These Desponding Days : Emerson and America's Crisis of Textual Authority


SMITH Jeffrey Alan

Type Article in Periodical
Magazine / Source Litteraria Pragensia
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Field Mass media, audiovision
Keywords Ralph Waldo Emerson; Bible; United States; Nineteenth-century literature; Joseph Smith; William Miller; Walt Whitman
Description Americans in the era of the Second Great Awakening faced a problem intrinsic to Protestantism: the difficulty of grounding authority in a sacred text. Ralph Waldo Emerson's emergence from Unitarian circles immediately followed three native-born religious movements, each of which had focused on one aspect of that problem. William Miller's Adventism responded to doubt; Alexander Campbell's Restorationism took aim at sectarian disagreement; and Joseph Smith's Mormonism vividly sought to overcome dullness. Re-reading and even rewriting the Bible in increasingly radical ways, these movements represented three of the logically possible answers to the self-contradictions of textual authority. This essay argues for seeing Emerson's Transcendentalism as a fourth way. What linked this movement both to Unitarian controversy and romantic idealism, on the one hand, and on the other to the modern creation of a new, secular literary "canon" of America's own, was its immersion in biblical and textual anxieties. Recovering and re-employing the spirit behind the ancient sacred books, Transcendentalists insisted on rethinking not just the Bible but text-based authority as such – and like the other movements, they did this to counter a particular problem: in their case, an array of modern ills that Emerson summed up in the word "desponding."
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