory biases of modernist criticism, they found a “new” Emerson whose complexities belied that older optimistic all-American aphorist once dear to captains of industry, genteel professors of literature, and hopeful preachers in search...

  7. FOUR Representing America
    (pp. 55-71)

    It was Emerson, as a figure in literary culture, who really put America on the map; who created for himself the practically nonexistent role of man of letters, and for about a half-century— from the gritty age of Jackson to the gilded age of Grant— criticized, cajoled, sometimes confused, but mainly inspired audiences in America and abroad. When Emerson died in 1882 he was indisputably afigure— sometimes a figure of fun, but mainly one to be spoken of with reverence approaching awe. Matthew Arnold declared that Emerson’s was the most important work done in prose in the nineteenth century....

  8. FIVE Emerson as Journalist
    (pp. 72-80)

    Among the many unexpected pleasures and rich tidbits to be found in Emerson’sJournals and Miscellaneous Notebooksis a brief entry in the fall of 1849 that anticipates the publication ofRepresentative Menwith a Swiftian gesture of self-satire that deserves attention. Emerson, we recall, had once—famously—wished to writewhimon the lintels of his doorpost; now he whimsically reinscribed the threshold of his forthcoming book as if implicitly to mock the provincial consciousness that felt obliged, as he would himself note, to “continue the parrot echoes of the names of literary notabilities & mediocrities” when more original...

  9. SIX Emerson at Harvard
    (pp. 81-87)

    The American literary record in the three or four decades following the Revolution is not very imposing, and the view from America’s cultural capitol in the period—I mean Boston—was scarcely more sanguine than that from outside. Writing in the leading intellectual journal of the time,The North American Review,in 1818, William Cullen Bryant tried to assume a hopeful stance, observing that after “the few quaint and unskilful specimens of poetry” remaining from America’s first century “a purer taste began . . . to prevail.” But Bryant’s catalog of promising contemporary talent strikes us now as mostly a...

  10. SEVEN Holmes’s Emerson
    (pp. 88-95)

    The choice of Oliver Wendell Holmes to write the volume on Emerson in the American Men of Letters series must have seemed odd, if not positively perverse, to the sage’s disciples.¹ Emerson had died very much in the odor of sanctity in 1882, and the prevailingly pious attitude toward the master was already finding reverent expression in hagiographic lectures, essays, and book-length memorials. The man who had almost single-handedly managed to unchurch the New England mind was well on the way to being enshrined as Boston’s tutelary divinity. Transcendentalism, which forty years earlier had elicited public derision and execration, now...

  11. EIGHT Emerson’s French Connection
    (pp. 96-124)

    In tracing the contours of Emerson’s “French connection,” we can start from the premise that Fénelon’s name was indeed one to conjure with throughout Emerson’s career; but the name alone willnotbe enough. We will need to discover—or recover—the story of how Fénelon’s doctrine, reputation, and spirit can be seen to draw together the seemingly disparate elements that comprise Emerson’s relation to French writers and French culture generally. A useful place to start is with a basic question: how did this American Protestant of all Protestants regard Catholicism—the root and ground of French culture as he...

  12. NINE Henry Thoreau and the Reverend Poluphloisboios Thalassa
    (pp. 125-141)

    “His riddles were worth the reading,” Emerson notes, after quoting Thoreau’s familiar parable of the hound, the bay horse, and the turtledove, whereby Emerson seems to grant his friend precisely that “pardon” for his “obscurities” which Thoreau had requested while introducing his mysterious little fable inWalden. “There are more secrets in my trade than in most men’s,” Thoreau apologized, “and yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature.” Although it might be said that this particular riddle is scarcely worth all the ink that has been shed over it, both Thoreau’s plea and Emerson’s concession seem much...

  13. TEN Society and Solitude
    (pp. 142-158)

    Though it is tricky to attempt to summarize a complex career in a few phrases, Thoreau lends himself well to a certain kind of summary because of the calculated intensity with which he did one thing. For, despite the varied and voluminous nature of his writings, it is in and through a single book that Thoreau immortalized a personal experiment and burned an image of himself on the consciousness of the world that more than one hundred years of criticism have scarcely been able to modify. The experiment, as everyone knows, was an attempt to live a solitary life, and...

  14. ELEVEN “God Himself Culminates in the Present Moment”: Thoughts on Thoreau’s Faith
    (pp. 159-168)

    We do not know if Thoreau was present on that great occasion when Emerson delivered his Divinity School Address. Thoreau was working hard in the small school he had opened in Concord just a month earlier and probably had no desire to spend Sunday, too, indoors—even if the sermonwasunorthodox and the preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Just five weeks later, on August 19, 1838, Thoreau would in fact complain in his journal that the pealing of the sabbath bell disturbed him as he sat on the cliffs. It was, he said, “the sound of many catechisms and religious...

  15. TWELVE “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World”: The Natural History of Henry David Thoreau
    (pp. 169-185)

    I begin by glossing the second part of my title first: “The Natural History of Henry Thoreau.” This phrase implies, as we know, that Thoreau was employed throughout his life in producing writing that can be located in the genre of “natural history”; it also implies that the history of his life was a “natural” one that situated him radically in nature and linked him closely with the environment. He lived, we might say, a more natural life than most of us do because he chose deliberately to study nature. And he did so in the spirit of his mentor,...

  16. THIRTEEN Writing and Reading New Englandly
    (pp. 186-198)

    In Richard Poirier’sPoetry and Pragmatismwe find him picking up and expanding on issues already broached inThe Renewal of Literature:¹ the healthy skepticism of Emerson’s attitude toward language and the project of writing; the necessity of constant “troping”; the links, in these connections, between Emerson and William James; the baneful influence of Modernism, with its cult of “ difficulty,” its “boned-up erudition” and “religious and cultural nostalgias.” Poirier is concerned inPoetry and Pragmatismwith identifying a school of American writing committed to no orthodoxies, nervous about the truth-value of literature, willing to believe in little more than...

  17. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 199-202)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 203-225)
  19. Bibliographical Note
    (pp. 226-228)
  20. Index
    (pp. 229-234)