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The Hazards Of American Individualism

June 2024
14min read

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

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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