No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
He was a bright young scholar who excelled at Ancient Greek and had a life-long appreciation for Goethe and Shakespeare. He deeply admired Emerson. He published prose and poetry until, after a certain episode, he was declared insane and committed to an asylum. After his release, his spent the last years of his life under the care of his sister, and died around the turn of the century.
I refer, of course, to Jones Very, born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1813. This American Transcendentalist (or, if the term weren’t already taken, “American Nietzsche”), is little remembered in scholarship or course syllabi. There appears to be just as much German language criticism of his poetry as English language criticism– not much. Yet Emerson thought this man worth remembering, and indeed, Very presents a valuable opportunity to scholars and students of American Romanticism to rethink the meaning of the Transcendentalist movement and the challenges it presented to New England Unitarian rationality. A serious examination of Very’s life, thought, and writings can also lead to a reassessment of his friend and champion, Ralph Waldo Emerson, restoring complexity to a man who was much more than the poetic optimist to which some critics reduce him.
Emerson was just enough of a radical in his day to be boring in ours. Harvard University banished him for his heretical “Divinity School Address” in 1838, but a century later, it named its philosophy building after him. Today students can sit in Emerson Hall and read his Address, astounded that it was ever considered dangerous, and completely miss its surviving radical potential. As early as the 1950s, Perry Miller lamented that Emerson’s “self-reliance” had become “market-speak”– code for a certain economic philosophy. While historians are still writing about Emerson, many scholars have stopped teaching him. My students at UW-Madison unanimously reported that they had learned, in high school, of a movement called Transcendentalism, and learned about some of its key figures (only Emerson and Thoreau, I assume, and maybe Margaret Fuller, because of her sex), but were never exposed to any of their writing!
Just three years ago, William Major and Bryan Sinche, both in the English department at the University of Hartford, published an acerbic article in the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Giving Emerson the Boot,” in which they advocated dropping him from courses on American literature altogether.* In “Giving Emerson the Boot,” Major and Sinche demonstrate a stubborn refusal to engage with Emerson’s historical context, they complain that his meaning is “hidden,” and they reduce the Concord Sage to a self-absorbed fool in rose-colored glasses who wouldn’t have had such faith in man or nature had he only lived to see the evils of the twentieth century.
After producing a passage of Emerson’s writing that may take skill and care to decipher, Major and Sinche declare dismissively: “That is the prose of a crazy person.” But their chief problem with Emerson– aside from the fact that he lived in the wrong century, a century that apparently saw no great evil– is, as they put it simply: “the ego.” A “crazy person” with an ego– is this all Emerson represents in the twenty-first century?
Want a crazy person? Jones Very once leapt up in the middle of a tutoring session at Harvard and cried to his students “Flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand!” Want ego? Very declared himself the second coming of Christ. If students think Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” is “crazy,” introduce them to Jones Very.
Critics and admirers of Friedrich Nietzsche often link his mental breakdown to his ideas. “Live a few decades in Nietzsche’s head,” someone once told me, “and you’d go crazy, too!” Critics claim his mental collapse reveals the degenerate nature of his philosophy, while admirers romanticize Nietzsche’s “madness” as somehow a sign of his genius. I am nothing but skeptical and resistant to this attitude. Nietzsche was a thinker, a great thinker, who happened to be ill. There is such a thing as mental disease. I am not a scientist; I can’t diagnose Jones Very. He may well have suffered from a serious mental illness. But I would encourage scholars to think about the nature of his “insanity” and the reaction of his peers. Very proclaimed that he contained the spirit of Christ within him and 19th century New England declared him insane. Perhaps the New Light revivalists of the 18th century would have declared him regenerate instead. Massachusetts Bay Puritans declared Anne Hutchinson dangerous, for similar sins, and exiled her– quite a different sentence than the asylum. Indeed, Hutchinson had her followers among the Puritan establishment, and John Winthrop took her seriously as an intellectual challenge to the “correct” interpretation of Calvinism.
Emerson, who the Harvard elite would have had committed if they could, championed Very throughout his life and helped him publish work after his release from the asylum. Even the ecstatic Emerson, however, could not follow Very all the way. When Very showed Emerson some work he had produced “under the influence of the Holy Spirit,” Emerson famously retorted, “Can not the Holy Spirit spell?” Emerson struggled to find a balance between two competing tensions in Transcendentalism: the sanctity of subjective experience and the need for objective language to communicate this experience to others and form community. This is the problem at the heart of Transcendentalism: how can one be both independent man and interdependent citizen, a self-reliant individual and a member of society, part of the timeless Over Soul and speak the language of a specific time and place.
From Thoreau’s night in a Concord prison to Very’s time in an asylum, Transcendentalism represents a struggle to work out the relationship between the individual and society in a rapidly modernizing world (one of Very’s mental breakdowns occurred on a train, when he panicked about the speed at which he was moving, until he understood that the Holy Ghost carried him). Transcendentalism also represents a challenge to Enlightenment rationality, enforced in New England by the Unitarian elite. Jones Very serves as reminder that the Transcendentalist attempt to revise the relationship between the individual and society was not as simple as the Hallmark version of Thoreau (“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, live the life you have imagined!”), and that the challenge to rationality was not always as abstract as Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” Very suggests a darker side to Romantic thinking about society, the individual, and rationality– issues that Edgar Allen Poe explores so vividly in his most disturbing fiction.
I would like to see scholars and teachers further analyze the tensions at the heart of Transcendentalism, using Very as a foil for Emerson, and examine how Emerson heroically tried to hold together the competing impulses in his own thought. As long we laugh at, or allow our students to laugh at and dismiss, these figures’ serious beliefs, we are not doing our jobs as historians. We must understand the ideational world that created Jones Very, the culture that committed him, and the critique both he and Emerson levied against that culture.
* William Major and Bryan Sinche, “Giving Emerson the Boot,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 17, 2010.