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Property and Vision in 19th Century America

ISSUE:  Summer 1978

When an American tries to suggest the character of his country, he is less likely to refer to national traits or past events than to persons who, like Emerson, Thoreau, or Whitman, still define our hopes and exemplify our individualism. All three took title to a wholly self-sufficient comprehension of the world simply on the ground that an individual could do so if he tried. They are still called upon to reinforce our sense of ourselves; a common though tacit claim to their self-sufficiency appears in the habit we have of insisting that we have sprung from our own conception of ourselves. Remembering Fitzgerald’s novel, one might call it the Gatsby effect—an inordinate claim on reality which provides its own certification. In Gatsby’s case this involved the ability to convert shameful gains into the substance of an all-enclosing imaginative construction, a dream to live in. When Gatsby remarks that Daisy’s affection for Tom is “just personal,” he is being a thorough Emersonian; his imaginative incorporation of Daisy precludes a significant relation between persons.

The cherished figures of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman are not constrained by history; they float free of time and we like to think we can emulate them. There was a period not long after its founding in the 1960’s when the New York Review of Books often made a striking discrimination between the books and topics on which Americans and Englishmen were asked to write. The high apocalyptic note was struck by the Americans. It was they who could cast wide the net of judgment and never snag it on anything sticking up from the past; they emerged from the constraints of their histories as from a chrysalis, and spoke as if from the mount. The magazine nevertheless acknowledged the claims of the past; books which traveled the muddy road of history were reviewed, and it was the English who were hired to do this job—it was the English who took in our temporal washing while the Americans kept their eyes fixed on landscapes of unconditioned hope.

The English were condemned to explain; they had to refer to an ongoing discussion. The Americans were able to over-leap circumstance just as our 19th-century visionaries had: imaginatively in possession of the world, they could simply announce their visions. But how had such an impulse persisted through the extraordinarily profound changes that had taken place in our society? Putting it negatively, were our responses provoked by an unremitting emotional need?

The commonplace that our classic authors make much of individual perception and count heavily on vision and on the sufficiency of their own experience has an unexplored underside which comparison with European writers, especially the English romantics, helps to expose. The American emphasis on self-reliance necessitates the refusal to be involved in time.

By a highly compelling consensus, running from Hegel to Foucault, the 19th century is defined as the period in which Western man fell into time and in which every form and every value became subject to the idea of change, of development. In the United States prospects of a booming future were perennial popular fare. Yet these three commanding American imaginations, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, were notably immunized against the temporal; the future was a name for their personal self-realization, experienced or hoped for; the past was chiefly exemplary of aspects of their present.

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” said Wordsworth of the French Revolution. It seems never to have come home to us that we have had no such dawns. Before the devouring authority of individual vision, historic events and the sense of an altered perspective that affects a whole generation shrivel into nothing more than a possession of one’s own, of the sort to which Whitman referred when he wrote, “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.” Gatsby can incorporate Daisy; Whitman can incorporate the fight between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis What compelled us to short-circuit temporal process? Again, since history involves the changes that are felt by millions, why was humanity at large so weightless for us?

It seems clear that some things in the dimension of the “just personal”—to use Fitzgerald’s phrase—would have been inapprehensible to Emerson. Wordsworth, faced by a beggar who carries a sign on which his story is written, is overcome by the mystery of identity, by the question of what one can know of the inwardness of another person’s existence. This is a question Emerson cannot ask without questioning the sufficiency of his own possession of the world. For Wordsworth an encounter with the leech gatherer in Resolution and Independence takes on a meaning which becomes constitutive of his sense of himself; such encounters are simply unthinkable for Emerson. It would have destroyed him to feel that anyone else could have a determinative part in framing his conception of himself, or that he had any stages of growth at all. He distrusted fiction for the same reason Whitman did: its characters were limited by their relations to each other. The bildungsroman offered Europeans what Carlyle described as “the standing wonder of our existence . . .wherein our first individual life becomes doubly and trebly alive, and whatever of infinitude was in us bodies itself forth and becomes visible and active”, that is, society. Novels not only confronted you with this wonder, but launched you upon a cumulative process of self-discovery through engagement with others. But what in Carlyle is the infinitude of society is in Emerson supplanted by “the infinitude of the private man.”

To Wordsworth’s “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” we are forced to oppose Emerson’s explanation of the historic change early in the 19th century, “Mind had become aware of itself.” What first followed from this awareness, he goes on, was the realization that “the nation existed for the individual.” What we have failed to acknowledge is that in Europe the struggle for self-definition engaged you with the world; in our classic authors it engaged you with yourself, in the struggle to realize the infinitude of the private man. Emerson’s declaration is politics, politics of a rather desperate kind; he taught his hearers spiritual housekeeping, the realization of moments of infinitude, but gave them no directions for foreign affairs—those of the family, town, or nation. Since for him the region of the “personal” was fatally limited, any concession that one’s essential life was lived there meant that one had failed of election to infinitude.

Among our visionaries this struggle involved extensive denials. One did not define oneself through a relation to parents, to the other sex, to the facts of birth and death, or relations to one’s children, townsmen, social class. The uniqueness of an identity arising from these had to be denied; it must not be admitted that you had been fatally conditioned by being born of just those parents at just that time and place. For Whitman identity based on relationships to others is incidental, a shadow on the tide.

