Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Where I’m At

Penned upon the 14th of October, 2008

Hey, gang. I said I’d explain my relative radio silence, so, hi. Short answer is that I’m currently working on my… what would you call it? Honours degree in History? Honours year of History? Well, I completed my History degree last year, and made it to the Golden Key Honours Society and the Dean’s Honour List, so I took the hint and signed up for a teaching postgrad.

Yeah, I’m not called the Master of Symbolism for nothing.

So, I took my leave from Teaching, deciding that research might be more up my alley. No offense intended to the Education faculty staff and students; they were great. Except that one guy. That one guy would not lay off of me. Grumble grumble.

I’m now at the ol’ Uni of Melb, platypussing* away at my year of transitional studies, hopefully feeding into a Doctorate of Smartguyitude. Right in the middle of this is a thesis on the American Transcendentalists, from the preparation of which, by way of a burnt peace offering, I’d like to offer you a little roadmap of my wordavenues.


The Transcendentalists were reformers – they met, and published together, and lectured, on the future of the nation and different models of living. They also, of course, experimented in putting such reforms into practice, such as at the Brook Farm commune and Walden Pond. They were also writers, expanding the genre of American literature. They were also spiritual thinkers – Unitarian clergymen and layfolk alike. And, of course, they were interested in science and naturalism.

These projects have all been explored before, individually. Anne Rose’s Transcendentalism as a Social Movement argues for Transcendentalism as conceiving of a model of social improvement, and engaging actively in society in attempting to bring it about. Richard Grusin’s Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and Higher Criticism of the Bible examines various Transcendentalists’ theologies, differing as they did both from the mainstream Unitarian church and from Trinitarian Protestantism. Transcendental contributions to science, such as Thoreau’s meticulous studies of the ecologies of New England, have been explored by such pieces as Michelle Nijhuis’s “Teaming Up With Thoreau”, from the Smithsonian.

The connections between these projects – what makes the Transcendentalists a historical phenomenon rather than a gaggle of dabblers – are not necessarily obvious. Study of society, spirituality and science equally, without any one grounding and subserving the others, suggests a sort of mysticism – a union of the material and immaterial in a single discipline. Such a reading as a joining factor between different Transcendental projects has been explored before – David Robinson’s Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism explores Thoreau’s connection of poetry and nature, and John Lysaker’s Emerson and Self-Culture explores Emerson’s arguments for an expansion of the self through an understanding of the world, scientifically and mystically.

This parallels a similar school of thought appearing in European Romanticism, particularly in Transcendental Idealism, following Kant. The manifold influences of Romanticism on Transcendentalism – especially, but not solely, Emerson, Fuller, the Alcotts and Thoreau – have been explored by Sigrid Bauschinger in The Trumpet of Reform: German Literature in Nineteenth-Century New England. As Bauschinger states, though, Transcendentalism was not merely a satellite colony of Romanticism. The influence was merely that, influence, and went both ways – Transcendentalists met and traded letters with European thinkers, such as Carlyle and Goethe, and brought their own perspective to the table.

Rather, each was reacting to the same traditions – Christianity, Hermeticism, Spinozism and so on – using the same modern, post-Enlightenment methods. Eric Wilson’s Emerson’s Sublime Science describes how this unfolded in New England – in Emerson’s conception of the poetic interconnectedness of being, and how this informed his calls for reform. There is much more, I think, to be explored here. This type of thinking reappears in other Transcendentalists’ writing and actions, as well as young fellow traveller Walt Whitman’s. While this theme cannot be seen as being simply dictated by Romanticism, I do think we can use the Transcendent Idealist system laid out logically by Schelling as a lens to read the poetic and practical visions of the New Englanders, giving greater insight into the nuances of, and connections between, the different projects.

So, yeah. That, plus a few others, has my days and my brain fairly busy for the next… shall we say a month or so? Incidentally, if any readers wanted to become Official Guest Contributors and help me save considerable face, just drop a line… let me know you’re feeling fine…

*Credit goes to fellow Northside Strutter Rod Quantock for that one, as an antipodean equivalent to ‘beavering’. He further defined ‘antipodean’ as the opposite of ‘propodean’.

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