College of Arts and Sciences

Department of English

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance

Eric Wilson

"From Metaphysical Poverty to Practical Power: Emerson's Embrace of the Physical World"

The cluster of recent books reviewed here shatters the traditional image of Emerson as an overly optimistic transcendentalist and replaces it with a pragmatic, skeptical Emerson who embraces a difficult world. Accordingly, several books under review explicitly take relationships between Nietzsche and Emerson as their subject while the others, though exploring Emerson's pragmatism or his scientific thought, are Nietzschean in spirit. Indeed, of the three primary currents in this recent scholarship--the Nietzschean, the pragmatist, the scientific--the Nietzschean is the strongest; the other two merge with it, strengthening and enriching its course. The direction of all three tendencies is power: will to power, practical power, physical force.

The essay is divided along the lines of these three tendencies. The first section considers studies of connections between Emerson and Nietzsche. They are George J. Stack's Nietzsche and Emerson: An Elective Affinity; Irena S. M. Makarushka's Religious Imagination and Language in Emerson and Nietzsche; George Kateb's Emerson and Self-Reliance; Stanley Cavell's Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida; and Michael Lopez's Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. The next section discusses treatments of Emerson and pragmatism: Richard Poirier's Poetry and Pragmatism; David Jacobson's Emerson's Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye; and David M. Robinson's Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. The final part of the essay reviews two books that address Emerson's relationship to nineteenth-century science: Robert D. Richardson Jr.'s Emerson: The Mind on Fire and Lee Rust Brown's The Emerson Museum: Practical Romanticism and the Pursuit of the Whole.

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