All this denial was strenuous psychic work and must have served an imperative psychic need. One cannot subdue so much of the generically human without manifest effort. Emerson’s central text, “Experience,” shows it unmistakably: it is suffused with the strain involved in keeping the focus of universal vision. His hundreds of lecture appearances were so many attempts to demonstrate to himself and his hungry audiences that the authority of their very own perception of the world was sufficient to guarantee their selfhood; that one could see right through limiting conditions; that the infinitude of the private man was secure. Although we speak of Thoreau and Whitman as if they had been born fully equipped with a vision which defined their individuality, their efforts were just as apparent and strenuous,

Until recently criticism of Thoreau almost completely blanketed his struggle for self-realization. The torrent of his passion was muddy, but the devout followers eddying around a lucid Walden seemed to be quite unaware of the filtration process that book undergoes. Thoreau’s was a martial spirit— the early journals keep celebrating military rigor. He fought himself on his own inner field and won. The very power he displayed in ordering the emotions which tormented him thrums in the bright tense grace of his sentences, but they might as well be cut flowers for all the Thoreauvians know of their ground and growth.(Rooted flowers are central both in Thoreau’s life and his works; he is endlessly preoccupied with these exquisite organs of generation. Each man, he notes in his journal, has a flower to “publish.”) An essay by Stephen Railton traces a series of attempts by Thoreau, extending over years in the journal, to come to terms with the fact that the mud of Concord River utters perfect lilies. Fertility and filth were inextricably connected in his mind, although in Walden this surfaces explicitly only in the passage about the barnyard by one of the ponds, a “great grease spot,” and in Thoreau’s ruminations over the mingling of the generative and the excrementitious in the shifting forms assumed by the sand in the railway cut.

His implication in biological process was an obsessive concern; it was always present to him, in Yeats’s words, that” Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.” An article by Michael West uncovers the scatological puns in Walden, and shows that Thoreau makes use of Walter Whiter’s odd theory that mud generates language itself.

A cancelled epigraph for Walden runs in part, “I could tell a pitiful story regarding myself . . .with a sufficient list of failures, and flow as humbly as the very gutters.” But in the epigraph he published he says he means “to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning.” An account of his aspiration which unites these disparate emphases may be found in a letter to Lucy Brown of 1841. In the sentence I quote, vision and the flowing gutters are bound up in a single process, and the visionary’s generative power affirmed.

I dream of looking abroad summer and winter, with free gaze from some mountain-side, while my eyes revolve in an Egyptian slime of health, —I to be nature looking into nature with such easy sympathy as the blue-eyed grass in the meadow looking into the face of the sky.

Generation is a problem for the visionary who has stepped out of time and discarded reciprocal relationships. He must, to use the expression Thoreau borrowed from Emerson, “publish” his vision; his grand affirmation is his existence; it is his substitute for reciprocally guaranteed identity secured by the light of recognition or love or aversion in the eyes of others. How does one engender that existence in a way that transcends heterosexual reproduction and releases you from an identity based merely on a network of relationships? In the quoted sentence the gracious face of the mother in the blue looks into the correspondent blue eye of the child (there is a suggestion of our sense of the bonding between mother and infant). Here too is the projection of a realized moment in eternity which incorporates the cycle of the year—summer and winter pass while he is gazing, and, most significant for the problem of generation, the gaze is “free.” The freedom he dreams of is the freedom from sexual determination.

Later in his letter Thoreau asks Mrs. Brown why he may not be called more human than “any single man or woman” can be. Why, that is, may he not be said to create all by himself as nature does? (He elsewhere speaks of the gods as free of sexual role.) He also resembles them in the way his eyes work; they have the power he attributes to nature. They participate in the cycle of growth determined by the rise and fall of the Nile; they are fertile as is Nile mud. In short, in his “dream” his creative activity answers directly to nature’s; he is “nature looking into nature,” whose power to grow exquisite things he too possesses. Both flowering grass and the eye are planted or immersed in earth from which they draw what they inform. As in all creation myths, we are left gaping at these extremes and must be, because when we meet a fantasy in which one is both subject and object, passive and active at once, we are bewildered as to what is acting, what being acted upon.

This extrapolation of the power of the eye occurs in Thoreau’s journal as well.”Do I not impregnate and intermix the flowers, produce rare and finer varieties by transferring my eyes from one to another?” Or, again in the journal where the eye is being nurtured like the blue-eyed grass, Thoreau writes: “What need to taste the fruit, to drink the wine to him who can thus taste and drink with his eyes?” The whole display of an extreme passivity and an extremity of power is made from a “mountain-side” above the plain on which the blue-eyed grass grows, and it is offered as a spectacle to Mrs. Brown who had shown more sympathy than his mother did for his passion for nature.

The complexity, the inner contradictions, and the stress involved in winning moments in eternity are all apparent in this sentence, yet the Thoreauvians consume moments like these as casually as candy; they are the food proper to Americans who have psychic need of it. It is not even noted, for instance, that an “easy sympathy” with nature is hardly apparent in a man who, struck by the unsightly decay of red fungi, fantasies that nature is menstruating!


Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is also about assuming the stance of one who is at the same time universally receptive and free to create. It parallels Thoreau’s sentence in important respects. There is the same colossal confrontation; Whitman encounters the sun and the tide “face to face.” The comparison with Thoreau will be clearer if we consider the origins of the gods Whitman sketches in the 24th and 25th sections of “Song of Myself.” Here it is “the earth by the sky staid with” which engenders the infant god, the sun, which at its rising shoots its “libidinous prongs” upward.”How quick the sunrise would kill me,” Whitman continues, “if I could not send sunrise out of me,” Whitman, the “new man” who makes Leaves of Grass, has been born of a commensurate union, that of his soul and the whole world. The power that comes to birth is a power to emit light and to voice the meaning of the forms his light reveals. Confronting the sun “face to face” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” he, like Thoreau, has a creative power akin to natural creative power. And, as we learn in the sixth section of the poem, he too has escaped from the reciprocally defined humanity of—in Thoreau’s phrase—”any single man or woman.” He has been endowed with a “free sense” precisely analogous in function with Thoreau’s “free gaze,” both have a creative glance which transcends heterosexual reproduction. The poem and Thoreau’s sentence coincide in yet another important respect: both incorporate the cycle of the year in a moment of vision. Whitman, standing on the deck of the ferry, watches the “Twelfth-month” gulls above him:

Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward

the south,

Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water.

These December gulls enact the movement of the sun toward the south in winter, and in the following line the watcher stands in the summer sun. To become an infant god and have primal powers, to vie with nature as a creator, one must stand outside time.

The crazy grandeur of the aspirations Emerson voices in “Experience” and those in the two texts I have just considered seems more in accord with the dreams of anchorites in a desert than with the circumstances of our three authors. What extremity in their common situation domesticated the extremity of their response? It seems natural to them, and it seems natural to us. We take the crazy grandeur of their aspirations for granted; we smuggle out of sight the labor of denial in them, and we are equally blithe about accepting their refusal of generic and social reality for our own use.

But three American geniuses impelled to adopt strategies this similar and desperate are too many to be accidental, and our employment of what was achieved at such heavy cost in human satisfactions seems lacking in common humanity. It was Emerson himself who wrote of Thoreau, “Few lives contain so many renunciations.” (This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.) Sherman Paul, an earnest Thoreauvian, retorts, “as if the renunciations of wife, taxes, church, vote, meat, wine and tobacco were losses compared to what Thoreau gained.” Paul’s scornful reduction of what Thoreau had lost is itself representative. He finds our humanity of negligible value as against Thoreau’s vision.

It appears that we must be threatened as these three writers were threatened; that extremity appears inevitable in them because it appears inevitable to us. We have a need to deny what they tried to deny, and much of the human condition is blocked out in the process. If this is so, we are discussing the very constraints under which selves have been grown in our American cultural garden. The constraints which worked on Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman still work on us though our civilization has undergone striking changes. What is there, then, about our genesis as American selves that we cannot bear?

The answer is highly familiar but its sting has been drawn by endless repetition. One has to put an edge on an almost blunted commonplace in order to persuade the reader that something omnipresent has had a depth of effect, a psychically invasive character, which we have glossed over. Our three Americans abandoned the scene of action with and upon their fellows to the end of repossessing the whole world imaginatively, What drove them from the scene? Travellers from Europe told us with one voice: trade, the pursuit of the dollar, a world seen in terms of commodities, “getting in, and getting out, first,” as Adam Verver puts it in Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Our three writers could indeed say pleasant things about the virtues of independent activity fostered by commerce, but they could not for a moment bear the thought of allowing themselves to be defined by the acquisitive activities which perforce defined most Americans in each other’s eyes. Their self-definition had to depend on something other, something prior to the striving for possessions in a world of trade.

The European travelers were, of course, quite wrong in thinking us natively more greedy than other people. But we were the first to be this fully exposed to a set of withering conditions which became progressively more apparent throughout the Western world. Tocqueville, liberal, aristocratic, humane, who was as gentle with us as his pre-possessions allowed, nonetheless speaks with dismay of the fix in which individual Americans found themselves. Despite all the gains for the majority, despite the stability and decency which attended most of our collective arrangements (slavery excepted), he could not restrain a profound queasiness at the sight of Americans trying to find an assured identity. The American was condemned never to know when he had enough, never to be sure that what he had would last. Deprived of ties to family and place, of sheltering traditions, of institutions which had the sanction of longstanding acceptance, deprived as well of anything one could take for granted as a member of a class or the holder of a visible status, and of the cultivation and manners accompanying a settled social inheritance, the American, as Tocqueville saw him, was forever filling a leaky vessel of self-esteem with possessions. With respect to individuals, it seems that Tocqueville is in accord with John Stuart Mill, who, in his review of Democracy in America, suggested that it was in fact commerce rather than egalitarianism and democracy which had been the primary cause in bringing about the social conditions Tocqueville had surveyed in his work.

