The Critical Reception of Emerson

The Critical Reception of Emerson

Unsettling all Things

Sarah Ann Wider


Camden House



A history of the most important scholarly criticism of Emerson from his time down to the present.
Since the 1820s, Ralph Waldo Emerson has provoked an unsettled response from his readers and contentiousness among critics. Critics still contest Emerson's position: Was he poet or philosopher? Did he liberate American literature or narrow it to a one-dimensional idea? Is his signature concept of self-reliance the most profound contribution to democratic individualism or the epitome of capitalism's impoverished thought? But by the mid 20th century the swing between condemnation and celebration of Emerson had given way to the familiar story of his bisected career, which provided a neat structure for viewing his life and work, and shaped our thought about him. Now that story is being challenged by the application of poststructuralism and textual editing, and with the publication of an amazing repertoire of editions, the Emerson canon is changing. The result is that Emerson criticism now faces a far more complex group of writings than before. One hundred and fifty years after Emerson styled himself an 'experimenter' who would 'unsettle all things,' this new critical history illustrates the continuing, thought-provoking success of that experiment.

Sarah Ann Wider is Professor of English at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.


December 2000
249 pages
9x6 in
Studies in English and American Literature and Culture
ISBN: 9781571131669
Format: Hardback
Camden House
BISAC LIT004020, PHI000000, BIO007000
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Table of Contents

"Only Biography": Emerson's Peculiar Life
"Our Age is Retrospective": Genres of Reception
Contesting the Poet: Emerson in the Nineteenth Century
The Philosopher's Millstone: New Humanism, Modernism, and the Marxist Frontier
Emerson and the Dilemma for New Criticism
Imagining a New Emerson: The Power of the Editions
The Philosophers' Stone: Emerson Between Centuries


This study is as much about the changing fashions of American intellectuality as it is about Emerson the writer. As readers found or lost interest in aspects of Emerson, an age was defined. CHOICE

Wider's text models fair and generous scholarship.... It balances description and evaluation in a concise, readable style.... The chronological list of works consulted alone will prove an invaluable resource. REVIEW OF COMMUNICATION

Wider describes the Emerson reception in the last 150 years.... Conscientious and instructive... A cultural history of academic movements, modes, and feuds... AMERIKASTUDIEN

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