In Praise of Quentin Anderson

Writing of Hawthorne, Cooper, Melville and Twain, Quentin Anderson posed the following question in his book The Imperial Self: an Essay in American Literary and Cultural History: “Their struggles do indeed attest to the difficulty of growing up in this country—but what nation had ever gone so far toward dissolving social ties as this one?” It is a question that has haunted me since I first read the book in the mid-eighties. I can’t imagine the question ever will go away for me.

Anderson’s book was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1971. The year says a great deal about the book. There are references to the student unrest throughout the United States, to writers such as Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse and to the likes of Allen Ginsberg who is quoted a few times and acknowledged as an important descendent of Whitman.  Whitman is one of the three writers, along with Emerson and Henry James, to whom Anderson’s book-length essay is devoted. A chapter on Hawthorne forms a counterpoint to the workings of the imperial self that Anderson sees at the heart of much American literature:  “Hawthorne saw human selves as fostered in a net of relations, finding their meaning and value only through these relations.” One need only think of The Scarlet Letter and its variously entangled characters in order to feel that “net” is more than a well-worn metaphor. To quote Anderson again, “What he [Hawthorne] sought and found was a world in which dramatic awareness of antinomies in human nature was the very ground on which a community was built.”

There are several words—“dramatic,” “human nature,” and “community”—in Anderson’s sentence that indicate how different Hawthorne’s quest was. The thrust of the imperial self (about which I will be writing more) has been, among other adjectives, annunciatory, prophetic, overbearing and unitary. Though Anderson doesn’t write about it, Ginsberg’s Howl is a perfect example of the imperial self, as Ginsberg seeks to suborn the nation to his ecstatic grief and as he propounds an urgency compounded of both duress and vision. His poem—and Emerson’s essays, Whitman’s poems and Henry James’s novels—testify to the assertive authority of the individual self, a presence peculiar to the United States, a nation composed of selves, each one at once fragmented by the striving toward happiness and putatively whole as a free person (or 3/5 of a person in the historical designation reserved for the unfree), each one accordingly restless, uncertain, excitable, inherently anxious yet free to make up what wants to be made up—including certainty. Since the nation was an imaginative, paper act, a literal declaration of independence (confirmed in the bloodshed of war), it should come as no surprise that the literature the nation gradually brought forth put a premium on the omnipotence of the individual self. Behind the various historical realities—economic, religious, philosophical, political and geographic, a world Anderson denotes by citing the authors of The Federalist Papers—stood the adumbrations of the nascent American self. Though it is a tautology, it is nonetheless crucial to an understanding of the nation and its literature—the self is self-defining. The self peoples the world not vice-versa.

Drama is impossible because the world beyond the self is unreal. Human nature does not exist because the self makes everything up. Community is a notion that can be taken up and discarded at will. There always is an elsewhere—both inner and outer—in the United States. The term Yvor Winters once applied to Robert Frost—“spiritual drifter”—might be applied to the nation as a whole. Winters saw Emerson behind Frost and though Winters believed there was a romanticism present in both writers, a notion Anderson debunks since romanticism exists in relation to the social world and the imperial self seeks to obliterate the social world, Winters did put his finger on a distinctly American condition—that pining, importuning, visionary self.

To the casual onlooker, particularly one from an older culture, the absence of drama, human nature and community in the workings of a nation’s literature might seem like a recipe for nightmare. And indeed more than one American writer—Melville, Nathaniel West, Ralph Ellison among others—has summoned up that nightmare. A world of one “acquainted with the night,” as Frost put it, was a world where “One luminary clock against the sky / Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.” The poem is calm but the image is not. If social definition can be discarded or barely exists (in contradistinction to the agonies Hawthorne portrays in The Scarlet Letter), then the self has no choice but to be free and to put a high value on that freedom. If it seeks manacles, the manacles are chosen ones. That may make the self, as a writer such as Melville attested, all the more frightening. Behind Frost’s spiritual drifter who has “outwalked the furthest city light,” stands Captain Ahab who has left everything behind and in the throes of pursuit embraced not tragedy but mania. For “the apostle of a unitary consciousness,” a phrase of Anderson’s that refers at once to Whitman’s narrator in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and to Maggie Verver in James’s The Golden Bowl, there can be no tragedy. Everything is dissolved in the notions of the self.

