American author Henry David Thoreau's transcendental writings are aesthetically “shallow.” To read Thoreau's signature works is to locate interpretive meaning elsewhere than the resonant “depths” with which we long have associated the transcendental text. These are the implications for literary transcendentalism generally in the wake of our recent critical turn toward “surface reading.” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus write on the one hand in the journal Representations of the weakening hold that “symptomatic reading” now has on critics who, from the 1970s forward, have accepted the “metalanguages” of psychoanalysis and Marxism as interpretive bases for seeking the “hidden, repressed, deep” meaning of texts. On the other hand, Best and Marcus contend that, “in the last decade or so, we have been drawn to modes of reading that attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths.” Whether we can or should agree with their proffered explanation for this “depth”-evading turn—“at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century,” they write, “so much seems to be on the surface”—is a matter that resides beyond the scope of this essay. This article's informing concern instead is how students of nineteenth-century American romanticism negotiate a surface reading practice that denies the very “depths” of subjectivity, interiority, and symbolic, transcendent correspondence that long have been thought to constitute Romantic meaning.

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