Author: anagramsci

I am Fortune 500's fool.

A recent interview re: Time Travel, Cultural-Political History, Fiction

Greetings friends!

This is the ghost of the blogger formerly known as Dave Fiore, checking in to point you in the direction of this little interview that I did with Open Book‘s current writer-in-residence Koom Kankesan. It offers a pretty succinct summary of most of the things I’ve been obsessed with lately, whilst toiling on Hypocritic Days and the forthcoming Anatomy of of a Melancholy Baby.

You can read the interview here – and feel free to contact me if anything in the piece sparks an urge to converse!

Hope you’re all doing well – in spite of the world’s best efforts to ruin our fun!

Dave

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Homodiegetic Homicide: The Murder of the ‘Lucid Reflector’ in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw

No one who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed.

— Sigmund Freud, “Dora”

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw exposes the essentially murderous impulse behind an act of homodiegetic narration. The critical controversy over this work has turned endlessly upon the question of the governess’ sanity. However, given James’s habitual preoccupation with the victims–rather than the perpetrators–of psychic aggression, perhaps it is more useful to read the story as a thwarted “What Miles and Flora Knew”, in which the efforts of the children (Miles in particular) to understand what is happening to them is eventually screened out by the governess’ conclusions. In this respect, The Turn of the Screw lends itself quite well to a comparison with Freud’s “Dora”. In each case, the narrative becomes a smothering web of associations that crushes the life out of its victims. Dora (and Flora) withdraws from the process before it terminates, but Miles bears the full brunt of the governess’ “treatment” and, in the final scene, succumbs to her interpretation. However, this homodiegetic homicide cannot erase the tortured sound of Miles’s voice, embedded in the narrative, which is the rack itself.

Ever since Edmund Wilson’s suggestion, in “The Ambiguity of Henry James”, that “the governess who is made to tell the story is a neurotic case of sex repression” and that “the ghosts are not real ghosts but hallucinations of the governess”, no critic has been permitted to ignore the possibility that the governess is an unreliable narrator. The most famous rebuttal to the “Freudian reading” of the story has come from Robert Heilman. In “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,” Heilman insists that

the story means exactly what it says: that at Bly there are apparitions which the governess sees, which Mrs. Grose does not see but comes to believe in because they are consistent with her own independent experience, and of which the children have a knowledge which they endeavor to conceal.

Other critics have attempted to steer a moderate course between the equally reductive interpretations propounded by Wilson and Heilman. The latter naïvely transforms The Turn of the Screw into a re-run of the Garden of Eden story; never, in his essay, does he acknowledge that it is the Governess, not “James”, who turns the children into “symbols of the spiritual perfection of which man is capable” . However, the “Freudian thesis” also runs the risk of reducing the story to a hysterical melodrama which takes place entirely within the governess’ head. Shoshana Felman addresses this problem directly when she examines the story as a trap, set by James, to capture both the naïve reader and the sophisticated reader.

The most astute commentators upon the text have managed to balance an awareness of the governess’ unreliability with an understanding that “the center of horror [in the story] is not the apparitions themselves . . . but is the children, and our sense of what is happening to them.” Perhaps an even more horrifying question is: who is responsible? According to Heilman, the answer is: “Quint and Jessel.” John Lydenberg, on the contrary, replies: “what is happening to them is, clearly and terribly, the governess herself.”

Shoshana Felman’s “Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)” takes its cue from this helpful suggestion. Lydenberg argues that

the governess is essentially a Puritan . . . [marked] by a refusal to accept the shaded grays that are necessary for any true human understanding and sympathy . . . [and who] turns the screws of Puritan discipline and suspicion until the children fatally crack under the strain.

Felman translates the “Puritan thesis” into language more pertinent to turn-of-the-century discourse by describing the governess as “a therapist, a soul-doctor . . . [who] brings about the story’s denouement in the form of a confession intended as a cure.” However, she is not content to drop the matter there. In fact, the notion that the governess’ role might be more akin to that of analyst than hysterical analysand is merely an offshoot of her master-argument that all attempts to impose a definite meaning upon a text must do violence to that text. At the risk (the certainty!) of joining in the bloodshed, the present essay will focus on an element of the story that has been neglected (when it has not been blatantly misunderstood) by all of the participants in the critical debate: the victims themselves.

It is a testament to the enduring power of the controversy aroused by Wilson’s essay that so little attention has been paid (in a Henry James story!) to the “innocents” whose suffering is at the heart of The Turn of Screw. Whether one prefers to think that Quint and Jessel, or the governess, or Douglas, or the first narrator, or even the critical combatants themselves are responsible for what is happening to Miles and Flora, no one has treated the children as subjects in their own right. There are powerful reasons for this. Most significant is the fact that their existence–as dramatized characters–is restricted to the governess’ manuscript alone. The Master and the governess are contextualized by Douglas’s prologue; but the children are only referred to (as “poor chicks”, “the little girl”, “the small boy”, and also by their Christian names) , not presented.

Nevertheless, the children are quite definitely dramatized in the governess’ narrative; Miles, in particular, is given more than enough opportunity to establish himself as an alien presence in the governess’ otherwise-airtight story. There is a marked contrast between her characterization of the boy and the dialogue he speaks. The real challenge to the “ruminant reader”, therefore, is the riddle of this discrepancy.

Robert Heilman examines the “pains” that “James” (read, “the governess”) takes to “give [the children] a special quality.” Heilman correctly stresses the fact that the “recurrent imagery of light” which surrounds the children is intended to intensify the shock when they prove to be “capable also of damnation.” Of course, the children’s beatitude is a “policy and a fraud” . However, the con is not perpetrated by the children, but by the governess, and no one (with the possible exception of Robert Heilman) is more taken in by the illusion than the governess herself.

However, there is no reason to single out Heilman among the critics on this score. There appears to be a consensus that the governess’ narrative gives a coherent picture of the children as beautiful innocents who gradually come to embody or reflect something sinister. Some accept it at face-value; others reject it out-of-hand as an hysterical fantasy. Neither of these extremes is typical of the current debate, but the nuances introduced by recent criticism have left the fundamental assumption untouched. Thus, Granville H. Jones writes that:

Flora and Miles are sophisticated, self-sufficient, and calm until hounded by a conscience such as they do not have to confess to a guilt they have not felt; and as they deny it, they recognize it and are consumed by the realization.

More to the point, Shoshana Felman argues:

It is the governess’s madness, that is, the exclusion of her point of view, which enables Wilson’s reading to function as a whole, as a system at once integral and coherent–just as it is the children’s madness, the exclusion of their point of view, which permits the governess’s reading, and its functioning as a totalitarian system.

But what if the governess’ reading is less totalitarian than the critics, across the spectrum, have assumed? What if the governess is actually a more reliable witness than even she knew? What becomes of the entire debate if a flaw is discovered in her perfect system?

It is my contention that a flaw exists, and the cracking is audible in Miles’s voice. The fact that he does not speak until the eleventh chapter of the story probably accounts for the lack of attention paid to his dialogue. By this time, the reader has been thoroughly indoctrinated by the governess’ point of view and is not likely to catch the fact that the Miles who speaks is quite different from the Miles who is described. Her first impression of the boy, upon meeting him at the station, is that “he was incredibly beautiful . . . [with an] indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.” This comes as quite a shock to her, after the news of his expulsion, from which she had previously (unfathomably) concluded that “he’s an injury to others.” Miles and Flora strike her as “beginning anew each day” and the governess feels that if Miles had ever been wicked he would have “caught” it, and I should have caught it by the rebound–I should have found the trace, should have felt the wound and the dishonour.

It is this gut feeling about Miles that persuades the governess to do “nothing at all” about his expulsion from school.

This decision is undoubtedly the pivotal moment of the story, for it cannot be coincidence that she sees Quint’s ghost immediately afterwards. The governess is torn between her certainty that if Miles had ever done anything wrong she would know it and the contradictory reality of his expulsion. In fact, it seems fair to say that her resort to the supernatural became inevitable, once she determined to reconcile the irreconcilable. So far, this interpretation of the events of the story is fairly standard. However, what is not generally remarked is that Miles understands the nature of the governess’ dilemma, and makes attempts to reach her. The first dramatized conversation between the two characters occurs the day after he has been discovered out, at night, on the lawn. The governess believes that he has been lured out for a conclave with Quint, but she says nothing of this, she merely asks him: “What were you doing there?” Miles’s reply (his first quoted words) is: “If I tell you why, will you understand?” He explains: “It was just exactly in order that you should do this . . . [she asks “Do what”] Think me–for a change–bad!”

Far from attempting to deceive the governess into believing that he is an angelic child, Miles (with Flora’s help) actually contrives to convince her that “when I’m bad I’m bad!” It is significant that, when Miles decides to be “bad”, the worst thing he can think of to do is to disobey an arbitrary rule, “just to show you [the governess] I could!” The issue of Miles’s schooling recurs continually in his dialogue with the governess. He demands to know: “When am I going back?” She responds by evading the issue. She deflects his questions expertly, leaving him completely at a loss, as is evident in the following passage, worth quoting at length:

“I want my own sort!” It literally made me bound forward. “There aren’t many of your own sort, Miles!” I laughed. “Unless perhaps dear little Flora!” “You really compare me to a baby girl?” This found me singularly weak. “Don’t you then love our sweet Flora?” “If I didn’t–and you too; if I didn’t–!” he repeated as if retreating for a jump . . . “Yes, if you didn’t–?” . . . “Does my uncle know what you think?” I markedly rested. “How do you know what I think?” “Ah well of course I don’t; for it strikes me you never tell me.”

By disregarding the narrator’s oppressive characterizations in favour of an exclusive focus upon the interchanges between Miles and the governess, it is possible to construct a strange counter-story that simply does not fit into the governess’ “totalitarian system”: it is the story of a young boy, placed in an unusually chaotic environment, under the care of inscrutable adults (an uncle who takes no notice of him and a governess who answers his questions with more questions), struggling to make sense of his world. In short, the story can be read as a twisted variation and commentary upon the theme and technique of What Maisie Knew.

In his Preface to What Maisie Knew, James explains that his “lucid reflector” would become, despite “the best faith in the world . . . a centre and a pretext for a fresh system of misbehaviour, a system moreover of a nature to spread and ramify.” Misbehaviour is indeed rampant in that novel; however, it all happens directly in front of the child’s eyes, and does not “corrupt” Maisie (in fact, it simply gives her more to “reflect” upon). The heterodiegetic narrator of What Maisie Knew remarks cheekily that as Maisie

was condemned to more and more, how could it logically stop before she should know Most? It came to her in fact as they sat there on the sands that she was distinctly on the road to know Everything. She had not had governesses for nothing: what had she ever done but learn and learn and learn? She looked at the pink sky with a placid foreboding that soon she should have learnt All.

Yet, in a way, Maisie’s foreboding is accurate. At the very least, she learns how to maintain her autonomy throughout the novel. Perhaps she is only able to achieve this because none of the adults in her life has the time or energy to dominate her completely, and they are all at each other’s throats. The only real threats to Maisie’s independent development are Sir Claude, whose magnetic charm threatens to pull her into his orbit, and Mrs. Wix, who, with her “straighteners”, continually bemoans Maisie’s lack of a “moral sense”.

The Turn of The Screw begins to appear, in this light, as the story of a prospective Maisie (Miles) who comes under the exclusive jurisdiction of a younger and more determined Mrs. Wix (the governess). In the later work, the adult misbehaviour “spreads and ramifies” in the “depths, depths” of the governess’ mind, and Miles has no chance even to perceive it, much less to assimilate it into his understanding of his “terribly mixed little world.” It is telling that the main controversy between Miles and the governess (so far as Miles is concerned) revolves around her refusal to enable him to return to school. She seems to exist in order to block his progress toward knowledge, even remarking, at one point, “you hint that you know almost as much [as me]?” Miles replies: “Not half I want to! . . . I want to see more of life.”

“Life”, in its infinite variety, is precisely what Maisie is permitted to see. The tragedy of the story is that its “lucid reflector” cannot grow in the barren soil of the governess’ homodiegetic tale, which is neither lucid, nor reflective. As we have seen, it is not even a coherent projection of a mad fantasy, because Miles is given the opportunity to break the spell every time he speaks.

As the narrative progresses, it becomes manifest that the governess’ aim is to eliminate its internal discrepancies. She can only do this by forcing the children to succumb to her interpretation. Shoshana Felman writes that “to prove that the children are mad (that they are possessed by the Other–by the ghosts) is to prove that the governess is not mad.” Perhaps this is so, but it is also true (and far more shocking, in a way) that the governess must silence Miles before he exposes her incompetence in dealing with the vexed question of his schooling.

Shoshana Felman has shown how Edmund Wilson’s attempt to force the text to “speak in clear language . . . reveals the terroristic status of his psychoanalytic exegesis” and, as The Turn of the Screw progresses toward its conclusion, the governess’ methods become equally ruthless. Early on, she tries to cajole the children into admitting their knowledge of Quint and Jessel; her glimpses into the unconscious minds of her interlocutors are coldly noted and reserved for future use. From the beginning, the governess’ most successful conversations are those conducted with Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. By close-reading the older woman’s dialogue, she is able to infer Quint’s existence (and disreputable character), Jessel’s status as a “fallen” woman, and the contact between Quint and Miles. None of these details are willingly surrendered by Mrs. Grose; she gives them up involuntarily through a series of parapraxes.

However, when the governess attempts to apply her analytical methods to the children, she finds them less congenial subjects. They have questions of their own that she cannot–or is unwilling to–answer, they are more self-conscious than Mrs. Grose, or perhaps they merely have less to conceal. In any event, the governess cannot depend upon slips and elisions in their dialogue to aid her in constructing her model of their unconscious minds; she is forced to rely solely upon their denials or refusals of her suggestions. In this sense, the governess’ “case study” is remarkably similar to Freud’s “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”, better known as “Dora”.

The Dora Case, published in 1905, but written just two years after the serial publication of The Turn of the Screw, shows Freud driven to his wit’s end, spinning his analysand’s “nos” and “i didn’t think that’s” into an incredibly complex web of associations, almost none of which are ever confirmed, but which arouse, in the analyst, a triumphant tone that is reminiscent of the governess. Freud admits that the case is, ultimately, a failure, but he ascribes this largely to the fact that the treatment was broken off, not that it wasn’t going anywhere in the first place. It is true that he is forced, by reflecting upon the dynamic between himself and Dora, to broach the subject of “transferences” for the first time. The phenomenon, as he describes it, is inevitable in the analytical setting: “practical experience, at all events, shows conclusively that there is no means of avoiding it, and that this latest creation of the disease must be combated like the rest.” Freud anticipates that the reader “may even be tempted to infer from the existence of transferences that the patient will be injured by analytic treatment. But these suppositions would be mistaken.”

The redirection of a neurotic impulse away from one object and toward another does not intensify the (turn the screws) magnitude of the illness. “Psychoanalytic treatment does not create transferences, it merely brings them to light, like so many other hidden psychical factors.” Freud concludes this digression by confessing

I have been obliged to speak of transference, for it is only by means of this factor that I can elucidate the peculiarities of Dora’s analysis. Its great merit, namely the unusual clarity which makes it seem so suitable as a first introductory publication, is closely bound up with its great defect, which led to its being broken off prematurely . . . the transference took me unawares, and, because of the unknown quantity in me which reminded Dora of Herr K, she took her revenge on me as she wanted to take her revenge upon him.

However, what is missing from Freud’s post-mortem of the case is an acknowledgment of his aggressive actions as an analyst (not as an imago) that incur Dora’s wrath.

At any number of points, during the course of the treatment, Freud vaults to conclusions without waiting for any corroboration from his patient. (Perhaps this is not strictly true, but since Freud considers her disagreement with him as corroborative as her agreement, not to mention that if she remains silent he also considers that corroboration!–the concept of “corroboration” loses all of its generally accepted meaning). Freud’s most glaringly unfathomable inferences grow out of his interest in her nervous coughing. The first “breakthrough” is worth quoting at length:

She had once again been insisting that Frau K. only loved her father because he was ‘ein Vermögender Mann’ [‘a man of means’]. Certain details of the way in which she expressed herself (which I pass over here, like most other purely technical parts of the analysis) led me to see that behind this phrase its opposite lay concealed, namely, that her father was ‘ein unvermögender Mann’ [‘a man without means’]. This could only be meant in a sexual sense–that her father, as a man, was without means, was impotent.

Upon this dubious foundation, he builds to the conclusion that the cough is a gag reflex, brought about by her imaginative assumption of Frau K’s place in her father’s erotic life. Repeatedly, at difficult moments in the text, Freud begs parenthetically for the reader’s understanding that he cannot go into the technical reasons behind his more imaginative, but illogical, constructions. This is scarcely different from the governess’ oft-used formula for explaining her preternatural insights: “I know I know I know!”

