-As Considered by the Transcendentalists and the Modernists
The Transcendentalists have achieved lasting fame for a number of reasons, not least of which was their attempt to explore the essence of nature and to consider its value and its interaction with man and vice versa. As the nineteenth century wore on in America, there was a decided shift in cultural values and even composition of the country from agrarian populism to increasing urbanization and industrialization. Following The War of 1812, the United States became acutely aware of the need for an improved transport system and greater economic independence, resulting in a concerted effort to develop manufacturing and expand trade. By the 1820s, the transition was underway, with factory cities springing up and technology improving at a rapid rate. The United States witnessed unprecedented development and growth. There was a flip side to all of this, however, which served as the impetus for the Transcendentalists to expound on the value of nature. The increased emphasis in American culture on industrial development, with little thought to the adverse effects it may have on the environment or man himself, is the primary issue that Transcendentalists were responding to when they turned their criticism and attention to the value and influence of nature.
The Transcendentalists were not so naïve as to think of nature as merely a pastoral retreat, nor did they think that it should never be touched by human hands. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized that nature should be appreciated for its beauty, but that it certainly had its uses as a commodity (also evident in Henry David Thoreau’s actions in Walden). The Transcendentalists acknowledged the need for and uses of industry; in fact, Thoreau was fascinated by the machines of the Industrial Revolution, trains in particular. He recognized their uses, but was not willing to be held in thrall to them. The Transcendentalists cautioned people against being blinded by the constant push to industrialize at the expense of their own enlightenment or of nature. Nature has many uses; to engage in a singularly exploitative relationship with nature would be to destroy it, and, indeed, to miss the point entirely. Emerson urged people to turn to nature to find God and a feeling of oneness with the universe:
“In the woods, we return to reason and faith... 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... In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.”
Emerson recognized that there was much more that man could gain through a relationship with nature beyond material gain; if man could commune with nature, he could better himself. Nature is a commodity, but it is not limited to simply that which can be extracted from it. Its power is something to be revered and respected, something the modern “glampers” don’t seem understand. It does not conform to man’s expectations and desires, much as we may try to bend it to our will. Nature constitutes the understood and the unknown. It is the soul—that is, all that is outside of man, as well as something that is inside, shared with the rest of the universe. To commune with nature is to tap into this elemental, spiritual force that could lead to truly “knowing thyself.” As Emerson discussed in his 1842 lecture:
“The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. He wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of man, without the admission of anything unspiritual; that is, anything positive, dogmatic, personal. Thus, the spiritual measure of inspiration is the depth of the thought.”
The Transcendentalists were realistic in their interpretations of the uses of nature, and not only acknowledged but supported them within reason, but they also urged people to look to nature for more than just something to be conquered. Nature was to be appreciated as a spiritual force as well as something that should not be plundered and destroyed wholesale as it is crucial to the survival of man. This was quite radical as species were being slaughtered wholesale across the country, forests were being clear-cut, and the atmosphere and lands were being poisoned by unregulated output by railroads and factories.
The irony of the Industrial Revolution was that as communication infrastructure increased, communication with the self and with nature decreased. In a way, this has never really resolved itself but the Transcendentalists saw the roots of this blooming problem of estrangement and urged mankind not to lose their connection with nature. By seeing themselves as outsiders and nature as something totally other, separate, from humanity—that is to say mankind as separate from nature—is to make an egregious error. Men like Thoreau recognized this and his writings have served as the basis for much of what would become conservationist thought. The Transcendentalists saw that there was much to be gained from a relationship with nature, and to view it merely as something that men could conquer and bend to their will was a grave mistake. Anne Woodlief writes:
“The major premise of transcendental eco-wisdom is that connection with nature is essential for a person’s intellectual, aesthetic, and moral health and growth. One must see and experience nature intimately, whether defined as the ‘not-me’ or as landscape, to participate in the unity of Spirit underlying its visible processes. This connectedness is the basis of the self-reliance which determines how a person lives with integrity in nature and society.”
Thus, man’s relationship not only with the harmony of nature and the ecosystem, but his relationship with himself and his relationships with others could be improved through communing with nature.
