The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance by Arthur Versluis (Oxford University Press) The term "Western esotericism" refers to a wide range of spiritual currents including alchemy, Hermeticism, Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, and Christian theosophy. There are also various practical forms of esotericism including forms of divination like cartomancy, geomancy, and necromancy, as well as alchemy, astrology, herbalism, and magic. All of these were widespread in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and made their way to the New World with the colonists. The early presence of esotericism in North America has been studied very little, and even less so the indebtedness to esotericism of some major American literary figures. Here, Arthur Versluis breaks new ground, showing that many writers of the American Renaissance drew extensively on and were inspired by Western esoteric currents. Thus he demonstrates that Alcott and Emerson were indebted to Hermeticism, Christian theosophy, and Neoplatonism; Fuller to alchemy and Rosicrucianism; Hawthorne to alchemy; and Melville to Gnosticism. In addition to offering a detailed analysis of the esoteric elements in the writings of figures from the American Renaissance, Versluis presents an overview of esotericism in Europe and its offshoots in colonial America. This innovative work will interest students and scholars of religion, literature, American studies, and esotericism.
Letters from an American Utopia: The Stetson Family and the Northampton Association, 1843-1847 edited by`Christopher Clark, Kerry W. Buckley (University of Massachusetts Press) In 1842, a group of radical abolitionists and social reformers established the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community in western Massachusetts organized around a collectively owned and operated silk mill. Members sought to challenge the prevailing social attitudes of their day by creating a society in which "the rights of all are equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion."
This volume brings together a remarkable set of seventy-five letters written by the members of the Stetson family, who belonged to the Association for almost three years. Discovered recently by a family descendant, the correspondence documents the thoughts and experiences of ordinary people struggling to uphold common ideals in demanding circumstances.
The letters recreate an extended family conversation in which news was shared, stories were told, hopes and fears expressed, and ideas discussed. We meet James Stetson, an ambivalent family patriarch with a wry sense of humor. There is Almira, his eldest child, who strove earnestly to work for her family and wrote movingly of her dreams of a career in service to her principles. And there is Dolly Witter Stetson, James's wife and the central figure in this collection, whom we first meet as she was about to give birth for the ninth time and whose relish for community. life was shaped by a lively intelligence, a commitment to exploring reform ideals, and a down-to-earth view of family duties and household burdens. Alsoappearing in the letters are such prominent figures as the black abolitionists Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles.
Comprehensive annotations by the editors guide readers through the letters, and three original essays flesh out their historical context. Christopher Clark looks at family life, marriage, and the regulation of behavior; Marjorie Senechal highlights fresh evidence the correspondence provides about silk raising and manufacture; and Paul Gaffney discusses the Association's unique status as an interracial community.
"The newly discovered Stetson
letters answer a historian's prayer.
What a joy to look over the family's shoulders into the everyday life of the Northampton Association! For the first time we can see Sojourner Truth as a flesh-and-blood person enmeshed in her own family and the Association's activities, not in retrospect, but, as it were, in real time." —Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Lift, A Symbol
"A wonderful collection of letters that is very well edited and introduced. The correspondence gives us a detailed view of communal life as experienced by the ordinary middle- and working-class families who were the majority of committed communitarians. Rich in details about religion, reform, economics, and education at the Association, the letters inform us about why communitarianism appealed to abolitionist families and how they lived it. These letters are a real find." —Carl Guarneri, author of The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America.
Excerpt: One day in April 1843 when the Connecticut River was swollen by flood-waters, a family reached the Hockanum ferry, near the foot of Mount Holyoke, riding on a lumber wagon. Having persuaded the ferrymen to take them across the fast-flowing river, the wagon's occupants set out across the flooded meadows, where poles marked the track toward the town of Northampton. On the wagon seat, with an infant girl in her arms, sat Dolly Witter Stetson, a woman in her mid-thirties. With her were her five`other children and her husband James, a man of forty-two who had become used to uncomfortable journeys in poor weather. The Stetsons were removing to western Massachusetts from their home in Connecticut, but, more than simply moving house, they were embarking on a new way of life. Just a year earlier, a group of radical abolitionists and social reformers had started a utopian community at a place known as Broughton's Meadow, two and a half miles from the center of Northampton. The Stetson family was arriving to join this community, which was formally known as the Northampton Association of Education and Industry.