Steven Marcus’s essay, “Freud and Dora: Story, History, Case History”, is especially helpful in providing a framework for understanding what Freud is doing in writing this case history (and, by extension, for understanding the governess’ rhetorical strategy in constructing her own case history). Marcus compares Freud to an “unreliable narrator of modernist fiction” . Although he admires the analyst’s “virtuoso . . . series of referential leaps and juxtapositions”, Marcus concludes that “the demon of interpretation has taken hold of [Freud], and it is this power that presides over the case of Dora.” Ultimately,

it becomes increasingly clear to the careful reader that Freud and not Dora has become the central character in the action. Freud the narrator does in the writing what Freud the psychoanalyst appears to have done in actuality.

The story that he tells erases the principal complicating factor in the case, which is not (as Freud argues) that he failed to deal with the transference in time, but rather that he failed to take any account at all of the counter- transference (the unanalyzed part of himself). According to Marcus:

Although Freud describes Dora at the beginning of the account as being ‘in the first bloom of youth–a girl of intelligent and engaging looks,’ almost nothing attractive about her comes forth in the course of the writing. As it unwinds, and it becomes increasingly evident that Dora is not responding adequately to Freud, it also becomes clear that Freud is not responding favorably to this response, and that he doesn’t in fact like Dora very much. He doesn’t like her negative sexuality . . . her ‘reallyremarkable achievements in the direction of intolerant behaviour . . . Above all, he doesn’t like her inability to surrender herself to him.

Freud, in the Dora case, succumbs to what he himself will later call “wild psychoanalysis”; his readily-admitted “predilection for discovering a means of satisfying . . . a particular requirement [of his theory]” gets the better of him. Dora quite understandably chafes at this rough treatment, and her desire to avenge herself upon Freud comes to seem far from irrational. She acts out, ultimately, by abandoning her treatment. However, her finest hour (her only moment as an autonomous subject, in her own right) comes earlier, when Freud expresses his satisfaction (self-satisfaction) with his interpretation of her second dream; to this, Dora replies: “Why, has anything so very remarkable come out!”

The remarkable quality of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (which renders it far more complex than even “Dora”) is its ability to create a number of moments that far exceed Dora’s bemused statement in their capacity to undermine the narrator’s totalitarian system. According to Miles, the “queer business” at Bly is not the presence of ghosts, but “the way you [the governess] bring me up.” His dialogue continually threatens to redirect the reader’s attention away from the specters of Quint and Jessel, toward the question of why the governess refuses to act upon the matter of his dismissal from school. A few brief dramatized sequences deconstruct the entire narrative, offering the possibility of an alternate reading that neither “traditionalists” nor “Freudians” have considered: namely that The Turn of the Screw is actually Miles’s story. While he is not a “lucid reflector” in the sense that Maisie Farange is–the events of the story are not filtered through his consciousness– he is the only character who cogently challenges the governess’ assumptions (her rhetoric deals easily with Mrs. Grose’s direct objections–these only valorize the acuity of the governess’ perceptions). The existence of an alternate (and sane) “centre of consciousness” in the midst of the governess’ paranoid manuscript is the problem that drives the narrative forward. Miles’s final cry of “Peter Quint–you devil! Where?” can be interpreted in two ways: depending upon whether one prefers to think of Quint or the governess as the “devil”. However, it is significantly unambiguous, in the governess’ mind (which could never entertain the possibility that she is the devil), to allow her to close the book on the queer events at Bly. Unfortunately for Miles–unlike Maisie–he is up against a homodiegetic narrator in full command of her medium (if not her mind) and the punishment for his rebellious lucidity is death.

Magnetic Otherness: Frank O’Hara and the Emersonian Sublime

Magnetic Otherness:
Frank O’Hara and the Emersonian Sublime

Harold Bloom’s criterion that great poetry is, necessarily, a “lie against time”, relegates the work of Frank O’Hara–so self-consciously “in favor” of its “own time”–to the cultural margins. Indeed, there is no place for O’Hara in Bloom’s agonistic growth-chart of American poetry–from Emerson to Ashbery. According to this scheme, the one and only subject of important American literature is the fundamental confrontation between “I and the Abyss.” Inevitably, the logic of this confrontation leads either to radical solipsism or pantheism–and there is very little difference between these two extremes (unless one happens to be a solipsist or a pantheist). Bloom’s construction of American literature–apart from the original contribution of an oedipal struggle between poems and their precursors–really adds very little to the impressive scholarly edifice erected by Perry Miller, F.O. Matthiessen, and Sacvan Bercovitch: all of these writers prioritize what Bloom calls “American Gnosis” and conceive of only one viable modern alternative to Emersonianism: American “Agnosis”, a counter-current of radical scepticism that extends from Melville (actually a problematic figure here) and Hawthorne (a much purer exemplar) to (possibly) Ashbery again. American criticism has been held hostage by the binary of gnosis and agnosticism, and it is not surprising that O’Hara–who, in his finest poems, is cheerfully ambivalent toward these questions–has been neglected.

Bloom’s famous identification of Emerson as the founder of the American religion has a certain rhetorical validity, in that it accurately conveys the extent of Emerson’s influence upon his successors; but, for all of Bloom’s famous eclecticism, the reader of Agon waits in vain for its author to deal with Cotton, Hooker, the Mathers, and the “New England Way”. Bloom dismisses the Puritan inheritance as irrelevant, remarking that although he “stemmed from the mainstream Protestant tradition in America, Emerson is not a Christian, nor even a non-Christian theist in a philosophic sense” (169). The gesture is intended to banish Perry Miller’s saga of the “New England Mind” and the attempts by its various agents to untangle (or, ideally, maintain a tension between) the epistemological knots in a worldview that seeks stability but cannot help generating Antinomian anarchy.

In Miller’s view, Emerson was merely another strong thinker in a line of strong thinkers, freed by the new democratic orthodoxy of his age (codified by the Declaration of Independence) from the the old orthodoxy of predestination. Miller’s oeuvre does not lament Emerson’s transformation of the American Way into a way of freedom and tolerance for every individual’s quest to perfect him/herself, but it does attempt to assess the cost of such a startling development. At the risk of reducing approximately ten books and a lifetime of brooding upon the “meaning of America” to a single sentence, the answer is: it has sacrificed the fruitful tension generated within the mind of Jonathan Edwards.

For Bloom, Edwards was merely a “great systematic theologian” (147); but in Miller’s reading he becomes a man of ardent Antinomian tendencies, held in check by sheer willpower and a refusal to lose sight of “the distinction between God and the world or to fuse them into one substance, to blur the all-important distinction of the divine transcendence” (From Edwards to Emerson, 333).In Edwards’s opinion, the distinction had to be maintained, lest “excitable Yankees reel and stagger with another error which they would pretend was an elevated thought” (329).

According to this view, the two hundred-plus years of romanticism(s) that have followed upon the heels of the Enlightenment represent the staggering and reeling of Western Culture as a whole. This is a drastic over-simplification of intellectual history since Blake and the French Revolution; yet it is only the negative mirror-image of Bloom’s agonistic model: Is our choice then only to be between a nihilism and a collective Narcissism? The strong poem, as I have tried to show, has no choice; the quest for the Sublime demands, of poet and reader, both transgressions: to celebrate the Abyss, and to worship, lovingly, one’s own self as it is confronted by the Abyss, whether or not the Abyss returns our gaze as aura (244).
Thus Bloom argues that all great literature must, ultimately, grow out of solipsism or pantheism. In this scheme, the skeptical tradition of Hawthorne figures, by implication, as an inferior literature of resentiment; but the Hawthornian “I” differs from the Emersonian “I” only by its quirky refusal to peer into the “Abyss”. Upon the primal fact of “I and the Abyss”, Bloom’s main line of American poetry and its antagonist literature are in agreement.

The view of American literature as a struggle between (or a struggle to reconcile) Emerson’s “optative mood” and Hawthorne and Melville’s “dark romanticism” dates back to F.O. Matthiessen’s The American Renaissance (perhaps even earlier, for if V.I. Parrington’s distinction between “Jeffersonians” and “Hamiltonians” lacks psychological complexity, it deals with the same conflict). Subsequent criticism has left Matthiessen’s interpretive template in place, even as it has expanded upon or exploded his notion of the literary canon. Consequently, American criticism has tended to obscure the Edwardsian position, which is as much anti-nihilistic as it is anti-transcendental, and which is evident (if one looks for it) in the culture’s most composed artifacts.

By the “Edwardsian position” I do not mean a strict Calvinist presdestinarianism; I refer rather to moments–fleeting, or perhaps non-existent, within human consciousness, but discernible in works of art–which deconstruct the binary of “I and the Abyss”. From this position, it is possible to glimpse that while there is an “I”, there can be no “Abyss”; and once there is an “Abyss”, there can be no “I”. The Abyss is nothing if not unknowable, and if unknowable, how can it be assimilated, or assimilated into, or even doubted by the knowing (or unknowing) subject? There can be no “confrontation” between “I” and “the Abyss”, because the “I” breaks up in the “atmosphere” (non-atmosphere?) of the “Abyss” before it reaches its object, becoming instead a magnetic field around a steely “otherness”.

The founder of the “American religion” is not treated, in Agon, as a static entity. Bloom’s Emerson is dynamic; he progresses through many moods and stages–from the anarchic prophet of solipsistic “Self-Reliance” to the outrageous pantheist of “Compensation” and “Brahma” and back to the acute observer of “Experience” and “Fate”–but, through it all, he remains committed to “Gnosis”. In Bloom’s lexicon, the term refers to a way of knowing, distinguishable from philosophy, which approaches the Sublime through a hyperbolic quest to “see earliest”. Thus, Bloom can say that, “even in Experience, and then even more in Fate, we read not philosophy but Gnosis, a chastened knowing that is not chastened as knowing”(176). Even if this is true, it does not account, entirely, for the Emerson of “Days”, who seems to deconstruct his own customary gnosis.

Written in 1857, “Days” is a short meditation upon Transcendental “knowing” that encompasses the objections of sceptics, Bloom’s gnostic interpretation, and an ambivalent “Edwardsian” reading:

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days Muffled and Dumb like barefoot dervishes, And marching single in an endless file, Bring diadems and fagots in their hands. To each they offer gifts after his will, Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all. I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp, Forgot my morning wishes, hastily Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day Turned and departed silent. I, too late, Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn. (449)


The first half of the poem is comparatively straightforward: it describes the Romantic riches to be gained by mastering Time, though the fact that the Days are “muffled and dumb”, rather than “Sublime” or “untamable” immediately sounds a problematic note. The speaker, watching the procession from his “pleached garden”, is a strangely Hawthornian intruder in the Emersonian realm of omnipotence. An uncharacteristic sense of limitation is palpable in the lines: “forgot my morning wishes, hastily/ took a few herbs and apples”. Can a “transparent eyeball” be rushed? In this poem, Emerson’s persona may “see all”, but he is not “part or parcel of God” (6); nor is he “nothing”, at least not in the pantheistic sense that he had been in Nature. One hears Bloom’s rhetoric of gnostic “belatedness” in the line “I, too late”; but is the “scorn” he “sees” under the Day’s “solemn fillet” the Abyss? Or is the passage a quiet admission that Emerson, in all of his phases, from his ascent into “the sky that holds them all” to his glimpse of Time’s scorn, has never confronted the Abyss; for how can one see anything underneath a “solemn fillet”? It is as if the scorn emanates from the garment itself, or rather is projected there by the subjective “I”, sensitized, at last, to the mocking unreality of the “solemn fillet”, an ersatz Sublime that can never be anything but a snare for the solipsistic ego. Perhaps this explains why the poem gives the impression that its speaker wishes not to see beneath the fillet, but to be in that privileged position; and the final line-break leaves open that possibility, leaving out the “I”.

The poetry of Frank O’Hara often–I do not say consistently–manifests an Edwardsian ambivalence (is it possible to be consistently ambivalent?) toward the Emersonian Sublime. Emerson himself, as we have seen, shows signs of this ambivalence in his quieter moments; as do many texts which have entered the canon for other reasons. What is remarkable about O’Hara is not his ambivalence, but rather his inability to write (brilliantly) in any other mode. He certainly attempts, at times, to join the Emersonian choir, and he also takes a good many jabs at the great tradition; but his finest poems are those which blithely ignore Bloom’s fundamental agon.

At his most intense (and attentive), O’Hara is committed to “layered-space” aesthetics. Geoff Ward argues that an O’Hara poem strives to “reject any trace of metaphysics as a taint and . . . celebrate the energy of a world composed of discrete sense-events” (11). However, this celebration comes at the cost of a realization of the “separateness and unrepeatability of each moment”; a loss which may “signify the reopening [in O’Hara’s poetry] of deep space” (11). The poems in which this occurs exist on the cusp between layered and deep-space aesthetics, and it is in this ambivalent space that O’Hara’s work becomes most provocative.

“In Favor of One’s Time” (CP, 341-42), is one of O’Hara’s most interesting–and neglected–achievements. The title leads the reader to expect a carpe diem poem, and the text does indeed contain three references to Marvell (the intentionally misspelled allusive adjective, “marvellous”). However, the poem works toward the cheerful conclusion (contra Bloom) that the day cannot be seized, it can only be talked over.

The first stanza voices a cautious (and therefore believable) optimism, concerning the human condition:

The spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous life suddenly glimmers into flame it’s more difficult than you think to make charcoal it’s also pretty hard to remember life’s marvellous but there it is guttering choking then soaring in the mirrored room of this consciousness it’s practically a blaze of pure sensibility and however exaggerated at least something’s going on and the quick oxygen in the air will not go neglected will not sulk or fall into blackness and peat


Here the “spent purpose of a perfectly marvellous life” may refer to memories, stored up and condensed into inflammable material in the “mirrored room of consciousness”. But what is it that ignites this “blaze of pure sensibility”? It is the “quick oxygen in the air”–the present moment–in which “something’s going on.” This is perhaps an overused, but essential, trope in O’Hara: his persona is that of a man who, no matter how disappointed or ill, is too curious about what will happen next to give up on life.

Implicit in the opening stanza of “In Favor of One’s Time” is the idea that no person, no lump of coal, no product of the mirrored room of consciousness, can flare up by itself; and that “soul-craft”, the goal of deep-space Romanticism, is ultimately an insignificant process when compared with the moment of ignition, which really has nothing to do with what goes on in the “blackness and peat” of a brooding mind. The second stanza ascends into the air, the source of the “quick oxygen”, but not in order that the “currents of the Universal Being” may circulate through the speaker:

an angel flying slowly, curiously singes its wings and you diminish for a moment out of respect for beauty then flare up after all that’s the angel that wrestled with Jacob and loves conflict as an athlete loves the tape, and we’re off into an immortal contest of actuality and pride which is love assuming the consciousness of itself as sky over all, medium of finding and founding not just resemblance but the magnetic otherness that that that stands erect in the spirit’s glare and waits for the joining of an opposite force’s breath


Whereas the Romantic quest is always the quest for identity, an integration of the self achieved by the recognition of a “resemblance” in the awful mirror of the Sublime (this is the essence of both mysticism and pantheism), O’Hara finds a “magnetic otherness”: a “that that that” that “stands erect in the spirit’s glare”. Here the “spirit’s glare” has a metamorphic double-meaning, shifting from the restless, seeking gaze of the “I” into a dispersed magnetic field around an obelisk of “otherness”.

Thus, in O’Hara, literature ceases to aspire to capture and bottle the present moment and instead becomes a soundtrack, magnetized, out of sync, to the filmstrip of the Sublime. The importance of jolting sounds in O’Hara has often been noted. Generally, they are city sounds (such as the “everything suddenly honks” line from “A Step Away From Them”, CP, 256) that force him to flip to the next page of a life-story he has had no part in creating, and thus cannot imagine beforehand. Oddly, in such a key text by the most determinedly “materialistic” of the New York Poets, there is no city noise; no city at all. The final quatrain introduces allegorized versions of two elements that are generally found “plain” in O’Hara’s work:

so come the winds into our lives and last longer than despair’s sharp snake, crushed before it conquered so marvellous is not just a poet’s greenish namesake and we live outside his garden in our tempestuous rights


The winds, of course, are the forces of “interruption, intrusion, challenge” (Statutes of Liberty, 176) that Ward considers vital to O’Hara’s poetry; and the space “outside his garden” is the urban nexus (outside of the Garden State?) that facilitates contact with Sublime otherness, which does not occur in solitary communion with “Nature”, but through encounters with other people.

“In Favor of One’s Time” is not O’Hara’s greatest poem, but it does provide a key to reading many of his most successful works. The idea of an “I” that disperses into a field of cognition, forming a halo around every encountered, unknowable particle of reality recurs continually. It is manifest in “The Day Lady Died”, in “Joe’s Jacket”, and “A Step Away From Them”; but it is in what Marjorie Perloff calls the “Vincent Warren poems”(216, n41) that O’Hara deals most fully–and variously–with the ultimate center of “magnetic otherness”, the object of romantic love.

