The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America
University of Chicago Press, 1996 M01 15 - 278 pages
What is the political sensibility of America's middle class? Where did it come from? What kind of life does it hope for? Newfield finds a major source in the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and offers a radically revisionist account of his powerful influence on individualism and democracy in the United States. Emerson's thought encompassed the most important cultural and social changes of his time - a new urban street culture, early versions of the business corporation, experimental communes, the rise of women authors, new forms of labor, a less father-centered family, frontier wars with American Indians, Mexicans, and others, and the controversy over slavery. Locating him at the center not only of philosophical but of national developments, Newfield shows how Emerson taught the middle class to respond to these changes through a form of personal identity best termed "submissive individualism". Newfield identifies a previously unacknowledged connection between liberal and authoritarian impulses in Emerson's work and explores its significance in various domains: domestic life, the changing New England economy, theories of poetic language, homoerotic friendship, and racial hierarchy. This provocative reassessment of Emerson's writing suggests that American middle class culture encourages deference rather than independence. But it also suggests that a better understanding of Emerson will help us develop the stronger, alternative forms of personhood he often desired himself. This book is a major contribution to our understanding of the development and the current limits of liberalism in America.
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