Utopian communities hold an unusual fascination for scholars, students, and general readers. The last decade or so has seen a significant flow of new books and articles about these movements, especially about the many communities that were founded in the United States during the nineteenth century. These studies draw on a wide array of source materials, from community records to promotional material and visitors' descriptions. Often, the letters and papers of community leaders are available, along with the letters or diaries of other figures who incidentally mentioned aspects of communal life. But direct, detailed evidence from regular community members is relatively hard to come by, and we know less than we would like to about the experiences of the men, women, and children who filled the ranks of communal groups. Now, thanks to the recent discovery of many of the Stetson family's letters, we have the opportunity to take a rare and valuable look into the lives of reformers and utopians, and to trace what happened to the riders in that wagon 170 years ago.
This volume gathers seventy-five letters, most of them written by Dolly Stetson or her elder daughters to James A. Stetson while the family was living at the Northampton community between 1843 and 1846 and his work for the organization kept him in Boston or on the road. They were found in 1998 among family memorabilia in a house in the Stetsons' hometown of Brooklyn, Connecticut. With agreement from other family members, Mrs. Con-stance Beaman Renner arranged for them to be made available for scholarly use, and in 2000 the Stetson letters and some other artifacts were deposited in the collections of Historic Northampton Museum at Northampton, Massachusetts. Mrs. Renner's generosity has made this book possible, and we acknowledge it most warmly. Four further letters came to light in a private collection in September 2003, too late to be included here.
Historic Northampton has engaged in many programs to illustrate how local sources and perspectives can be used to illuminate broad historical issues. Its director, the historian Kerry Buckley, saw the Stetson letters, with their wide range of references and precise geographical and chronological focus, as serving this purpose very well. Christopher Clark had recently published The Communitarian Moment: The Radical Challenge of the Northampton Association (1995), a study of the Northampton community that had made extensive use of other recently discovered or little-known documentary sources, and so was well prepared to help bring the Stetson letters to a wider audience. Keen to exploit the evidence the letters provide about an array of issues of interest to historians and others, we invited two other scholars to contribute essays placing the letters in the context of their respective fields. Marjorie Senechal, director of the Northampton Silk Project, an interdisciplinary, academic, and community-based exploration of the history, art, science, and technology of silk and of its place in Northampton's own history, writes about the community's silk production. Paul Gaffney, an expert on race in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, shows how the Stetson letters shed light on race and race relations in the community and the locality. They demonstrate how the letters both add to our knowledge and need to be used along with other evidence if they are to be clearly interpreted.
With encouragement from Clark Dougan and Bruce Wilcox at the University of Massachusetts Press, we set about arranging for the letters' transcription and annotation. Kerry Buckley oversaw the transcription of the manuscript letters at Historic Northampton, which was commenced by Lydia Mitchell and then meticulously checked and completed by Marie Panik. Christopher Clark edited the resulting text and added the annotationsthat will help guide readers through the array of names and other references the letters contain. Clark also wrote an introduction and an interpretive essay of his own, drawing on the wider evidence that he had accumulated while writing The Communitarian Moment. As editors, we wish to acknowledge the contributions of all the individuals we have named to this book's preparation and production, together with Carl J. Guarneri, Carol A. Kolmerten, our copy editor Kay Scheuer, and managing editor Carol Betsch.