At times, O’Hara’s love poems sound trite: “When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen/ all you have to do is take your clothes off/ and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness” (Poem ‘A La Recherche de Gertrude Stein’, 349). Generally, however, even these possess the saving grace of recognizing their own triteness and their betrayal of the poetic principle outlined in “In Favor of One’s Time”: “everything is too comprehensible/ these are my delicate and caressing poems/ I suppose there will be more of those others to come, as in the past so many!” (“Avenue A”, 356). The greatest danger to O’Hara’s poetic sensibility is the universal human tendency to find “resemblance”, rather than “otherness”, in what he sees. In everyday life it is impossible not to succumb to this temptation, and perhaps in everyday poems as well–but O’Hara’s best poetry avoids this, is even, often, about avoiding this:

why is it that everyone denies it it’s apparent as the air you breathe and you don’t want to be breathed do you why don’t you because it would make you that air and if you were that air you would have to hear yourself no I will never do that so when you speak to me I will always be other […] and at the same time you know that I don’t want to know you (“Ballad,” 368)


Actually “knowing” someone is not the issue; it is a false, comfortable “knowledge” (read: “resemblance”) that O’Hara refers to when he speaks of “not wanting to know” Vincent. He cannot know him the Harold Bloom way, through gnosis. For O’Hara, romantic love is a focusing of attention upon a “magnetic other”, an unknowable object that:

. . . seems good because it brings back the that that which we wish that which we want that which a ferry can become can become a bicycle if it wants to get across the river and doesn’t care how though you will remember a night where nothing happened and we were both simply that and we loved each other so and it was unusual (368)


In this passage, the speaker also becomes a “that”. It is a rare occurrence: each lover becomes a “magnetic other”, temporarily eliminating all subjectivity from the scene. It is the realization of “In Favor of One’s Time”‘s “immortal contest of actuality and pride/ which is love assuming the consciousness of itself/ as sky over all”.

Ward interprets “Ballad” as a deconstruction of the romantic subject, arguing, blandly:

we are never self-consistently we, I am never a unified I, but we or you or I are always like others. Understood only in relation to other people or things, a thing or human self never exists only in itself (66).


To be sure, this is a viable reading, so far as it goes, but it does not follow the poem to its conclusion, where the “I”, which certainly has never been unified, becomes a “that”–a unified field between two bodies that are not “like” each other at all.

It is precisely this “that” that O’Hara compares his poetry to in “Personism: A Manifesto” (CP, 498-99):

[Personism] does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! . . . It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified (499).


The “person” to whom the poem is addressed is to be a person with whom the poet is in love; yet it is has nothing to do with intimacy–it is not a “love poem”, in any traditional sense. It does not open up a direct channel to the Other; it does not posit a likeness between the parties involved; it does not even lament the loss of such a gnosis. In short, it does not do what Harold Bloom says a poem should do: describe the struggle of an “I” to master “the Abyss”, by “lying against time”. O’Hara’s best poems are ambivalent toward Bloom’s grand tradition, because they contain no belated subject; no subject at all. They are radiant fields of language around an Abyss of otherness.

Works Cited and Consulted

Ashbery, John. Selected Poems.New York: Elizabeth Sifton Books, 1985.
Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Prose and Poetry. Ed. Reginald Cook. New York: Rinehart, 1960.
Miller, Perry, ed. The Transcendentalists. New York: MJF Books, 1978.
—-.”From Edwards to Emerson.” Theories of American Literature. Ed. Donald Kartiganer. New York: MacMillan, 1972. 324-342.
O’Hara, Frank. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. Ed. Donald Allen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Perloff, Marjorie. Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. New York: George Braziller,1977.
Ward, Geoff. Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. London: MacMillan, 1993.

Enlightened Romantics: The Origins of Liberal-Democratic Faith in America

Enlightened Romantics: The Origins of Liberal-Democratic Faith in America

In this country we are very vain of our political institutions, which are singular in this, that they sprung, within the memory of living men, from the character and condition of the people, which they still express with sufficient fidelity . . . We may be wise in asserting the advantage in modern times of the democratic form, but to other states of society, in which religion consecrated the monarchical, that and not this was expedient. Democracy is better for us, because the religious sentiment of the present time accords better with it. Born democrats, we are nowise qualified to judge of monarchy, which, to our fathers living in the monarchical idea, was also relatively right. –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics”

Ralph Waldo Emerson transmuted the dry precepts of Enlightenment liberalism into a more personal faith, which has been dubbed the “American Religion.” The most distinctive characteristic of his thought was his “eager apprehension of the possibilities of American democracy.” Yet Emerson’s epistemology was identical to that which prompted Carlyle to reject the social contract, the doctrine of progress, and the entire social program of the Enlightenment. What is more important, Emerson was merely the most impressive — the “representative” — Transcendentalist; Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and a host of minor figures embraced the same Romantic faith that Emerson did. By contrast, Romantics across Europe habitually retreated into Catholicism, Orthodox Trinitarian Protestantism, or some other form of political conservatism, usually after a very brief period of radical free-thinking. How could these respective brands of idealism be so similar, and yield such different social philosophies? How does the doctrine “reverence thyself” metamorphose into: “every man has in him somewhat truly divine”? There is no necessary connection between the two statements.

That there was a striking contrast between the socio-political thought of the European and American Romantics is a commonplace of cultural history, although scholars have devoted little attention to the causes of the rift. This essay argues that the explanation lies in the extent to which the ideas of the Enlightenment became absorbed into their respective national traditions. The epistemological and aesthetic assumptions of European literature during the Romantic period also provided the spark which ignited Transcendentalism in New England, thirty years later. European Romanticism rejected the rationalism of the eighteenth-century, and the reactionary social thought of the period drew its sustenance from national traditions which antedated the cosmopolitan Enlightenment. Conversely, the Transcendentalists zealously embraced the democratization of American culture during the “Age of the Common Man”, although this does not mean that they agreed with all of its manifestations. The few important exceptions to this general tendency exhibit biographical quirks (specifically, a certain distance, geographical or psychological, from the cultural context into which they were born) that are extremely revealing. The importance of national tradition as the determinative factor of romantic enthusiasm is particularly manifest in the writings of Emerson’s “practical disciple,” the socially radicalized Theodore Parker.

Scholars have often viewed Parker’s zealous involvement in the Perfectionist reforms of the Antebellum period (most notably abolitionism) as incompatible with Transcendentalism, a doctrine of self-renovation. Certainly, his strident attacks upon the social ills of his day contrast sharply with the political aloofness of Emerson and Thoreau. Parker’s impassioned anti-slavery sermons, often delivered to hostile crowds in conservative Boston, had more of an immediate impact than the Sage of Concord’s noncomformist theorizing. However, in his adherence to a “higher law”, dependent upon intuitional access to eternal truth, Parker was at one with all Transcendentalists, as well as their European predecessors, the Romantics.

There is no simple definition for the term “Romanticism”. The main protagonists of the literary movement often disagreed upon the meaning of their endeavors, and scholars of the period have, if anything, complicated matters. In 1924, Arthur O. Lovejoy wrote: “the word romantic has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign.” This has become a familiar trope in Romantic criticism; still, Lovejoy may have overstated the case. Scholars point out that there are major disagreements among the canonized “big six” of English Romanticism (which, for the purposes of this essay, will be used as the representative European specimen)–Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The most glaring opposition within the group is between Wordsworth and Byron. The latter poet actually admired Pope, and often wrote in Augustan heroic couplets; the former wrote almost exclusively in blank verse. Philosophically, Wordsworth’s pantheism is nowhere echoed in Byron’s contemptuous attitude toward nature (as well as human beings, and everything else). The younger generation of Romantics excoriated their predecessors for a “failure of nerve” after the disappointing results of the French Revolution.

Nevertheless, the literary innovators who began to achieve recognition in Europe in the 1790s, and somewhat later in America, did share certain preoccupations. In England, poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake were working in a mode that was directly antagonistic to the Augustan classicism of Pope. Similar revolutions occurred in French and German literature during this period. The debate over the coherence of the English Romantics, as a group, has been largely a semantic one. Certainly, they were unified in their devotion to the use of symbolism (as opposed to allegory), their belief in poetry as a form of divine revelation, and their preoccupation with the theme of alienation. René Wellek notes that all of the English Romantics wrote in a mode which was “quite distinct from anything that had been practiced by the eighteenth century, and which was felt by their contemporaries to be obscure and almost unintelligible.”

Perhaps more importantly, Hoxie Neale Fairchild has identified a very definite epistemological position informing the content of the works created by Wellek’s formal innovators:

The taproot of romanticism, then, is an eternal and universal and primary fact of consciousness: man’s desire for self-trust, self-expression, self-expansion. That is why the interfusion experience [of real and ideal] is so precious to the romanticist: by effacing all distinctions and boundaries it permits unlimited outward projection of personal energy.

In New England, in the mid-1830s, a group of intellectuals began thinking and writing in a roughly similar vein. The Transcendentalist movement was energized by a newfound faith in “Reason” (Kant’s term, first encountered by most of them in Coleridge’s Aids To Reflection), by which they meant an intuitive grasp of divine truth. They were reacting to Lockean sensationalism, which they found bankrupt as a means of explaining the human aspiration toward the Ideal, a realm of transcendent values invisible to the physical eye, but irresistibly present to the “inner eye” of the soul.

While the connection between the English Romantics and the Transcendentalists has been explored by scholars, most studies have emphasized the formal and epistemological continuities between the two. Perhaps the most important work of this kind is Leon Chai’s The Romantic Foundation of the American Renaissance, which examines the “history of the assimilation and transformation of the cultural legacy of European Romanticism from roughly 1780 to 1830 by a group of great American authors of the mid-nineteenth century.” Chai traces a similar progression, in both groups, from the use of allegory to the use of symbolism. Each exhibited an increased interest in scientific models and a tendency toward subjectivity verging on solipsism. Chai has much to say about the stylistic heritage shared by the various artists; but he ignores the radically different attitudes manifested by English and American Romantics toward the societies in which they lived.

Perry Miller addressed this subject, very cursorily, in “Emersonian Genius and the American Democracy.” In that essay, Miller observed:

[Emerson] might have mourned with Henry Adams and every disillusioned liberal . . . that there was no hope left . . . except in the great man, the political genius, the dictator. There was everything in Emerson’s philosophy to turn him like Carlyle into a prophet of reaction and the leader-principle. But he did not go with Carlyle, and he meant what he said, that he did not despair of the republic. Why not? Was it merely that he was stupid, or mild-mannered, or temperamentally sanguine? Was it dogmatic optimism for the sake of optimism? Miller goes on to examine the Sage of Concord as an individual case, ultimately concluding, somewhat unsatisfactorily, that Emerson saw, in the grand scheme of things, that the march of democracy was not “something that a gentleman could despise and then expect still to have the refuge of being a gentleman.”

The detached, reasonable Emerson, posited here by Miller, who weighed the evidence and consciously chose to trust the “self-operating force of moral law”, jars with the image of the man conjured by passages in his journal. There, Emerson wrote:

The root and seed of democracy is the doctrine, Judge for yourself, Reverence thyself. It is the inevitable effect of that doctrine, where it has any effect (which is rare), to insulate the partisan, to make each man a state.

The “democracy” here described sounds suspiciously like a succinct summary of Emersonian Transcendentalism itself — an intuitive faith which “chose” Emerson, rather than the other way around. Miller has correctly identified the doctrine of “genius” as problematic, and loaded with political implications; however, neither he, nor any other scholar, has explored the correlation between the radical liberalism of the American Romantics and the cultural symbols of the American past.

A great deal has been written about the political attitudes of the English Romantics, and the roots of their often reactionary doctrines in national myths and traditions. Herbert Marks writes: “Romantic literature is famous, or infamous, for its historically unprecedented emphasis on nationality.” Reacting against Enlightenment universalism, rationalism, and mechanism, Romantics in all the European countries took refuge in the pageantry, organicism and perceived spirituality of their medieval predecessors. The Romantics vaunted passion over logic, and celebrated diversity; they found sustenance in the cultural traditions of their respective nations. The poet became the prophet of Nature, and often chose the folkloric customs of rustics, presumed to be “closest to the soil,” for his/her subject.

Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake all looked favorably upon the French Revolution, in its early stages, and considered themselves champions of liberty. Disillusionment set in early however, as evidenced by the quietism of Wordsworth’s heavily ironic references to his revolutionary self in the Thirteen-Book Prelude, composed in 1804-1806:

[Godwinism]Was Flattering to the young ingenuous mind
Pleased with extremes. . .
Which makes human reason’s naked self
The object of its fervour. What delight!
How glorious, in self-knowledge and self-rule,
To look through all the frailties of the world!
And, with a resolute mastery shaking off
The accidents of nature, time and place.
That make up the weak being of the past.
Build social freedom on its only basis.
The freedom of the individual mind.

An even more stunning repudiation of the social radicalism Wordsworth cherished so briefly can be found in the panegyric to Burke (in the Fourteen-Book Prelude.)

Coleridge also turned his back on the adventurous speculation of his youth and embraced High Church Anglicanism, along with the social conservatism that was inseparable from it in the nineteenth-century. Emerson, during his European journey of the early 1830s, sought out Coleridge, whose distinction between the Reason and the Understanding (loosely borrowed from Kant) would provide the Transcendentalists with an indispensable conceptual tool. His meeting with the great poet was thoroughly disappointing. Coleridge felt impelled to make a speech against Emerson’s older New England contemporary, William Ellery Channing, whose greatest fault was that “he loved Christianity for what was lovely and excellent – he loved the good in it and not the true.” In the face of this assault upon Unitarianism, Emerson felt obliged to inform his host that he himself was an ordained minister of that denomination. “‘Yes,’ he [Coleridge] said, ‘I suppose so,’ and continued as before.”

English Romantic conservatism reached its apotheosis in the person of Thomas Carlyle, who, though he wrote well into the Victorian period, was born the same year as Keats, and shared all the epistemological concerns of his predecessors. Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History demonstrates just how politically volatile the Romantic cult of “genius” could be. This series of lectures is informed by the oft-repeated maxim that “the history of the world [is] the biography of great men.”

Carlyle introduces his subject with a paean to

Hero-worship, heartfelt, prostrate admiration, submission, burning, boundless, for a noblest godlike form of man — is that not the germ of Christianity itself?

The author seethes with contempt for the doctrines of the Enlightenment, which had led to a state of affairs in which the “thing I call hero-worship professes to have gone out and finally ceased. . . . An age that as it were denies the existence of great men.” The remainder of the work, in which he discusses the impact of “Mahomet”, Dante, Shakespeare, Luther, Knox, Johnson, Rousseau, Burns, Cromwell, and Napoleon upon their respective societies, is offered as proof that great men are indispensable to any self-respecting nation. The final chapter, on “The Hero as King,” is quite possibly the most reactionary piece of rhetoric produced in the English-speaking world during modern times:

The commander over men; he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find there [sic?] welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of great men. . . .

He goes on to declare that the identification of a nation’s “ableman” and “getting him invested with the symbols of ability . . . is the business, well or ill accomplished, of all social procedure whatsoever in this world.” He contends that the “ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building” and the entire democratic process is irrelevent; what matters is finding the ablest man, who “furnishes us with constant practical teaching, tells us for the day and the hour what we are to do.” In Carlyle’s exaggerated praise of Cromwell, the reader can detect a yearning on the author’s part to assume the mantle of leadership that fell from the Lord Protector’s corpse in 1658. Yet Carlyle, in his Romantic disdain for conformity, his anti-materialism, and his deification of the self, is virtually indistinguishable from his liberal American friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

From the moment it burst onto the quiet stage of eastern New England during the mid-1830s, Transcendentalism was perceived as a threat to the established order. Perry Miller has described the movement, pithily, as “the first of a succession of revolts by the youth of America against American Philistinism” ; but it was much more than that. Perhaps Albert Von Frank is closer to the mark in his description of Transcendentalism as a doctrine of “permanent revolution.” His book, The Trials of Anthony Burns, attempts to demonstrate the viability of Emerson’s attitude toward politics, which is described as:

The election of the private sphere as offering the best stance from which to oppose the conservative principle . . . [in the hope that] the revolution that would change the world would be not a matter of pistols and barricades, but of individual secessions into self-reliance. . . . The private road to truth has some advantages over the rutted public way, including the possibility that the future would be different from the past, that the world would be inhabited by free individuals and not merely by those who amiably took direction from the dead.

Von Frank’s interpretation is by no means the accepted one. A more common view of the Transcendentalists derives from Stanley Elkins’ celebrated characterization of them as “intellectuals without responsibility”, anti-institutionalists whose carping from society’s margins was ineffectual at best, dangerously divisive at worst. In Slavery, Elkins wrote that:

Almost without exception, they had no ties to the sources of wealth; there were no lawyers or jurists among them; none of them ever sat in a government post; none was a member of Congress; they took no part in politics at all . . . Not one of them wielded even the limited influence of a professor; they were scarcely on good terms with Harvard itself.

The consensus, prior to Von Frank’s groundbreaking reassessment (and probably still), has been that the Transcendentalists were of negligible importance in the political history of the Antebellum North. While there have been hundreds of studies of these thinkers in the twentieth century, almost all of them have focused upon the aesthetic or religious aspects of the movement. The few scholars who have attempted to force the Transcendentalists into the traditional role of front-line activists have produced notoriously unconvincing works.

