Location: [Reed College] [Department of English] [Laura Arnold][ Nation and Narration]Daily Readings
Transcendentalism and the Narrative of Romanticism
1. The following background information on Transcendentalism is by Barbara Packer (author of Emerson's Fall and the section on Transcendentalism in the new Cambridge History of American Literature). It will help provide a framework for Monday's readings, but please also read the biographies and introductions in the handout package. In this passage, Packer explains the philosophical roots of Transcendentalism as a response against Locke which was influenced by European Romanticism. She is interested in the moment at which Transcendentalism breaks from mainstream Unitarianism (see handout from Friday).
What Makes Transcendentalism transcendental?
It's hard for us to recover a sense of why Locke was so revered in America, and hence why the Transcendentalist attack upon his philosophy seemed so dangerous and radical to the older generation of Unitarians. We tend to forget the range of his achievements and the reputation he enjoyed in his lifetime as "the chief philosophical defender of civil and religious liberty" as the article in the 11th Brittanica puts it (a good place to go for facts of his life and a descriptive list of his works). Nineteenth-century students at Harvard still spent half a year studying Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Edward Everett discovered he could best please his tutor simply by memorizing the whole thing). And the religious works Locke wrote toward the end of his life--The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Discourse of Miracles--were still honored as models for the kind of "supernatural rationalism" that Unitarianism saw itself as promoting.
But by the time Emerson and Clarke were studying at Harvard, Locke's empiricism had come to seem stale at best, life-denying at worst. Hume's skepticism had done damage that the Scottish Common Sense philosophers had not really repaired. Progress in sciences like geology was beginning to cast doubt on the Mosaic chronology (as one orthodox divine angrily said, "Whenever I hear talk of mountains, there is sure to be something impious near by"). German biblical criticism, which Americans were bringing home by the shipload, was beginning to question the integrity of the Biblical text itself and casting strong doubt on its accuracy as a historical record.
If counterforces to these dissolving elements were to be found, they needed to come from a philosophy that found more in the mind than had come to it through the senses alone. Americans could learn through Coleridge and Carlyle that such a philosophy in fact already existed in Germany, in the works of Kant and his successors. German philosophy and learning already had immense prestige at Harvard, brought back by men like Edward Everett and other Americans who had studied at German universities in the 'teens and 'twenties. Now it seemed to offer an idealism that was not dogmatic and a critical philosophy that did not end in the dissolving skepticism of Hume. Hurrah! The younger generation pounced on it as the solution to their worst intellectual and spiritual problems; to them it seemed the only way of "saving" a belief in Christianity for the nineteenth century, as Locke's rationalism had "saved" it for the eighteenth. The older generation of Unitarians, for whom the Lockean synthesis was still intellectually satisfying, couldn't understand why their students seemed to be flocking to what looked to them like a bizarre and obscurantist philosophy that reminded them of the irrational bigotry of the Calvinists. Hence the bitter wars that characterize the first phase of Transcendental movement.
Since few of the Transcendentalists were capable of reading Kant in the original (Frederic Henry Hedge is an exception), they were dependent on secondary sources--Coleridge's Aids to Reflection and Biographia Literaria, Carlyle's essays in the Edinburgh Review, Madame de Stael's De l'Allemagne. Coleridge's books had just been published in American by James Marsh (1829-33), then President of the University of Vermont, who hoped that the "new" philosophy would help end doctrinal disputes in his own, orthodox, camp. They mostly ignored the books or condemned them as heretical but the young Boston Unitarians went wild.
Our task today will be to try to see what use they made of the ideas they thought they were getting from Kant.
Please read the Shelley poem quickly before you read the articles. As you read the articles, please make note of what the arguments are being made by the British philosophers (Coleridge and Carlyle) and what the Americans (Hedge, Reed, Brownson) find exciting . After you have read and digested the articles, please return to "Mont Blanc." To what extent (and where) does this poem parallel Coleridge's and Carlyle's philosophies? (i.e. what would a practical application of their beliefs look like?)
3. The sublime. We will return to the notion of the sublime when we read Emerson's "Nature" on Friday but in the meantime, the following quote by Longinus may help you reach an understanding of the sublime (one of the concepts borrowed by the British and American Romantics from Kant):
Sublimity is a kind of height and conspicuous excellence in speeches and writings...What is beyond nature drives the audience not to persuasion but to ecstasy. What is wonderful, with its stunning power, prevails everywhere over that which aims merely at persuasion and at gracefulness (On the Sublime 8-9).
How do each of the pieces of writing that we have read today try to stun us into ecstasy through rhetoric or language? Do they share any strategies? (i.e. how do writers achieve what Emerson calls "blood-warm" writing? The introductions and biographies in the packet will be helpful for this.)