The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History
Ever since D. H. Lawrence published his Studies in Classic American Literature in 1922, books on nineteenth-century American literature have been an ambitious form. Two generations of critics have read the classic American texts—Emerson’s essays, Poe’s stories, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick—as if they were a pathologist’s slides revealing a national sickness, and have variously diagnosed them as a regressive yearning for pastoral simplicity, an incapacity for mature sexual relationships, a separation of morals from social manners, etc. Quentin Anderson, a professor of English at Columbia, has drawn on all of these ideas but seems more inspired by Lawrence himself. Lawrence argued that the American consciousness is characterized by its rejection of the European faith in the legitimacy of authority. “Henceforth be masterless” is the message that ought to have been written at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Anderson’s book attacks this anarchical, antinomian strain in the American sensibility and affirms the necessity of fathers and of the law.
In his first chapter, “The Failure of the Fathers,” Anderson argues that in the radically individualistic New England society of the 1830s, which lacked institutions outside the self, Emerson was led to take upon himself the whole burden of self-creation. His consciousness expanded to fill the space once occupied by religious and social authority; he was forced to look to his own imagination for the nourishment provided in Europe by the community. Without sustaining traditions, without the multiplicity of relations which a denser society provided, the individual was driven back upon his own unaided imagination, on which he solely depended.
In this way Emerson became the first “imperial self” in American letters. As he wrote in his Journals: “There is such an immense background to my nature that I must treat my fellows as Empire treats Empire and God God.” The problem, in Anderson’s view, is that Emerson’s egotism, his terrible self-sufficiency, his “hypertrophied consciousness” made him indifferent to the needs of society and the nourishing value of normal social relationships. His intransigent spiritual expansiveness makes him the enemy of what Anderson is speaking for, “the middle ground of work and love where activity is shared.”
Anderson applies this thesis, with some variations, to the religion of consciousness in Whitman and Henry James as well. Cooper, Poe, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain are not discussed. Hawthorne, on the other hand, is given a chapter in which he is exempted from the general indictment; Anderson praises The Scarlet Letter for demonstrating a proper sense of the claims of society and the limits of the imagination. Anderson’s middle-class Hawthorne is much closer to the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding Englishmen of Trollope’s novels than to Kafka and Dostoevsky, writers with whom he is usually linked.
Unfortunately Anderson has been influenced by Lawrence’s style as well as by his ideas. The Imperial Self is an imperial mingling of literary criticism, cultural history, spiritual autobiography, ideological polemic, and sermon. The result is a book as personal, obsessed, tendentious, repetitive,…
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