The classic writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, popular in his era as well as our own, make their own case as indispensable documents of American political culture. That political historians have often ignored Transcendentalism is puzzling, and can only be attributed to a refusal by most scholars to accept the radically individualist Emerson–who was more concerned to protect the “negative” freedom of expression in the private sphere than the “positive” freedom to assert himself in the political arena–as, in many ways, the quintessential American. Elkins’ objection to Emerson and his associates derives from this very perception; he knows that American intellectuals have generally been isolates, and he disapproves profoundly. Whether one agrees with Elkins depends entirely upon whether one believes that cultural influence is more easily exercised from within or without institutional structures. There is, however, no denying the objective truth of his assertion that the Transcendentalists chose to “marginalize” themselves.

A theoretical defense of this voluntary assumption of the perspective of “outsider”, as an essential function in a liberal democracy, can be constructed from the speeches of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, not a Transcendentalist per se, but a man who shared many of their ideas (and certainly, Elkins made no distinction between Transcendentalism and Garrisonian abolitionism):

Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated. The antislavery agitation is an important, nay, an essential part of the machinery of the state. . . . Every government is always growing corrupt. Every Secretary of State is an enemy to the people of necessity, because the moment he joins the government, he gravitates against that popular agitation which is the life of the republic. . . . The republic which sinks to sleep, trusting to constitutions and statesmen, for the safety of its liberties, never will have any.

Phillips is an extremely important figure, and the preceding comments show that he had a sophisticated understanding of his role in sustaining American democracy; however, in the minds of most of his contemporaries, he was simply a Garrisonian abolitionist. It was Emerson (and, to a lesser extent, Thoreau, because he was more stridently anti-social, and thus much less popular) who became the essential theorist of individual dissent in the Antebellum North; precisely because of his much-maligned aloofness, Emerson could be associated with no particular position, except for the doctrine of perpetual revolution–“Judge for Thyself.”

Emerson, like Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and Carlyle, began with the primary fact of individual consciousness. In “Self-Reliance”, he wrote:

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have suffrage of the world.

Anticipating objections, he remarked:

On my saying “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, – “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

In this essay, Emerson does indeed seem to be preaching the amoral gospel of “genius”:

Your goodness must have some edge to it — else it is none. The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines. I shun father and mother and wife and brother when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim.

The “genius” in these passages is strikingly similar to Carlyle’s hero (not to mention Nietzsche’s Uebermensch–Nietzsche was a fervent admirer of Emerson), a fact which is disconcerting, to say the least, when one considers its author’s reputed benignity — the man who set the tempo for the “optative mood” of American philosophy. This seeming contradiction is the subject of Miller’s essay,”Emersonian Genius and the American Democracy,” which poses many of the right questions, and answers them plausibly:

[Emerson had to admit that] genius has methods of its own which to others may seem shocking or incoherent or pernicious. “Genius is a character of illimitable freedom.” It can make greatness out of trivial material: well, Jacksonian America was trivial enough; would genius make it great? . . . Year after year, Emerson would tell himself . . . “To Genius everything is permitted [a precursor of Nietzsche’s assassin’s motto?] . . .I pardon everything to it; everything is trifling before it” . . . He was always on the lookout for genius. . . . But who was this genius? If he wasn’t Andrew Jackson, was he then Walt Whitman? Was he, whichever he was, to be permitted everything?

The answer, of course, was no. He could not trespass upon the rights of others, regardless of his greatness. Emerson knew this instinctively, no matter how stridently he wrote against the idea in his early notebooks. He was not, after all, made of different stuff than the usual run of mankind. Once he reconciled himself to this fact, Emerson’s problem was to identify the proper role for his newly chastened Uebermensch.

His ingenious solution provided the germ for Representative Men. Written ten years after Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero-Worship, this work is best read as Emerson’s retort to his English friend. The first chapter of the book is titled “Uses of Great Men”; already, this is a departure from the “hero” — the “genius” no longer exists for his own sake, he provides a service to humanity. Emerson strikes several un-Carlylean notes in his discussion of how human beings can benefit from each other:

We have social strengths. Our affection towards others creates a sort of vantage or purchase which nothing will supply. I can say to you what I cannot say to myself. Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds. . . . It costs a beautiful person no exertion to paint her image on our eyes; yet how splendid is that benefit! It costs no more for a wise soul to convey his quality to other men. . . . He who is great is what he is from nature, and who never reminds us of others. But he must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation. Men are representative; first of things, and secondly, of ideas.

Emerson’s conception of the relationship of “great men” to principles is an inversion of Carlyle’s formula. In the first chapter of On Heroes and Hero-Worship, Carlyle describes Norse mythology as a “recognition of the forces of nature as godlike, stupendous, personal agencies.” In this way, he sets the stage for all of his subsequent heroes, who are, likewise, more-than-human powers embodied in the form of men. For Emerson, by contrast:

The power which [Great Men] communicate is not theirs. When we are exalted by ideas, we do not owe this to Plato, but to the idea, to which, also, Plato was debtor.

Carlyle begins by contemplating supernatural forces such as lightning, fire, and frost, and incarnates them in a “hero”. Emerson begins with an empirical examination of a “great man”, and asks what useful principles might be deduced from his life. The “hero’s” personal greatness is rewarded by the adulation of the herd, and, if we are lucky, the “symbols of ability.” The “great man’s” greatness, however, entitles him to more responsibilities, rather than acclaim:

True genius seeks to defend us from itself. True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate, and add new senses. If a wise man should appear in our village, he would create, in those who conversed with him, a new consciousness of wealth, by opening their eyes to unobserved advantages; he would establish a sense of immovable equality, calm us with assurance that we could not be cheated; as every one of us would discern the checks and guaranties of condition.

Here we find a prescient response to Elkins’ thesis that the Transcendentalists were “intellectuals without responsibility”, or rather, a rebuttal to his definition of the term “responsibility.” For the Transcendentalists, this meant responsibility to the dictates of conscience; for Elkins, to an institution hallowed by time. Emerson’s “great man” is required to serve humanity in a most unorthodox way: he improves society, without taking control of it (in fact, by repelling the “symbols of ability”); he shines as brightly as he can, in the hope of illuminating the lives of those around him. He has no vested interest in the status quo, no “responsibility” to an ancient compromise. Brilliant as it is, Elkins’s book fails to explain how social progress is made in a society with “responsible” intellectuals (His comparison between American and British anti-slavery is chimerical; British abolitionists did not have to contend against a domestic pro-slavery constituency, only a pro-slavery lobby.) In the end, one must agree with Perry Miller, who contends that Representative Men goes as far “as clear sight can see, toward making genius democratic.”

Stanley Cavell, in dealing with the seeming contradiction between Emerson’s “Romantic perfectionism” and his commitment to democracy, has approached the same problem from a different, equally rewarding, angle:

Perfectionism . . . may be taken to serve an effort to escape the mediocrity or leveling, the vulgarity, of equal existence, for oneself and perhaps for a select circle of like-minded others. There are undeniably aristocratic or aesthetic Perfectionisms. But in Emerson it should be taken as training for democracy. . . . The training and character Emerson requires for democracy I understand as a preparation to withstand not its rigors but its failures, character to keep the democratic hope alive in the face of disappointment with it.

During the 1830s, Emerson suffered through a crisis of faith that mirrored the reaction of the English Romantics to the excesses of the French Revolution. He expressed his disappointment with American democracy (“an ill thing, vain and loud”) often enough. His personal papers are riddled with passages such as:

It is notorious that the Jacksonian party is the BAD party in the cities and in general in the country; except in secluded districts where a single newspaper has deceived a well-disposed community.


And:

A most unfit person in the Presidency has been doing the worst things; and the worse he grew, the more popular.

Scholars have noted Emerson’s aversion to the Jacksonian Democrats. His dictum that “the Whigs have the best men, the Democrats the best cause” is open to interpretation. Certainly, Emerson’s metamorphosis into a “transparent eyeball”, while communing with nature, was facilitated by the fact that, “in the hush of the woods, [he found] no Jackson placards affixed to the trees.”

However, even in private, Emerson generally maintained the celebrated “Plotinus/Montaigne” tension in his thought, which enabled him to make cutting observations without ever becoming cynical:

Botany Bay grows up with a clear conscience. People think that in our license of constructing the Constitution and the despotism of Public Opinion we have no anchor, and one Frenchman [Tocqueville?] thinks he has found it in our love of Calvinism. But the fact of the two poles universal; the fact of two forces centripetal and centrifugal is universal, and each develops the others by its own activity. Wild liberty develops iron conscience; want of liberty strengthens decorous and convenient law, which supersedes in a measure the native conscience. Lynch law prevails only where there is a greater hardihood and self-subsistency in the leaders.

Again:

Democratic freedom has its root in the sacred truth that every man hath in him the divine reason . . . That is the equality and the only equality of all men. To this truth we look when we say, “reverence thyself. be true to thyself.” Because every man has within him somewhat really divine.

Ultimately, Emerson’s faith in human nature, and devotion to the principle of liberty, allowed him to deal with the sometimes “vulgar” by-products of democracy. He may have been provoked by the depressing antics of mobs, but he resisted the temptation to deny any American citizen’s claim to have “within him somewhat truly divine.” He came to believe that there could be no individual “self-reliance”, divorced from the wild “centrifugal force” represented by the Jacksonians.

An examination of two exceptions to the rule of culturally-determined Romantic politics sheds light upon the problem. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s untimely death in 1822 cut short a life of unswerving devotion to the principles of nonconformity and political equality. Orestes Brownson, born in Vermont, in 1803, was a zealot whose faith went through a staggering series of metamorphoses, over the course of twenty years, culminating in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1844.

Shelley was perhaps the closest thing to a Transcendentalist on the eastern shores of the Atlantic. Only his outlandish views on the subject of marriage separated him from the likes of Emerson. He was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for composing (and distributing) a pamphlet entitled: “On the Necessity of Atheism.” Thus, a turbulent career was launched; at the age of eighteen, Shelley was in open rebellion against society. An early sonnet, To Wordsworth, expressed his regret that the great English Romantic had abandoned his early radicalism:

Thou wert as a lone star, whose light did shine
On some frail bark in winter’s midnight roar;
Thou hast like to a rock-built refuge stood
Above the blind and blazing multitude;
In honoured poverty thy voice did weave
Song consecrate to truth and liberty —
Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,
Thus having been, that thou should cease to be.

Shelley composed stirring liberation anthems of his own. Unlike Wordsworth, many of his works have direct political implications, notably his twin reactions to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, England in 1819 and The Mask of Anarchy (which he strove to have published in a London daily, although it was far too inflammatory, and found no outlet at the time):

[Walking toward England in a dream]
I met Murder on the way —
He had a face like Castlereagh[the foreign secretary]
Very smooth he looked, yet grim
Seven Bloodhounds followed him.

All were fat; and well they might
Be admirable plight,
For one by one and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew,
Which from his wide cloak he drew. . .

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.

Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, published posthumously in 1840, contains the kernel of an idea which anticipates Emerson’s Representative Men. The essay contains the ubiquitous Romantic distinction between the synthesizing power of the mind (Reason) and the analytical power (understanding). Shelley’s quarrel with the sober-minded Utilitarians of England is somewhat analogous to Emerson’s dispute with “corpse-cold Boston Unitarianism.” Shelley admits that “the promoters of utility in the limited sense have their appointed office in society.” However, he objects to the idea of assigning to a group of human calculators the task of defining so important a word as “pleasure”. In his oft-quoted summary of the argument, Shelley states: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (they give practical reasoners Heavenly targets to shoot for). Most significantly, Shelley’s conception of the Poet is very similar to the Emersonian Representative Man: “he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. . . . The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”

Unlike most of the Romantics, Shelley never wrote an important poem about his native land (most were set in Italy, the Alps, or were embellishments upon classical mythology), and when he trumpets the emergence of his ideal society in the epic Revolt of Islam, it is not a purified England he describes, but America:

That land is like an Eagle, whose young gaze
Feeds on the noontide beam . . .
An epitaph for the glory of the tomb
Of murdered Europe may thy fame be made . . .
Thy growth is swift as morn, when the night must fade.

Shelley’s early self-exile to the continent may explain his persistent liberalism. Wordsworth and Coleridge both sojourned in Europe during their radical twenties; it was after they came home, and became mired in the deep contextual pool of English history, that each man entered his conservative phase. Perhaps the uprooted nature of Shelley’s entire adult life insulated him from the Romantic tendency to drape oneself in the mantle of national tradition, as protection against the howling gales of disillusionment.

Orestes Brownson was the wildcard among the Transcendentalists. His early life was characterized by a relentless search for a place to repose his considerable religious zeal. In 1822, he had a conversion experience and joined the local Presbyterian church. Two years later, he defected to the Universalists, and was ordained a minister by that loosely structured denomination. Soon, he lapsed into skepticism, and became an advocate of workingmen’s rights in New York City. In the early 1830s, he drifted into New England, and joined a Unitarian church, just in time to participate in the “Miracles Controversy”.

George Ripley, a young minister, had remarked, in an 1836 number of the Christian Examiner, that it was “hard to imagine a study more dry, more repulsive, more perplexing, more totally unsatisfactory to a scientific mind” than Unitarian theology, spawned by the Lockean sensationalism taught at Harvard. The debate concerned the issue of “natural supernatualism”, a doctrinal contortion, which made a final appeal to the historicity of the Gospel Miracles as a “proof” of the morality of Jesus’s teaching. The Unitarians were forced to assume this position because they rejected both the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the possibility of intuitive knowledge. Under the circumstances, the only scenario that could accommodate the denomination’s empiricism, and its need for a moral exemplar, was one in which Christ’s authority was “warranted” by the evidence of his “divine inspiration”; the Miracles, which were “witnessed” by credible observers — the authors of the Gospels.

Orestes Brownson, who had recently founded the Society for Christian Union and Progress (a working-class congregation), and proclaimed himself a disciple of French Eclecticism, entered the fray on Ripley’s side of the debate, which was becoming the talk of the town:

To reject human nature and declare it unworthy as the church did, and as all sects now do, is — whether we know it or not — to reject all grounds of certainty, and to declare that we have no means of distinguishing truth from falsehood. . . . If we may not trust the human mind, human nature, how can we ever be sure that a revelation has been made? or how distinguish a real revelation from a pretended one? By miracles? But how determine that what are alleged to be miracles, really are miracles? . . . Have we anything but our own nature with which to answer these and a hundred more questions like them and equally important?

Elsewhere in the same contentious pamphlet, Brownson proposed a dialectical vision of history that foreshadowed later developments in his turbulent life. Equating Catholicism with the principle of Spiritualism, and Protestantism with materialism; he asserted that the two were in perpetual conflict. Brownson identified the Reformation and the Enlightenment as the twin triumphs of materialism; notable for their “influence in promoting civil and political liberty.” Brownson feared that materialism “Saves the Son of Man, but sometimes loses the Son of God,” and believed that the Protestant principle had expended itself in the French Revolution. He foresaw a synthesis of the two principles on the horizon:

Unitarianism . . . is the last word of Protestantism, before Protestantism breaks entirely with the past . . . Every consistent Protestant must be a Unitarian. . . . [Therefore] it is from the Unitarians that must come out the doctrine of universal reconciliation . . .

Already, in 1836, Brownson served notice of a tendency in his thought that would ultimately cause him to break with the other Transcendentalists, in the most dramatic fashion possible — conversion to Catholicism. While others in the group believed that their society was not Protestant enough — in Emerson’s words: “why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the Universe?” — Brownson was proclaiming that Protestantism had run its course. This confusion in naming the sickness of the age — which could be construed as semantic — was premised upon a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of institutions in society. Not surprisingly then, Brownson differed from his contemporaries, when he discussed the aims of the Transcendental movement. In his “New Views”, he wrote:

Old institutions are examined, old opinion criticized, even the old Church is laid bare to its very foundations, and its holy vestments and symbols are exposed to the gaze of the multitude; new systems are proclaimed new institutions elaborated, new ideas are abroad, new experiments are made, and the whole world seems intent on the means by which it may accomplish its destiny.

There is a wide gulf between this position and the Emersonian call for each man to become an institution unto himself. Practically, the difference manifested itself in Brownson’s involvement in Jacksonian politics; a step that was unthinkable to the other Transcendentalists. Brownson’s writing is unusual in its preoccupation with economic and class issues; his thought fits much more easily into the European discourse of the period. His most important treatment of social issues, “The Laboring Classes”, anticipates Marx in its prediction of a terrible class-war, caused by the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie; however, in Antebellum America, a “proletariat” scarcely existed–propertyless workers (at least outside the South) formed a distinct minority of the population, and one imagines that their revolution would have been a feeble one indeed. Throughout his life, Brownson would prove more adept at swallowing consistent ideologies whole, than at digesting, and adapting them to the American cultural context, which he scarcely seems to have understood.

Brownson poured his soul into the 1840 Presidential election. A Democratic victory in the contest between Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison became, in his mind, the key to the achievement of social justice in America. It is unclear how he arrived at this conclusion. After all, Van Buren had done little for the cause during his first four years in the Presidential office. It may simply have been that the undeniably exciting rise of the “Second Party System” captured his imagination, and set it soaring. In any event, the Whig landslide at the polls, triggered by the clever electioneering of the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, left Brownson grief-stricken. As far as he was concerned, the electorate had been duped by unscrupulous demagogues, and his faith in the democratic process ebbed. The 1840 election was Brownson’s French Revolution, and his subsequent conversion to a conservative ideology (in this case, Catholicism) is analogous to the transformations experienced by European Romantics earlier in the century.

