Commentary Magazine

The Transcendentalists, by Perry Miller

The American Citizen-Intellectual
The Transcendentalists.
Edited by Perry Miller.
Harvard University Press. 521 pp. $6.50.


Is there a dominant style of “Man Thinking” in America which organizes thought and character, art and popular taste, prophecy and history into a meaningful union? To its interpreters, America has always appeared a sort of open-air laboratory, a collective demonstration of grand designs. So The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England unfolds the 17th century; and, with Tocqueville, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon Louis Parrington, other, more secular patterns fall into place. Always there is the historian turning a relentless unifying instinct upon the materials of American thought and culture, leaving a record of exemplars, types, case histories—and not very much of the individual man thinking.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) and Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1926) formulate what are still, among historians, the key positions for the work of unifying the American mind. (Turner’s “frontier thesis” lies within the scope of Tocqueville’s general approach. Moreover, his many students have not chosen to follow through his leads for intellectual history.) Tocqueville devises a systematic and subtle sociology of democracy in America: his portraits of the lawyer, the philosopher, the journalist, the “public,” are units, alive with bright insights but still units, in a uniform demonstration of the effects of a democratic social condition upon the intellectual process. Rarely is a name named; date and place—America: 1830’s—only admit the contingencies that feed the general laws.

The American scholar of 1830 (in Emerson’s broad sense of the term) was typically a citizen-intellectual, and thus a fit subject for study as a reacting social agent. Nor did the land teem with intellectual sports and monsters, whose genius would be wasted in the reduction to uniformity. Over the course of American history, both these conditions have remained in force sufficiently to warrant Tocqueville’s method as one of our models of interpretation. So the failure of American historians to develop a respectable literature along Tocqueville’s line cannot, I judge, be put to any delicacy of taste which rebels at sociologizing over intellectual matters. Tocqueville has been echoed countless times, but generally at random, piecemeal, in a monotone. The damnable perspicacity of the young Frenchman a century ago has appropriated too much of what we wanted to say. Later endeavors have the air of intelligent and unprovocative chat about long familiar, long settled matters. It is not, then, Tocqueville’s method, but his particular triumph of method over data, that has so far defied imitation.



Vernon Louis Parrington is still another brand of unifier. His Main Currents in American Thought has been ranked as one of the marvels of modern synthetic scholarship and his disciples turn up on every new book list of American history. Master and students alike would appear intent upon persuading the present generation that American thought has been essentially a succession of polemical encounters over the conduct of public affairs, and that its study is a preface to good citizenship.

This is not Tocqueville’s way of searching out explanations of a uniform social process. It is, rather, a kind of history that arranges the past in a pageant of liberal-democratic genealogy, a procession of great spokesmen fixed in traditional formation for a frontal engagement with the doubters and nay-sayers. As a result, the mind of Jefferson, archetype of the political intellectual, has almost disappeared under the ministrations of Parrington’s modern historical friends. When Daniel Boorstin’s The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson appeared not long ago, “Jefferson scholars” nodded in qualified approval, quite unaware that their heads had been cut off.



Professor Perry Miller of Harvard has been breasting the Tocqueville stream and the Main Currents for many years now, and has made a distinguished—and distinctive—career of writing American intellectual history (his specialty is the Puritans) in terms of its native subject matter: ideas. His most recent book is a history-by-anthology of Transcendentalism, almost rashly unique in its attempt to build an interpretation with no appreciable representation of Emerson. (This is not a matter of principle with the editor; Emerson, he felt, was readily available to the general reader, the others were not.) The anthology does its historical job effectively, constructing the movement that refused to be a movement out of its Unitarian origins; structuring its array of central intellectual commitments at the moment of greatest unity; drawing it slowly apart again, under the stress of its schism. Transcendentalism is rescued from the blanketing mists of “Mid-Century Reform Movements”—the characteristic historical treatment—and restored as a religious persuasion intent upon such serious business as the refutation of Lockean psychology and the Unitarian doctrine of miracles.

