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A Visit to Mr. America

The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson

by Irving Howe
Harvard University Press, 99 pp., $12.50

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 to the expansionary, exuberant spirit of the American 1830s and 1840s), Howe raises such questions as: “What were they up to, Emerson and his disciples?” and, “What can they still mean to us?” Coming from Howe, a staunch socialist, editor of Dissent, and lifelong member of the anticommunist left, these questions have an obvious political timeliness. They point to the sauve-qui-peut moral climate of the Reagan era and, more specifically, to the refurbished laissez-faire economic creed; the cult of the inspired entrepreneur; the sorry, demoralized state of the left; and—a less conspicuous sign of the times—the Emerson revival now under way in the American academy.

During the last twenty years,” Harold Bloom announced in these pages not long ago, “Emerson has returned, burying his undertakers.” 3 He means that Emerson now has recovered from the disfavor into which he had fallen with American literary intellectuals between, roughly, 1915 and 1965, the heyday, successively, of aesthetic modernism and the academic new criticism. To Bloom the current revival is a significant turning point in our cultural history, and by way of explanation he notes that it began just as “the Age of Eliot” waned. He credits T.S. Eliot, avatar of the new criticism and unabashed exponent of cultural hierarchy, with having inspired the almost successful effort (joined by such other antiromantic critics as Yvor Winters and Allen Tate) to bury the sage of Concord. By the early 1960s Emerson’s influence had reached its nadir. Since then, however, a number of gifted scholars, among them a few eccentric philosophers and political theorists as well as literary historians and critics, have rediscovered the power and the pertinence of Emerson’s radical individualism.4

But it should be said that the Emerson now being revived is not that remote Victorian essayist and poet (1803–1882) who has long occupied a central place in the history of American arts and letters; nor is he the Yankee religionist without a church who was read by undergraduates in American literature courses, the secular theist whose devoted followers included Thoreau and Whitman, who provoked the strong contrapuntal responses of Hawthorne and Melville, and whose ideas helped to shape the work of Emily Dickinson, Henry and William James, John Dewey, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Charles Ives. That Emerson, the historical figure whose importance is measured largely by the influence he exerted upon other writers and artists, cannot be said to have “returned,” for he never departed—never was displaced from the anthologies or university courses. No, the Emerson whose resurrection Bloom asks us to celebrate is our virtual contemporary, a skeptical theorist of culture whose apotheosis of the individual will-to-power so impressed Nietzsche, and who once again is, or soon will become, as active a presence in our cultural life as the original Ralph Waldo Emerson was until about 1915. “I prophesy,” Bloom declares in the revival’s unofficial manifesto,

that…[Emerson], rather than Marx or Heidegger, will be the guiding spirit of our imaginative literature and our criticism for some time to come…. Individualism, whatever damages its American ruggedness continues to inflict on our politics and social economy, is more than ever the only hope for our imaginative lives.

That Howe does not share Bloom’s conception of our “only hope” is not surprising. In twentieth-century America, “individualism” has been an almost exclusively conservative rallying cry, and adherents of the left habitually have dismissed the idea with an adjective, as in “bourgeois individualism.” This device, meant to imply that individualism is only a euphemism for class privilege, has been a standard feature of socialist rhetoric for a long time. “You must, therefore, confess,” wrote Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, “that by ‘individual’ you mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property.” But Howe, breaking with that tradition, asks whether individualism is indeed incompatible with the ideals of the left. “A central difficulty in Emersonian thought,” he writes, “…[is] the tendency toward a tragic sundering between democratic sentiment and individualist aggrandizement.”

The American Newness is about Howe’s effort to overcome that difficulty, and in the process he canvasses just about every conceivable objection to Emersonianism. He deftly notes the idiosyncratic, even deformed aspect it has been given by some of Emerson’s most devoted disciples—by Thoreau, for example, “who drives to an extreme a version of individualism that…later…would lend itself to conservative bullying and radical posturing”; or by Whitman, the “new world flaneur” who finally leaves behind, “as any New Yorker would have to, Emerson’s cool sense of separateness.” He considers the objections both of writers who were responding directly to Emerson, like Hawthorne and Melville, and of others, among them F.H. Bradley, Karl Marx, and J.G.A Pocock, who were not. He observes that certain strong yet distinct arguments against individualism, like those of Bradley, the philosophic idealist, and Marx, the materialist, lead to much the same conclusion. Bradley unequivocally asserts that “the ‘individual’ apart from the community is an abstraction,” that there is no such thing as a self-contained consciousness, and Marx curtly dismisses the bourgeois idea of the individual as a product of nature—rather than of history—as an “illusion…characteristic of every new epoch.”

