In 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson had come to a critical pass. He had lost his wife and was on the brink of leaving his career as a minister. In this reduced state he traveled to New Hampshire, where he made his famous decision to pursue wholeness--in his life and in his writing. This book reveals how Emerson went about achieving this purpose--and how he conceived a uniquely American literary practice.
Central to this project were the aims and methods of natural science, which Emerson discovered in spectacular form at the Museum of Natural History (Jardin des Plantes) in Paris exactly a year after his momentous decision. Lee Rust Brown describes Emerson's use of these scientific techniques to integrate a disparate, constantly enlarging field of subject matter--ultimately, to reconceive himself as an institution of private research and public presentation not unlike the museum itself, methodically gathering specimens from the exotic frontiers of experience and setting them out, in their manifold affinities, on common ground.
The Emerson Museum shows how this undertaking transformed the legacy of European romanticism into a writing project answerable to American urgencies. The natural science of the time was itself informed by romantic demands for wholeness of prospect, and its methods offered Emerson a way to confront an American reality in which any manifestation of unity--literary, political, philosophical, psychological--had to embrace an expanding and fragmenting field of objective elements. In the experimental format of Emerson's essays, Brown identifies the evolution of this new approach and the emergence of wholeness as a national literary project.
A piece of important and original scholarship. Brown's research into Emerson's experience of natural science in Paris is the most thorough study to date of this moment in Emerson's intellectual development. The thesis is intriguing: 'Emerson realized in the Museum that nature was natural history'...This museum-natural science context often proves to have supreme explanatory force (as when it explains Emerson's use of the term 'caducous' and corrects earlier interpretations of it)...The Emerson Museum is a significant contribution to Emerson scholarship and merits a careful reading.
Brown argues that the style of Emerson's essays enacts [a] repeated drama of practical transcendence: each essay in a series, and every argument, paragraph, and even sentence within each essay stands as a partial view of reality which is gained only at the cost of other possible views and which in turn must be discarded to enable others. Brown insightfully traces a series of concepts that Emerson used to theorize this process of action--history, biography, character, succession, surprise, compensation, fate, criticism, skepticism, and belief--and in tracing these concepts Brown offers cogent readings of many provocative and intractable passages from Emerson's essays...The Emerson Museum presents a valuable new theoretical and historical approach to Emerson while grounding that approach in a supple and sophisticated responsiveness to the complex acts of writing through which Emerson's philosophy emerges.
In 1833, during his visit to Europe, Emerson visited the Jardin de Plantes in Paris, the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle to give it its grander title...Brown's point is that the museum provides us with a way into certain of Emerson's central preoccupations; it acts as a case study, an image, even...The museum acts, one could say, as a visual embodiment of Emerson's whole theory of vision, which is what above all Brown wishes to explore in this illuminating and vigorously argued book.
The Emerson Museum is a significant contribution to the trend toward the interdisciplinary subjects in literary studies. In The Emerson Museum, Brown re-imagines the interrelation of literature and science and accomplishes a convincing fusion between contemporary cultural practice and Emerson's legacy. The Emerson Museum culminates at the compelling proposition that natural history served as Emerson's vehicle for converting European romanticism into a distinctly America ideology of science and economy.
- 304 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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