The life of Theodore Parker more accurately represents the main thrust of Transcendental thought. His position, on theological/philosophical issues, was virtually inseparable from that of Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and the remainder of the group. However, Parker immersed himself in Antebellum Perfectionist reform, a step which few of his associates were willing to take. Nevertheless, it can be argued that radical reform, and abolitionism in particular, is implied by the Transcendentalist worldview — that Theodore Parker was Emerson’s “practical disciple.” Parker was also more “practical” than Emerson in the sense that he made explicit reference in his works to what he presumed was the source of all Transcendental faith in democracy, the Declaration of Independence.

Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1810. He has been described as “one of the greatest, if not the last, of the excellent line of Puritan preachers.” Perhaps; certainly Parker preached with the zeal of an old-time Protestant Reformer. His theology, however, broke completely with New England’s Calvinist past. Quite simply, Parker did not believe in Original Sin. His conception of “absolute, pure morality; absolute pure religion,” outlined in The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity, proceeds from an epistemology identical to Emerson’s (and that of the European Romantics):

The only creed it lays down is the great truth which springs up spontaneous in the holy heart — there is a God. Its watchword is, Be perfect, as your father in Heaven. The only form it demands is a divine life, — doing the best thing in the best way, from the highest motives. . . . It allows perfect freedom. It does not demand all men to think alike, but to think uprightly. . . . not all men to live alike, but to live holy, and get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine.

Parker’s unflinching faith in the primacy of individual consciousness is manifest in everything he ever wrote. Debates on Transcendentalism, in the past, have focused upon ascertaining the source of this faith. There are, broadly, two positions on the issue. According to one view, which is rooted in O.B. Frothingham’s New England Transcendentalism, Emerson, Parker, et al. simply transplanted German Romantic philosophy (in an impure form — due to misinterpretation, and mediation through Coleridge) to America. The most recent contribution to this side of the argument has been made by Leon Chai, who finds it

. . . impossible to account for [the intuitional faith of Parker] by the theology of Unitarianism itself, the sermons of William Ellery Channing, or the professions of the Wares. By defining a form of consciousness in a fashion similar to the early Schleiermacher, Parker can ascribe to Jesus a divinity not based upon his nature or essence but upon the mind’s capacity for clear and pure apprehension of the divine.

Other scholars have treated Transcendentalism as an indigenous phenomenon, a fixed point in the gradual unfolding of the New England, or American “mind.” (For some, notably Perry Miller, these two terms are virtually interchangeable.) For Miller, Emerson was simply a latter-day Jonathan Edwards, “in whom the concept of original sin has evaporated.” There is a good deal of sense in this assertion; however, it begs the important question: how, exactly, does original sin, “evaporate”? Moreover, the Antinomian heritage of New England, which undeniably influenced the Transcendentalists, evinces no trace of their democratic idealism. Antinomians, such as Anne Hutchinson, trusted completely in their own intuitions, but only because they believed they had been elected to sainthood; certainly not because they were “human.” By contrast, Transcendentalism claimed “for all men as a natural endowment what Evangelical Christianity ascribes to the few as a special gift of the Spirit.” How did this happen?

The sermons of Theodore Parker offer a very plausible explanation. A committed radical, Parker offered living proof of Albert J. Von Frank’s assertion that Emersonian philosophy had a dramatic impact upon the “culture of anti-slavery”; he is the preeminent link between the Sage of Concord’s drawing room and the activist pulpit. Shunned by respectable Boston Unitarians after 1845, Parker began preaching his Perfectionist/Abolitionist message to a non-denominational congregation at Boston’s Melodeon auditorium. His opposition to the enslavement of human beings was based upon his perception that there is a “higher law” than the Constitution. He was strident in his insistence upon the moral paramountcy of the individual conscience:

There are certain and constant facts which occur in what may be called the spiritual world, the world of internal conscience. . . . These laws are the same everywhere and always, they do not change. . . . I am not a man who loves violence. I respect the sacredness of human life. But this I say, solemnly, that I will do all in my power to rescue any fugitive slave from the hands of any officer who attempts to return him to bondage. . . . What is a fine of a thousand dollars, and jailing for six months, to the liberty of a man? My money perish with me, if it stand between me and the eternal law of God!

The most damning argument against slavery was that the institution eliminated the possibility of “self-reliance” on the part of the slave. Parker believed, as did Emerson, that the highest duty of every person was to develop him/herself, and this opportunity was denied to three million inhabitants of the United States. This preoccupation with an ideal of “self-construction” is a familiar Romantic trope, but its universal application to all of humanity is peculiar to the American variant.

If Stanley Cavell and Perry Miller are right in asserting that the Transcendentalists resisted “Aristocratic Perfectionism”, despite experiencing a great deal of disappointment with Jacksonian democracy, scholars must ask: why? What impelled Emerson to train himself to withstand the “failures [of democracy], [to] keep the democratic hope alive” ? Perhaps Vernon Parrington was more insightful than is commonly supposed, when he commented that “Emerson and Jefferson were unlike enough, as their worlds were unlike . . . but their [respective] idealism[s] [were] only a different expression of a common spirit.” Certainly, there are problems with this statement: Jefferson was an Enlightenment rationalist, Emerson was an Antinomian mystic; however, Parrington’s often annoying habit of judging his subjects solely upon the social component of their thought here yields unexpected fruit. The debt of the Transcendentalists to the liberalism of the Revolutionary period has never been satisfactorily examined. One reason for this is that most of them never wrote about it; certainly, Emerson did not. However, we needn’t take Emerson’s belief that his ideas were completely unrelated to his social context at face value. Luckily, this surmise can be tested without recourse to an arcane theoretical model; again, the directness of Theodore Parker is useful in deciphering the ambiguities of Transcendentalism.

Parker, who kept his grandfather’s musket on his mantelpiece, made no secret of his admiration of the heroes of the Revolution, and the document which he believed served as the repository of the spirit of ’76 — The Declaration of Independence. Ultimately a much less interesting figure than Emerson, Parker shows no trace of ever having wavered in his democratic faith. Emerson, at least, entertained the idea that the Devil might exist as a positive force in the world (even admitting that he himself might possibly be a minion of Evil, although he was more likely to grant this title to Andrew Jackson ). Parker’s great value to the historian lies precisely in his single-minded, and very Romantic, devotion to a reified vision of America’s Revolutionary heritage. The key work for understanding this aspect of Parker’s Romanticism is “The Destination of America,” composed in the mid-1840s. He begins with a standard Romantic formula: “Every nation has a peculiar character, in which it differs from all others that have been, that are, and possibly all that are to come.” After running through all of the great nations in the recorded history of man, Parker alights upon the American scene, stating:

The most marked characteristic of the American nation is the love of freedom; of man’s natural rights. This is so plain to a student of American history, or of American politics, that the point requires no arguing. We have a genius for liberty: the American idea is freedom, natural rights. Accordingly, the work providentially laid out for us to do seems this, — to organize the rights of man.

He emphasizes the uniqueness of this situation:

Often enough attempts have been made to organize the powers of priests, kings, nobles, in a theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, powers which had no foundation in human duties or human rights, but solely in the selfishness of strong men. Surely there has never been an attempt made on a national scale to organize the rights of man as man . . . [resting upon] rights that are derived straightway from God, the Author of duty, and the Source of Right, and which are secured in the great charter of our being.

He repeatedly points out the numerous failures on the part of the nation to perfectly incarnate this idea, citing the existence of slavery in the South as the most glaring problem. however, he couples these passages with reaffirmations of America’s ideal commitment to freedom and natural rights. Later, he delves into the specific elements which make up this national heritage of freedom:

It was a clear case to our fathers, in ’76, that all men were “created equal,” each with “unalienable rights.” That seemed so clear, that reasoning would not make it appear more reasonable; it was taken for granted, as a self-evident proposition.

This may have satisfied Jefferson, as a rationalist; but for Theodore Parker, a Romantic, the “self-evident proposition” becomes a statement of faith. The Democracy of the Declaration, for Parker, means: “You are as good as I, and let us help one another.” He goes on to claim that:

We are the most intuitive of modern nations. . . . Great truths — political, philosophical, religious — lie a-burning in many a young heart which cannot legitimate nor prove them true, but none the less feels, and feels them true.

The oration goes on at some length, making distinctions between “indigenous” American literature, which deals with the theme of liberty (newspapers, speeches political pamphlets), and affected copies of foreign models, such as most of the “permanent literature” written up to that point (novels, plays, poetry). Parker introduces the ominous word, “un-American”, in describing works that are destitute of the nation’s characteristic “ideas, contempt of authority, . . . hope, and fresh intuitive perceptions of truth.” He formulates the melting-pot idea of America as a place where “in two generations the wild Irishman becomes a decent citizen, orderly, temperate, and intelligent.” Parker’s romantic nationalism (focusing upon a cosmopolitan nation: America) generally trumps his romantic racialism (focusing upon the perceived characteristics of ethnic groups). Finally, Parker concluded with a very Romantic tribute to American geography, and the spirit he believed dwelt within it:

A nation born of this land that God reserved so long a virgin earth, in a high day married to the human race — rising, and swelling, and rolling on, strong and certain as the Atlantic tide; they come numerous as ocean waves when east winds blow, their destination commensurate with the continent, with ideas vast as the Mississippi, strong as the Alleghanies, and awful as Niagara; they come murmuring little of the past, but, moving in the brightness of their great idea, and casting its light far on to other lands and distant days — come to the world’s great work, to organize the rights of man.

For Parker, America is a great natural preserve in which the progress toward ideal human freedom can be realized without the interference of Old World fetters. His vision of America is both ultra-nationalistic and ultra-individualistic (reflecting the unique synthesis between Romantic epistemology and Enlightenment social thought that is manifest in Transcendentalism): the nation is conceived as a vast protective structure, which, hopefully, facilitates a continual evolution toward an ever more perfect union between its citizens. This seeming paradox has intrigued scholars, from Perry Miller to Sacvan Bercovitch, who has written of America as a “symbolic field . . . recurrently generating its own adversarial forms.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker (and other Transcendental theorists) made an enduring contribution to American political culture by enthroning dissent as the most important religious duty of the individual. Their claim was based upon the epistemological premise that the perceiving consciousness is the ultimate arbiter of reality. Ironically, this insight provided the basis for the democratic optimism of the Transcendentalists (directly related to the social activism of Theodore Parker), as well as the political cynicism of their counterparts, the European Romantics. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Orestes Brownson demonstrate, by their unusual estrangement from the cultural context into which they were born, the importance of that context in channeling the enthusiasm of their more typical contemporaries. The democratic faith of the Transcendentalists was the unlikely harvest of Romantic traditionalism, transplanted to a nation that had no hoary tradition to embrace, other than the Enlightenment universalism of the Declaration of Independence.

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The Ambiguity of Ambiguity: “Mr. Gladstone” and the Abduction of Victorian Culture in Strachey’s Eminent Victorians

The Ambiguity of Ambiguity: “Mr. Gladstone” and the Abduction of Victorian Culture in Strachey’s Eminent Victorians

In the preface to Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey claims to have merely dipped a “little bucket” into the “great ocean” of the Victorian Age, in order to retrieve some “characteristic specimens from those far depths” ; this is an accurate description of his activities as a biographer, save in the impression it conveys of having penetrated to those depths. In fact, Eminent Victorians fails so completely to reach what might be called the “spirit” of the Victorian Age, that the reader must conclude this was not Strachey’s intention. It is more plausible to read the text as an agile, but flawed, attempt to obscure the continuity between Bloomsbury liberalism and the most vital aspects of Victorian culture. Strachey’s achievement as a caricaturist is remarkable, but his targets (if not his style) resemble those chosen by the greatest (and most popular) Victorian humourist–Charles Dickens. Strachey did not write about artists or intellectuals–he preferred “men and women of action”–and this bias allowed him to avoid dealing with complicated figures such as Dickens, John Stuart Mill, and Matthew Arnold; however, in the first and (especially) the final sketch of Eminent Victorians, the unavoidable “Mr. Gladstone” emerges out of the obscured depths of Victorian culture to destabilize the entire text.

From the moment of its publication in 1918, Eminent Victorians was a critical and popular success. To be sure, the book’s extraordinary wit and dramatic flair are enough, by themselves, to account for this reception; and yet, the fact that its four principals–Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon–were “straw men”, whose reputations were due for a reassessment, cannot be entirely discounted. The Modern age had dawned, and self-conscious members of the “new generation” naturally reserved their most caustic judgments for the immediately preceding era. A vital test of the “modern spirit” was the rejection of Romanticism and, a fortiori, its tepid, sentimental offspring–“Victorianism”. Polemicists such as Pound, Hulme, and Wyndham-Lewis all quickly passed through a neo-romantic, “impressionist” stage, on the way to a hard, anti-humanist “classicism”: best exemplified by Hulme’s dictum that “it is essential to prove that beauty may be in small, dry things” .

The most radical Modernists wasted little time scourging the excrescences of the Victorian Age; their wrath was primarily reserved for the Promethean figures of the early nineteenth-century. T.S. Eliot, the great consolidator of the Modernist revolt, fought his greatest battles to enshrine the Metaphysical poets in the place of honour that had been occupied by Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. He did not see fit to challenge the reputation of Tennyson; nor did he need to–it had gone into eclipse on its own.

An aggressive adherence to Modern aesthetics did not necessitate–but certainly did encourage–political anti-liberalism. Indeed, the rhetoric of democracy was vulnerable to the same sort of critique that modernists directed at the gauzy, emotional poetry of the nineteenth-century. Liberal democracy was not a well-thought-out system: it was founded upon no “hard” principles; it was not efficient. In T.S. Eliot’s cultural scheme, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, there was no place at all for public opinion–nor, for that matter, for the talentless individual.

Bloomsbury politics, like Bloomsbury aesthetics, were never so extreme. In fact–if the attitude of E.M. Forster’s Two Cheers For Democracy may be taken as somewhat typical of the group as a whole–they adhered to a cautiously optimistic view which privileged toleration over efficiency and pragmatic, fluid arrangements over hard, dry principles. J.K. Johnstone has written–of Virginia Woolf, Strachey, and Forster–that they “all value self-possession, self-knowledge and humour; they dislike pomposity, pretension, and muddle. They agree that man is the measure; and they are much occupied with the question, What is a good man?” Ultimately, it must be concluded that these artists fit very awkwardly into the “Modernist” debate–as it was defined by its most ardent participants. They have no notion of themselves as a “permanent avant-garde”; nor do they have any particular desire to recast culture in a rigid new mold of “Tradition”.

Robert Langbaum, discussing E.M. Forster, traces a “migration of English liberal intellectuals from Clapham to Bloomsbury” which leads directly through the most characteristic thinkers of the era that Strachey’s text satirizes. At the mid-point between the laissez-faire piety of the Clapham sect and the socially-conscious aestheticism of the Bloomsbury group, Langbaum locates John Stuart Mill’s

characteristic Victorian synthesis–the absorption . . . into a progressivist philosophy of a new respect for the past and for those institutions and values of the past that could not have been what the Benthamites thought them, mere frauds, since they had engaged the best minds and hearts of so many centuries.

In the best Victorian liberal tradition, the Bloomsbury group worked to correct the errors of bourgeois philistinism while maintaining an eminently bourgeois commitment to the principle of individual liberty and self-development. Strachey, Forster, and Woolf used their freedom to open up important questions concerning sexuality and gender relations that had been neglected by their forebears; while John Maynard Keynes contributed a profound meditation upon the economic preconditions of liberty–but none of these figures advocated the kind of wholesale, immediate changes in society that many of their contemporaries did.

Presented against the chaotic backdrop of late-teens English culture, Eminent Victorians seems much more like the work of a moderate than that of

a great anarch, a revolutionary text-book on bourgeois society written in the language through which the bourgeois ear could be lulled and beguiled, the Mandarin style.


Michael Holroyd lists Strachey’s targets as: “evangelicalism, liberalism, humanitarianism, education, [and] imperialism” . To be sure, imperialism is presented in a bad light by Strachey, but the remaining items are far less evidently on trial in Eminent Victorians. It would be more accurate to read the book as an attack upon Victorian hypocrisy–upon various failures to live up to the ideals of liberalism, humanitarianism, education (even–if the portrait of Newman is to be taken seriously, and perhaps it is–Christianity)–and in this Strachey takes his cue from the Victorians themselves. He exposes the same kinds of faults that Charles Dickens delighted in caricaturing, and it is important to remember that “the best Victorian writers were on the whole ‘anti-Victorian'”.

Robert Langbaum’s essay, “The Victorian Idea of Culture”, conceives of “culture”, in an open society, as always “antithetical to the prevailing ideology–not so much to destroy the ideology (though that may sometimes be necessary) as to complete it” . In continuing the assault upon a series of personifications of Victorian ideology, Strachey at once obscures and makes manifest his connection to Victorian culture. Perhaps the most important contribution made by Eminent Victorians to its own cultural moment was its skewering of whatever nostalgia for Victorian “earnestness” was in the air.