Those notions, as they state what the world according to the self can be or should be or ecstatically is, are motions too. Anderson chose the word “imperial” very carefully. There is optimism, joy and power in the imperial self, words that apply respectively to Emerson, Whitman and James. These are qualities that have attracted many people to both the nation and its almost inherently expansive literature. There is also very little gratitude or humility or remorse. For not merely in the end but all along the way, the act of self-definition has nothing to define itself against except for other acts of self-definition. In all three of the writers Anderson examines there is a sense of great energy and great urgency but there is also the shadow of democratic diminishment, the torpor of equality. If everything is unitary, nothing adds up—a condition Emerson welcomed since he fervently believed that (in Anderson’s words) “we are not bound by time”.  Whether time is a treadmill or an incessant novelty dispenser (or both), being an American turns out to be more strenuous than one might have thought.

Being American was also, as befitted a new democracy in a new-to-Europeans land, inherently revolutionary. I mean this in the sense that democracy not only was bound to create new social situations heralded by the age of Jackson but also to grant a new level of distinction to the individuals who comprised the nation. Anderson is nothing if not explicit about this. He writes: “For the first time since Aristotle the habitudes that accompanied the belief that we are social animals were effectively denied on the plane of society itself.” He goes on to note that “The fact that our imaginative desocialization is not a familiar theme in the study of American literature is partly the result of our having attempted to turn all negatives into positives.” Touché.  The prophetic boldness of Emerson and of the 1960s definitely infused Anderson. The Imperial Self is a work of engagement in the best sense of that word: it seeks to tell us why we live the way do. It seeks to explain via three crucial writers how curious our American normalcy is.

It can be hard to discern what Emerson, who in Anderson’s estimation is the fountainhead of the American self, is being prophetic about. There is so much urging in Emerson’s writing and, as Anderson astutely notes, very few particulars. Emerson seems peculiarly American in that he seems a sort of real estate salesman of an uncharted inner world, a booster for a Florida of the soul. This is not to diminish Emerson. On the contrary, it is to see him in the context not only of the rational religion of the Boston he grew up in but also of the expansiveness that is a basic American excitement. Emerson’s genius was to announce the presence of a limitless inner expansiveness. To quote Anderson, “The glad tidings which brought you to the mourner’s bench were, in Emerson, to be sought within; the personal God was one person too many for the soul which sought its authority in an exploration of its own consciousness.”

The marvel of Emerson is that he seeks to sunder one enormous knot—the stultification imposed by social demands and the timidity and resentment thus engendered—while he creates another—the place of the soul in a secular society. The puzzlement is at once enormous and explicit. Anderson writes, “Secular incarnation, as I have called it, means being one’s own redeemer, sitting at God’s right hand and acting to some purpose in the world.” This is bound to give pause. We are in at least three different realms—self-definition, God seeking and everyday purpose. Another way of saying this is that we are in the realms of ego, spirit and pragmatism simultaneously. Yet if one considers the present moment in the United States where the evangelical impulse is so forceful while the sense of what Americans have to do with one another is so attenuated, one sees the crossroads at which Emerson set up shop. Perhaps because he could take the religious impulse for granted, he felt emboldened to speak for the self more than for the soul. Christian salvation had been there for the taking more or less forever but the unfettering of the powers of the individual, the savoring of uniqueness on such an unparalleled scale was something new under the Western sun.

Emerson wasn’t a preacher. He was an essayist and lecturer. He worked in the secular realm. He borrowed the vestments of ministerial urgency but that was natural. What is shocking, however, and what Anderson points to as critical in our understanding of what underlies many American assumptions is the raising up of the individual self, the fact that “the road to transcendence lay through self-absorption, one had to take possession of the imperium of one’s own consciousness.” Thus for all the talk about the nation as a polity, the true American focus is the course of the individual. It is the individual who drives the imaginative engine that makes the nation go. No one is being dragooned by the forces of king and church, the world of the official “fathers” to use Anderson’s fraught word. The energy is the giddiness of possibility, the endless merging and blurring and enveloping that the world offers to the individual who at once participates and through the  commonplace miracle of consciousness makes his or her own. What Emerson confronted was, amid all the canny and sometimes smarmy Ben Franklin uplift, the fantastic emptiness of the United States, the sense that nothing here has to be, that everything is made up and changeable, that nothing is decided or decisive. As Anderson writes, “The social world was not for him either a home or a significant and threatening other with which we enjoy a dialectic relation, or in whose denial we affirm ourselves. His sky was empty of these possibilities; he had to fill it himself.” This isn’t mysticism on Emerson’s part. He was no Boehme. It is the tonic of self-assurance and self-revelation. Emerson, a man who endured numerous personal losses, was a self-made man in the purest sense of the phrase. The opportunity that every dawn brings forth was genuine for him. We call Emerson an optimist but it is more than that, he was an astute fantasist. “His private fact,” as Anderson puts it, “became public in the statement of it.” (Again, think of Ginsberg in this regard.)  That he was taken up to the degree he was taken up by the world did not surprise him. The door was there. He opened it.

