American worlds since Emerson by David Marr

By David Marr

Strains the enormous effect of Emerson on American literary and political notion

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Melville 1964, 507) The first law in effect says that (1) a thing belongs to you if in some way you control it or are attached to it and that (2) the "party fast to it" is the party fastest in getting to it. In other words, there is nothing in the world that is not either your property already or potentially your property. By the same token, there is nothing in experience, not excluding anything which you claim as yours, that is not at least potentially someone else's property. The second law of property, the law of "Loose-Fish," enjoys the status of a separate and distinct rule in the discourse of the law.

He was preoccupied throughout his life with what he called "the infinitude of the private man" (Journals 7:342). Though cast in a distinctively American dialect of philosophical idealism, Emerson's notion of idealized privatism was grounded in a keen consciousness of both the terrors and the promises inherent in American society. At bottom an anti-political stance, Emersonian privatism recurs in various guises throughout American literary-philosophical history. It influences the development of the American novel since Melville, American poetry since Whitman, American criticism after Poe, and American philosophy from William James and George Santayana to John Dewey and Nelson Goodman, not to mention the moral tone, hence indirectly the political life, of much of the nation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The dominant cultural and political institutions" (Newman 1985, 51) of American society in so far as they were meant to take them over and make them over, in fact to replace Page 12 these institutions wholesale. Emerson started no revolution, but nor did Mann or Gide or Rilke. The rhetoric of confrontation, however appropriate it may be for the literary history of European Modernism, is completely irrelevant to the history of American writing. It does not follow, however, that that history is devoid of social and political content.

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