For the author of a historical work, the discovery of fresh documents relating to one's subject is both a constant hope and, for obvious reasons, a source of some apprehension. The finding of a substantial cache of letters actually written in the Northampton community was an exciting prospect, not just because such letters from utopian communities are generally so rare, but also because we already had some limited knowledge of the Stetsons from printed family memoirs and could now see what they had to say in their own words. The excitement was tempered, of course, by the prospect that the letters might undermine or contradict interpretations and conclusions that The Communitarian Moment had so recently reached.
On the whole, that did not happen. Rather, the Stetsons' letters tended to confirm patterns or explanations that the book had suggested. Still, there is no doubt that had they been available when it was being written, they would have considerably enriched The Communitarian Moment. They illuminate many details of life at the Northampton community also referred to in other sources, but in addition the Stetsons addressed three kinds of issues in particular that should shape our interpretation of the community and, by extension, of utopian communities more generally. They conducted a prolonged family negotiation over whether to stay at the community at all, providing invaluable evidence about family relationships and the terms on which men, women, and children conceived of their community participation. Second—and not simply because most of them were written by Dolly Stetson or her daughters—they offer some powerful insights into the status and aspirations of women in communal societies, insights that sharpen the more fragmentary conclusions on these themes that could be reached in The Communitarian Moment. Finally, the Stetson letters strongly confirm the book's tentative suggestion that disputes over "cultural" and behavioral issues, such as dancing, card-playing, courtship, and marriage, played a significant role in driving members away from the Northampton community and so, in the end, helping determine its fate.
But apart from their value as evidence, these letters deserve to be read in themselves. They constitute an extended conversation among family members in which news was shared, stories were told, hopes and fears expressed, and ideas discussed. If the spelling is erratic, the language has a richness and unaffected eloquence that nineteenth-century men and women prized and cultivated, perhaps especially among intimates. We meet James Stetson, an ambivalent family patriarch whose half-empty glass was sweetened by a wry sense of humor. There is Almira, the eldest of six children, who strove earnestly to work for her family and to acquire knowledge, and who wrote movingly of her dreams of a career in service to her ideals. Then there is Dolly Witter Stetson, the central figure in this collection, whom we first meet as she is about to embark on childbirth for the ninth time and whose relish for community life was shaped by a lively intelligence, a commitment to exploring reform ideals, and a down-to-earth view of family duties and household burdens. And appearing through the letters are other figures, among them the black abolitionists David Ruggles and Sojourner Truth, about whom we gain fresh insights, invaluable just because they are so unusual and tantalizing.
Of course we read these letters with hindsight informed by our knowledge of subsequent events that were unknowable to the writers. The Stetson correspondence captures a moment when ardent hopes and moral purpose joined to form a tangible community dedicated to social reform, and particularly the abolition of slavery. Like many of their fellow abolitionists, Dolly and James Stetson most likely hoped that their actions and example could achieve these objectives peacefully. Yet we know how fragile that moment was, and how innocent those hopes would prove to be of the massive blood-letting of the Civil War to come.
In American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, I detailed the immense impact that the Euro-American discovery of Asian religions had not only on European Romanticism, but above all, on American Transcendentalism. There I argued that the Transcendentalists' discovery of the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other world scriptures was critical in the entire movement, pivotal not only for the well-known figures like Emerson and Thoreau, but also for lesser known later figures like Samuel Johnson and William Rounseville Alger. That Transcendentalism emerged out of this new knowledge of the world's religious traditions I have no doubt. But there were also pre-existing traditions in western Europe that contributed a great deal to the emergence, not only of Transcendentalism, but also of what has come to be known as the American Renaissance, that extraordinary period during the midnineteenth century when so much of American literature came into being. Primary among these European traditions was Western esotericism.
Until relatively recently, there was not much reliable scholarship on Western esotericism, and indeed, it remains the most important new field of religious and interdisciplinary scholarship. The central figure of contemporary scholarship on Western esoteric traditions is Antoine Faivre, who holds a chair in the Sorbonne on precisely this subject. Faivre's numerous books and articles unquestionably make him the leading scholar in the field, but his scholarship goes beyond articles and books that focus on primary figures and movements in esotericism. Faivre also has sketched the primary characteristics of Western esotericism more generally, and these will form a useful starting point from which to launch into an extensive investigation of how Western esoteric currents provided the ambience for and informed the American Renaissance. It should be remarked that this is the first such investigation of its kind: there is no other book on this subject.
