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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
It has gotten to seem natural, hasn’t it, that questions of national importance are dealt with by people who are university-trained, accredited “experts” all? The idea that one might be an independent writer and thinker like, say, Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling seems to have largely faded. I lament the loss of people who wrote as independent voices. The irony is that the institution to which the mind has fled, so to speak, has now proved itself unable to sustain intellectual freedom. American universities have fallen victim to various kinds of rather abstract intellectual politics.
You say at one point in Making Americans that we all, to one degree or another, participate in the individualism that you have described. How would you say that you yourself have participated in it?
Well, when I look back at whatever I have done in the past that had ostensible political meaning, I find I am not proud of my capacity to act as a citizen. When I consider how I’ve addressed some of the most important questions we face—for example, our relation to the state and our responsibilities as citizens—I don’t think I have left a record I can take pride in. I was once a fellow traveler, caught in the notion that the American Communist party, which I never dreamed of joining, might be proposing measures that would improve society. Then I discovered that they were exploiting a local issue that concerned me, and that they had no interest in seeing the injustice corrected. Thereupon I withdrew my support. I realized later that what I had chiefly resented was that I had felt I was being manipulated.
What lesson do you think Emerson and his mid-nineteenth-century followers hold for us now, in the final decade of the twentieth century?
I’ve often put it in the past that we should cherish Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau precisely because they illustrate both the powers and the limitations of the concept that we have enough of a view as individuals to define ourselves without reference to our own history or our country’s history. Their example seems to me to be priceless. It shows that radical individualism is a dead end and that a respect for history and for one’s own history of the self is the first step to take if you want to back out of that dead end. We cannot free ourselves from our immersion, our membership, in a species that is capable of both glorious and terrible things.