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Affective Transcendentalisms: Sense and Spirit in Emerson, Peabody, Thoreau, and Melville


This dissertation considers the work of three representative writers of the Transcendentalist movement—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Henry David Thoreau—and one of its most ardent skeptics—Herman Melville. Rather than presuming a single Transcendentalism, this study proposes several models of “affective Transcendentalisms,” interpreted as the various ways that these Transcendentalist writers speak for and of the spirit through the language of sense. “Affective Transcendentalisms” argues that the Transcendentalist movement comprises different affective experiences, each one an epistemology of the inner sense. Furthermore, these inner senses of spirit become sites of negotiation between a Transcendental idealism that would deny an embodied subjectivity and a variety of attachments to transcendence and immanence that ultimately tell what Transcendentalism feels like.

American Transcendentalism is, in essence, a belief in the spirit. Their writings were affirmations of an intuitive soul in a quest to recover a faith in the spiritual. As such, the Transcendentalists posed a challenge to the Unitarian establishment on matters of divine inspiration and Christian evidences, on how or by what authority one could know God, by asserting intuition and inspiration over a Unitarianism that relied upon Lockean sensationalism and empiricism to affirm the miraculous in Christianity. This “spiritual philosophy” searched the soul for a personal, immediate connection with the divine. This meant cultivating a perception of truth, that is, a “Reason” that could read nature as symbol corresponding to the spiritual. These inner senses, however, were determined in large part by the physical senses themselves.

This affective discourse of sense and spirit can be found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s changing thoughts on the “moral sense” or “moral sentiment”; Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s millennial visions of “the life” through her idea of a “social principle”; and Henry David Thoreau’s ideas about the “contact” between nature, humanity, and eternity in a “sympathy with intelligence.” The present work also looks at how Herman Melville questions the epistemology of Transcendentalist “spirit.” Thus considered, these affective Transcendentalisms anticipate in their own ways what William James will later call “radical empiricism,” in the unity it perceives in sense experience and spiritual being.

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