THE AMERICAN NEWNESS: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson by Irving Howe

THE AMERICAN NEWNESS: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson

Email this review


An illustrious social critic turns his attention to one of our most influential philosophers--Ralph Waldo Emerson--in this published version of Howe's William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization delivered at Harvard in 1985. ""To confront American culture, ""Howe begins,"" is to feel oneself encircled by a thin but strong presence"" which is the ghost of Emerson. Emerson, who espoused the creed of self-reliance in the mid-19th century, was the propounder of the ""newness"" of the title--a new man, bold with expectations and unhampered by the traditions of Puritanism. This philosophy Howe calls ""the dominant spirit in the national experience,"" which became embedded in the national psyche. Howe follows the three distinct paths trod by Emerson's disciples in American literature. These are, first, the literature of work, which celebrates the satisfactions of craft and the fulfilling qualities of labor, as typified in the writings of Melville, Mark Twain, and Thoreau. Second, there follows the literature of the Edenic fraternity, which, faced with the potential for sham in the American dream, conjures up a ""mythic quest for bliss,"" as exemplified by the literature of Cooper, Whitman, and Twain again. Finally, there is the post-Civil War literature of loss, where virtuous America lies in shambles. Howe's skillful analysis almost ensures self-fulfillment of his statement that ""the newness will come again."" Just as Emerson could not always be protected from his own disciples, the American spirit is never far away from an infusion of Emersonian Élan. Howe roots out the disciples and, in the process, serves as pastor for the propagation of the Emersonian spirit.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1986
Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press