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« James and Hawthorne | Main | Hawthorne Among the Shakers »
Wednesday
Sep122012

Hawthorne and the Transcendentalists

Ralph Waldo EmerconIf Transcendentalism was the intellectual air of antebellum New England, Hawthorne was a fish.

Spear-headed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalism exploded onto the scene in 1836 with the publication of his now-famous essay "Nature" as well as his speech "The American Scholar" in 1837 before Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Club. In that latter, Emerson lays out his mystical, consciously radical, post-Christian philosophy: we are all parts of some greater creature called humanity, "as the hand is divided into fingers." As such, the "Man Thinking"--Emerson's term for the regenerated soul--must not be bound by traditions or the past but must strive every day to see the world in its whole complexity. And in so doing, he will reinvent the world. "If a single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him."

The main point in all that, besides the fact that it's audacious? It's also achievable.

At first spurned by New England clergy, Transcendentalists soon took over Quaker meeting houses, Unitarian assemblies, and eventually even some Congregational churches. They looked to nature as not just a blueprint of God's creative activity but as the very essence of God; not an expression of the divine, but the divine itself.

A painting of Margaret FullerThe Transcendentalists had a club newspaper, as it were: "The Dial," edited for two years by Margaret Fuller, by all accounts one of the most well-read people in all of nineteenth-century America. She was a foreboding figure, given to swift, merciless judgments, but also interested in mesmerism and the other occult fancies of the day.

Hawthorne wanted to write for her. He was repeatedly offered introductions among the Boston literary set. And he balked again and again. When he was at Brook Farm, there was a milk cow named "Margaret Fuller." Some have stated Hawthorne had a hand in that naming. If so, it provides a clue into his own twisted psyche.

Indeed, the Transcendentalists were themselves given to table-knocking, seances, and other expressions of spiritualism. If the world was God, then you might as well try to permeate the (false) boundary between the spiritual and the physical.

 

Bronson AlcottTheir likes included Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (Hawthorne's sister-in-law), and George Ripley, the founder of Brook Farm, the socialist community on which Blithedale is based.

They were a cheery lot, convinced the world's wrong could be righted, convinced that "right-seeing" would redeem humankind. They were abolitionists almost to a person. They were optimists of the highest order. "I would study, I would know, I would admire forever," Emerson said in his 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School.

Hawthorne was a pessimist. If not an outright cynic. He believed that nothing--not moneyed interests, not traditions, not social institutions, not government--should count more than an individual's experience. So much, so good, as far as the Transcendentalists were concerned. But Hawthorne also didn't for a moment think that people were basically good in nature. For him, sin was a requirement for consciousness.

By contrast, Emerson believed that if you stood long enough in a pure natural setting, your own self would fall away and you would become one with the cosmos, with God. As he wrote in "Nature," "In the woods, we return to reason and faith. . . . Standing on the bare ground--my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."

Wow. Hawthorne, however, wanted to be among the Transcendentalists without being of them. He wanted go buy shares in Brook Farm. He wanted to publish in "The Dial." But he also couldn't bring himself to go the whole distance. Check out this quote from THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE in chapter 8 when Coverdale is out working the fields: "The clods of the earth, which we so constantly belabored and turned over and over, were never etherealized into thought. Our thoughts, on the contrary, kept becoming cloddish."

So much for Emerson and his lot.

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