Emerson's Romantic Style

Emerson's Romantic Style

Julie Ellison
Copyright Date: 1984
Pages: 270
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  • Book Info
    Emerson's Romantic Style
    Book Description:

    Professor Ellison demonstrates that the characteristic difficulties of Emerson's prose--its repetitiveness, discontinuity, and tonal peculiarities--are motivated by his use of interpretation to free himself from recurringly intimidating aspects of tradition.

    Originally published in 1984.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5393-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-14)

    “Literature is now critical. Well analysis may be poetic,” Emerson wrote in an 1838 journal entry. “Is not the sublime felt in an analysis as well as in a creation?” (JMN.VII.303). The purpose of this book is to trace how Emerson came to answer “yes” to this question. His ambivalent affirmative sounds clearly in his pronouncements on the subject of criticism. A more intriguing and ultimately more persuasive answer, however, is the way Emerson’s prose style develops into a poetry of analysis, the way his rhetoric uses criticism in the interests of “the sublime.” Like so many of his Romantic...

      (pp. 17-49)

      As Emerson would later write of other “young and ardent minds,” he was moved by “a desire, raging, infinite, a hunger, as of space to be filled with planets; a cry of famine, as of devils for souls” (W. IV. 184). This desire to conquer and to be fed, to fill and to be filled with inspiration, gave rise, during his college and schoolteaching years (1820–1825) to elaborate, ambitious fantasies. The function of the journals that he began to keep regularly in his junior year at Harvard was to record daydreams too outrageous to be uttered publicly in, for...

      (pp. 50-72)

      The years of Emerson’s first marriage (1829–1832) and clerical career (1826–1832) were a time of compromise and ambivalence, during which he increasingly adjusted both his marriage and the ministry to unorthodox ends. The patriarchs and his sanctioning muse need to be absorbed into the fables about tradition that Emerson invents to free himself from it. In the journals, we can trace how, using a conventional religious vocabulary, he makes God and Ellen into the patron saints of his rebellious critique. By the time he does “cut & run” (JMN.III.324–25), he possesses a coherent set of beliefs developed under...

      (pp. 75-84)

      When we turn to Emerson’s essays, we have no trouble recognizing the themes of earlier journals. His preoccupation with the modern scholar’s reading of religious and literary history takes more aggressive, individualistic forms, but is easily related to previous writings. The stylistic qualities of the essays raise more complex questions about Emerson’s development, however, focusing on the nature of the connection between his rhetorical and intellectual strategies. If the subject of the essays is the drama of transfiguration that makes possible “sublime analysis”—a drama of interpretation, of theorizing—then what are the stylistic consequences of this “plot”? If Emerson’s...

    • 3 NATURE
      (pp. 85-96)

      Natureis structurally different enough from Emerson’s essays to justify omitting it from this section. The ways in which it is atypical, however, illuminate the development of his essays’ dynamics. Furthermore, the way theoretical criticism emerges as one of the central activities ofNaturemakes the book indispensable to a discussion of Emerson’s interpretive dramas. ForNatureis an investigation of theory. Its partial genesis in Emerson’s excited visits to the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle and the Jardin des Plantes during his 1833 visit to Paris suggests that he was inspired by a sudden vision of the coherence of nature....

      (pp. 97-113)

      The theorist who determines the meaning of nature also organizes literary tradition. “The American Scholar” instructs young American intellectuals in the “creative reading” of European literature; the Divinity School “Address” speaks to one segment of that “scholarly” class in offering future ministers a revolutionary variant of the higher criticism. These orations draw heavily on Emerson’s own experience in the ministry and abroad. They show how he turned his resignation from the pulpit and his purposeful disillusion with English writers into dramas of reading as resistance. Just as those acts of defiance were made possible by self-centered, anti-authoritarian interpretations, so the...

