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.
Bruce Ronda; Rethinking Transcendentalism: Perry Miller, Truman Nelson, and Thoreau’s “Lost Journal”. Modern Language Quarterly 1 March 2013; 74 (1): 95–114. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-1892735
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