The crucial difference between Strachey and Modernists such as Pound and Eliot is that the latter figures polemicized against Victorian (and Romantic) culture itself. Strachey never attacks the main current of liberalism in Eminent Victorians, but neither does he come out openly in defence of it. He can hardly be expected to have done so, given that the text was written at the height of the Modernist revolt–he was sufficiently a man of his time to participate in the fashionable deprecation of the nineteenth-century, despite his preservation (consciously or otherwise) of many of its most essential values.

Strachey’s use of “men and women of action” as biographical subjects enabled him to avoid, almost completely, declaring himself upon what Langbaum would call “Victorian culture.” Certainly, Strachey was not averse to making global pronouncements upon the Victorian Age’s “self-complacency and self-contradiction” and its lack of humour , but he rarely engaged the era’s more complex figures head-on. According to Holroyd, “when Siegfried Sassoon . . . asked why [Strachey] did not write about Dickens, he weakly protested: ‘But I should have to read him!'” Whether Strachey had read the Victorian novelist or not, it was clearly not in his best interests to think about him. The rich gallery of hypocrites, bumblers, and busybodies present in Dickens’s oeuvre certainly would give pause to any writer inclined to lampoon nineteenth-century English life; and it is significant that Strachey’s biographical enterprise never found its way into the streets of the emergent metropolis that Dickens captured so well. Eminent Victorians is concerned with provincials, colonials, and ecclesiastics–peripheral figures whose lives, doubtless, shed a certain amount of light upon the workings of the their society; but what is palpably absent from the book, what the narrative strives to exclude, is the vital centre of Victorian culture Strachey’s strategy for containing the dynamo of Victorian liberalism is to wrap it in the layers of his monochromatic portraits. Eminent Victorians presents a series of compressed, ironic (or fondly wry), “pigeonholing paragraphs”, followed by dramatic sequences in which reified personalities manifest their various natures under pressure from external circumstances. An early statement about Manning is indispensable for understanding Strachey’s method:

Undoubtedly, what is most obviously striking in the history of Manning’s career is the persistent strength of his innate characteristics. Through all the changes of his fortunes the powerful spirit of the man worked on undismayed.

What strikes the reader most about Eminent Victorians is the way most of its characters manifest a similar persistence. Whether they were chosen by Strachey for this very reason, or reduced to this state by his prose, they function as characters from the “romance” tradition–distinct, unchanging constellations of attributes which are brought into conflict (or contact) with each other. There is no attempt to create a realistic, nuanced world around these figures, nor to bring them into contact with anything like “reality”. The method is similar to that described by Hawthorne in his preface to The Blithedale Romance:

[the author’s] present concern with the socialist community [Hawthorne’s real-life residence at Brook Farm] is merely to establish a theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel, where the creatures if his brain may play their phantasmagorical antics, without exposing them to too close a comparison with the actual events of real lives.


Can Strachey have had this passage in mind, when he wrote, in introducing the Gordon story, that “one catches a vision of strange characters, moved by mysterious impulses, interscting in queer complication, and hurrying at last . . . like creatures in a puppet show predestined to catastrophe”?

Among the most succesful of the myriad monochromatic portraits in Eminent Victorians is the description of Sir Evelyn Baring:

When he spoke, he felt no inclination to express everything that was on his mind. In all he did, he was cautious, measured, unimpeachably correct. . . His temperament, all in monochrome, touched in with steely cold blues and indecisive greys, was eminently unromantic. He had a steely colourlessness, and a steely pliability, and a steely strength.

After reading this passage, the reader knows at once what to expect from Sir Evelyn Baring–how he will play off Gordon and the other characters. The method works equally well with more flamboyant (and prominently featured) figures, such as Gordon himself:

As a boy, Charlie was remarkable for his high spirits, pluck, and love of mischief . . . On one occasion, when the cadets had been forbidden to leave the dinning room and the senior corporal stood with arms outstretched in the doorway to prevent their exit, Charlie Gordon put his head down, and, butting the officer in the pit of the stomach, projected him down a flight of stairs and through a glass door at the bottom . . . Later, when he was eighteen . . . [a cadet] said that Charlie Gordon had hit him over the hit with a clothes-brush. [Gordon] had worked well, and his record was on the whole a good one.

It is only upon the appearance of “Mr. Gladstone” in “The End of General Gordon” that the prose of Eminent Victorians loses its assured tone (although some aspects of the difficulty must be traced back to Gladstone’s appearance in “Cardinal Manning”) and an overdose of affect is evident in the passage in which Strachey attempts to pigeonhole Gladstone as “a chimera of the spirit”. Quite simply, Gladstone cannot be fitted into the biographer’s scheme–he was a key figure of the Victorian cultural enterprise that Strachey, for his own purposes, wished to keep out of the narrative.

William Ewart Gladstone was a “man of action”, but he was also a “man of thought” and–as his A Chapter of Autobiography demonstrates–something of an artist as well . Gladstone was born to upper-middle-class parents in 1809, attended Oxford–where he distinguished himself as a student of Aristotle–and, in 1832, was granted a “pocket-borough” seat in the House of Commons, as a member of Robert Peel’s Tory party. He came to national prominence as an eloquent opponent of the first Reform Bill and insisted, throughout the 1830’s, upon the importance of maintaining the Established Church as the “institutional conscience” of the English polity.

Gladstone broke with Peel, in 1845, over the question of the Maynooth Grant: a large sum of money offered to an Irish seminary, intended to appease Catholic unrest. Gladstone considered the act inconsistent with the government’s avowed aim of strengthening the Established Church of Ireland, and refused to be a party to an act which would undermine that institution. He resigned his position in the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. This extraordinary act secured his reputation as a man of integrity, if not of sound political judgement.

Referring to this pivotal moment, from the vantage of his position as Prime Minister of England (as leader of the Liberal Party) in 1868, Gladstone wrote:

Some may say that it is perfectly consistent to have endowed Maynooth anew, and yet to uphold on principle, as a part of the Constitution, the Established Church of Ireland. It may be consistent, for them; it was not consistent, as I have shown, for me.


Later, the “Grand Old Man” “explained” the abrupt twists and turns in his political trajectory in a sentence of Strachean brevity: “I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty, I learned to believe in it”. Gladstonian scholars have taken pains to demonstrate that the case was considerably more complicated than that. It does seem agreed that Gladstone never wavered in his search for a means of “moralizing” the state, and that the faith he once reposed in the Established Church gradually migrated toward the electorate at large. Characteristic of the mature Gladstone is the statement that:

honour and duty themselves require their loyal servant to take account of the state of facts in which he is to work, and, while ever labouring to elevate the standard of opinion and action around him, to remember that his business is not to construct, with self-chosen materials, an Utopia or a Republic of Plato, but to conduct the affairs of a living and working community of men, who have self-government recognised as in the last spring of their political life, and of the institutions which are its outward vesture.

This is another instance of the “characteristic Victorian synthesis”, identified by Langbaum; and, clearly, it is a political attitude shared, in large part, by the Bloomsbury intellectuals.

Ironically then, the most enigmatic character in Eminent Victorians is also the closest thing to a dramatized stand-in for Strachey himself. Gladstone is introduced in the portrait of Cardinal Manning as a contemporary of the eponymous character at Oxford. At first, Gladstone figures merely as one of three young men (along with Manning and Samuel Wilberforce) to whom “the whole world lay open. Were they not rich, well-connected, and endowed with an infinite capacity for making speeches?”

The politician’s character becomes somewhat more distinct in the exchange with Manning occasioned by the Gorham Judgement. Opposed to “precipitate action”, Gladstone advocated a “scheme of procrastination” as an alternative to Manning’s headlong course, which culminated, inevitably, in his break with the Anglican Church. Here Gladstone’s “wait-and-see” attitude is both lampooned and tacitly endorsed–what else could have been expected from a biographer who was fundamentally a “quietist, of donnish and didactic temper.” Michael Holroyd is surely right in pointing out the affinity between the Newman of Eminent Victorians and the text’s author–and the Gladstone of the Gorham judgement does exhibit some of these same qualities. However, Gladstone (like Strachey) also had an active side, and possessed a ready wit (as we have seen from his Chapter of Autobiography) that the “saintly”, defenceless Newman does not possess. This becomes manifest, in Eminent Victorians, in the letter from Gladstone to Manning quoted near the end of the essay:

My dear archbishop Manning . . . it did seem to me an astonishing error to state in public that a friendship had not been overcast for forty-five years until now, which your letter declares has been suspended for twelve. . . I wonder, too, at your forgetting that during the forty-five years I have been charged by you with doing the work of Anti-Christ in regard to the Temporal Power of the Pope.

Gladstone is a problematic enough figure in “Cardinal Manning”–more various than any of the other characters (despite being on stage for a very limited time), and a more substantial counter-weight to Manning’s egotism than the bland, endlessly victimized Newman–but in “The End of General Gordon”, the problem of what to do with “Mr. Gladstone” almost hijacks the narrative, and certainly destabilizes it.

Holroyd has written that Strachey’s “portrait of Gladstone . . . for all its lively imagery, its vividness and subtlety, its display of controlled verbal pyrotechnics, does nothing to reconcile the conflicting elements in Gladstone’s character.” Holroyd attributes to Professor Bonamy Dobree the opinion that “Lytton made no attempt to understand Gladstone and even ceased to think about him while putting together this intricate literary mosaic [the “portrait” of Gladstone].” Holroyd disputes this contention, maintaining that “Lytton did not forget Gladstone as a human being, but tried to show him as a man who, in the confusion of his conscience and his policy, was a kind of moral opportunist, not a humbug, but a man greatly self-deceived.”

In “The End of General Gordon”, unlike “Cardinal Manning”, Gladstone is given no real chance to speak in his own voice. He is presented at all times through a heavy narratorial smokescreen. Indeed, one can easily see what Dobree meant when he guessed that Strachey had ceased thinking of Gladstone while he composed; but, if anything, the truth may be closer to the reverse. Perhaps the author of Eminent Victorians became obsessed with Gladstone, and the similarity of his role, as the chastener of Victorian “men of action”, to Strachey’s own.

The portrait of Gladstone is a shrill masterpiece, designed to stifle its subject by disorienting the reader. Through a process that might be called a mellifluous shouting-down, Strachey skillfully transforms a character he does not wish to understand into a character who seems incomprehensible.

The mechanics of this transformative passage are fascinating, and it is worth examining in detail. Gladstone is introduced as an “old statesman . . . now entering upon the penultimate phase of his enormous career.” Strachey then alludes to the “clashing reactions of passionate extremes” aroused by the Prime Minister amongst his contemporaries, noting that “it was easy to worship Mr. Gladstone . . . it was also easy to detest him as a hypocrite, to despise him as a demagogue, and to dread him as a crafty manipulator.” From this, the narrator “concludes” that

In the physical universe, there are no chimeras. But man is more various than nature; was Mr. Gladstone then a chimera of the spirit? Did his very essence lie in the confusion of incompatibles? His very essence? It eludes the hand that seems to grasp it. One is baffled, as his political opponents were baffled fifty years ago. The soft serpent coils harden into quick strength that has vanished leaving only emptiness and perplexity behind. Speech was the fire of his being; and when he spoke, the ambiguity of ambiguity was revealed.

The passage continues toward a cataclysmic finale in which Mr. Gladstone’s psyche is described as “a labyrinth . . . [out of which] flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst there was a darkness.” Along the way, the narrator of Eminent Victorians finds an opportunity to drive a triumphant wedge between himself and Gladstone: the Prime Minsister had “no sense of humour.” If it has already been proven, by “Cardinal Manning”, that this detail is inaccurate, then Strachey’s memory lapse, at this pivotal moment, is all the more telling.

Gordon is described as unaware of the “part that Mr. Gladstone was playing in his destiny” , and this is perhaps the key to understanding the link between the Liberal Prime Minister and the author of Eminent Victorians–watching, manipulating his “strange creatures in a puppet show.” However, this statement follows a Gladstone montage in which the narrator goes to great links to prove the absolute “otherness” of the “Grand Old Man”. As with all texts, Eminent Victorians offers up the tools with which it can be deconstruct; and like all well-written texts, these tools are not obviously on display.

The portrayal of Gladstone has elicited very little comment from scholars, and this can only mean that Lytton Strachey was largely successful in his attempt to abduct Gladstone (and the liberal current of thought he represents) from the Victorian world he set out to caricature. A careful analysis of the overwrought language used, in Eminent Victorians, to efface the real Gladstone, reveals much about the real Strachey, and the complexity of his situation as a latter-day liberal aesthete in an era which proclaimed that “serious art” (indeed, “serious thought”) and the liberal tradition were incompatible.

Works Cited and Consulted

Epstein, William H., ed. Contesting the Subjet: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1991.
Gladstone, William E. A Chapter of Autobiography. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1868.
Holroyd, Michael Holroyd. Lytton Strachey: A Critical Biography, Volume Two. London: Heinemann, 1968.
Johnstone, J.K. The Bloomsbury Group: A Study of E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and their Circle. London: Secker & Warburg, 1954.
Kinzer, Bruce, ed. The Gladstonian Turn of Mind: Essays Presented to J.B. Conacher. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.
Langbaum, Robert. The Modern Spirit: Essays on the Continuity of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Marlow, Joyce. The Oak and the Ivy: An Intimate Biography of William and Catherine Gladstone. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1977.
Matthew, H.C.G. Gladstone: 1875-1898. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
Parry, J.P. Democracy and Religion: Gladstone and the Liberal Party, 1867-1875. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Rosenbaum, S.P. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.
Scott-James, R.A. Lytton Strachey. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955.
Strachey, Lytton. Character and Commentaries. London: Chatto & Windus, 1933.
—–. Eminent Victorians. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1986.
—–. Queen Victoria. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1921.

Frederick Douglass and the Complexion of Liberalism

Frederick Douglass and the Complexion of Liberalism

Q: “What future course do you think the Press might take in promoting good among our people.”
A: “I think the course to be pursued by the colored Press is to say less about race and claims to race recognition, and more about the principles of justice, liberty, and patriotism.”


— 1891 Interview, Irvine Garland Penn & Frederick Douglass

On December 3rd, 1847, Frederick Douglass published the first issue of The North Star; the paper would become a megaphone for antebellum America’s most unique voice — a voice that offered a critique of liberal-democratic society which resonates in our own time. The man born Frederick Bailey, in Maryland, in 1818, of an enslaved mother (and an unidentified father, presumed to be white), exhibited a remarkable intellectual precocity, which beguiled a rudimentary education out of his mistress — Mrs. Sophia Auld — that was legally forbidden to southerners of his caste; and for good reason: his penetration of the veil of illiteracy led him to The Columbian Orator, and a literature of freedom that would illuminate the course of his entire life. Escaping to the North in 1838, the young Douglass quickly became associated with radical abolitionists of the Garrisonian persuasion, thereby solidifying his faith in the purity of the American Dream (codified by the Declaration of Independence) and his commitment to bringing the depressing reality of his day into line with the ideal espoused by that document. As he matured, Douglass evolved a distinctive social philosophy, which grew out of his perspective as an American cultural “insider” — with impeccable liberal/democratic/radical credentials — in the guise of an “outsider”.

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass’s second, more analytical, autobiography, he notes, with delicious irony, that “Master Hugh’s [Auld] oracular exposition [to his wife] of the true philosophy of training a human chattel . . . was the first decided anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.” Auld’s discovery that Sophia, a novice slave-holder, had felt it incumbent upon herself to instruct Douglass (“at least to read the Bible” ), occasioned his unwittingly revelatory remarks; to the effect that “if you teach that nigger how to read the Bible, there will be no keeping him . . . it would forever unfit him for the duties of the slave.” The child in question, blessed with a lively mind, “instinctively assented to the proposition; and from that moment [Douglass] understood the direct path from slavery to freedom.”

Auld’s interference came too late; Douglass had been given the inch of leverage he needed to change his destiny. The institution of slavery, in the city of Baltimore, was incomparably milder than it was on the plantations of the Deep South. At the age of thirteen, Douglass managed to hoard up fifty cents (earned blacking boots) and freely walked into Knight’s bookstore, on Thames street, where he purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator. This text left an indelible imprint upon the adolescent slave’s mind. Of particular importance to him was a dialogue between a master and his slave; according to Douglass, “the master was vanquished at every turn in the argument; and seeing himself to be thus vanquished, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity.” In addition to this welcome piece of “fanaticism”, The Columbian Orator also offered :

…Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American war, and speeches by the great William Pitt and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them, over and over again, with an interest that was ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them the better I understood them.

 

Frederick Douglass’s ingestion of the sentiments contained within The Columbian Orator, at such a young age, enabled him to make a great imaginative leap into the mainstream of American liberal-democratic thought, long before he ever shed the physical bonds of slavery. His experience of the cruelty of masters and overseers corroborated the Protestant/whig distrust of power that informed the speeches he had read. Douglass made a psychological case study of his mistress, Sophia Auld, whose “natural sweetness” deteriorated into “fretful bitterness”, as a result of wielding the tyrannical power of a slaveholder, although, “a noble nature, like hers, could not, instantly, be wholly perverted.”

