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At Emerson's Tomb: Emerson nd his Critics

Class at Faculty of Arts |


In his recent and influential critical assessment of Emerson, John Carlos Rowe evaluates "the conventional critical reading of the American canon as principally an engagement with or reaction against Emersonian ideals." Which "side" one is on in this debate is important, he argues, because "the [Emersonian] ideals of individualism, intellectual abstraction, and transcendentalism often undermine the writer's political effectiveness." (John Carlos Rowe, At Emerson's Tomb [New York, Columbia University Press, 1997], back cover). Another contemporary critic, Lawrence Alan Rosenfeld, acknowledges that "The writer's freedom is in a sense the individual's freedom from convention, from the tyranny of the majority; Emerson understood brilliantly how deeply that freedom cut, and shaped an exemplary if still sometimes disturbing life and work of writerly freedom." But Rosenwald, like Rowe and many other late-twentieth-century Emerson scholars, asserts that "The stakes in judging Emerson are high, because he claimed to be a teacher and guide not only to the practice of art but also to the conduct of life." (Lawrence Alan Rosenwald, "Emerson," in Richard Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg, eds., A Companion to American Thought [Cambridge, MA; Blackwell, 1995], pp. 204-207) This segment will review the critical debate on Emerson's work and ideas from the late nineteenth century to the present.

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