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Aesthetic Individualism and Practical Intellect

Aesthetic Individualism and Practical Intellect: American Allegory in Emerson, Thoreau, Adams, and James

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    Aesthetic Individualism and Practical Intellect
    Book Description:

    Addressing vital issues in the current revision of American literary studies, Olaf Hansen carries out an exposition of American writing as a philosophical tradition. His broad and comparative view of American culture reveals the importance of the American allegory as a genuine artistic and intellectual style and as a distinct mode of thought particularly suited to express the philosophical legacy of transcendentalism. Hansen traces intellectual and cultural continuities and disruptions from Emerson through Thoreau and Henry Adams to William James, paying special attention to the modernism of transcendental thought and to its quality as a valid philosophy in its own right. Concerned with defining ideas of self, selfhood, and subjectivity and with moral tradition as an act of creating order out of the cosmos, the American allegory provided a basic and frequently overlooked link between transcendentalism and pragmatism. Its "suggestive incompleteness" combined in a highly dialectic manner the essence of both enlightenment and romanticism. Characterized neither by absolute objectivity nor by absolute subjectivity, it allowed speculation about the meaning of reality and about humankind's place in a realm of appearances.

    Originally published in 1990.

    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: 978-1-4008-6074-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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    (pp. 3-18)

    Vision precedes language. The cultural process of transforming time into history reflects this order of precedence. In fact, it is the tension between vision and language which provides the elementary energy which it takes to create meaning. The trueepoché, therefore, often produces forms of expression, which by means of intricate and highly configurative rhetoric try to recapture, as Francis Bacon put it, the “volume of creation.”

    Within the context of the American Renaissance, it was Emerson’s theory of vision and language which more than anything else served to radicalize the idea of the epochal moment as one of reflection...

  2. CHAPTER 1 Allegory and the Work of Tradition
    (pp. 19-44)

    In 1876 America celebrated the centenary of its own becoming. The fact that Eakins’s great paintingThe Gross Clinicwas not included among the works exhibited in the Art Pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition has been frequently commented upon. But even if the series of great exhibitions and world fairs which rapidly followed one another are interpreted as symbolic events in their own right, one should not expect too much from these high points of cultural and social self-projection; at least not in the realm of intellectual history.

    That the “Centennial March,” which was played at the opening of...

  3. CHAPTER 2 Merlin’s Laughter
    (pp. 45-80)

    In the year 1838, several months before William Ellery Channing delivered his lecture on the topic of “Self-Culture,” H. D. Thoreau entered the following observation into his journal: “That which properly constitutes the life of every man is a profound secret. Yet this is what every one would give most to know, but is himself most backward to impart.”¹ This brief entry, one among several others, was part of his preparation for his lecture at the Lyceum, his subject being the nature and characteristics of society. On the fourteenth of April, Thoreau gave his talk, and the drift of his...

  4. CHAPTER 3 Ralph Waldo Emerson
    (pp. 81-122)

    By the time Emerson wrote his essay “History,” he had almost found his own voice. He had not yet achieved the certainty and the rhetorical authority that he would display in such essays as “Experience” or “Circles,” but the mere fact that he dealt with the subject of history tells us that Emerson had come to terms with the art of distantiation—and that he was going to practice distantiation as an art. The first essay in the First Series, published in 1841, together with other programmatic and yet virtually established masterpieces like “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation”—theologically the most audacious one...

  5. CHAPTER 4 Henry David Thoreau
    (pp. 123-140)

    In order to understand the essential distance that separates Thoreau from Emerson, we must take a look back, a critical one this time, at the latter’s achievement. And we must bear in mind, of course, that such differences as exist between Emerson and Thoreau are the result of an almost natural proximity. Thoreau took his radical departure from practically all that was best in Emerson’s essays; we can perhaps best circumscribe Thoreau’s effort to go further than Emerson by asking the question how it makes sense to see the essay, or rather to see Emerson’s essays, as masks. In the...

  6. CHAPTER 5 Henry Adams
    (pp. 141-174)

    Pioneers are normally the first to be criticized, their achievements being taken for granted while their shortcomings are held against them. Emerson had made an intellectual clearing, but the next generation wanted more: hard facts and the knowledge about the laws, which would make the space which Emerson had created inhabitable. In the end, of course, even a stubborn mind like Henry Adams’s would succumb to the rule of paradox and contradiction, would in fact cultivate it and turn the essence of paradox, namely self-reference, into the ultimate form of artistic expression. Knowing this, we immediately realize that the criticism...

  7. CHAPTER 6 William James
    (pp. 175-194)

    In the Introduction to his father’s Literary Remains, William James quotes approvingly from a work written on his father’s philosophy. The question that he cites would in a variety of forms haunt him throughout his life: “Mr. James looks at creation instinctively from the creative side, and this has a tendency to put him at a remove from his readers. The usual problem is: Given the creation, to find the Creator; to Mr. James it is: Given the Creator, to find the creation. God is; of His being there is no doubt, but who and what arewe?”¹

    William James’s...

  8. CHAPTER 7 American Allegory
    (pp. 195-236)

    Finding meaning in the flux of time is the work of tradition and when the result of such work assumes form, it is the configurative and involved, epistemologically charged shape of allegory which arises.

    By allegory we customarily mean a particular form of artistic expression, which, above all, is known to us as one which has had a history of declining literary importance. Its main fault, so it seems, is that allegory as opposed to other symbolic art forms seemed to have missed the road to modernism. In many ways the fate of allegory was sealed by the influential Goethean...