There have been, however, a few books that have begun to reveal the extent to which nineteenth-century America was influenced and, one might even say, permeated by Western esoteric traditions. Chief among these is John L. Brooke's excellent The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844; another such work is Michael Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. These historians, in seeking out the hidden history of Mormonism, have also helped in revealing the extent to which esoteric views and traditions helped shape the American intellectual landscape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The application of these discoveries to literature has many ramifications, not least of which is a re-evaluation of many major literary figures-both American and European-in light of their interests in Western esotericism.
The term Western esotericism refers to a wide range of esoteric spiritual currents including alchemy, Hermeticism, Kabbala, Rosicrucianism, and Christian theosophy, to name only those that will figure most prominently in this study. There are also what might be called practical forms of esotericism,and these include the various "mancies," (chiefly forms of divination) like cartomancy, geomancy, or necromancy; as well as alchemy, astrology, herbalism, and magic. All of these varied forms of esotericism were known in Western Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so it is not surprising that they would all be carried over to North America by colonists or settlers. Such practices as divination or various kinds of folk magic become much more comprehensible when we consider how uncertain the future must have been to someone who left behind friends, culture, homeland, and sometimes family for the new world. Those who practiced some form of esotericism in Europe were entirely likely to continue it in the New World.
In a companion to this book, entitled Western Esotericism, Literature, and Consciousness, I discuss the primary currents of Western esotericism and develop a view of literature and language that emerges from an understanding of the Western esoteric traditions as uniquely literary in nature. Here the words literary or literature are used broadly to refer not only to modern forms of literature like fiction, essays, or poetry, but also to specifically esoteric literature like alchemical treatises, visionary accounts, metaphysical and cosmological surveys, and indeed to the full range of esoteric writings. In Western esotericism we find underlying all the various forms the traditions take, an underlying recognition that literature is not merely a means to communicate data, but also a vehicle to transmit means of spiritual understanding. Inherent in this recognition is the view that the entire cosmos emerges out of the combination of divine letters, that there is a divine writing or "book of life," an archetypal realm that nature and humanity reflect. One way to understand Western esoteric literature is to see it as allowing us to read one or another aspect of this transcendent, multivalent divine writing that is reflected in the cosmos: astrology is reading the stars and planets; herbalism is reading plants, and so forth.
Given how central literature is in Western esotericism, we should not be surprised to discover that there is a long history of interrelationships between literary figures and esotericisms. Poets, dramatists, novelists, essayists-all have gone to esoteric currents for inspiration, perhaps because there is such a natural correspondence between esoteric metaphors and literary metaphors, between esoteric ways of "reading the world," and literary ways of seeing. This correspondence became especially pronounced during the romantic era: one finds esotericism woven throughout the lives and works of such figures as Goethe and Novalis, not to mention Blake, Coleridge, and Shelley. It seems likely that these poets and authors came to esotericism because they saw in its various currents alternatives to the emerging secular materialist worldview that so impoverishes and disenfranchises poetry. Poetry, as Yeats pointed out, needs to draw on ancient springs of religious inspiration or it becomes dry and uninteresting, and esotericism is one major way to find such inspiration without necessarily entering into a particular religious tradition.
The Western esoteric traditions, after all, often exist on the margin or border of religion, and this too may account for their attractiveness to authors in the modern era, when institutionalized religion often seems constricting or oppressive to them. On the whole, Western esotericism entails individual spiritual work, and is only infrequently if at all institutional in nature. Hermeticism and Platonism, for instance, can be found in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic contexts, but themselves belong to none of these traditions. What is more, there is no sign of any institutional structure for either of these. They constitute currents of Western esotericism, and as such exist on the boundaries between religion and secularity, just as they exist on the margins of academic disciplines.