What historians see as the Jacksonian break in the history of our culture remains difficult to define, yet nobody denies that something of profound significance happened, What I assume here is that when identity lost a portion of the support it had earlier had from imported customs and institutions, acquisition took on an imaginative priority for Americans arising from a deep-seated need of a perception of their distinct existence in terms common to their neighbors and themselves. Aside from Christianity and the claim to an immortal soul, no alternative basis appears to have been widely available. It is difficult to imagine a people less likely to gain support for their sense of personal existence from something analogous to tribal feeling, although we need not doubt the existence of such feeling, especially in the South.

It should be put emphatically that no set of limiting conditions could or did prevent millions of Americans from becoming admirable people, who displayed capacities for love and accomplishment which defied such wholesale judgments as those of the 19th-century travelers, or such adverse inferences as the newspapers of the time permit. What concerns us here is what was most current as a public image of self-creation, how our writers responded to it, and how our own responses to that image resemble those of the writers.

One may argue, as Stephen Donadio does in a recent essay, that Emerson staked everything on a Christian response to the things of this world; that his position was that of the Christian who had edited away the whole of the Christian mythos except the assurance that he lived in a world not realized in Massachusetts. But it must be repeated that his aspiration was for individuals, not groups who shared a common conviction. Like the oddly atomized version of religion in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, the “experience” involved is segregated in separate skulls.

The list of influences playing on Emerson from abroad is overemphasized by scholars; none of these effectually shielded him or Thoreau or Whitman from the steady and pervasive pressure to build the self in and through the marketplace. It is this pressure which accounts for their imaginative flight from the roles of son, father, husband, townsman, all of which entailed a stake in property. Emerson’s reference to the loss of a beloved son as like that of a “beautiful estate” in the same context in which he refers to being unmoved by the possibility of losing his property is chilling but altogether expectable. Even his son falls within the terms prescribed by his terror of definition through possessions.

The attempt to define the self through a relation to nature rather than culture is a logical enough recourse if you find the way in which others seek recognition intolerable, and this is precisely what these three writers did. Their relation to the “nature” they set up was—like that of the tribe studied by an anthropologist—a culture, although in these cases a one-man “culture.” We do more than admire these highly gifted improvisations; we even try to scramble into their “nature” ourselves!


Thoreau, whose gallant struggle we suppress, was not so nai’ve. He knew that every cock crows from his own dung-hill, but even so he did not escape what he tried so hard to avoid. He, like his two fellows, did not escape the primary mode of self-definition in the culture. This is a hard saying, but it must be acknowledged: it is not possible to make a satisfying disjunction between possessing the whole world imaginatively and holding a deed to part of it. Possession, no matter how spiritualized, does not free you since the freedom of those who live in a society lies in the character of their relation to other persons and nowhere else. In fact, the claim to an imaginative possession of the whole exposes you, as Whitman and Henry James clearly saw, to the self-loathing inspired by the spectacle of your overwhelming greed.

Emerson’s claim that he, as poet, can skim what is worth possessing from the farms owned by others does not establish a qualitative distinction he can rest in. His claim to spiritual ascendancy is no longer supported by a position as preacher to a Christian congregation; the only sanction that remains for him is a species of ownership, since the myth of self-sufficiency is a myth in the vulgar sense, a story made up to answer a need. The poet’s claim arises out of an encounter with the notion of property. The stress which leads to its creation is best represented by Thoreau, who, sneaking through the farmer’s back lot, uses trees to screen himself from the possessor’s eye at the window, all the while stubbornly claiming his own sort of possession of the pasture.

It is to Whitman, however, that we turn for the most brilliant and frightening glimpses of the interpenetration of property and individual vision. In “Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness” (1856), he writes of himself in the very act of eyeing the grass, the most inclusive act of reception and generation conceivable, as an object displayed for money, which is equivalent to offering God for sale. Yet what the poem renders as the worst possible self-violation is in fact a report of his daily behavior. He had written that to touch his book was to touch a man, yet he spent a lifetime puffing it and himself indifferently. No wonder that on occasion he turned on himself and denounced himself as a charlatan I

Our visionaries were circumscribed by the inescapable influence of property. Much as they hated the sense of things Emerson identified with Locke and his American followers, they did not escape it. Calling for young men who could break this terrible circle, Emerson wrote in 1844: “In America, all out-of-doors seems a market; in-doors an airtight stove of conventionalism.” The stripped and attenuated social circumstances of the United States made for a scene which was at the same time materially easier and less likely to afford a stable identity than Europe. Locke’s conclusion about the members of his 17th-century society, that as individuals they were chiefly defined by their property in themselves and by what they possessed, seems to have been borne out here in a disconcerting degree. Americans had more but more of their sense of themselves depended on having. We may guess that this is the reason “society” as a conception was weightless for us; judgments of the human scene come more easily to those who can take their place within it for granted.

In these circumstances our visionaries, who even a generation or two earlier might have found support in religion, made the desperate attempt to obtain certification of their personal existence through an internalized process derived from Christianity but distinguishable from it. The selves they created were necessarily conceived out of time and history, since, had they fallen within the temporal world, they would have been mere identities. Nor were these created selves, exhibited in journals, essays, and poems, detachable as aesthetic objects, since to detach them was to destroy their creators, whose individuality depended so fundamentally on their visions.

