American literature begins, tragically, with the death of the young pastor Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife, Ellen, in 1831—or perhaps more precisely, a year later, when Emerson opened the tomb, looked at his wife’s decaying corpse, and shortly thereafter quit his career in the Unitarian Church to become an essayist in the secular mode.
This true and macabre story bears a slight resemblance to the Buddha’s awakening: The Buddha leaves his father’s fabulous palace, sees death and suffering all around him, and is enlightened. It also reveals a distinctly American preference for the subjective and the skeptical. Received beliefs about the nature of things for Emerson, after 1832, became subject to the individual’s experience of things; the self, rather than a sacred text, became the key which opened metaphysical doors; the lived, the corporeal, and the personal became the test for truth.
As Charles Taylor notes in Sources of the Self, the individualism of American culture is based on the Puritan tradition of a community member “leaving home” to “take up a stance authentically of his or her own.” Emerson’s 19th-century transcendentalism is a secular variant of this radical protestant imperative (as is the counterculture of the 1960s, and its subsequent echoes and iterations). Tracing this American genealogy, we find iconoclastic searching, searing self-skepticism, and, simultaneously, a faith in the self as an instrument of nature and, ultimately, the divine.