The Transcendentalists were immensely influential in the United States as the mid-nineteenth century approached, not least of which was because of their attempts 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 to increasing urbanization and industrialization and intellectually, as Kevin MacDonald has recounted, the influence of the Darwinian school began to eclipse that of this older tradition. Today the Transcendentalists are rarely-evoked and little remembered.
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 to expand domestic trade through increasing the accessibility of the nation’s abundant natural resources. By the 1820s, the transition was underway, with factory cities springing up particularly in the Northeast 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 attentions to the value and influence of nature, once so central to the American experience.
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). It is telling that Thoreau knew categorically the flora and fauna around him, and sought to understand every dimension of the world writ small around him, from the minute geographic details to the very core of life itself. 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 one-ness 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 can be a commodity, but it is not limited to simply that which can be extracted from it, particularly without regard to its stewardship. 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 1842:
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, and never, who said it? And so he resists all attempts to palm other rules and measures on the spirit than its own.
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 industry.
The irony of the Industrial Revolution was that as the means of mass communication and 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, as separate from humanity, is to make an egregious error. Men like Thoreau and Emerson recognized this and their writings have served as the basis for much of what would become conservationist thought. In many ways, John Muir was the personification or even intensification of these Transcendentalists; they 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 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, and it teaches us humility as well as fosters empathy and connectedness. For Emerson:
Under the general name of Commodity, I rank all those advantages which our senses 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 not just master the span of the continent but to subdue it and crisscross it with railways.
Unfortunately today things are much worse, and the commodity aspect of nature is the only popular aspect ever discussed; even saving the planet from carbon emissions (!) is framed in purely economic and transactional terms. Emerson’s ideas on nature were broad 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.
Henry Adams’s “The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900),” a chapter in The Education of Henry Adams, frames the tectonic shift in the American experience as a transition from the values of the nineteenth century to the changing views of the twentieth. “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; the search for a maternal figure is another central theme of Adams’s essay, a search imbued with semi-spiritual undertones, 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 nature. This issue remains as pertinent as ever. “Anecdote” is very relevant to us today, both because of current events sense as well as illustrating a change in style from the nineteenth century. In this respect it ties in very well with “Dynamo.” Also linking the two works is the notion of just how great art has an impact on us. Interpreted another way, the jar can be looked at as cold and impersonal—an imposition of the corporate and consumerist culture that was about to become so prevalent in the 1920s.
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.
The most striking feature of this jar is that it has no striking feature—it is totally “gray and bare.” It is lifeless.
The packaging and commoditization of art (and its vulgarizing) has also become a major part of popular culture (insofar as one can call it culture), and in a way this poem presages the coming of mass marketing and the omnipresence of homogenous corporatization, reflected in the familiar landscape of interstate highway exit ramps with their predictable assortment of fast-food restaurants and gas stations; 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.
Southern literature has always had a strong sense of place, an overarching sense that the setting is 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, say, Stevens’s poem or Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” would cause it to become as monochrome and dead as the jar. The setting is the context; there is an almost palpable sense of the history of the American South, a feeling that it cannot, and should not, be escaped. The role of the setting is absolutely critical to Southern literature; a sense of place is very strong, a curious amalgam of the particular and the universal, much like one encounters in Thoreau’s Walden or The Maine Woods. This is epitomized in William Faulkner’s “Dry September” and Tennessee Williams’s “The Angel in the Alcove.” The very lifeblood of Mississippi and New Orleans, respectively, flows through them.
One of the many great tragedies of the (post-) modern era, beyond the many Orwellian repercussions of the modern surveillance state and the unnatural sardine-tin existence of urbanity, is the demise of regionalism. It is just one more instance of the ersatz meaninglessness wrought by neo-liberalism. The many unique flavors of the United States are being drowned in a uni-cultural onslaught of corporatized multi-culturalism. Corporatized multi-culturalism actually destroys cultures. Its end-stage is that it makes everywhere the exact same. What’s more, the notions of animal rights, conservation, and eco-responsibility are wholly Western concepts, and much like the cherished Bill of Rights and Constitution, 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. Yet another tragedy in the long series of tragedies wrought by the loathsome globalists.