Whitman’s announcing himself to Emerson and Emerson’s recognition of Whitman and Whitman’s publicizing that recognition seem more a parable rather than a series of historical incidents. If ever there was a writer who was interested in making private facts into public occasions, it was Walt Whitman. When Emerson saluted Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” he was recognizing the song of the self that he had adumbrated. He was recognizing that the step had been taken, that someone believed in the self as an imaginative construct in its own right, that someone loved himself—not in a narcissistic fashion but in a wholesome, generous fashion. Anderson writes of Whitman, “His chief imaginative task in the world was to envision it as an extension of himself and to provoke his pleasure in himself in others.” It was natural that such a person should announce himself over and over as an American. Who else in the wide world of 1855 would do it? As Emerson himself wrote in his oration “The American Scholar,” “As the world was plastic and fluid in the hands of God, so it is ever to so much of his attributes as we bring to it.” Walt brought it.

What Anderson does so beautifully is to make us feel how breathtaking and lonely Whitman’s achievement was, how it arose from one man, how extraordinary his faith in the earthy soul of his life, in his secular incarnation was. He is hard on those who sought to turn Whitman into one more artist and who sought to focus on the formal sufficiency of Whitman’s work while discounting “the personal authority of figures in the culture.” For Anderson, Whitman’s poems were “major accomplishments in the definition of a new form of consciousness,” which is to say exactly what Emerson was calling for.  “A poem,” Anderson wrote, “is, so to speak, a partial act, and prophecy is a total act.” Emerson and Whitman were prophets or they were nothing, for as Emerson in a sense imagined Whitman, Whitman went a step further and imagined an audience that did not exist yet, that his poems would call into being. One self would call unto many other selves. In Anderson’s words that speak so deeply from the era in which he wrote: “The writer of these poems was an amazing man, a shaman without a tribe to follow him, who nonetheless believed that he could, by using words, communicate a sense of the world, a mode of consciousness, that would create a tribe for him—and turned out to be right!” The exclamation mark is very much Anderson’s. It speaks to the ecstasy of the prophetic nature of the work.

Whitman’s poems remain poems rather than religious texts. They are secular performances yet they speak from a world that recognizes a soul that informs the vocal self, a soul that can’t be pinned down in any creedal sense but that is crucial to what makes a human being a human being. In the poem that Anderson chose especially to focus on, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman wrote at the poem’s conclusion, and in reference to the “dumb, beautiful ministers” he has saluted a few lines previously, “You furnish your parts toward eternity, / Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.” There is a crucial economy at work in the balance between self and soul, an economy that was powerful in Emerson and Whitman who amply testified to the religious impulse (thought not to a sect) as it played out in the new American self. That impulse naturally allowed for the spiritual scent of humanity, the vague yet real soul.

Anderson is not particularly concerned with this economy. In the last of three writers he considers—Henry James—the religious impulse is nil. The cloth of the novel comprises a whole. The novelist can make real the sufficiency, however bruised it may be, of the socialized world. And the imperial self as it flourishes in a novel like The Golden Bowl lives thusly: “Consciousness is not the interior world of the novel: there is no interior world, and no person whose inner struggle is the result of outward circumstance. There is no such division as that between the inward and outward at all. Appearance is wholly in the service of consciousness , and nothing appears which is not in the full Blakean sense the product of consciousness. There is nothing intractable, unknowable, unshaped to human ends.” Although the last sentence speaks to the world of a novelist and a novel, it speaks too to the world of human enterprise at large and particularly the American world, a world that believes serenely in the powers of its consciousness and that is not afraid to trumpet that consciousness at the drop of a foreign hat. It speaks to a world that must believe in the impetuosity of consciousness and that can allow no room for the unknowable. Or worse it cannot acknowledge that there is such a thing as mystery. As the current age makes plain, the evangelical religion that has defined the United States for over two hundred years must thrive on assertion or die. This is a recipe for, among other things, hysteria.

