What is Romantic Vitalism?

by b socha


DSCN1125When I was an undergrad, I took a class in the English Department called “Issues and problems in literature: Vitalism.” It was one of the more challenging courses I took, and one of the most fascinating. While the material was not explicitly concerned with American poetry and literature, we spent a considerable amount of time tracing the narrative legacy of vitalism and destruction through notable American writers from Whitman to Kerouac to Matthiessen to Pynchon.

The central paradox illuminating these works was the vacillation between thriving and destroying. When I write it out, it seems too simple, too ambiguous. But I will try to find a deeper way of indicating what I mean. And to this end, I want to talk a little more about Emerson and how his vision of America and becoming-via-nature throws new light on an old undercurrent. Because underlying all of these works, there is an aesthetic and intellectual dependence on romantic representations of nature and self. This is where the formative creation of American vitalism constitutes itself as a central cultural myth.

At a loss for a clear and precise definition of the political and literary concept of “vitalism,” I turned to the OED for a definition. This is what I found:

The doctrine or theory that the origin and phenomena of life are due to or produced by a vital principle, as distinct from a purely chemical or physical force.

The term originates from the field of biology in the 19th century. The first mention in the English language is 1822. So we can say that this term shares some of these biologically-derived inclinations. That is, a literary conception of the term vitalism has everything to do with a non-atomzed force or principle. It is difficult (or impossible) to determine whether this principle is intrinsic or extrinsic to the vital (living) thing. And so, in a non-biological field, vitalism easily pairs up with Romanticism as an aestheticized, almost free-floating attitude that Emerson’s individual has with “America,” the land and the idea.

In the next blog entry: a discussion of Emerson’s concept of becoming in “The American Scholar” and how that complicates the Romantic landscape of “America.”