U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“These Western Woods Suggest a Different Kind of Ballad:” Place and Affect in Transcendentalism

“To the sick the doctors wisely recommend a change of air and scenery. Thank Heaven, here is not all the world,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the conclusion of Walden (1854). “The buckeye does not grow in New England,” Thoreau observed, “and the mockingbird is rarely heard here. The wild goose is more of a cosmopolite than we; he breaks his fast in Canada, takes a luncheon in the Ohio, and plumes himself for the night in a southern bayou.” “The universe,” concluded this poet-naturalist, “is wider than our views of it.” [1]

The white pines hugging Thoreau’s Walden Pond, the New England sugar maple– orange and crimson in the fall–, and the red brick streets of Cambridge make up the material context of Transcendentalism in historical imagination. Bucolic New England captured the hearts of Perry Miller, Van Wyck Brooks, Louis Mumford, F.O. Matthiessen, and other twentieth-century scholars who sought to explicate the Transcendentalist movement, shaping their understanding of that movement. When Perry Miller was only thirteen, the Chicago-native hitch-hiked to Massachusetts to see the land that had already captured his imagination. Most of the greatest historians of Transcendentalism, from F.O. Matthiessen to Charles Capper, have, at least for a time, called New England home.

Louis Mumford is an exception, yet he wrote proudly in the introduction to The Golden Day (1929) that the pastoral landscape of upstate New York, where he composed most of the book, was “not too dissimilar . . . to that which Emerson and Thoreau enjoyed.”[2] Mumford not only sought personal connection to the New England landscape, but he tied his intellectual inspiration, and perhaps even his intellectual authenticity in writing about American Romanticism, to that landscape.

New England’s orange and crimson autumn, its quaint Congregationalist churches, and its cobblestone streets produce pre-interpretive sensations in readers and scholars of Transcendentalism, deeply affecting how they understand the movement. Studying pre-interpretive sensation is tricky, but recent scholarship on affect can help historians understand how idea of the New England environment created “New England minds”– from Thoreau’s to Miller’s.

In Ordinary Affects (2007), anthropologist Kathleen Stewart illustrates how affect in everyday life shapes individual subjectivity. Quoting Raymond Williams on “structures of feeling,” Stewart explains that affects, “do not have to wait for definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures.” Affects, Stewart insists, “are immanent, obtuse, and erratic, in contrast to . . . semantic message and symbolic signification.” “Their significance,” she writes, “lies in the intensities they build and in what thoughts and feelings they make possible.”[3]

If it is hard for historians to understand how to pinpoint and interpret that which stands outside of “semantic message and symbolic signification,” historians of Transcendentalism can– and should– at least take cues from their subjects. The Transcendentalist movement was much concerned with understanding and celebrating affect, from Emerson’s invisible eyeball to Thoreau’s naturalist-as-poet.

“Nature will not speak through but along with him,” Thoreau wrote of the poet. “His voice will not proceed from her midst, but, breathing on her, will make her the expression of his thought,” he declared. This view, as Perry Miller explained, involved both the poet and nature “publishing each other’s truth.” [4] Thoreau as naturalist captured the symbolic signification and interpretive meaning of nature, comparing specimens and cataloguing species. Thoreau as poet, however, sought to capture the affect of nature.

Emerson, too wrote about affect in contrast to interpretive or historical fact. In his essay, “History,” the Concord Sage famously declared: 
When a thought of Plato becomes a thought to me, — when a truth that fired the soul of Pindar fires mine, time is no more. When I feel that we two meet in a perception, that our two souls are tinged with the same hue, and do, as it were, run into one, why should I measure degrees of latitude, why should I count Egyptian years?” [5]
For Emerson, the meaning of Plato or Pindar– so bound up in their historical or national context– was less important than their affect, or the feeling that Emerson and his long-deceased interlocutors had “meet in a perception.” Emerson’s intimate and pre-interpretive experiences with Plato and Pindar echo Kathleen Stewart descriptions of affect. Affect, writes Stewart, “can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation.”[6] “History shall no longer be a dull book,” wrote Emerson in his essay. “It shall walk incarnate in every just and wise man,” Emerson proclaimed. “You shall not tell me by languages and titles a catalogue of the volumes you have read. You shall make me feel what periods you have lived,” he demanded. [7]

