American Civilization

November 2, 2008

Being at home in the world

Filed under: Uncategorized — equiano @ 11:44 pm

“Philosophy is really homesickness– the desire to be everywhere at home.”

— Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg)

“Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson at Thoreau’s funeral

“Mr. Thoreau dined with us yesterday. He is a singular character – a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him; and so far as he is sophisticated, it is in a way and method of his own. He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty. He was educated, I believe, at Cambridge, and foremerly kept school in this town; but for two or three years back, he has repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men – an Indian life, I mean, as respects the absence of any systematic effort for a livelihood. He has been for some time an inmate of Mr. Emerson’s family; and, in requital, he labors in the garden, and performs such other offices as may suit him – being entertained by Mr. Emerson for the sake of what true manhood there is in him. Mr. Thoreau is a keen and delicate observer of nature – a genuine observer – which, I suspect, is almost as rare a character as even an original poet; and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness. He is familiar with beast, fish, fowl, and repitle, and has strange stories to tell of adventures and friendly passages with these lower brothers of mortality. Herb and flower, likewise, wherever they grow, whether in garden or wildwood, are his familiar friends. He is also on intimate terms with the clouds, and can tell the portents of storms. It is a characteristic trait, that he has a great regard for the memory of the Indian tribes, whose wild life would have suited him so well; and, strange to say, he seldom walks over a ploughed field without picking up an arrow-point, speark-head, or other relic of the red man, as if their spirits willed him to be the inheritor of their simple wealth.”

— Nathaniel Hawthorne

“With respect to a true culture and manhood, we are essentially provincial still, not metropolitan,—mere Jonathans. We are provincial, because we do not find at home our standards,—because we do not worship truth, but the reflection of truth,—because we are warped and narrowed by an exclusive devotion to trade and commerce and manufactures and agriculture and the like, which are but means, and not the end.”

— HD Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”

“Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”

HD Thoreau, “Economy”

“That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.”

— HD Thoreau, Where I Lived and What I Lived For

“Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts—a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity, a man laid out alive and standing, and already, as one may say, buried under arms with funeral accompaniment….

“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others—as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders—serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few—as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men—serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. ”

HD Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”


The “American Renaissance”

White supremacist publication takes the name of one of the US’s most fertile cultural moments.

Now, for the real ( i.e. FO Matthiessen’s) American Renaissance:

ca. 1820s-the end of the Civil War

Major figures: James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow– all so-called “Brahmins” and their weirdo hippie counterparts: Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller,  Ralph Waldo Emerson, et al. Two tendencies at work here. The Brahmins were upper class, rationalist, steeped in European culture. The Transcendentalists, on the other hand, represented a vein of American Romanticism and though influenced by British and German Romanticism were committed to the construction of a national culture. 

The term American Renaissance is something of a misnomer as there was no “rebirth” of American letters. If anything, the movement might have been called simply American Romanticism. 

Key features of American Romanticism:



Romanticism in America, 1828-1865.

1. Belief in natural goodness of man, that man in a state of nature would behave well but is hindered by civilization. The figure of the “Noble Savage” is an outgrowth of this idea. 

2. Sincerity, spontaneity, and faith in emotion as markers of truth. (Doctrine of sensibility)

3. Belief that what is special in a man is to be valued over what is representative; delight in self-analysis.

4. Nature as a source of instruction, delight, and nourishment for the soul;  return to nature as a source of inspiration and wisdom; celebration of man’s connection with nature; life in nature often contrasted with the unnatural constraints of society.

5. Affirmation of the values of democracy and the freedom of the individual. (Jacksonian Democracy)

6. High value placed on finding connection with fresh, spontaneous in nature and self. 

7. Aspiration after the sublime and the wonderful, that which transcends mundane limits. 

8. In art, the sublime, the grotesque, the picturesque, and the beautiful with a touch of strangeness all were valued above the Neoclassical principles of order, proportion, and decorum.  (Hudson River School of painters)

9. Interest in the “antique”: medieval tales and forms, ballads, Norse and Celtic mythology; the Gothic. 

10. Belief in perfectibility of man; spiritual force immanent not only in nature but in mind of man.

11. Belief in organicism rather than Neoclassical rules; development of a unique form in each work.


concern with nature, ecstatic or mystical states, intuition, aesthetics, anti-materialism (idealism), pantheism, metaphysics, a realm of experience more profound than the daily life of getting and spending.

Some works of the era: Emerson’s Representative Men, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, Melville’s Moby-Dick and Pierre, Thoreau’s Walden, and Whitman’sLeaves of Grass



Transcendental philosophy was based on the premise that truth is innate in all of creation and that knowledge of it is intuitive rather than rational. The Transcendentalists found support for their idea of intuitive thought in the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The term “Transcendental,” in fact, came from the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), in which Kant declared, “I call all knowledge transcendental which is concerned, not with objects, but with our mode of knowing objects so far as this is possible a priori“.

Quotes from Resistance to Civil Government


“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as thier tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure” (226).


“This American government,– what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun…. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow; yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way” (226-7).


“Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.”


Majority rule does not necessarily entail making the right decisions. 


“I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right.”


Note the rhetorical play of this last passage: the right to assume an obligation to do what is right. Thoreau is rewiring our assumptions about obligations or duties and rights or freedoms. In order for his remarks to make sense we have to re-conceive what citizenship implies. In a sense he is making an appeal to republican virtue of the sort that Royall Tyler references in The Contrast. 


“Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”


The aphoristic quality of Thoreau’s writing. His use of chiasmus.


From Emerson’s eulogy:

“Had his genius been only contemplative, he had been fitted to his life, but with his energy and practical ability he seemed born for great enterprise and for command; and I so much regret the loss of his rare powers of action, that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.




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