Perry Miller’s 1958 edition of Henry David Thoreau’s “lost journal” for 1840–41, with its long and condescending introduction, prompted the leftist novelist Truman Nelson to engage in a bitter correspondence with Van Wyck Brooks and others, critiquing Miller’s approach to Thoreau and transcendentalism and offering a reading that emerged from Nelson’s Marxist outlook. This essay explores Miller’s penchant for existentialist readings of historical-literary figures and movements, which clashed with Nelson’s materialist interpretation of antebellum culture. Although these two approaches seem incommensurate, a more holistic view of transcendentalism results from acknowledging both: Miller’s preference for accounts of individual struggle, self-doubt, and ambiguity and Nelson’s insistence on the transcendentalists’ embrace of movements for social change.

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