Peter F. Walker writes: “There is no doubt that Douglass meant to preside over his biographers’ work. No man more assiduously guided future biographers along paths that he wanted them to follow.” Most studies of Frederick Douglass do indeed tend to repeat the trajectory of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, My Bondage and My Freedom, and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass; however, this essay will eschew the traditional structure, in favor of an analysis of the social philosophy that he began to develop, under the tutelage of William Lloyd Garrison, during the 1840s, and which blossomed into an enduringly valuable critique of American culture in Douglass’s speeches and articles of the 1850s.

Fired by an unquenchable desire for liberty, Douglass effected his own rescue from bondage, on September 3rd, 1838. The fugitive and his wife, Anna Murray (a free black woman), made their way north; settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where, like many passionate young New Englanders of the era, Frederick Douglass gravitated into abolitionist circles. On August 12, 1841, at a convention in Nantucket, Douglass (on what he describes as his first “holiday” ) was asked to speak, and he nervously accepted the challenge, delivering a stirring account of his trials under the yoke of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison rose to salute the fledgling orator: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” he cried, using the call-and-response formula which was common to Evangelical church meetings and anti-slavery gatherings. “A man! A man!” replied the audience.

Frederick Douglass soon embarked upon a new career as an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Dominated by the extremist Garrisonian faction, the MASS was a hotbed of millenial/radical ideas, some of which were only cursorily connected to the great project of abolition. Garrison communicated his highly unorthodox views from a newsprint soapbox, The Liberator; by the late 1830s, he had progressed from an anti-slavery activist to a theorist of “Universal Emancipation”:

Henceforth, we shall use it [the term “emancipation”] in its widest latitude: the emancipation of our whole race from the dominion of man, from the thralldom of self, from the government of brute force, from the bondage of sin — and bringing them under the dominion of God, the control of an inward spirit, the government of the law of love, and into the obedience and liberty of Christ . . . Next to the cause of slavery, the cause of PEACE will command our attention . . . As to the governments of this world, . . . we shall endeavor to prove, that, in their essential elements, and as at present administered, they are all Anti-Christ; that they can never, by human wisdom be brought into conformity to the will of God; that they cannot be maintained, except by naval and military power; that all their penal enactments being a dead letter without an army to carry them into effect, are virtually written in human blood; and that the followers of Jesus should instinctively shun their stations of honor, power, and emolument — at the same time “submitting to every ordinance of man, for the Lord’s sake,” and offering no physical resistance to any of their mandates, however unjust or tyrannical. . .

 

Many Garrisonians were thoroughgoing Christian Anarchists, and Frederick Douglass adhered scrupulously to most of his mentor’s tenets — women’s rights, moral suasion as opposed to political abolitionism, disunionism — throughout the 1840s. By all accounts, he was a thrilling orator, although the speeches he made, in his twenties, were unremarkable for their ideological content. It was not commonplace for a black man to speak on the anti-slavery circuit, and those who did generally drew the task of eliciting the crowd’s sympathy with tales of Christlike suffering in bondage. He had been hired as a “prize exhibit.” “Give us the facts,” John A. Collins told Douglass, “we will take care of the philosophy.” The independent-minded Douglass would have none of this, and his digressions on the subject of Northern prejudice foreshadow the perspicacity of his great works of the 1850s. In a speech delivered at Plymouth, in December, 1841, he declared:

At New Bedford, where I live, there was a great revival of religion not long ago — many were converted and “received” as they dais, “into the kingdom of Heaven.” But it seems, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net; at least so it was according to the practice of these pious Christians; and when the net was drawn ashore, they had to set down and cull out the fish. Well, it happened now that some of the fish had rather black scales; so these were sorted out and packed by themselves. But among those who experienced religion at this time was a colored girl; she was baptized in the same water as the rest; so she thought she might sit at the Lord’s table and partake of the same sacramental elements with the others. The deacon handed round the cup, and when he came to the black girl, he could not pass her, for there was the minister looking right at him, and as he was a kind abolitionist, the deacon was rather afraid of giving him offense; so he handed the girl the cup, and she tasted. Now it happened that next to her sat a young lady who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Savior; yet when the cup, containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church. Such was the religion she had experienced!


At 23, three years removed from bondage, Douglass understood that slavery was a national problem, which persisted, unmolested, in the South, in part because northerners shared many of the racial attitudes of his former masters. In the same speech, he remarked:

. . . people in general will say they like the colored men as well as any other, but in their place! They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. . . . degrade us, and then ask why we are degraded . . . shut our mouths and then ask us why we don’t speak . . . close colleges and seminaries against us, and then ask why we don’t know more.

 

At this stage, Douglass’s understandable admiration for Garrison (and his comrades) blinded him to the fact that he had clearly been “assigned a place” in the anti-slavery crusade. He had yet to realize that — in the context of mid-nineteenth-century America — the darkness of his skin would color all of his relationships. Douglass’s hope, in 1841, was that the “kind abolitionist/minister” would become an internalized facet of every northerner’s conscience, rather than a watchful super-ego embodied within a single man. His thought was so firmly cast in the liberal-democratic mode of The Columbian Orator, that he couldn’t help envisioning the individualistic, race-less E pluribus unum society idealized by the text; but his assumption that this paradise was imminent, in antebellum New England, was premature, to say the least.

The first indication of Douglass’s growing desire to break out of the role he had been assigned, ironically, was the publication of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, in 1845. The autobiography carried a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, and an introductory letter by Wendell Phillips; the young author still required the endorsement of white abolitionists, but the insistent clause, “written by himself”, evidenced Douglass’s discovery of his own subjectivity. The narrative itself, particularly in its presentation of the fight with the “negro-breaker” Covey as a seminal event in the protagonist’s life, is blatantly at odds with Garrisonian pacifism, and serves notice of Douglass’s newfound willingness to disagree publicly with his mentor.

Shortly after the publication of his first autobiography, Douglass embarked upon an extended journey to Europe, in order to promote anti-slavery in the international arena. The trip, which lasted approximately a year-and-a-half, profoundly altered Douglass’s sense of his place in American society; it was an opportunity to view his native land from the perspective of an individual, unmoored from his cultural context. There is substantial agreement among Douglass’s biographers that, during his experiences abroad, he had “come to know himself. He had gained enormous self-confidence from being treated with public respect. . . . he [had become] ‘his own man’.” There is a great deal of symbolic significance in the fact that, during this period, a group of enthusiastic British abolitionists purchased Douglass’s freedom from Auld. It is hardly beside the point to note that many of his “uncompromising anti-slavery friends [in America] failed to see the wisdom of this arrangement, and were not pleased that [Douglass] consented to it.” The spectacle of a man buying back something that was his by birth struck many abolitionists as grotesque (although Garrison, interestingly, favored the transaction, in the name of expedience!).

The British abolitionists were profoundly impressed by Douglass, and a group of them offered him a substantial sum with which to begin an independent journalistic enterprise upon his return to America. The project, which would blossom, in December 1847, into the North Star, aroused a storm of controversy that is useful as a lens through which to glimpse the power dynamics at work within American abolitionism, and the Garrisonian faction in particular. Wendell Phillips, Maria Chapman, Edmund Quincy, and Garrison himself, all pleaded with the ex-slave to abandon the idea. According to Douglass, their opposition was premised upon the following objections:

First, the paper was not needed; secondly, it would interfere with my usefulness as a lecturer; thirdly, I was better fitted to speak than to write; fourthly, the paper could not succeed.

 

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass remarks that he was distressed by the “offense which I was about to give my Boston friends, by what seemed to them a reckless disregard of their sage advice,” however, his resolve drew sustenance from the insight that, perhaps, he had previously been “under the influence of something like a slavish adoration of my Boston friends.” They certainly did take offense: he was perceived as ungrateful, and Douglass’s ironic repetition of the term “friends”, in this passage, indicates his bitter recognition of the fact that his relationships with these white comrades had lacked the reciprocity that is a prerequisite of true friendship. Edmund Quincy, the interim manager of The Liberator, during Garrison’s absence in mid-1847, called Douglass an “unconscionable nigger,” when a dispute arose between the two men over the monetary value of his contributions to The Liberator(which had only been requested as a means of distracting Douglass from his plan of becoming an editor in his own right.) Quickly, the 29-year old ex-slave found himself estranged from his former associates, and moved the base of his operations to Rochester, New York. Though he had come to disagree with Garrison on certain tactical points, and would diverge still further from orthodoxy during the 1850s, the rift, it seems, had more to do with Douglass’s refusal to keep his place.

Peter F. Walker argues that, throughout the 1840s, an underlying fear of betrayal can be detected in the relationship between Douglass and the Garrisonians;

in the case of the Garrisonians, it is Douglass’s betrayal of their confidence in him to play is assigned role. In Douglass’s case it is the Garrisonians’ refusal to make good the promise he believed they had given him at Nantucket, that he could now live without the attributes of blackness. Both defaulted, as they must have, because the premise from which they proceeded meant inevitable “betrayal”. The role the Garrisonians assigned Douglass was incompatible with the promise they had given him.

 

Scholars agree that Douglass’s experience of a more subtle form of racism; presaged by John A. Collins’ early suggestion that he keep “a little of the plantation speech . . . [so as not to] seem too learned,” was the catalyst for a fundamental shift in his thinking. However, the question of what he developed into is a much debated one. Most writers, in dealing with Douglass after his break with the Garrisonians, have found W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of African-American “double-consciousness” a useful one. According to Dubois,

the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. it is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…

 

In the just-quoted passage, there are, ironically, two irreconcilable types of “double-consciousness”: the first, which arises from a sense of “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others”, seems astonishingly appropriate when used as a matrix for understanding Douglass’s career from 1847 onward; however, it is the second formulation, which describes the African-American as “two souls . . . warring in one dark body,” which most recent scholars have appropriated, and it has had a pernicious effect upon their work.

Waldo Martin Jr, in The Mind of Frederick Douglass, occasionally falls into the trap set by Dubois’s second formulation, although the author strives assiduously to avoid it, throughout a very insightful book. He interprets Douglass’s integrationsism as a call for “total Negro assimilation into the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant-dominated political culture . . . complete assimilation into the political mainstream.” Martin errs in attributing to Douglass any sense that freed blacks had any choice in the matter. They were already in the political mainstream, as Douglass’s emergence from slavery, with the American Dream already on his mind, demonstrates; the barrier to “assimilation” was an artificial one, created by bigoted whites who resisted this truth. Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Carla L. Peterson succumb to a similar misconception, arguing that “Douglass . . . turned to the Enlightenment discourse of liberty and equality — the discourse of the dominant culture — to shape it into a powerful counter discourse.” This is simply not true: Douglass did not shape a “counter-discourse”, he simply entered the mainstream debate (and there was no question of his “turning to” Enlightenment discourse, as if he was experimenting with a new set of tools, it was the only discourse he, or any other American, was exposed to.) The idea that the American, liberal-democratic side of African-American “double-consciousness” is “white” is a fallacy that has marred almost every scholarly study of Frederick Douglass’s life and thought; liberalism has no complexion.

Daniel Walker Howe goes to the other extreme, in Making the American Self. Douglass is the only black person examined in this book, a concatenation of biographical sketches, hung on the theme of self-construction; and, after his escape from slavery, the author treats him as if he faced exactly the same problems as the rest of his subjects (the chapter is called “Self-Made Men: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass”). For Howe, there is no “double-consciousness”, all of his subjects are simply colorless, sexless “Americans” (in the ideal sense). The author does not acknowledge that Douglass ever suffered from the feeling of being “looked at through the eyes of others”; he is treated solely as a model for the “triumph of human will over brutishness.”

It is my contention that Frederick Douglass did indeed experience a sort of “double-consciousness”: he was an American, committed to the values of the Declaration of Independence, and yet he felt (indeed, he was) excluded from the Lockean social contract. The fact of his being black meant very little to him; unfortunately, it meant a great deal to most of his contemporaries, on both sides of the color line. This is an important issue to raise, in view of the morbid scholarly interest in Douglass’s apparent desire to escape his “blackness”. His contemporaries often made similar charges against him, especially during his reputed affair with the Englishwoman Julia Griffiths (1848-1855), and after his marriage to Helen Pitts, another white woman(1884). Many (most?) whites considered his behavior “a deliberate challenge to the Caucasian race,” while a black commentator wrote that “the colored ladies take it as a slight, if not an insult, to their race and beauty.”

As a result of his experiences, and the thoughtful reassessments of his native culture that they engendered, Douglass emerged, in the 1850s, as the most eloquent articulator of the problem of “double-consciousness” in American history. During this decade, he often expressed himself in the characteristic idiom of the “American Jeremiad,” with certain important modifications. The Jeremiad, as defined by Sacvan Bercovitch, is a “ritual designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal.” Its structure is quite simple: Americans have sinned, and the current afflictions are a chastisement, but America remains the promised land, the home of the Elect, and the hope of the world. Bercovitch’s work has examined how this form — which originally served as a vehicle for Puritan divines, at the top of the social hierarchy — became in the nineteenth-century, the preferred mode of self-proclaimed “isolattoes”, criticizing society from the margins.

Douglass’s masterpiece, in this genre, is his “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech delivered at Rochester, on July 5th, 1852 (hereafter referred to by its more famous name, “The July Fifth Speech.”) This text, which demands close reading, contains within it all that is essential to Douglass’s critique of American liberal-democracy. He prefaces the speech with the conceit that “I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust my ability, than I do this day.” This is an unusual beginning for what will prove to be a Jeremiad (with a difference). The inference to be drawn is that Douglass does feel that he knows where America has gone astray, but he lacks confidence in the ability of his hearers to see past his skin color. He continues:

The papers and placards say that I am to deliver a Fourth of July Oration . . . the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, the distance between this platform and the slave plantation, from which I escaped, is considerable — and the difficulties to be overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here to-day is, to me, a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude.

 

The reference to the platform and plantation appears to be a reminder to his audience not to confuse the two; not to demean the experience by envisioning Douglass toiling ignorantly under the southern sun, while he is striving to reach them through the language of liberty and potential which he and they share. He explains that the “purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.” The introduction of the second-person pronoun is Douglass’s most important adaptation of the form. The thesis of the Jeremiad, historically, had been that we have sinned. The speaker denounced himself, along with his society. How could he have anything interesting to say, about the regeneration of the polity, unless he too had succumbed to the “declension” he described? More to the point: how could he motivate his audience, unless he shared their ideal vision of America, and the psychic pain of its “loss”? Douglass’s transformation of the Jeremiad from an address in the first-person, to one in the second-person, was an ironic tour-de-force. “The Fifth of July Speech” was an oration given by a man who had as clear a vision of the American Dream as anyone who had ever lived, and yet, he was not a part of the social contract, and was forced to address the body politic as “you”. The distinction between Douglass and a white contemporary, like Emerson or Thoreau, is the real difference between an “insider” envisioning himself as an “outsider”, and an “insider” branded an “outsider”. It is one thing to stand apart from the imagined community because of one’s opinions; it is quite another to be kept out because of one’s skin color.

When discussing the Founding Fathers, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Douglass remarks that “the point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. . . . and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.” However, he then places his finger upon another, less noble, national trait:

It is a fact that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans if I say I think the American side of any question can be safely left in American hands.

 

Douglass anticipates that some in the audience might think that abolitionists should “argue more, and denounce less . . . persuade more, and rebuke less” ; however, as he avers later in the speech, “at a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” With this in mind, he asks: “what point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light?” This is followed by a stinging catechism which delineates one of the cleverest portraits of American hypocrisy ever painted:

Would you argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. — There is not a man beneath the canopy of Heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

 

Yet, Douglas concludes the “Fifth of July Speech” on a characteristically American note of optimism: “notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. . . . While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles which it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.” Thus Douglass completes the great experiment of yoking the American Jeremiad to the concerns of a “double-consciousness”, bred by the contradictions within a culture based upon the idea of universality, which persists in making arbitrary distinctions.

Douglass held tenaciously to his “double-vision” of America throughout the remainder of his life; despite the heartbreaking events of Reconstruction, after the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Later, he would advance a doctrine of “regeneration through miscegenation” as a final solution to the nation’s racial problem. Many of the questions Douglass addressed remain unsolved, a fact that increases the poignancy of his critique. His ironic pseudo-Jeremiad is an eternal warning to liberal-democrats not to discriminate against those whom their ideals have inspired. By the same token, his dogged devotion to the idea of universality; his refusal to equate the principles of the Declaration of Independence with the white men who signed the document (or with the slaveholder who wrote it) makes him a role model for the “marginalized.”

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 5 vols.
Phillip Foner, ed. New York, International Publishers, 1952.
——- My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: The Arno Press, 1968.
——- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume One, Nina Baym, gen. ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1998.

