The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson
Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.
—Alexis de Tocqueville
Probably no impression Tocqueville had during his 1831–1832 tour of the United States was more provocative—or dismaying—than the prospect of a society in which, as he puts it, “every man seeks for his opinions within himself,” and turns “all his feelings…towards himself alone.” But he takes pains, in Democracy in America, to distinguish this “vice” from ordinary selfishness or égoïsme, a passionate and exaggerated love of self that is not characteristic of any particular form of society. Far from being a psychological abnormality, the unusual self-centeredness of Americans is of democratic origin: a calm, mature, socially authorized feeling, and so novel that it has given birth, he writes, to “a novel expression.”
The expression is individualisme, and the fact that Tocqueville required this new word to represent the ways of Americans gives credence to what has been, and probably remains, the most widely accepted theory of “American exceptionalism.”1 According to this view, the absence in the United States of traditional European institutions—monarchy, aristocracy, an established church—made possible the extraordinary degree of individual freedom enjoyed by each (white male) citizen. Later this theory would be invoked to account for the fact that relatively few Americans, in striking contrast to the citizens of other advanced capitalist societies, were drawn to the idea of socialism.2
While the young French aristocrat was touring the States, Emerson was going through the crisis of belief that led him to resign his Unitarian pastorate and to adopt the radically individualistic creed of the God within. But while Tocqueville had introduced “individualism” as a descriptive term for a social actuality, Emerson intended his variant, “self-reliance,” as a spiritual prescription for his politically liberated but religiously and morally conformist countrymen. “Let me admonish you, first of all,” he told his Harvard Divinity School audience in 1838, “to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” He exhorted each American to assert his personal independence as forthrightly as the rebels of 1776 had asserted their collective independence. “In all my lectures,” he wrote in 1840, referring to the influential addresses he had delivered in the aftermath of his conversion to the new faith—“The American Scholar,” the “Address” to the Divinity School, and “Self-Reliance”—“I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man.”
In The American Newness, a graceful, engaging essay based on the Massey Lectures he gave at Harvard last year, Irving Howe takes the distinctiveness of American individualism as an unexamined premise. At the outset he simply asserts that the essence of the national culture—“a thin but strong presence: a mist, a cloud, a climate”—is Emersonian. To capture that essence, first given expression during “the newness” (as Emerson and others referred…
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