Ralph Waldo Emerson's transatlantic relations: romanticism and the emergence of a self-reliant American reader
Hicks, Stephanie Marie
This thesis explores three of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal texts, Nature (1836), the “Woodnotes” poems (1840, 1841), and Representative Men (1850), in a transatlantic Romantic context. Augmenting typical transatlantic explorations of Emerson’s literature which often use these three works in demonstration of the various European Romantic assimilations n Emerson’s writing, the texts considered in this study are understood to engage with one British work predominately. Emerson engages antagonistically in the pages of Nature with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection (1825), in the “Woodnotes” poems with William Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814), and in Representative Men with Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). In each instance, Emerson engages with a text that he understands to be particularly representative of the intellectual and creative genius that its British author wields and, as such, one that is anxiety-inducing in the influence that it wields. This thesis demonstrates that, in engaging with these works, Emerson performs with increasing sophistication a process of “‘creative reading,’ that is, an act of reading (influx) through which creation (efflux, expression) is made possible through a transcendence of the past. In doing so, Emerson confronts and attempts to gain independence both from the personal influence that these texts and, more significantly, their authors wield. In engaging in Nature, the “Woodnotes” poems, and Representative Men with Aids to Reflection, The Excursion, and On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History respectively, Emerson assimilates into his works various elements of Coleridge’s, Wordsworth’s, and Carlyle’s thought. Each of the three chapters comprising this thesis explores Emerson’s intellectual indebtedness in this regard and, as such, the explorations incorporate a scholastic focus like that found in the majority of Emersonian transatlantic scholarship. In each instance, however, explorations of Emerson’s works also reveal the American writer’s performance of a liberating act of detachment or departure from the ideas with which he engages. These intellectual detachments distinguish Emerson’s thought from that of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, and are often attended by formal departures from the texts with which Emerson engages. Augmenting typical transatlantic explorations of Emerson’s works, this thesis focuses not only Emerson’s Romantic assimilations, but also on his detachments. Finally, in each instance, Emerson’s confrontations reflect Robert Weisbuch’s assessment in Atlantic Double-Cross (1986) that nineteenth century Anglo-American literary relations are ‘always more than personal and individual’ (21). That is to say, in each instance, Emerson confronts not only Coleridge, Wordsworth’s, and Carlyle’s personal creative and intellectual influence, but their extrapersonal or national influence as British writers. This confrontation of national influence is reflected in the fact that Emerson’s detachments incorporate temporal reimaginings, re-visions of time that nullify the potency of the past and of the influence wielded by tradition by emphasising the present and the future, focusing on the subjective power of the mind. As such, Emerson’s conceptions of time demonstrate a conflation of two specifically American understandings of temporality as defined by Robert Weisbuch – vertical time and futurism – both developed by nineteenth century American writers in order to nullify the influence of Old World, specifically British, tradition, and to establish an account of time in which the United States’ comparative lack of distinct cultural history is excused. In precis, this thesis demonstrates that Nature, the “Woodnotes” poems, and Representative Men issue from Emerson’s creative reading of Aids to Reflection, The Excursion, and On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History respectively. These acts of creative reading demonstrate in each instance the inextricability of Coleridge’s, Wordsworth’s, and Carlyle’s ‘personal’ creative and intellectual influence, as well as their ‘extrapersonal’ or national influence.