Becoming America: the Paradox of Emerson’s Romanticism

by b socha

American scholar and the ossification of man; instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm, it is not the avoidance of life or people, but full interaction with it, while remaining oneself, in solitude of the mind, where man becomes himself. “Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom.” Full engagement in everyday life and problems is the counterbalance of thought.

Emerson does not ignore or deny history. He uses and cites great men and actions from it. Although he also says that there are as many great men in his day than in ancient times in one essay, in his address on the American Scholar he taunts their puny nature.

The great man is not to be found in the halls of learning, or in church, insinuates Emerson. And if he does tread those places he does not dwell there: they did not make him become a man and a thinking man. He has been made out of his own efforts, and he is his own god. His is a religion of self. Becoming is a central category for Emerson’s thought; but it is also a self made possible by location. Not in Europe, not in Boston, but in the woods. The woods of America. Without the notion of progress, his hyper-individualism paves the way for nihilism. Emerson’s man has a complex relationship with America. Its institutions and its leaders are fools, while he will not revoke reverence for the founders who fashioned a continent from nothing. It would seem that the land determines the great American man. He makes himself out of the earth. He fashions himself in proportion to the vital landscape and rugged outlook that promises him greatness. But, from what a distance this man stands from actual nature. Perhaps there is a pond, a mountainside, a roaring tide. These are places in his mind more so than on his humble porch. Emerson’s nature reveals itself through prose depicting a stylized Romantic landscape. It has been hewn out of the violent and deathly hazards into a wild, but not quite savage, work of art.

Representations of the self and of the land are symbiotic in the sense that Emerson’s “becoming” is founded on an artifice of naturalism that has its origins in civilization. In fact, I am interested in arguing that the central paradox of Emerson’s thought lies in the tension between essence and history, vitalism and nihilism, nation and self, nature and society. All of these words are spun out of the same essential non-logical (as opposed to illogical) quest for universal experience of self outside of time. To borrow from Heidegger’s Letter on “humanism,” Emerson is emblematic of man who lives in the direct realm of experience, and therefore lives ahistorically. And yet, his desire to transcend the literal and the logical confines of history and its legacy of the Enlightenment marks the impulse of American Reconstruction in pursuit of finding itself.