It would mean little to say of Byron’s Don Juan or Rilke’s Elegies that “He who touches this book touches a man.” It is obligatory to say it of Leaves of Grass. It means that the book is an act of self-generation; it means that Whitman is causa sui in the telling usage of Norman O. Brown, who, although Life Against Death appeared in 1959, reads like a 19th-century visionary. For the dead word “transcendentalism” we require a new term which will suggest this power to create oneself. The reason Whitman and Thoreau insist so fervently on the generative power of the eye is that they must have a way to refer to self-creation through a grasping and remaking of the world. The reason that what they call “nature” is important is that it is a power altogether free of what they felt to be of a piece with buying and selling, mere identity, a self guaranteed only by explicit possession or by reciprocal relationships with other persons, and of a piece too, with guilt, social causes, or deliberate artifice. The definition of nature we obtain by inverting the extravagant negations of “Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness” is whatever manifests that power which cannot be sold as a spectacle.

Yet Whitman, the most profoundly representative of Americans, goes further still; he allowed to stand, in a work by John Burroughs, a characterization of himself as possessed of a self-subsistent power. This is of course a definition of the being of God. The key passage, which Henry Miller lit on long ago— witness his title, The Cosmological Eye— is in “The Flight of the Eagle,” a chapter in a book by Burroughs called Birds and Poets (1876). Whitman and Burroughs worked on this chapter together. Replying to the contention that Whitman’s poetry lacked form, Burroughs writes, “There is no deliberate form here any more than there is in the forces of nature. Shall we say then that nothing but the void exists? The void is filled by a Presence. . . . Under the influence of the expansive creative force which plays upon me from these pages, like sunlight or gravitation, the question of form never comes up, because I do not for one moment escape the eye, the source from which the power and action emanate.” This is the apotheosis of the generative eye, the last ditch stand against the formation of self through activities imaginatively assimilated to acquisition.

The Whitman of 1855 and 1856—the years in which the first two editions of Leaves of Grass appeared—is a very great poet, and at the same time emotionally incapable of object love. Although he can love everybody, he hasn’t the ego required to love a particular person. In the interval between 1856 and his third edition of 1860, he appears to have gained the assurance he needed, partly no doubt through the praise he got from Emerson, and to have taken—and lost—a lover. He wrote remarkable erotic poetry for his 1860 volume; and one may feel relief that he no longer had to endure the personal isolation implied by the poetry of the earlier editions, even while one notes what Whitman himself knew: the unmatched poet of 1855 and 1856 remained the governing figure for the lesser poet who succeeded him. This earlier and greater poet (whose most discerning admirers are Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg) is the one whose power is characterized in this last passage on the generative eye.

How does Emerson’s assertion of a universal receptivity and a power to create relate to the way in which these combine to produce the generative eye in Thoreau and Whitman? The passage in which Emerson rejoices in the influx of all being is familiar: standing in the open, his head “uplifted into infinite space,” he loses all “mean egotism,” “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all. . . .” But this receptive passivity is combined, as it is in Thoreau and Whitman, with the assertion of a godlike power. I quote from the journals.”The authority of Reason cannot be separated from its vision. They are not two acts but one. The sight commands and the command sees.” Again, “A poem, a sentence which causes us to see ourselves. I be and I see my being at the same time.” And still another expression, later in date: “Poet sees the stars because he makes them, Perception makes. We can only see what we make, all our desires are procreant. Perception has a destiny, So Fourier’s attractions proportioned to destinies. I notice that all poetry comes or all becomes poetry when we look from within & are using all as if the mind made it. Poet Fundamental.” And an entry which suggests Thoreau’s sense of himself as flowering: “Man is that noble endogenous plant which grows from within outwards, but nature also has pleased herself in modern ages with the production of dicotyledonous creatures” who grow—in Emerson’s usage of the term here—on the outside rather than from within. Contrasting “the believer’s, the poet’s” version of history with an evolutionary one, he imagines the “pure race” as a kind of demiurge: “The height of this doctrine is that the entranced soul will carry all the arts, all art, in power, but will not cumber itself with superfluous realizations.” But Emerson, father not only to the vision which is himself, but of actual children, remains more various, more often touches biological and social ground, than do Thoreau and Whitman, Yet the general conclusion stands: in all three writers the imaginative effort to achieve a self-sufficient vision is dominant.


That a severe pruning of the variety and of the biological and social interrelatedness of human activity should produce a correlative distortion in one’s imagination of the body and its functions is not surprising, It had this result in Henry James as well as in Thoreau and Whitman; and once more the distortion is directly related to the way in which acquisition and property, the most “social” of facts in the outer dimension, were conceived by the novelist. Henry James, despite all the superficial talk about his inability to handle the gross social meaning of capitalism in his work, faced it with less equivocation than Howells, Crane, Fuller, Jack London, or Dreiser. They offer a kind of documentation he does not offer. What he does offer is an exceedingly representative distortion which reflects the psychic invasion of acquisitiveness, its place in “consciousness,” as a fact that goes to the heart of character as well as of society.