Although Howe treats many of these arguments with respect, he never gets around to incorporating them in a summary assessment of his own. When he does pose the issues in his own voice, moreover, he is strangely diffident. “Is there not something unsatisfying,” he asks, “in that view of human experience which proposes an all-but-absolute self-sufficiency of each individual and makes ‘self-reliance’ the primary value? Something deeply impoverishing in the linked view that contents itself with individualism as ideology?” Well, yes, one wants to reply, there is, but isn’t there something oddly conceding about this way of casting the question? Something dangerously subjective, not to say individualistic, about the very notion of judging a “view of human experience” according to the degree of satisfaction or enrichment it affords those who hold it? Doesn’t this criterion encourage the “downright selfishness” Tocqueville predicted? Mustn’t the adequacy of any large view of life be tested, finally, by its capacity to convey truths about the world?

Although Howe does not join Bloom in accepting Emerson as a spiritual guide, his intermittently acquiescent tone suggests that he may be closer to doing so than he admits. We can be sure, in any event, that he now is much closer than he once was. At one time, he tells us in his 1982 intellectual autobiography, A Margin of Hope, he thought of Emerson’s philosophy as “pale, disabling, genteel, an individualism of vaporous spirituality.” Like most of the other “New York intellectuals,” Howe then regarded the classic American writers, especially Emerson and Thoreau, as “deficient in those historical entanglements that seemed essential to literature because inescapable in life.” Exactly when he recanted is not clear, but: “Now,” he says, “I know better, or think I do.” He revised his opinion because of his realization that almost every “major American writer bears the stamp of Emerson. To evade Emerson was to evade both America and its literature.”

Yet even before that change of heart, Howe seems to have been attracted to the Emersonian ideal of the critic’s vocation. One of the leitmotifs of A Margin of Hope is his admiration for Edmund Wilson, whom he first read when he was sixteen, and whom he avowedly took as his intellectual model. What elicited his admiration was Wilson’s moral gravity, the breadth of his interests, his lucidity, and his disdain for academicism—especially the preoccupation of academic critics with methodological apparatus. Howe, who has been a member of university faculties during most of his professional life, does not conceal his envy of Wilson’s success in avoiding university jobs. The truth is that Wilson, perhaps more than any American writer since Emerson himself, embodied the qualities of the self-sufficient critic of culture Emerson described in “The American Scholar.” The undefined and largely unacknowledged attraction to Emersonian ideas that makes itself felt in The American Newness becomes more understandable once we recognize that Emerson’s exemplary “scholar”—the independent, unaffiliated, all-around man of letters—is precisely the kind of writer Howe always wanted to be.

What is lacking in Howe’s book is a sense of Emerson’s power. Except for the abstract argument about his Americanness, Howe never really accounts for Emerson’s astonishing capacity to seize the imagination of other writers and artists. It would have been useful had Howe noticed that Emerson begins his central essay, “Self-Reliance,” with an aesthetic distinction: “I read the other day some verses by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional,” and that the main argument is composed of repeated unfurlings of that same distinction. Step by step the argument takes on moral, social, political meanings, and in the end it comes to seem an all-encompassing view of life. “Originality” for Emerson is what distinguishes the spirit from the form, protestantism from Christian orthodoxy, a democratic from a hierarchical social order, the New World from the Old, and indeed all fresh intuitions from derivative tuitions.

