Saturday, February 20, 2016

Writing the Self: Chapter 10 (How Happy is the Little Stone that Rambles in the Road Alone)

Chapter 10 is titled, “The Individual and the Crowd” and focuses on the 19th century “American” movement of Transcendentalism, during the Romantic period. One of the major hallmarks of the American 19th century was, of course, individualism, and interestingly, the organized church was one of the first places that individualism appeared. 
Heeh’s records how Alexis de Tocqueville, a French nobleman, was in awe of the mix of liberty and religion when he visited the U.S. in 1831: “Tocqueville had ‘almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions’”; in America, he was surprised to find that religion and freedom “‘were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country’” (146). To Tocqueville, America has seemed to allow almost any religious sect so long as it didn’t interfere with America’s democratic thinking; the sects that popped up seemed to care little about doctrine.
One of the groups that surprised Tocqueville the most was the Unitarians who believed, according to the leading Unitarian preacher of the 19th century, that “the divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator” (qtd. in Heehs 146). This idea, of course, turned the traditional interpretation of the Bible completely around. Additionally, Unitarians “reasoned” about the Bible, so there was much room for interpretation.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian preacher in 1829, but he soon found that “even its humanized and rationalized Christianity was too constricting for his mind” (147). 
Emerson kept a journal as a young man, and his writing was very much self-exploratory. In fact, he felt very close to Montaigne and his Essays, which served to be a great inspiration for him. After a brief tour of Europe, Emerson returned to the U.S. and began delivering lectures and writing about nature. Emerson was the leader in Transcendentalism, which stressed a relationship with nature, mystery, intuition, and emotion. With the “self” playing a major role in the last two on that list.  For Transcendentalists, nature was the “good news”/ gospel. Emerson shares in his journal: “‘ In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life... which nature cannot repair. Standing on that bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God”. 
The “self”, for Emerson, was center-stage, though, and he wrote about the importance of an individual being loyal to his or her own desires and opinions; his famous line, “Absolve yourself to the Universe” prompted his audience to make peace with their own thoughts and values, whatever those may be, and not to concern themselves with what the “crowd” may think. In this way, to Emerson, God would be seen in that individual, as they would walk in integrity and not after the masses. 
Non-conformity was important to Emerson; his famous line: “but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” shows how American 19th century thought understood how an individual could be alone in a crowd. In other words, to Emerson and his friends, the true, peaceful individual is that person, who in the midst of popular opinion, holds his or her own values and makes no excuses for it. When a person scrutinizes their values in light of what other people may think, Emerson would say that is where “all... mistakes... arise”. 
Intuition was seen as “the right thing to do” for Emerson, which ran directly opposite of Puritan thinkers in the previous century. No longer did the human have to shame him or herself with writhing in his diary about every independent thought and desire; in fact, Emerson saw the human’s intuitive ability as the means of understanding fundamental reality, and... really... divinity that was already in each individual. This is also in direct opposition to traditional Christianity believing the Bible contains all the answers to life in literal terms. 
Emerson's ideas are a reaction to the "reason" of the Enlightenment because while relying on reason was admirable, it was lacking something spiritual, mystical and most important, unique to that individual. Science had a way of making subjective masses, conformists, and this was troubling to Romantics. After all, can't an individual change their mind? Doesn't that show growth? "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," non? More importantly, to Emerson and other Transcendentalists, focusing on the mind alone (Enlightenment) didn't account for the divine; "It leaves God out of me. It leaves me in the splendid labyrinth of my perceptions to wander without end" (Emerson).
Self-writing is taking a powerful place in the culture of the American mind at this point because the value of the individual's values, thoughts, opinions and connection to God are seen as legitimate, not just to himself, but to society at large. As Heehs reminds us in the opening of the following chapter, "the influence of creative writers...increasingly took the place of religious experts in interpreters of life" (161). Walt Whitman was now on the scene, for example, declaring that his unique "I" was part of all of us: "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you" (Whitman qtd. in Heehs 157).  It was personal revelation of humans with natural goodness that superseded the collective opinion of the masses or a book. So people began writing their own books: diaries. 


Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. "How Happy is the Little Stone". Bartleby. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Emerson, Ralph W. Nature. South Australia: U of Adelaide Library, 2014. ebooks@adelaide. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Heehs, Peter. Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self. New York: Bloomsbury P, 2013. Print.

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