James, too, makes the extensive denials made by our three visionaries: the self is not defined through relation to the other sex, to parents, to children, social class, birth, death, and so on. James too must render our humanity largely through displacement to a single organ, not in his case the eye, but the primal organ of receptivity, the mouth. In his case the eye is what attests to the world of society and things seen, which he observed with extraordinary acuity and delicacy—and much of the excluded child’s sense of things going on “behind.”

But the controlling organ seems that of speech, which, as in the case of the eye in Thoreau and Whitman, stands both for a universal receptivity, as a world consumed, and a capacity to give form to what has been taken in. In James what we sometimes impatiently decry as the abstraction or mistiness of “transcendental” American writing is present in a different form, It appears in the persistent pressure upon us of the speaker’s voice, though we of course take pleasure in the marvelous variety of its modulations and its reassuring control of the imagined scene. This prose voice was, at the time James wrote The Golden Bowl, literally that of a speaker; this extraordinary structure was first of all spoken, dictated to an amanuensis.

James’s focus on the mouth of course reflects his own emotional stake in his individual existence, yet it is very difficult, looking at his total accomplishment, to make a sharp discrimination between his psychic set and his father’s understanding of human nature. His father construed acquisitiveness as the principle basic to comprehension not simply of individual character but of society, and of the spiritual socialism he awaited so happily. When James wrote his playful version of apocalypse, The Golden Bowl, his father’s sense of the providential function of acquisition and the meaning of property got its fullest representation.

Henry James Senior is undoubtedly the most neglected of our 19th-century social critics. He said many things that Veblen and Lincoln Steffens were to say after him. But, unlike these two, he did not look askance at our saturnalia of money-grubbing; he believed it was the essential precondition of the recognition scene that would transform human history. We would confront the spectacle which Whitman glimpses in “Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness”; the overwhelming private greed of a selfhood built on acquisitions would suddenly become apparent to us, and in that moment be discarded forever. In his reminiscences James characterizes his father’s responses to “the whole social order” and his high expectations for humanity. The elder James found things, his son says, “amusingly and illustratively wrong—wrong that is with a blundering helpless human salience that kept criticism humourous. . . .” As James puts it, “The case was really of his rather feeling so vast a Tightness close at hand or lurking immediately behind actual arrangements that a single turn of the inward wheel, one real response to pressure of the spiritual spring, would bridge the chasms, straighten the distortions, rectify the relations and, in a word, redeem and vivify the whole mass—after a far sounder, yet, one seemed to see, also far subtler, fashion than any that our spasmodic annals had yet shown us.”

A version of this passage bearing directly on the question of the transformation of wealth into representations of shared human consciousness—that is, into works of art—had already appeared in James’s account of Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl. For both father and son acquisition was an “honest natural evil,” as the elder James calls it. Money-making, the appetite for status, sexual lust, and marriages which made women possessions, righteousness or the claim to moral superiority, even a pride in one’s ideas, were all reducible—as in St. Augustine—to greed. The elder James fumed affectionately over his friend Emerson, classing him with the blindly innocent, “mere dimpled nurslings of the skies,” not sufficiently grown up to acknowledge his own acquisitiveness and begin the career of spiritual consciousness.

The novelist was in complete and open accord with his father’s basic injunction about the uses of experience. In A Small Boy and Others he gives us the watchword that hummed in the James household, “Convert, convert, convert!,” make over for the uses of humanity at large what others are trying to fatten their own selves with, whether it be physical, moral, or aesthetic possessions that are in question. Writing home from Italy, young Henry James speaks of the need to avoid a selfish use of the impressions he is acquiring. To give them form and publish them was to sink one’s personal claims and to attest to one’s selflessness.(Style alone would distinguish individuals in the grand chorus of a realized spiritual socialism.) In his early work the elder James makes much of artists because they surrender their most precious possessions to the world. But the most direct example of what it meant to convert is the one American readers have found merely vulgar, Adam Verver’s employment of his wealth in The Golden Bowl.

Playful and emblematic, the account of apocalypse in this “novel” stands for the day when mankind will be at last redeemed by a consciousness truly shared, a consciousness of the glorious qualities and achievements of humanity, a world as fully the product of man’s imagination as Blake dreamed of. That realized consciousness will be visible in Adam’s museum,

Although Henry James respected Isabella Gardner’s achievement in founding her museum, Fenway Court, the light of a flickering irony always played about his references to her, This is not the case when Adam Verver describes his project for a museum in American City: “It hadn’t merely, his plan, all the sanctions of civilisation; it was positively civilisation condensed, concrete, consummate, set down by his hands as a house on a rock.” A new Peter is founding a church of “consciousness.” Verver goes on to reflect that from his museum “the higher, the highest knowledge would shine out to bless the land.”

The fact that heterosexuality is inconsistent with this apocalypse—again as in Blake—has also aroused protest in James’s readers. The magnificent Charlotte, final avatar of Eve, the principle of acquisition itself, who was needed “to build us up and start us,” must now be supplanted in the heart of mankind by Maggie’s selfless love, (Even the devout Jamesian, R, P, Blackmur, was finally provoked to indignant repudiation by this assault on our generic condition.)

