THE WILLIAM E. MASSEY SR. LECTURES IN AMERICAN STUDIES
Cover: The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson, from Harvard University PressCover: The American Newness in E-DITION

The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies 1986

The American Newness

Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson

Harvard University Press has partnered with De Gruyter to make available for sale worldwide virtually all in-copyright HUP books that had become unavailable since their original publication. The 2,800 titles in the “e-ditions” program can be purchased individually as PDF eBooks or as hardcover reprint (“print-on-demand”) editions via the “Available from De Gruyter” link above. They are also available to institutions in ten separate subject-area packages that reflect the entire spectrum of the Press’s catalog. More about the E-ditions Program »

“To confront American culture is to feel oneself encircled by a thin but strong presence. I call it Emersonian, an imprecise term but one that directs us to a dominant spirit in the national experience.” Thus Irving Howe, America’s distinguished social critic and a longtime reader of the Sage of Concord, begins this illuminating discussion of Emerson and his disciples and doubters. What is the Emersonian spirit? What inspired it, what propelled it? And what does it mean to us today?

History gave Emerson his opportunity and then took it away. Coming to manhood during the 1830s and 1840s, the time of “the newness” when Americans beheld the world with unbounded expectations, Emerson became the spokesman for the self-reliant new man he believed had arisen, ready to thrust aside mossy traditions and launch a new revolution of freewheeling thought. But the rapid pace of the American experience overtook the Emersonian vision; in the 1850s, the rising problems of slavery, a boom-and-bust economy, the vulgarity of mass culture overwhelmed the idealist. His satellite spirits wavered and shrouded the Emersonian optimism: Hawthorne, with his stories of moral breakdown; Thoreau, rooted in nature yet inclined to the cranky and fanatical; Melville, his fathomless blackness waiting beneath archetypal fables of innocence and evil also Walt Whitman, Orestes Brownson, Twain—all were influenced by, yet reacted against, the Emersonian “newness.”

Howe identifies three kinds of response: the literature of work (Melville and Mark Twain), the literature of Edenic fraternity (James Fenimore Cooper, Whitman, Twain again), and the literature of loss (all the post–Civil War writers). He lays before us the intellectual and personal tragedy of the first great American man of letters, yet also shows that Emerson’s belief in the untapped power of free men pervades not only the lives and works of his contemporaries but is also a permanent part of the American psyche.

Recent News

From Our Blog

Photo of Lucia Jacobs as a child sitting next to Oaky

How to Plant a Forest

For this week’s University Press Week Blog Tour, Lucia Jacobs offers us a glimpse of environmental stewardship as seen through the activities of the ubiquitous squirrel, a species native to the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia from the Eocene Epoch onward. Lucia Jacobs is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the

‘manifold glories of classical Greek and Latin’

The digital Loeb Classical Library (loebclassics.com) extends the founding mission of James Loeb with an interconnected, fully searchable, perpetually growing virtual library of all that is important in Greek and Latin literature.