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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
In 1971 I published a book called The Imperial Self , in which I undertook to show what extravagant, excessive claims for the powers of the self had been made in our cultural history. Emerson may have been right when he declared that “perception makes,” but he was surely wrong to say that we could undertake to create a world without anybody’s help. Emerson’s notion seems to have been that each of us is a visionary who can command the world without the assistance of others.
It later on seemed to me that I had missed something. I had not accounted for the genesis of such exorbitant claims for the self. The only kind of genesis that I could envision was in the greatest of commonplaces about America. Here, unlike Europe, acquisitiveness had free rein. Indeed, it would be very difficult to imagine how else one might take possession of a continent. We didn’t carry all the fibrous density of European culture across the ocean with us, and what we did carry tended to be subordinate, in Jacksonian America, to the issues of making a living and relating to others through the monetary claims you could make.
In Making Americans you say—the phrase is striking—that Americans are more “alone with money” than any other people.
Than any other people in Western culture, yes. Europe has had a great many institutions, practices, and habits that delayed, if they did not cancel, the extraordinary power that money assumed here. Less cultural variety was present here. It turned out that neither the state we invented nor the religions to which we subscribed could stand up against or qualify the money medium.
Then along came Emerson, who announced, in effect, “My genius cannot be defined simply by my sense of being immersed in a world in which people are getting and spending. I’m Emerson . I go beyond any such social limitation.” That’s one reason, it struck me, why we prize him so much. We hold up Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau as people who seemed successfully to assert that they could make a self without help. This I regard with both admiration and distress because it strikes me as an inadequate way of responding to the loss of the sense that we are social beings. It’s a dead end. Unless you’re an Emerson, unless you’re a Thoreau, unless you’re a Whitman, it doesn’t seem an adequate response. To read them is not to acquire their powers.
You devote half a chapter to the philosopher John Dewey. How is he implicated in individualism as you understand it?
Try looking at Dewey for acknowledgment that there is a going political community, that there is a process of history, that people are in certain ways voices of their time. He seems to have an overriding fantasy that we should become communicators with one another who are not in any way qualified by our history. The interests that actually separate and divide us—race, class, region, age—seem not to exist for him. He suggests that the free intelligence is not bound by personal or actual history.
What of Hawthorne and Melville? How are they to be distinguished from what you call the hopeful trio of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman?
Hawthorne seems to me the clearest case of a man who believed that the self was defined chiefly, if not solely, through relations with other people: your family, your community, the nation itself. For him society was the only seedbed for individual growth.
Melville seems to me an interesting and altogether distinctive case. He feels alone. He feels beset by the world and doesn’t define himself in relation to others. At the same time, when he views society, he thinks chiefly of persons whom he encounters, even if only as threats. You might fall in love and lose a portion of your selfhood in that fashion, or be in danger from arbitrary power, that of a ship’s captain, for example, who can work you all sorts of harm because society has granted him power over you that nobody should have over anybody else. Melville’s sense of how the world might be grasped appears to have been that one might make a supreme assertion, through writing itself. That assertion would protect you from both disproportionate love of others and coercion by others.
There is no event in Whitman. … in which the self grows through its encounters with others.”
Americans, you say early on in Making Americans , produced no Balzac, no Zola. Why? In the nineteenth century other countries produced writers who were at least as attentive to society. Why the American exception?
Because, if my supposition is correct, our immersion in commerce was so much more complete here. There seemed to be no social agency that could effectively contend with what beset many people: a sense that they were being defined wholly by money. Balzac and Zola were in social situations that enabled them to look at the incursion of the profit motive with clearer eyes; they had other values to fall back on. Our being driven to the extreme of saying we can do it all by ourselves, we can make our opposition to the money world total by developing a different kind of self—this crippled us. It got to the point where we couldn’t envision doing anything together with our fellows that would actually change things.