But our concern is with Adam, whom we first encounter musing over the meaning of his own career of acquisition. His eyes “showed him what he had done, showed him where he had come out; quite at the top of his hill of difficulty, the tall sharp spiral round which he had begun to wind his ascent at the age of twenty, and the apex of which was a platform looking down, if one would, on the kingdoms of the earth and with standing-room for but half a dozen others.” As he later reflects, thinking of his business career, “He had wrought by devious ways, but he had reached the place, and what would ever have been straighter, in any man’s life, than his way, now, of occupying it? He compares himself to “stout Cortez” in Keats’s sonnet: “His “peak in Darien” was the sudden hour that had transformed his life, the hour of his perceiving with a mute inward gasp akin to the low moan of apprehensive passion that a world was left him to conquer and that he might conquer it if he tried.” He finds the thought of what he may do even more satisfying than the act itself.”The thought was that of the affinity of Genius, or at least of Taste, with something in himself—with the dormant intelligence of which he had thus almost violently become aware and that affected him as changing by a mere revolution of the screw his whole intellectual plane.”

Playful The Golden Bowl is, but in underlying meaning wholly serious, For James the work of “conscious” people, artists and loving celebrants of our humanity, was always that of conversion, making such imaginative transformations, performing such actions, as furthered our consciousness of the highest possible human achievements. The full charge of that conviction is felt in the cosmic comedy of The Golden Bowl,which, like Dante’s, is no less grave because it has what was— for James!—the happiest of endings.

James’s elaboration of this final truth about our humanity, the long acquisitive quest which gives way to a total renunciation of everything except the vision of man’s nature—as the elder James puts it, the “sleeping Adam” at last awake and delighting in himself—literally turns on a screw. If one imagines oneself holding a screw point upward between thumb and forefinger, and revolving it clockwise, the spirals will appear to rise, while the screw is in reality descending. At the moment when Adam Verver, whose upward course around the screw has been shadowed by the groove above him—he is, that is, wholly ignorant of the purpose his acquisitiveness will serve—finds himself at the flattened point of the screw, his sense of the world is transformed: “by a mere revolution of the screw” he has changed his whole “intellectual plane.” Reality has coincided with appearance at the moment when the point is about to sink from sight.”A wiser hand than he at first knew had kept him hard at work at acquisition of one sort as a perfect preliminary to acquisition of another. . . .” Adam’s coming to awareness of the “real” movement, that of descent, is represented by the growth of a plant downwards, “striking deep under everything in the warm, rich earth.” His unconscious activity has made “the soil propitious for the growth of the supreme idea.” James’s inclusive fable about acquisition and its apocalyptic meaning is a book in which man confronts the history of his greed, of which the bowl is emblem, and allows selfless love to assume a dominion over his consciousness. This discovery and recognition are complemented by Adam’s action: the very principle of acquisition is led off to American City—her office transformed as is that of the Erinyes in Aeschylus—to become the guardian of what cannot be owned, representations of human consciousness in works of art.


Once again, as in the instances of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, we have concealed from ourselves the terror of definition in the terms of the market, and the painful struggle and human deformation which resulted from efforts to make an image of humanity which transcended acquisitiveness. James did not escape into freedom. When Maggie takes possession of her Prince, she acts for James himself, who, at the price of a drastic editing of the human condition, takes possession of consciousness. Even the appearance of that master-piece of unwitting cultural documentation, Brown’s Life Against Death, which tells us what our 19th-century visionaries might have said had they been confronted with the 1950’s, did not provoke us into realization of the heavy human costs of the visionary stance. Brown put with the utmost plainness the opposition between self-creation and the activities of a society he saw as occupied with the mere manipulation of acquisitions. For Brown, Freud was what he might have appeared to Blake, Emerson, Thoreau, or Whitman, a salesman of the bonds of a reciprocally guaranteed human identity, a man making war on the nascent “democracy” of infant gods.

In Henry James, as in Brown, there is a singularly fine line between the formless and the most exquisite formal achievement; James must win the shapes of consciousness from the babble of vocalization, much as Thoreau’s generative eye brings forth form from the excrementitious mud. In The Question of Our Speech, one of a pair of lectures James delivered on his American tour in 1904 and 1905, he makes much, indeed almost everything, of speech.”All life comes back to the question of our speech, the medium through which we communicate with each other; for all life conies back to the question of our relations with each other.” But Americans fail lamentably in their use of what gives life form; he compares them to those who walk in darkness.

it strikes me in this connection that there is no better comprehensive description of our vocal habits as a nation in their vast, monotonous flatness and crudity, than this aspect and air of unlightedness—which presents them as matters going on gropingly, helplessly, empirically, almost dangerously (perilously, that is, to life and limb), in the dark. To walk in the dark, to dress in the dark, eat in the dark is to run the chance of breaking our legs, of misarranging our clothes, of besmearing our persons. . . .

His expletives for American speech are significantly violent: it is “slipshod and slobbery.” Or, referring to a group of young women who “slobbered unchecked,” he adds, “all articulating as from sore mouths, all mumbling and whining and vocally limping and shuffling, as it were together. . . .” These terms come from sketches printed in Harper’s Bazaar, in which he gives an account of his fascinated loathing at the sight of a lady eating in a dining car.