Emerson acknowledges that it is difficult for everyone to attain a sort of personal enrichment through nature, but that it can be achieved as long as we try to attune ourselves to it. Indeed, it is clear that unlike Thoreau, Emerson himself spent very little time in nature, but through contemplation he was able to theorize on nature’s power. Anyone else could do the same. For Emerson:
“Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our sense owe to nature. This, of course, is a benefit which is temporary and mediate, not ultimate, like its service to the soul. Yet although low, it is perfect in its kind and is the only use of nature which all men apprehend. The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens.”
As more and more Americans left their farms and went to cities to participate in the rapid industrializing process, they became estranged from the agrarian spaces that Americans had previously inhabited, as well as doubly removed from the “blank spaces”—the wilderness—that lay beyond. The sense of living off the land was replaced by an increased consumerism and drive to master the span of the continent. Emerson is correct in asserting that the commodity aspect of nature was the only one in which all mankind understood, particularly in his time. In recognizing this, he helped sow the seeds of conservationism, and as his thoughts were internalized and then put into practice by Thoreau, more texts were created expounding on the value of nature. Emerson’s ideas on nature were broader and thus interpretive, while Thoreau wrote and lived conservationism. Although Emerson only obliquely tackled some of these issues, and some never occurred to him at all, his ideas still inspired many of the Transcendentalists as they took their own interpretations from his texts and expounded on them. Writes Woodlief:
“In Nature Emerson takes an unabashedly anthropocentric view, seeing nature as a great and holy teacher of the self-reliant man who will look beyond its uses as mere commodity and see it as infused with spirit, with a wonder known to few adults. Nature’s purpose was clear to Emerson: ‘All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man’ and ‘the endless circulations of divine charity nourish man.’”
In the view of the Transcendentalists, these two ideas did not have to clash but could exist in harmony.
Henry Adams’s “The Dynamo and the Virgin” (1900) is a very good piece to frame the tectonic shift in the American experience as a transition from the values of the 19th century to the changing views of the 20th; “Dynamo” is a manifestation of the uniquely American intellectual conflicts and challenges. It reflects the shift into a new paradigm and the modernist idea of searching for spirituality. It discusses the estrangement many Americans were beginning to feel from religion, and the search for a maternal figure is another central theme of Adams’s essay, a search imbued with semi-spiritual under-tones, perhaps also connected with an estrangement from Mother Nature.
Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” (1919) is important because it reflects the changing relationship between man and his surroundings, namely nature. This remains a very pertinent issue in 2018, and “Anecdote” has some interesting implications that need to be examined. It is very relevant to us today in both a current events sense as well as a change in style from the 19th century. In this respect, it ties in very well with “Dynamo.” Also linking the two works is the notion of the tangibility of art and the impact that it has on us. Interpreted another way, the jar can be looked at as cold and impersonal—an imposition of the corporate and consumerist culture that started to become so prevalent in this time period. The packaging and commoditization of art has also become a major part of our culture, and in a way, this poem presages the coming of mass marketing and the omnipresence of homogenous corporatization; it also presents this cold monolith with no defining features other than that it is utterly lifeless and gray. It forces nature to accommodate it, not the other way around, and seems very much like the growing urbanization of the United States. The setting of Tennessee, a generally “wild” place, particularly the eastern half, and its “taming” is quite ominous, and the reader could certainly map socio-political and historical events on to this image. The poem:
Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
Southern literature has always had a strong sense of place, an overarching theme of the setting being inextricably intertwined with the very fabric of the stories themselves. There is a pervading feeling that is distinctly Southern, that to remove the sense of place from these stories would cause them to unwind, to collapse. The setting is the context; there is an almost palpable sense of the history of the American South, a feeling that it cannot be escaped. The role of the setting is absolutely critical to Southern literature; a sense of place is very strong. This is epitomized in William Faulkner’s “Dry September” and Tennessee Williams’ “The Angel in the Alcove.” The very lifeblood of Mississippi and New Orleans, respectively, flows through these stories.
One of the great tragedies of increased centralization, beyond the many Orwellian repercussions of the modern surveillance state and the unnatural sardine-tin existence of urbanity, is the demise of regionalism. The many unique flavors of the United States are being drowned in a uni-cultural onslaught of, paradoxically, multi-culturalism. As I’ve written before, multi-culturalism actually destroys cultures and makes everywhere the exact same. What’s more, the notions of animal rights, conservation, and eco-responsibility are wholly Western concepts, and much like small or de-centralized government, most non-whites do not value environmental preservation the same way the sons and daughters of Europe do. Anyone who’s ever traveled the Third World (or even places like China) can attest to this.