Even as it proclaims the unitary consciousness that is able to subsume and reassemble life, the American world Anderson summons up is a riven world, riven not the least by the enormous effort the imperial self must make to hold the world together. In one sense the vision would seem to justify the effort: Emerson’s exhortations, Whitman’s saluting the genius of what proceeds from his own genius, James’s articulation that goes beyond articulation and that shapes life itself into a verbal artifact. The creations of these men are a good deal more than grand gestures; they are incarnations, to use Anderson’s preferred word. They make good on the promise of the new world; they are not redundancies. And yet—and one senses that Anderson himself is troubled by this—there is something inherently frightening about a post-social world, something utterly chilling, a smile that is really a grimace, a pose that cannot hold because it is made of such disparate elements and because it has so slim a meaningful past to lean on. If history is bunk, if the eleventh grade English class complains when The Scarlet Letter is handed out that “this is old stuff,” then Americans are only as good as their latest assertion. When people tired of the Model T, even Henry Ford had to face that one.

Anderson wrote at a very specific moment. What he called “the religion of art” that was typified by the New Criticism and that made the work of literature into a self-contained icon was passing. On the horizon was Theory which sought to abolish art as a value unto itself and proposed instead a sort of x-ray vision that could see and reduce everything to underlying structures and dissolve authority. It is perhaps an irony that an era of such extreme strife—the 1960s—should turn out to be a mid-point possessed of an openness and explicitness that Anderson personified.  The up-in-the-air quality of that decade meant among other things that all critical bets were off. History reached even into the offices of professors. The New Criticism and Theory were both the result of quiescent eras. The 1960s were not quiescent.

The subtitle of Anderson’s book bears repeating—“an essay in American literary and cultural history.” It is a description that says a great deal about his attitudes. He was intent on probing in the manner an essay probes. He trusted his instincts and he trusted his learning. The intuitive insights that the era prized and that were being recognized in so many domains weren’t to be slighted but neither was the awareness that every era bears “varying cultural burdens.” Along these lines, he had his hopes: “I…believe that literature will have to be brought within the circle of historical concerns in a fresh mode.” The issue—and it is a huge one—is that of continuity in a society that prizes discontinuity, that is, in its fashion, addicted to the seemingly novel gestures of the self because the primal imaginative force of the society lies in those gestures, however fantastic and ill-advised they may be. The United States as an inherently forward moving endeavor is inclined more than most societies to not so much bury the past as trivialize it. Walt Disney is (to cite Emerson’s phrase) a very representative man. The sheer sketchiness of the society as it seeks to form a polity of selves, the overwhelming commercial concerns such that, like God,  the Economy is capitalized, along with the brutal legacies of subjugation, lying and slavery are too much to take on. Again, it is an irony that the peace and love era of the 1960s brought much of this grief to the fore. The agony and ecstasy acted out within that decade may not have been appetizing but it was real.

Toward the end of his book Anderson summarizes his three writers. It is worth quoting at length. Writing of “the underlying constancy of the separate identities,” that is to say the social roles that are at once fantasized and enforced, he writes that he “was able to show that Emerson’s blurring of the immediate and the prospective is not simply an assault on the self reciprocally known; it murders time and kidnaps ideals into the single consciousness, destroying the character of shared hope. It also enabled me to show that Whitman’s all-engrossing consciousness is based on a body reshaped to its uses , and that Henry James’s ‘point of view’ is in the first instance the psychic necessity of the undivided consciousness, since all the differenced roles were equally unreal, equally available as material.” This is a legacy that Anderson brought to light in a coherent fashion and that remains with the United States. If the self is everything, then what is left? And if the society is so keen on possibilities that are at once pragmatic and fantastic then how can it aspire to any ideal? And perhaps most keenly and why Hawthorne’s shadow looms over Anderson’s book—what are we to make of one another when we deny the importance of social ties, when we make a fetish of personal identity?

It is Hawthorne, who, in a sense, has the last word in Anderson’s scheme of things, the Hawthorne who explored “both the necessity and the cost of community.”  Anderson puts it succinctly, “The future which Emerson spoke has been realized: our view of persons has rather more to do with their symbolic representations of themselves than with their ties to others. The exploitation of the self has proceeded in step with the exploitation of the continent.” That exploitation can’t go on forever. I, for one, wonder what reckoning is at hand while saluting Quentin Anderson for facing up to an essential American dilemma.

Join the discussion

  • (will not be published)