Secondary Sources:

Anbinder, Tyler. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know-Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. The American Jeremiad. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.
Bormann, Ernest G., ed. Forerunners of Black Power: The Rhetoric of Abolition. Eagle Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971.
Dick, Robert C. Black Protest: Issues and Tactics. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1974.
Duberman, Martin. The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Dubois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903.
—–W.E.B. Dubois: A Reader. Meyer Weinberg, ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American Self: Johnathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Knobel, Dale T. Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1986.
Kraditor, Aileen S. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850. Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1989(1st published by Pantheon in 1969).
Martin Jr., Waldo. The Mind of Frederick Douglass. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. Patterson, Anita Haya. From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race and the Politics of Protest. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Rose, Anne C. Voices of the Marketplace: American Thought and Culture, 1830-1860. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Sundquist. Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Von Franck, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Walker, Peter F. Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolitionism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1978.

The Extremities Die First: Sympathy and the Sublime in The Blithedale Romance

The Extremities Die First:
Sympathy and the Sublime in The Blithedale Romance

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance dramatizes a self-conscious narrator’s failure to withstand the rigors of an encounter with the “sympathetic sublime”. Miles Coverdale is a poet of solipsistic tendencies whose interest in social experimentation derives more from his desire to forge genuine human relationships than from any great hope of “reclaiming the world” (although he does tend to conflate the two). His account begins on the night before his departure for the country, at which time he expresses an eagerness to meet Zenobia, a prominent local figure about whom he has heard much, but never seen; and when the meeting occurs, he is not disappointed—in fact, he is overwhelmed. However, Coverdale’s case is not destined to be a simple one of abject submission to a stronger personality, for, still reeling from Zenobia’s first impact, he witnesses her absorption into a complicated relationship with the egotistical Hollingsworth and the self-abnegating Priscilla. On the threshold of his “awakening” to the world, Coverdale collapses into a feverish state, requiring two weeks’ convalescence, during which time the “knot of dreamers”, formed before his eyes, tightens into an impenetrable object of fascination. The drive to demystify this trinity energizes the sluggish Coverdale, although each revelation leaves him equidistant from the noumenal “core” of the relationship, whilst moving the prying narrator into a closer alignment with his “enemy”—the impresario Westervelt. Finally, Zenobia’s suicide does Coverdale’s work for him, untying the “knot” and bringing him face to face with the initial destabilizing force in isolation (though certainly not “in itself”). However, the poet’s reason fails to reassert itself in this extremity, and Coverdale plunges into the vortex of attachments that have transfixed him for so long. He “turns the affair into a ballad”, which ends in a ghostly “tableau vivant”—from which he is permanently excluded.

After the worst of his illness, the bedridden Coverdale shares a particularly intimate moment with Zenobia. Perplexed by the strange intensity of his gaze, she asks him:

“What are you seeking to discover in me?” “The mystery of your life,” answered I (Coverdale), surprised into the truth by the unexpectedness of her attack. “And you will never tell me.” She bent her head towards me, and let me look into her eyes, as if challenging me to drop a plummet-line down into the depths of her consciousness. “I see nothing now,” said I, closing my own eyes, “unless it be the face of a sprite, laughing at me from the bottom of a well” (Norton Critical Blithedale Romance, 44).

In fact, the incident eulogizes what it evokes—the latent possibilities of the Coverdale-Zenobia relationship. After all, Hollingsworth and Priscilla have arrived on the scene, and the narrator has already begun to think of his interlocutor as a component in a more sublime mystery than she herself represents as an individual. As if to drive the point home, he chooses to tell us, at this juncture, that his interest in Zenobia “was purely speculative; for I should not, under any circumstances, have fallen in love with Zenobia” (45).

Miles Coverdale’s unreliability as a narrator is legendary, and certainly, as an objective reporter on the events at Blithedale, he is ludicrous; but he is considerably more successful in communicating a sense of his inner life during the same period. He holds nothing back in his account of Zenobia’s first appearance, and her impact upon his psyche. In fact, he describes her in terms that call to mind an encounter with the dynamic sublime:

[she had] a combination of features which it is safe to call remarkably beautiful, even if some fastidious persons might pronounce them a little deficient in softness and delicacy. But we find enough of those attributes, everywhere. Preferable—by way of variety, at least—was Zenobia’s bloom, health, and vigor, which she possessed in such overflow…(15)(italics mine)

Coverdale wears a dazed grin throughout this chapter and blushes whenever she addresses him. Perhaps most telling is his remark that “the presence of Zenobia caused our heroic enterprise to show like an illusion, a masquerade, a pastoral, a counterfeit Arcadia, in which we grown-up men and women were making a playday of the years that were given us to live in” (21).

Critics have approached this passage from a variety of perspectives. Often, it has been wasted as a pretext for a banal remark, such as that “not only are the characters cloaked in their names, they are also screened by the roles they assume in the ‘counterfeit Arcadia’. No one is what he appears to be”(Donohue, 103). Even those who have taken note of Zenobia’s special role in triggering Coverdale’s impression have disagreed as to what her presence signifies. Frangcon Lewis discusses her as showing the way to an enlightened nihilism through her inspired performances. Minaz Jooma’s reading also depends upon Zenobia’s theatricality:

The text of the Blithedale Romance allows Zenobia to figure herself, as it were, in a manner which, while it acknowledges her position as a spectacle, problematizes an oppositional logic in Coverdale’s narrative . . . [which discloses] the rather arbitrary boundary between observer and observed (322). Nina Baym sees her rather as an absolutely authentic human being, at war with “society, whose necessary goals are permanence and control” and, most importantly, “the reality that Coverdale is seeking”(Norton BR, 353).

Baym’s interpretation, filled with allusions to Zenobia as “the creative energy both of nature and the self”(353) and “the natural and eternal woman” (361), is rather more romantic than Hawthorne ever thought of being (but perhaps this is to be expected in an essay entitled “A Radical Reading”). She does convey a sense of the power the text invests in the characterization of Zenobia, but the simplicity of her argument forces Baym into awkward assertions. For example, she falls back upon an interpretation of the narrator as a one-note character who “cannot overcome his attachment to genteel poetry and the genteel way of life to serve the romantic muse” (366).

Of course, Coverdale’s prudishness (or his impotence) has drawn a great deal of critical attention, but in most such cases it has been yoked to a fetishistic sexuality that at least complicates his role as narrator (see, for example, Dolis, Hutner). Baym does not even bother to do so. In fact, she writes as if she would like to forget Coverdale altogether—but this is unthinkable. Zenobia (within the context of The Blithedale Romance) is incomprehensible as a “romantic muse” and “symbol of the life principle”—no one falls in love with her, and no one dedicates any poetry to her (although Baym insists that Coverdale should (353)). However, as a sublime object, she comes into focus.

Hawthorne’s only work to deal directly with a conventional figure of the sublime is “My Visit To Niagara” (in Hawthorne, CW, 42-50). In that piece, the narrator struggles to escape his own literary preconceptions and the demystifying presence of other tourists, in order to experience the true sublimity of the falls. Eventually, he claims to have succeeded, proclaiming: “it soothes, while it awes the mind”(47). This romantic echo, coming in the midst of a generally ironic sketch, undercuts the exultant finale: “My enjoyment became the more rapturous, because no poet shared it, nor wretch devoid of poetry profaned it: but the spot so famous through all the world was all my own” (50). Rather, the impression conveyed is that no “famous spot” can really deliver the surprise that is consubstantial with the sublime.

Hawthorne’s concerns are usually more intimate than his contemporaries’ are. Thomas Mitchell argues that

For Hawthorne, unlike Melville, the mystery that bedeviled him into obsession was not what lay behind the ‘mask’ concealing God, but the less cosmic, more immediate mysteries veiled behind the complexities of human relationships (“In the Whale’s Wake”, 67-68).

In a way, The Blithedale Romance reverses the pattern of “My Visit to Niagara”–employing a type of the sublime more congenial to the author’s mind–moving from a “true” impression to a dulled, poeticized one. The narrative certainly depicts a more genuinely awed mind, albeit one that never experiences the soothing influence of reason. Coverdale is utterly unprepared for his meeting with Zenobia, and even less so for the ever-shifting vortex of relationships that his contemplation of her discloses to him. This shift from the dynamic to the mathematical sublime (via Coverdale’s morbidly sympathetic nature) occurs early in the novel. Even before Hollingsworth’s arrival, Zenobia (who is familiar with him only as an “auditress”) makes him the chief topic of conversation, and expresses admiration for him–describing the philanthropist as “a great heart; at least he moved me more deeply than I think myself capable of being moved, except by the stroke of a true, strong heart against my own”(21). When Hollingsworth blusters in out of the cold, with Priscilla in tow, the Coverdale-Zenobia dynamic practically evaporates.

Of the pair, the pale young girl makes the first claim upon Zenobia’s (and thus Coverdale’s) attention:

She stood near the door, fixing a pair large, brown, melancholy eyes upon Zenobia—only upon Zenobia!—she evidently saw nothing else in the room save that bright, fair, rosy, beautiful woman. It was the strangest look I ever witnessed; long a mystery to me, and forever a memory(26).

Hollingsworth’s first impact, prompted by Zenobia’s chilly response to the child’s entreaty for protection, follows quickly on its heels:

He looked stern and reproachful; and it was with that inauspicious meaning in his glance, that Hollingsworth first met Zenobia’s eyes, and began his influence upon her life.

To my surprise, Zenobia—of whose haughty spirit I had been told so many examples—absolutely changed color, and seemed mortified and confused (27).

Working in tandem, Priscilla and Hollingsworth bring out the widest range of emotional possibilities in Zenobia, which Coverdale seems to see all once—as if she were a cubist painting.

Coverdale takes particularly to Priscilla. He moves quickly from a forensic examination of the girl’s probable origins to something like an appropriation of her subjectivity:

She had been bred up, no doubt, in some close nook, some inauspiciously sheltered court of the city, where the uttermost rage of a tempest, though it might scatter down the slates of the roof into the bricked area, could not shake the casement of her little room. The sense of vast, undefined space, pressing from the outside against the black panes of our uncurtained windows, was fearful to the poor girl, heretofore accustomed to the narrowness of human limits . . . the house probably seemed to her adrift on the great ocean of the night . . . (33)

This virtuoso performance owes a great deal to the narrator’s sense of kinship between himself and Priscilla—they have both led cloistered lives in the city (no matter their class differences) and each is unmoored by the destabilizing force of the same overwhelming personality. Priscilla slides neatly into the awestruck role that Coverdale had been preparing to play vis-à-vis Zenobia. Echoes of this empathy recur throughout the novel, particularly in an expressionistic dream sequence, where Coverdale finds “the sadness of [Priscilla’s] expression in [his] heart” (142) and, more immediately, in the illness that overtakes him on the very night of her arrival.

Coverdale spends a couple of weeks on the sidelines, as the community gets up and running, and when he rejoins the living, he finds the possibilities unleashed on the first night hardened into reality. The chapter entitled “Hollingsworth, Zenobia, Priscilla” is in many ways the key to the book. It is here that Coverdale first spells out his fascination with the eponymous characters as a trinity:

Other associates had a portion of my time; other matters amused me; passing occurrences carried me along with them, while they lasted. But here was the vortex of my meditations around which they revolved, and witherward they too continuously tended. In the midst of cheerful society, I had often a feeling of loneliness. For it was impossible not to be sensible that, while these three characters figured so largely on my private theatre, I—though probably reckoned as a friend by all—was at best a secondary or tertiary personage with either of them (65).

It is this sublime knot of affections, rather than any one personality, that will transfix Coverdale for the remainder of the novel. It is a critical commonplace to analyze Coverdale’s behaviour as determined by his fear of succumbing to the influence of either Zenobia (Baym, Hutner, Phillip Rahv’s “The Dark Lady of Salem”, in Norton BR, 337-40) or Hollingsworth (see James Justus, “Hawthorne’s Coverdale”, in Norton BR, 395-407); but these readings seem to me fundamentally flawed.

The Blithedale Romance is not Moby-Dick, in which one man’s sublime rhetoric hijacks the narrative and absorbs even the narrator into his quest for duration of the novel. The analogous figure to Ahab in Blithedale is Hollingsworth, who arrives amongst a motley crew of “isolatoes” with a secret purpose, and prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone upon the altar of his “one idea”. Unlike Ishmael, Coverdale is never in any danger of joining with his book’s monomaniac; his fascination with Hollingsworth is rooted solely in the older man’s ability to “[engross] all the thoughts of all the women” (114). Later on, back in the city, the narrator marvels that

[Hollingsworth’s] influence was no less potent with this beautiful woman [Zenobia], here, in the midst of artificial life, than it had been, at the foot of the gray rock, and among the wild birch-trees of the wood path, when she so passionately pressed his hand against her heart (154).

The infinite variety of tableaux vivants that these three are capable of generating is what captivates Coverdale’s imagination. Repeatedly, he admits to being in thrall to the hidden logic of their various relationships. John Dolis argues that

It is by converting the past into a dream-like “story” that Coverdale confers upon himself an inextricable reality, the illusion of continuity as a continuous part of the “knot” (of dreamers). He is its thread. Yet to the degree that Coverdale uncovers his speaking voice by means of allusion, the thread of this dream-like story is never his own. Rather, it structures the trans-figuration of his characters to legendary and mythical figures amid a world no less grand in its unbounded scope and scale (128-9).

On the contrary, I do not see how Coverdale can be responsible for the “knot”. He is not its thread. He does not “structure” the relationships between the three characters. These form a sublime fact which is entirely extraneous to him, and in that sense I concur that the story is never his own. However, it is not the story that is “dream-like”, but Coverdale himself. Throughout the course of the novel, his imagination perpetually taxes “itself to the uttermost” in an effort to “[comprehend] a given object” and “betrays its limits and its inadequacy”, without, however, “presenting itself to the idea reason” (Kant, 501).

Coverdale’s incessant grasping for the ungraspable generates a “mood that rob[s] the world of its solidity” (135) that becomes habitual with him. He even learns to take a certain Buddhistic pleasure in the feeling which “involved a charm, on which—a devoted epicure of my own emotions—I resolved to pause, and enjoy the moral sillabub until quite dissolved away” (135). Nevertheless, the sweetness does dissolve, unlike Coverdale’s three figures, which continually “array themselves before me . . . presenting their old problem in a shape that made it more insoluble than ever” (145).

The proof of this is that no matter what the narrator learns—and he learns a great deal, by plying Old Moodie, the dissolute father of the two women, full of liquor and adopting the cold skepticism of the “evil” Westervelt (whose comments often echo Coverdale’s analyses word for word)—he never comes any closer in spirit to his objects. In fact, as he learns the biographical details of Zenobia and Priscilla’s lives, he forces his way into the precise position occupied by the Professor vis-à-vis Zenobia, in an earlier stage of the novel:

There was a sort of familiarity between these two companions . . . [but] as they passed among the trees, reckless as her movement was, she took good heed that even the hem of her garment should not brush against the stranger’s person. I wondered if there had always been a chasm, guarded so religiously, betwixt these two (95).

In Westervelt’s case, the answer may be uncertain; but it is clear that no amount of phenomenal knowledge will serve Coverdale as a bridge over the noumenal abyss.

Yet the “knot” is real, and goes on tightening, regardless of Coverdale. He is continually arriving too late to make use of the information that is vouchsafed him—not that it is clear he would act, if he could. He plays no more part in the denouement than he did in the tying. Zenobia arrogates that privilege to herself, after the “trial” at Eliot’s Pulpit, the climax of which Coverdale has missed.

Once Hollingsworth and Priscilla have left her alone, Zenobia turns with renewed interest upon the narrator, who, for once, is convinced of his “right to be there”(204). It seems the narrative has come full circle, leaving these two to work out the dynamic of the relationship generated by their first meeting; but this is not to be the case. Coverdale is at his most lucid in this scene, however, Zenobia is now clearly playing a part–that of tragedy queen. True to her nature, she has trouble staying in character, and mixes in a few welcome quips, but her performance convinces Coverdale. When he boldly kisses her hand, and exclaims that it is cold, she replies: “the extremities die first” (209). She asks Coverdale to tell Hollingsworth “I’ll haunt him” (208), makes a few melodramatic pronouncements about the fate of women who swerve “one hair’s breadth off the beaten track” (206), and repeatedly suggests that the poet “turn this whole affair into a ballad”(205-6)–which of course he begins to do, even before she departs.

Thus it comes to pass that Coverdale finds himself in the midst of one the most sublime scenes in all of American literature—the midnight quest for Zenobia’s corpse—accompanied by two “wretches devoid of poetry” (Hollingsworth and Silas Foster, the pragmatic farmer) and with his own senses dulled by the ballad (of Zenobia’s contrivance) which has taken root in his brain. Still, the reader, who can reasonably dispense with this ballad as Zenobia’s final laughing revenge, is free to register “the perfect horror of the spectacle”(216) (assuming he or she is unburdened by the company of wretches). Even Coverdale seems suitably affected, writing, twelve years after the fact: “Ah! That rigidity. It is impossible to bear the terror of it”(216), but the use of the present tense implies that the narrator remains in thrall to the emotions he experienced that night, and that his reason has failed to reassert itself.

If the narrative ended here, this last would be merely conjecture, but Coverdale obligingly appends a chapter in which he visits his two surviving friends and reties the “knot”, creating a melodramatic final tableau vivant, by projecting the “vindictive shadow” of Zenobia on the side of the shuffling Hollingsworth “where Priscilla was not” (224)—and this time it is most assuredly the product of a diseased imagination, confined to the margins of the world.

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