Yet all of this is more in praise of the book Miller might have written from his sources than the present anthology. With Emerson and Thoreau out of sight, Transcendentalism loses much of its stature. Editorially clipped to their doctrinal essentials, the documents are mostly of a plodding sort, poor in imagination and style and philosophic resourcefulness. Emerson said of Theodore Parker: “He was no artist. . . . What he said was mere fact, almost offended you, so bald and detached; little cared he.” With the change of a few terms, this would fit many of the selections. Emerson goes on to celebrate Parker’s character; there was force and beauty in the man which was not in the prose, viewed as literature or theology. This too characterizes much of Transcendentalism: that the works come alive only as they are rooted in their authors.

Some of the editor’s notes are more rewarding than the accompanying texts, precisely because they suggest the revealing intersections of character, doctrine, and history. An exposition of the editorial design that is implicit in the choice and arrangement of documents and in the notes would make a book well worth having. The other kind of book has already been done in part by the late F. O. Matthiessen, whose intensive textual study of Emerson and Thoreau (in American Renaissance) seizes more of the nature and meaning of Transcendentalism than will, I suspect, the most scrupulously inclusive history of the movement.



Obviously, an approach such as Miller’s to intellectual history, which honors the idea and the mind as objects worthy of study in themselves, requires a certain intellectual density and dignity on the part of the material under study, which the documents in this anthology rarely possess. Some of the sources assembled by Miller even talk back rather curiously to their editor and the school of intellectual history that he represents. I refer to the selections, heavily underscored by Miller, from Orestes Brownson, supplemented by George Bancroft, which give a quite novel version of the practical consequences following from Transcendentalist premises, particularly concerning the office of the scholar.

It has been customary to regard the Transcendentalist prescription for the intellectual as something in the Emerson vein, echoed here in the selection from the philosopher Frederick Henry Hedge: “What other reformers are to the moral culture, he must be to the mind of his age. . . . He must be a radical in speculation, an ascetic in devotion, a Cynic in independence, an anchorite in his habits, a perfectionist in discipline. Secluded from without, and nourished from within, self-sustained and self-sufficing, careless of praise or blame, intent always On the highest, he must rebuke the superficial attainments, the hollow pretensions, the feeble efforts, and trivial productions of his contemporaries,. . .”

The opposite possibility has remained unexplored—that the Transcendentalist philosophy, positing in every man the faculty for spontaneous intuition of truth, would issue in a value-system making Everyman, collectively, the arbiter of philosophy, art, and politics; in Bancroft’s words: “The common judgment in politics, morals, character, and taste is the highest authority on earth, and the nearest possible approach to an infallible decision.” This is at war not only with Emerson, but with Jefferson and what had previously been the democratic philosophy in America. The mass had not before been turned loose without the tight guidance of an aristocracy of reason and a constitutional order. Brownson, for whom there has been a certain forced vogue as anticipator of the Marxist analysis of class, turns out—in those selections at least—to be the chief figure in the Americanization of “the general will.” The omnipotence of public opinion so disastrously embedded in the Jacksonian America of Tocqueville’s description—but rejected even in the major Jacksonian statements of principles, for the spokesmen remained obedient to Jefferson—becomes here the legitimate authority for the American scholar. The intellectual must not be a solitary soul, he must enter a total engagement with the mass, “must have like passions with them; feel as they feel; crave what they crave; and resolve what they resolve. He must be their representative, their impersonation. . . .”



This popularity principle leaves Brownson defenseless against his own fate, for in his time his Transcendentalist voice was attended to only in a few choice New England households, his organ was very much a little magazine, and his principles, insofar as they went beyond the Democratic party platform, led him well outside the Main Currents of mid-19th-century America. (Even in politics, Brownson was not above fabricating his rapport with the masses. As Joseph Dorfman describes it, Brownson just prior to the election of 1840 got up a “temporary creation” called the Workingmen’s Association of Charlestown, Massachusetts, and prepared in its name an address to other workingmen for support of the Democrats. In his Boston Quarterly Review, Brownson reprinted the address, without mention of its authorship, as an interesting and promising sign of workingmen’s sentiment.)

For the intellectual historian in search of a method, Brownson makes the worst of several systems. Parringtop’s concern to exalt the politically correct is superimposed upon Tocqueville’s search for the dominant mode; and history or critical judgment must be distorted to maintain the fusion. The lesson of this may carry over to the historian as intellectual and democrat, with the hint that he hold the two elements apart not as a matter of expediency but of necessary principle.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.