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The Hazards Of American Individualism
A distinguished scholar of American literature discusses why, after a career of study and reflection, he believes that Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are bad for you
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
So Emerson, in some sense, lets us all be Emerson?
He gives us an instance of what it is to feel that you can make it alone, that the world need not press on you from all sides in the form of social bonds and possessions.
Would you say that Henry James makes a similar claim?
His works make the claim. The existence of powerful institutions doesn’t seem to affect James’s way of conceiving the situations in his novels. Those situations are rather a matter only of various characters who, as he describes them, are “peculiarly endowed” with consciousness. There are no “reasons of state” confronting those characters, as there are, say, in Stendhal or any number of European writers. James’s characters contend with no dramatic and irremediable facts that arise out of society.
What they are engaged in is an attempt to understand a situation, the world of the novel. That world is limited only by the consciousness that James has brought onstage. It’s not limited by the primal facts of birth, or death, forces that overwhelm the individual, and it always involves just one single situation—not, as in Dostoyevsky, whom Tames deplored, multiple situations, a multitudinous world. In The Ambassadors , for example, it is as if Strether had been sent to France to come to conceive of himself; he wraps his experience of France about him as if it were a set of furnishings for his own consciousness.
Walt Whitman’s claims are no less inclusive?
Up to 1860 Whitman’s poetry is written by a man for whom the world is either completely commanded imaginatively or it is lost, and for the most part his early poems succeed not because they give us a world that we recognize but because they give us a sense of incorporating everything, ” Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse, and stuff’d with the/stuff that is fine,” as he declaims in Song of Myself . With him, we are to think of ourselves as an “acme of things accomplish’d,” an “encloser of things to be.” We are to fear no interposition, no guilt, no loss, no irrevocable human circumstance—simply the possibility of extending our sense of the world into the past and into the future, so that the world becomes our inward possession.
Whitman really offered just one long poem, didn’t he?
To be Whitman is to hold a brimming cup of consciousness at every moment. Curiously enough, whenever he gets to the next edition of his works, what he does is offer his sense of the world at that moment. Earlier Whitmans disappear. There is never any sense that he progresses from one stage to another; rather he makes the assumption that he is playing without intermission, like a fountain.
What do you make of Emerson’s tribute to the first edition of Leaves of Grass , his writing to Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”?
In a sense it’s a wonderful mystery, because Whitman did flout conventions that Emerson tended to respect: announcing that he had a body, for example, or boasting that he encompassed more of past and future than Emerson could assert. Yet the very sense that the author rather than the finished object, the person rather than the product, was what was of importance must have appealed to Emerson. He recognized that quality of his own in Whitman and greeted it.
That quality is, of course, a kind of epitome of making it alone. To see the world as it is at a given moment, and to take it for the entirety of that moment, has very little to do with either history or drama. The danger is that it also has very little to do with the ordinary matter of our everyday lives, the drama of our relationships with others and the events that set our emotional and imaginative scene. There is no event in Whitman. There is no event in Emerson. They do not convey a sense of a movement through time in which the self grows through its encounters with others.
Do you think that Emerson, Whitman, and James have made us what we are?
That question is almost unanswerable. I would propose that what Emerson and Whitman exhibit is a response to the culture in which they found themselves. Since their day the influence of commerce and monetary relationships has steadily spread, has increased exponentially. This raises the question whether the Emersonian response and the Whitman response are something that has its springs in the culture. Is it not, in our day, as well as theirs, a response to the character of the culture in which we live?
Your most recent book, Making Americans , carries the subtitle An Essay on Individualism and Money , and I think you mean individualism in a special sense. Can you explain that?
Individualism was at first purely something to boast about in the United States, a sign of the freedom we had won. Then the boasting began to be qualified by a sense that the most successful were those most merciless at acquiring property. I have come to believe that American individualism is itself, in large part, the result of living in a civic order in which people are chiefly related by monetary concerns.
What led you to single out the importance of money?