Of what confused invocation of the light of taste, would her practice of slobbering up a dab of hot and a dab of cold, a dab of sweet and a dab of sour, of mixing salads with ices, fish with flesh, hot cakes with mutton chops, pickles with pastry, and maple syrup with everything, appear to be, in general, the symptom and pledge?

The ultimate horror follows; the lady picks up a newspaper and absorbs what we call “input.”

Where or how, he asks himself [James, the traveler] do these unmitigated ugly things fit into a feminine sensibility that has begun to confess, at any point, to cultivation? It is not my concern here to attempt a sketch of the common, the ubiquitous newspaper face, with its mere monstrosity and deformity of feature and the vast open mouth, adjusted as to the chatter of Bedlam, that flings the flood-gates of vulgarity further back than anywhere else on earth; it speaks—if we may talk of speaking—for itself and the evil case for it may dispense at this time of day, and after a single glance at the field, with presentation. What measure of social grace might you suppose yourself invited to attribute to a lady living contentedly in the daily air it exhaled?

The near neighborhood of the exquisitely articulated and the excrementitious once more warns us that a universal organ is at work, one which must undertake the whole task of conversion in isolation from other human powers. Such an organ must triumph totally or face unspeakable violations, a complete inversion of its significatory power, like the lady force-fed by the noisome newspaper.

James’s conclusion about the ties among a population so lacking in manners and articulate speech—the capacity to give form to their lives—is that they are bound to one another as producers and consumers.”There is absolutely, for the relation of address and response, the “considerate” relation, no ideal; there is only the instinct, immensely diffused and of course on the whole very salutary, of keeping the air clear and the ground firm for business transactions.” He speaks of “The word stripped for action” as becoming “an inexpensive generalized mumble or jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine. . . .” His most general denunciation betrays the violence of the visionary provoked by the denial of his vision, which also occurs in Emerson and Whitman: “Everything hangs together, I say, and there’s no isolated question of speech, no isolated application of taste, no isolated damnation of delicacy. The interest of tone is the interest of manners, and the interest of manners is the interest of morals, and the interest of morals is the interest of civilisation. . . .” The deformation of our humanity which speech, the “key” to the “inner treasury of consciousness,” exacts here is dismaying. Whether the demand that the world be remade through a grand conversion is voiced with the serenity of the elder James or with the fierceness and disgust with which it is made here, the result is the same. Even the novelist who had made such a brilliant foray into a divided and various human world in the 1880’s—notably in The Bostonians— assumed the isolated stance of the visionary when confronted by the gross fact of Americans defined by trade alone.

The qualities of our humanity which are to survive the apocalyptic resolution of The Golden Bowl are rigidly prescribed. James’s readers enter on this ultimate scene at a specifiable cost in their sense of themselves. Heterosexuality is incompatible with conversions on a world-wide scale, and so is the presumption that Adam Verver is guiltier than others since we must all confront ourselves as possessors. Neither the visionaries nor Henry James made any provision for women; their biology as agents of conception and nurture made them incapable of creating themselves or making those forms which revealed our shared consciousness. They were relegated to the network of mere identities, whose being was secured only by their relation to other people—unless, their sexual role cancelled, they were given a share in consciousness which simply denied their dialectically qualified functions.(Isabel Archer’s astounding baby is astounding because it doesn’t in the least divert her from her struggle to achieve a unisex consciousness.)

American individualism, the struggle with oneself provoked by the psychically invasive character of a society in which self-definition had come close to being reduced to the quest for property, led to the creation of imperial selves which claimed a more inclusive kind of property in vision itself. Henry James enjoyed an advantage over the other three writers discussed here; he started by admitting what they had been forced to deny, that mankind was necessarily acquisitive. Only in a world transformed by the diffusion of “consciousness” could he be free. Yet James, too, was bound by his premise; he, too, like Whitman, must deny the multiplicity of human wills, deny our generic condition, in order to envision a redeemed human order. It is Whitman who sees furthest: the self created by vision is itself vendible. The book identified with the man was sold.

The strenuous efforts of these four men to make and preserve a conception of self through writing, a conception which would effectively repel definition through money, status, or the network of identities they associated with the tainted social world, involved a negation of definition through familial ties as well, In Emerson’s case the imaginative vitiation of biological relationships did not lead to a practical refusal of the obligations of the husband and father. Yet all four appear to have had a common motive and have been constrained in the same way. The kind of freedom they sought was limited and distorted by the fact that they had to fight their own impulses as well as the practices of a society imaginatively dominated by business.

I suggested at the outset that those most concerned for personal and political freedom in our own day continue to claim sufficient visions, visions divorced from personal and historical circumstances, and that these claims disable us as seekers of actual freedom, which can only be realized in our relations with others. A more sympathetic attention to Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman would enable us to understand what compelled the visionary stance, and to acknowledge its bankruptcy as a mode of political action. The reader of Emerson’s journals is often brought up short by instances of Emerson’s acute realization of the actual conditions of his struggle for a viable American selfhood. It was Emerson, after all, who said that he would “pay the costly price of sons and lovers” for “reality.” He knew that there was a price to be paid, and reckoned the cost in relations with others.


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