The Hazards Of American Individualism

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Quentin Anderson, Julian Clarence Levy Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Columbia University, argues in his best-known book, The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History , that the writings of three of our most representatively American authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry James, embody a distinctly American grand refusal of history and social roles. Those authors, he says, proposed an alternative way of being, free of the burdens of the past and the constraints of human relationships, a radical conception of the self as unaided and undivided, “imperial” in its ability to absorb all of reality. Andersen’s most recent book, Making Americans: An Essay on Individualism and Money , takes in America’s cultural history from the Jacksonian era to the present and broadens the discussion to include, among others, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, John Dewey, Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, and William Carlos Williams. His thesis in Making Americans is that the godlike powers claimed for the individual by Emerson and his followers, the claim to “possess all in vision,” was an attempt, doomed from the start, to counter the prevailing cultural ethos of unrestricted commercialism. And, Anderson adds, the attempt is still being made to this day. Making Americans represents the culmination of Anderson’s lifelong exploration of the visionary strain in the American identity.

 

Anderson studied at Harvard with Perry Miller, the great intellectual historian of American Puritanism, and at Columbia his teachers—later his colleagues—included such renowned scholars and critics as Mark Van Doren, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling. From 1939 to 1982 he taught Romantic, Victorian, and American literature at Columbia. I spoke with him in the living room of his pleasant book-lined apartment on Morning-side Heights in New York City.

Throughout your career as a critic of classic nineteenth-century American literature you seem to have felt that the work of Emerson and his followers is not only potent and alluring but even dangerous.

Dangerous—and desperate. Emerson, and in their own ways Thoreau and Whitman, felt overwhelmed by the pervasiveness of commerce in their society. The society that had come into being with the “commercial republic,” as James Madison called it in The Federalist Papers , offered the individual American in pursuit of an identity and a settled sense of things little other reassurance than material acquisition. How much you were worth, and how you made your money, defined who you were. Their response was to assert that one’s self contained spiritual resources and could claim spiritual powers far greater than mere moneymaking could ever provide. Their work promises a glorious compensation for the apparent reduction of all pursuits to acquisition, for they assert that the whole world could be viewed as one’s possession.

Now, Emerson’s declaration of independence wasn’t for the nation but for the individuals who composed it. He sought a more inclusive kind of freedom from relations with others than we have been quite ready to admit. After beginning as a minister, he stepped outside the church and he found that the institutions of Massachusetts and the Federal Union also had a constricting effect on his own sense of the world, that they failed to expand his personal freedom. And that, after all, was the only purpose that could justify their very existence. To the thoroughgoing individualist—and Emerson was one—the difference between me and everything else is that “me” includes all the consciousness there is.

To the degree that you become this kind of ample subject, the rest of the world becomes your object: “Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject,” we read in Emerson’s essay “Experience.” Human relations fall away, become ancillary. This makes Emerson appear at once highly appealing to those who are similarly beset and the source of a kind of danger. Look at how in the same essay he speaks of the death of his son. “It does not touch me,” he says, “something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no scar.” The wide claim Emerson is forever making for the self evades or denies the actuality of mother, father, children, wife, and townspeople, and this is a dangerous thing to do; our capacity to feel for one another, our very humanity, is diminished.

Look at how … Emerson speaks of the death of his son: ‘It does not touch me,’ he says.”
 

Is this claim made in any one work, or is it in all of Emerson?

It is diffused throughout. One of the interesting things about reading Emerson and Whitman, and perhaps to a lesser degree Thoreau, is that you never have the sense that you are being given specific proposals. The experience rather resembles swimming in a kind of ambient medium, surrendering to a veritable torrent of rhetoric that promises you dominion over all things.

The remarkable receptiveness of American readers to the visionary satisfactions purveyed by Emerson is not so surprising when we consider that Americans are not so much Emersonians as they are “Jonesians” or “Smithians.” What they like about Emerson is that the weight and the pressure of the culture around them is dispelled.