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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 this connection I would suggest that American liberalism has been crippled by the sense that you couldn’t contend with something that was so all-pervasive. Certainly the many Utopian communal arrangements that sprang up in Emerson’s day proved to be an ineffectual answer to the saturation of our culture by monetary relations.
One thinks of Emerson’s dismissive phrase, which you cite, for the Brook Farm experiment.
Yes, he called it “an age of reason in a patty pan,” affirming his sense that only the individual could contend with the going order.
The title of the first chapter of Making Americans is “Builders of Their Own Worlds.” Your builders are Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. What is “building your own world,” and how is it compatible with the other enterprise, defining an American identity?
The two clearly go together. They wouldn’t be such a presence in twentieth-century consciousness if they didn’t both suggest the power to create—without relying on either religious belief or political conviction—a world that can be brought to heel imaginatively by the individual alone.
So the world becomes an imaginative possession?
Exactly. And this is an attempt at countering real possession, erasing people’s sense that they are in fact defined by the relationships instituted by money.
And that’s why you call Emerson a “visionary capitalist”?
Yes. Some such expression seems required by the personal isolation that Emerson’s view establishes and his sense that an adequate spiritual account will replace the monetary one.
Do you think Emerson and those who took him up were successful?
In one sense they were a resounding success; we have long regarded them as central figures. But did they manage to establish a distinct American identity? No. They clearly had no part in maintaining and strengthening our sense of ourselves as a people engaged in fostering a national life in ways that we share.
In time an Emersonian awareness of the sort of culture we had created gave way before the thundering sense of success that animated our national life from after the Civil War into the 1950s. The Great Depression interrupted this success, yet it acted to preserve our concern with the nation, as did our involvement in the Second World War. The “American Century,” as Henry Luce proclaimed it in 1941, turned out to be very short. By the 1950s we began to lose our sense of having a national existence. The echoes of success in the war died out, and we found ourselves once more in the Emersonian fix. And at just around that time, people like Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets, notably Allen Ginsberg—a group of lesser Emersons—began to announce themselves as feeling completely outside American life.
In the absence of other forces, our world wars seem to have carried out a unifying function. They did give us a sense of national unity. The cost was high, but we did endeavor to do things as a people. Not that that’s a very satisfactory basis for a collective awareness of’national problems.
In the preface to The Imperial Self , you speak of a possibility of a “creeping apocalypse” brought about by people’s urge to withdraw from collective life. Can you talk about that?
I am struck by efforts to change society that have been ineffectual precisely because they were driven by individual emotional needs. For example, the admiration for the Soviet Union on the part of some middle-class Americans in the 1930s and again during and after the war seems to have satisfied those Americans’ personal needs rather than reflected a conviction that an actual revolution must take place in this country. Such fellow-traveling American Stalinism has been supplanted in recent years by what has been called “group thinking.” Having retreated from the idea of a common concern for the national interest, you end up scrapping for the group you happen to belong to, without considering how its goals are related to the future of the country as a whole. The fracture lines often coincide with gender or race.
People who are furthering causes of this sort have lost a conception of a civic order composed of many kinds of people, having many, many interests and suffering in various ways from injustice. They seem unable to appeal to an idea of the country to which they belong and in which they must act if they are to act effectively. Crying out about their own ills or their own situation as victims, they fail to understand that either they must believe in an ongoing political community within which to act or they are actors without a stage or an audience. They are crying out against the wind and the universe.
And this is also a legacy of Emerson?
Well, that seems unfair to Emerson. Emerson is splendid, but he fails as a social model. He didn’t wish to be a participant on the given social scene. Group thinking does involve making a claim on us as social beings without assuming the responsibilities of a citizen. These groups just aggregate individual needs and then say individual needs should prevail over all. But causes alone are not sufficient. There must be a forum before which competing claims can be adjudicated. We need to beware the impulse to assert that any one particular problem is central and that we’d have solved all the other problems if we’d only solved that one.
What do you make of the extent to which intellectual life has increasingly come to be confined to the university?