Commentary Magazine


The Imperial Self, by Quentin Anderson

Starting from Emerson

The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History.
by Quentin Anderson.
Knopf. 274 pp. $7.95.

Quentin Anderson’s “essay in American literary and cultural history,” a superb and outrageous book, sees our current counter-cultural rabblement as having started from Emerson. Emerson, as Anderson knows, directed his ethics of release to the sons and daughters of Boston Unitarianism, a rather different set than the Woodstock Nation. But Anderson’s indictment keeps its force—if Emerson gave us these Holy Rollers, spurious vitalists, academic impostors preaching extravagance; if I owe to him (however remotely) the Rites of Spring as celebrated last year in New Haven, and the year before yet more joyously in Ithaca, then my current devotion to the Great Original of American Romanticism requires immediate reappraisal. I adopt the personal tone in necessary tribute to Anderson’s intensely personal book, whose largest virtue is that it does not allow deadness of response.

Though Anderson is a little reluctant to admit too large a definition of Emersonianism, a study of poetic influence (in its true sense of the malforming of ancestors by anxious descendants) reveals not much in post-Emersonian American poetry, or even imaginative writing generally, that does not flow from our archetypal rhapsode. Put together almost any list of our writers of the last hundred and twenty-five years, and you will find that they have one common antithetical father: Emerson. Allen Ginsberg is not a poet who benefits much by being read a half-hour after reading Wallace Stevens, but an informed, useful critic of either will find himself going back to Emerson, either directly or by way of Whitman. I don’t think of Robinson Jeffers and of Hart Crane as moving many of the same readers, but they both paraphrase Emerson, almost obsessively. Anderson’s realization that he owes Norman O. Brown to Emerson is perfectly valid, but a larger obligation exists between Anderson and Emerson, which he is more reluctant to see. Norman Mailer is a varicose version of Emerson, yet E. A. Robinson and Robert Frost are at least as authentic in their descent. I am wary, always, of describing Emerson as being this or being that, a wariness that I derive partly from the elder Henry James with his heart’s cry against Emerson: “O you man without a handle!” Anderson, a deep student of the elder James, chooses to forsake his wariness, and describes for us a marvelously dangerous Emerson, who existed and will always exist, but never apart from a half dozen other selves clustered in the sage.

Anderson’s argument, developed with considerable moral fervor, is that the early Emerson, the crucial Whitman (of the 1856 Leaves of Grass), and Henry James in his major phase (The Golden Bowl particularly) were all imperialists of the self, prophets of “incorporation,” who ingested the world and other selves, until a single consciousness held for each of them all of the ideal. To Anderson, these artists murdered time and destroyed all possibility of a shared communal hope. If Anderson is wholly accurate, compellingly just, then indeed Emerson, Whitman, and James are the precursors of the bardic Ginsberg for whom life is a “harmless emptiness,” of Brown for whom “thought is genital and bad,” of all our contemporaries who would abolish our sense of history in the name of an infantile god-hood, supposedly now waking in the self. Anderson boldly offers himself as a restorer of continuities, an affirmer of historicized understanding, and implicitly even as a prophet who will return criticism to a healthy concern with otherness. Should he fail, we will be left with what he tells us is the vision of Norman Mailer, “that genitality has been assimilated to the impulse to kill.” The moral burden of Anderson’s stance is condensed by him into one particularly stern sentence: “If incorporation begets nothing and genitality is indeed isolate, our image is of an insular Tahiti of orality and the penis transformed into a weapon—both encroach further on the middle ground of work and love where activity is shared.”

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Many readers, myself included, must find themselves responding by honoring Anderson’s purposes but rejecting his critical accounts of Emerson, Whitman, and James. This, clearly, is not what Anderson would desire, for he insists that his moral fervor flowers from his critical perceptions, though clearly enough his prophetic passion wholly determines what he allows himself to see in his authors. Engaged in a continuous polemic against formalist criticism, he permits himself procedures that strikingly confirm the perpetual relevance of some formalist safeguards to all readers of literature. Yet his humanizing protests against the New Criticism are deeply moving, and his insistence that a full reading of the earlier Emerson and of Whitman would appall most of us is undoubtedly healthy. As a moral critic, Anderson finds unbearable the moral laziness that will not realize “the cost and the glory of being enough for oneself, of living in the momentaneous, of living in the body conceived and felt as the sufficient paradigm of existence.” I find myself murmuring respectful assent, but wanting to point to the texts of Emerson and Whitman, to show that they knew well the cost and the sorrow of such equivocal glory. Anderson has a genius for selectivity; his true “Emerson” lives in a literal handful of apocalyptic passages, his “Whitman” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” his “James” in three paragraphs of climax of The Golden Bowl.

Emerson’s Orphic Poet, in the exalted conclusion of Nature, chants that “Man is the dwarf of himself,” and the early Emerson as frequently tells us that man is a dwarf of disintegration as he more hopefully calls man a god in ruins. Emerson, as Anderson wants not to see, is a dialectician of the spirit. It is Anderson who is a literalist of the Emersonian imagination, and not Emerson, who called himself a seer of unity but cheerfully enough realized he mostly beheld diversity, particulars never to be subdued, a Sphinx not to be solved. Transcendent faith came, even to Emerson, in sudden starts, but “our vice is habitual,” and a deep skepticism is the countersong running through all his work, even the earliest. Anderson’s “Emerson” is the American Nietzsche of some passages in Nature and a few other essays. Emily Dickinson’s Emerson, the author of Circles, tells us there is “no circumference to us” and a page later laments: “Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” Whitman is as much the disciple of the Emersonian ebb as the Emersonian flow, despite Anderson’s dismissal of Whitman’s own skepticism. Even “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in which Anderson sees Whitman as climbing the shaman’s tent-pole, is replete with the bafflement and sorrow of a ruined quester, a relic of the afflatus, and not its demigod. I am not a constant reader of The Golden Bowl, and admire it rather less than Anderson does, but even I must doubt that the novel ends in a vision of the “androgynous divine man.”

I question the value of Anderson’s book as practical criticism, yet my skepticism does not lessen the book’s strength for me. Anderson sees only what he needs to see, but that is the glory and the sorrow of American Romantic tradition, by which Anderson is chosen, despite his yearnings for another way of seeing and making. The Imperial Self is another Emersonian manifesto, a passionate teacher’s Song of Myself, that bravely sets itself against the grain. Anderson writes a prose-poem of self-purgation, to free himself from what seems his own inescapable Emersonianism. His horror of solipsistic self-absorption is so moving because his sympathy is deep with our contemporary bearers and victims of the antinomian impulse. I surmise, from his book, that he is by temperament a Romantic vitalist, dismayed by the parodies of his own passions that he confronts on every side. His book is a testament to his gifts in our bad time, but he is self-deceived when he concludes by saying that “I have only reported what has been imagined,” or else there is unintentional irony in his phrasing. Starting from Emerson, we got to where we are, but the start was much more dialectical and larger in wisdom than Anderson gives us to imagine.

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