Even Jonathan Edwards, the step-grandfather or Transcendentalism, was acutely aware of the importance of affect.[8] In his remarkable essay, “On The Sense of the Heart,” written at the height of the First Great Awakening, Edwards explained that there were two different kinds of understanding: one, a comprehension of the symbolic meaning of signs, and two, an understanding based on sensation (or affect). For Edwards, understanding the meaning of a word– such as God or Hell– was the mere comprehension of a sign. If however, some preacher, such as Edwards, could make his congregants feel God or Hell, then they would have achieved true comprehension. As Perry Miller paraphrased Edwards, “If the object– be it thing, word, abstract idea, simple idea– is vividly realized, the mind is in a healthy relation with truth. But if the only object the mind has in view is a word, a counter for mechanical discourse, a verbal substitute, then the mind is diseased and piety is bankrupt.”[9]

Because the New England Transcendentalists and their (disputed) progenitor, Jonathan Edwards, cared deeply about how affect influences understanding, historians should pay attention to the power of affect not only upon their subjects, but also upon their own understanding of those subjects. From Mumford to Matthiessen, the idea of bucolic New England has produced a “pleasure,” a “shock,” or a “dragging undertow” in historians, influencing how these historians interpret Transcendentalism.

But what would happen if historians replaced the New England sugar maple with the buckeye, red bricks with red dairy barns, and Walden’s placid water with the crashing waves of Lake Michigan?

To better understand the affect of the New England landscape, historians might turn to a New England Transcendentalist who journeyed west and traded Massachusetts for Wisconsin and Illinois. In the summer of 1843, Margaret Fuller, New England native and editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial, left Cambridge for the western frontier. During her journey, Fuller wrote dozens of poems and essays, inspired by the landscape around her and the characters that inhabited it. Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes offers historians a view of Transcendentalism with a Midwestern flavor. It would be a good place to start to understand the precise impact of New England’s natural environment on Transcendentalists. In the forests of Wisconsin, Fuller took time for reflection. She writes:

“All woods suggest pictures. The European forest, with its long glades and green sunny dells, naturally suggested the figures of armed knight on his proud steed, or maiden, decked in gold and pearl, pricking along them on a snow white palfrey. The green dells, of weary Palmer sleeping there beside the spring with his head upon his wallet. Our minds, familiar with such figures, people with them the New England woods, wherever the sunlight falls down a longer than usual cart-track, wherever a cleared spot has lain still enough for the trees to look friendly, with their exposed sides cultivated by the light, and the grass to look velvet warm, and be embroidered with flowers. These western woods suggest a different kind of ballad. The Indian legends have, often, an air of the wildest solitude, as has the one Mr. Lowell has put into verse, in his late volume. But I did not see those wild woods; only such as suggest little romances of love and sorrow, like this—” [10]

Fuller then offered an original poem, inspired by the woods– not Thoreau’s woods around Walden, but Wisconsin woods.

As I begin my own summer on the lakes in Wisconsin, I plan to spend some time rereading Fuller’s text, thinking about affect and interpretation, to further explore what “Midwest Transcendentalism” might look like and how we Midwesterners (if I may) can challenge the historiography of Transcendentalism with a change in perspective. __________________________

[1] Henry David Thoreau, Walden, conclusion.
[2] Lewis Mumford, The GoldeDay (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), xvi.
[3] Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 3.
[4] Perry Miller, Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism,” The New England Quarterly 34:2 (1961), 150.
[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History.”
[6] Stewart, 2.
[7] Emerson, “History.”
[8] The only slightly tongue-and-cheek epithet “step-grandfather of Transcendentalism” is controversial to apply to Edwards. For more on the connection, see Perry Miller’s essay “From Edwards to Emerson” in Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper and Row, 1956).
[9] Perry Miller, “Jonathan Edwards on the Sense of the Heart,” Harvard Theological Review 41: 2 (1948).
[10] Margaret Fuller, Summer on the Lakes, Chapter V: “Wisconsin.”

One Thought on this Post

  1. Rivka, I hope that you’ll follow up on your summer reading with a column about Fuller’s experience of the Midwest — I’m very interested in thinking more about parsing Romanticism by place. Thanks for bringing together Wisconsin and Transcendentalism!

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