One major reason that Western esoteric traditions did not receive much academic attention until the end of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, is that these traditions are inherently transdisciplinary. "Transdisciplinary" refers to a sphere of knowledge that not only cuts across a wide range of disciplines, but also ramifies beyond any particular discipline. So, for instance, the study of alchemical treatises includes the histories of science, literature, religion, and art, but belongs to none of these alone, and has ramifications beyond any one category. This transdisciplinarity makes Western esotericism difficult to place in an academic environment concerned primarily with disciplinary turf. Only recently has academia begun to venture into the realms beyond particular disciplines, where Western esotericism is to be found, and only recently have previously eclipsed spheres of knowledge come into view, chief among which are the Western esoteric currents.
But exactly this same transdisciplinarity made the various esoteric currents attractive to poets and authors from the romantic era onward, even if these currents have remained largely invisible to academia. Writers found in esoteric cur rents alternatives to what they often perceived as the deadening nature of both modern secular materialism and conventional religion. Modern society has tended to reward specialization; but for the author with an inquiring mind, specialization in a limited field like vertebrate biology or organic chemistry seems constricted; the poet or author wants a comprehensive way of understanding, and for this it is often esotericism that offers an integration of the various realms of life. Such a wide-ranging integration is precisely what Goethe, for instance, intended to create with his scientific work late in life, informed as it was by a lifetime studying alchemy and other esoteric subjects. For the poet, the artificial opposition of religion to science, and of both of these to the humanities, is often intolerable. Thus the poet or author turns to the study of one or another form of esotericism.
This is precisely what we find behind what has come to be known as the American Renaissance: the efflorescence of brilliant authors in New England, nearly all of whom were heir to and inspired by Western esoteric currents. As we will see, each of our authors took from different esoteric traditions-Alcott and Emerson from Hermeticism, Christian theosophy, and Neoplatonism; Fuller from alchemy and Rosicrucianism; Hawthorne from alchemy; Melville and Poe from Gnosticism. In this indebtedness, these authors followed very much in the tradition of the earlier European Renaissance, which was also largely inspired by the esoteric interests of Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and others. Initially, I had doubts about using the term American Renaissance, but as I have come to see the extent of the parallels between the two renaissances, chiefly in their indebtedness to Western esotericism and their universalist aims of uniting the sciences, the humanities, and spirituality, I have come to see the accuracy of such a term.
Yet despite the countless volumes of literary criticism devoted to these authors of the American Renaissance, their indebtedness to Western esoteric traditions has remained almost totally ignored. There are a number of reasons why this is so. One reason, of course, is that esotericism has been frequently excluded from the purview of academia as a whole for the past several centuries, often relegated to a dusty bin in the back room marked "superstition." But another reason has to do with the efforts of such influential twentieth-century literary critics as F. O. Matthiessen to demonstrate that nineteenth-century American literature belongs to "high culture" on a par with Shakespeare. Such "high culture" was assumed to have nothing to do with topics like alchemy or magic. Of course, there is a striking irony in such assumptions, since in fact Shakespeare's own works are replete with references to magic and to all manner of esoteric traditions. But this, too, is a subject only infrequently examined.
One clear implication of this book is that many preconceptions about Western esoteric traditions must be re-examined, particularly those that label alchemy, magic, and Hermeticism as "low" or "vulgar," in contradistinction to an imagined "high literature" free from them. The truth is, such esoteric interests in fact cut across socio-economic classes, from the farmer with his astrological almanac to the New England governor with his alchemical laboratory, and are to be found among virtually all of the major American authors of the nineteenth century, as well as among American Protestant clergy of the eighteenth century. One cannot say that such Western esoteric traditions belong to a category "beneath the American Renaissance," to cite the title of David Reynold's book-such esoteric traditions are intimately woven throughout the American Renaissance, and were much more widespread in America before this period than many scholars have cared to acknowledge.
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