The appeal of Emerson’s doctrine to artists and intellectuals derives in large measure from the identification of creativity with “self-reliance.” To do original work of any kind, he argues, it is first necessary to clear a channel to the aboriginal self. Because of our craven conformity, however, the channel usually is clogged with cultural detritus: moribund forms, received opinions, stock responses, clichés, in short, all conventionalities. The universal antidote is to believe that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” However imperfect this doctrine may be as a general philosophy, it is hard to imagine a more tonic formula to offer aspiring writers, artists, theoretical scientists, philosophers, intellectuals—anyone indeed whose work depends on original insights.

Most people do not do that kind of work, however, and Emerson’s radical individualism is more credible as a credo for intellectuals than as a general social philosophy. This point Howe only acknowledges indirectly, in his survey of objections to Emerson’s social views. Of these objections, the most persuasive, I think, is directed against Emerson’s tacit assumption that society consists of little more than the sum of individual wills. As early as 1840, Orestes Brownson, the New England writer and sometime transcendentalist, exposed the unreality of this conception with its quietistic belief in “self-culture,” or the alteration of the individual consciousness, as the most effective way to accomplish fundamental changes in society. In his incisive polemic, “The Laboring Classes,” Brownson observed that evils like poverty are “not merely individual in character,” but are “inherent in all our social arrangements, and cannot be cured without a radical change of those arrangements.” Hence the fundamental difference between religionists who want a change of heart and radical democrats whose primary goal is to change class relations and institutions. This is a telling—to my mind incontrovertible—argument against individualism as a theory of political practice.

But Howe dismisses Brownson’s argument, on the ground that nowadays we are “inclined to reject a simple dichotomy between social transformation and individual regeneration” in favor of the Gramscian sense of their interdependence. I think this is beside the point, because Brownson does not insist upon that dichotomy; he merely states that a change in the consciousness of individuals, however desirable, cannot possibly transform society unless it accompanies a concerted effort to change social arrangements. Neither Brownson nor Gramsci was so foolish as to believe that a program of fundamental social reform can be effected without changing the minds of a good many people. But Howe fails to distinguish between that prerequisite for social change and the belief in the regeneration of individuals as a sufficient means of transforming society.

This question—whether to concentrate on changing hearts or structures of power—has continued to be a vexing one for the American left. During the 1960s it was a major issue between the New and the Old Left, and, within the New Left, between the advocates of “cultural” and “political” rebellion. At the time Howe, standing firm on Old Left principles of organization, rationality, and ideological consistency, was an outspoken opponent of rebellious students and the counter-culture. But he also has changed his mind on this issue. Now, he writes in A Margin of Hope, he is more willing to “recognize what might be genuinely revolutionary in that strand of Emerson’s thought which placed a central value on a shared vision of personal autonomy.” This change helps to explain why, in his discussion of Brownson, as elsewhere in The American Newness, he pulls back just as he seems on the verge of acknowledging the need to choose between an absolute individualism and the democratic politics to which he has been committed all of his life.

Here the contrast with Harold Bloom, who exhibits no such reluctance, is illuminating. “Emerson,” Bloom writes, “is more than prepared to give up on the great masses that constitute humankind. His hope…is that a small community of the spirit can come into existence.” This is Howe’s rejoinder:

Now it is true you can find almost anything you want in Emerson’s writings, and by, say, the 1850s he might have been ready to settle for a “small community of the spirit.” Every democratic idealist, his goal not yet reached, must at times settle provisionally for something like that. But no democrat can give up “on the great masses” and remain a democrat.

This last assertion is the firmest political judgment Howe makes in The American Newness, the one place where he draws the line beyond which an adherent of the left cannot go in the direction of Emersonianism. One wishes he had brought a similar firmness to his overall analysis of that philosophy. In the event, however, he fails to distinguish between Emerson as a guide to an intellectual vocation and to a politics, and he ultimately adopts a position of considered ambivalence. “The experience of our century,” he writes, “both underscores the inadequacies of an absolutist individualism and the dangers of too sweeping an attack upon it.”