    • 5 “THE POET”
      (pp. 114-140)

      I turn now to “The Poet” (1844) in order to trace in greater detail the motions that have become apparent inNature, “The American Scholar,” and the Divinity School “Address.” “The Poet” has the advantage of being typical; it is not generically one of a kind, likeNature, nor can its aggressiveness be attributed to the tensions of a particular occasion, like that of “The American Scholar” and the “Address.” The significance of its structural similarity to those works emerges all the more clearly because of the difference in its ostensible subject. In fact, almost any essay would do for...

      (pp. 141-154)

      The dynamics of influence and interpretation that organize Emerson’s earlier works appear also in the 1859 lecture published with little revision as “Quotation and Originality.” For our purposes, the most important thing about this piece is the persistence of structures that had emerged twenty years before. Such stability argues for the constitutive role of these dynamics in Emerson’s prose; once formulated, they are a permanent feature. The central terms of “Quotation and Originality” are attributes and operations (like those of the essays on “Love,” “Art,” “Fate”) not protagonists (“The Poet,” “The American Scholar,”Representative Men), but this is a negligible...

      (pp. 157-159)

      This passage, from Emerson’s 1835 lecture on Bacon, a figure prominent in his speculations on method, suggests that there is a causal relationship between unsystematic thinking and a fragmented style. Bacon’s unfinished works—“fragments”—betray the essential incompleteness of all his productions. His works are never finished, meaning both “never ended” and unpolished, because they “consist of detailed observations” strung together in an open-ended series and not endowed with the closure of “a system.” This is an astute, if worried, commentary on Emerson’s own prose, and describes the idiosyncrasies that readers since Emerson have often faulted. His essays seem fragmentary...

      (pp. 160-174)

      Emerson’s prose is organized by “discontinuous adjacency.”¹ Contiguous sentences are paraphrases of or substitutes for each other. This kind of repetition causes sentences to feel randomly arranged, like interchangeable parts. It creates “the most fragmentary result,” as Emerson well knew, “paragraphs incompressible each sentence an infinitely repellent particle” (CEC. 185). Our problem will be to discover what causes his—and our—sensations of excess and disorientation. What is the source and meaning of the energy manifested as “jets and projectiles of thought”?² How is repetition of content related to the discontinuous quality that enabled a later anthologist to isolate “Philosograms”...

      (pp. 175-194)

      I have followed Emerson’s example in describing in Romantic terms the sensations produced by reading his prose. For just as he knowingly reflects on his anti-authoritarian hermeneutics in certain of his fables, so he represents, in other parables, ideas about composition and style that utilize a variety of Romantic aesthetic notions. The relationship between the drama of interpretation enacted throughout the essays and the thematic values Emerson ascribes to stylistic features is very close. His fluctuating emotions about the nature and extent of the author’s intellectual control of his tradition are repeated in allegories about the interaction between words and...

      (pp. 195-227)

      There is a sense in which we have done nothing but explore Emerson’s figurative language. Our subjects, after all, have been his self-mythologizing in the antithetical voices of the essays and his metaphoric representations of writing itself. But in order fully to appreciate the way his ideas about figuration serve his desire for metamorphosis, we need to look more closely at his rhetoric and theories of rhetoric. For, as with other techniques, figurative language takes on thematic values in the self-interpretations which constitute his prose.

      Emerson blithely disregards the precise meanings of the usual terms for rhetorical figures. In the...

    (pp. 228-238)

    Emerson’s treatment of genre, a major category of literary history, is analogous to his treatment of history in general. Both his ideas about genre and his own generic choices are characteristic of Romantic practice. However, suggesting his affinities with other Romantic writers should not turn into an attempt to bring them under a generic rubric. Romantic genres are not sets to which a work does or does not belong. Rather, as more and more scholars are pointing out, generic choices and thinking about genre constituted a critique of belonging.¹ These concluding observations about Emerson’s affiliations, then, are meant not to...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 239-252)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 253-257)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 258-258)