One explanation for Howe’s inconclusiveness is his own largely unacknowledged attraction to Emersonianism; a hint of another may be heard in the melancholy note he sounds in his rejoinder to Bloom. It is the lament of the “democratic idealist” compelled to settle for something like “a small community of the spirit,” and it finally becomes the dominant emotional tone of The American Newness. We first hear it as the undertone of Howe’s sardonic repudiation of Emerson’s comforting belief in a universal principle of “compensation.” To Emerson’s notion that there “is always some levelling circumstance that puts down the overbearing, the strong, the rich, the fortunate, substantially on the same ground with others,” Howe replies:

Perhaps death does that; but short of death, what could Emerson have meant? As one who has spent a good part of his life looking for the “levelling circumstance” of which Emerson speaks, I can only report that thus far it has steadily eluded me.

Later, in a moving account of the end of “the newness,” Howe underlines the theme of private disillusionment. In the decades of the 1830s and 1840s it was possible, he says, for otherwise sober people to believe that postrevolutionary America had disentangled itself from historical conditions; but then, as the slavery crisis deepened and “the country shuddered with foreknowledge,” that optimism was abruptly dispelled. Howe pinpoints the change “in 1851, when Emerson, raging against the Fugitive Slave Law, finds it intolerable that ‘this filthy enactment was made in the 19th century by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God.’ ”

Howe connects Emerson’s sense of the impinging tyranny of circumstances to the marked shift in tone of the two powerful, Nietzsche-like essays, “Experience” and “Fate,” which figure prominently in the current Emerson revival. In them we encounter an Emerson who no longer is the hopeful democratic idealist; he is a man “encoiled,” twisting and turning at one moment, locked in a prison of glass at another. He prods and pricks himself. “Life is a bubble and a skepticism,” he writes, “and a sleep within a sleep.” It is as if, Howe says, Emerson had discovered in himself “the spiritual tokens of a nihilism that lurks at the bottom of everything.”

It is all astonishing, terrible, heartbreaking. Whoever has known the collapse of a large ideal will share Emerson’s pain.

This is the most affecting—the climactic—moment in The American Newness. It expresses the pathos of the American left in the Reagan age. It brings to mind Howe’s account of his own enervating service to the idea of socialism—the dreary meetings and sectarian squabbles and esoteric language—and it becomes apparent that his diffidence in criticizing individualism is in large part owing to a loss of confidence in the future of the left in America. The unspoken question that informs Howe’s new-found respect for Emersonianism is one that he raised toward the end of his cool, unillusioned study, Socialism and America (1985):

Does the socialist idea, even if rendered more sophisticated than it was in the past, still survive as a significant option? Has it outlived its historical moment? …Nowhere on the globe can one point to a free, developed socialist society. The proclaimed goal has not been reached, and as I write it does not seem close. Socialism has been shaken by failures, torn by doubts. Its language and symbols have been appropriated by parodic totalitarianism, and from this trauma we have still to recover…. Whether socialism can be revived as a living idea—which is something different from the mere survival of European social-democratic parties as established institutions—is by now very much a question.

If, as I believe, there is a muddle at the center of The American Newness, then it is—foolish as it sounds—a useful, which is to say a revealing, muddle. Like today’s vigorous Emerson revival, it should help to remind the intellectual left in this country of the need to come to terms with the individualism of Americans. This means taking account of several implications of Howe’s admirably unguarded meditation, beginning with the obvious fact that individualism is not one thing, but many, and that in addition to distinguishing among its various forms we must decide which are reconcilable with a further extension of democracy, whether socialist or otherwise, and which are not.

Letters

Emerson and Socialism: An Exchange May 28, 1987

  1. 1

    The word’s appearance in La Démocratie en Amérique, Vol. II (book 2, ch. 2) is one of the first in any language, and the translation is one of the first significant appearances in English.

  2. 2

    Like other plausible versions of exceptionalism, this one is a hypothesis about national distinctiveness, not uniqueness; Tocqueville did not claim that the political culture of the United States was uniquely conducive to individualism, only that it was more conducive than that of any other Western nation.

  3. 3

    Mr. America,” The New York Review (November 22, 1984).

  4. 4

    In addition to Harold Bloom, the participants in the revival include Jonathan Bishop, Stanley Cavell, James Cox, William Gass, George Kateb, Barbara Packer, Joel Porte, and Richard Poirier. By “eccentric” I mean only that the work of many of these scholars is not typical of work being done nowadays in their respective fields.

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