Limning New Regions of Thought: Emerson’s Abstract Regionalism

Abstract : New England has too long monopolized the attention of regionalist writers and critics alike, and we do not intend to take it once again as the major representative of a literary genre that flourished towards the close of the century, even as the region’s political impress upon the nation began to decline. If we go back to New England still in this paper, it is because as early as in the 1830s and 1840s, well before the word “regionalism” was coined, New England was preeminently “the site of contestation over the meaning of region.” (Fetterley and Pryse) The region that New England also was, in addition to its claims as the beating heart of the nation, was indistinguishably an abstraction and a highly recognizable piece of land, two definitions in keeping with New England-born Noah Webster’s definitions and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s variations on the meaning of the term. What is at stake in this fluctuating semiosis is not a mere symptom of the “newness” of a national lexicon; it tells of the prequels of regionalism as an uneasy response to the process of abstraction that is the building of a nation-state. Both appealing and a priori forbidden, such abstraction, haunted Emerson’s usages of the word: throughout his essays, lectures and journals, New England is indeed repeatedly divested of its particulars and understood as a “region” of the mind, an abstraction in its own right that problematizes the relative positions and definitions of both region and nation. If Emerson’s New England seems to lack substance, color or flesh, we wish to contend that this process of “emptying out” enabled him in fact to conceive of the region as a possible universal. New England’s lack of particularity, its generality as it were, allowed it to encompass, yet neither contain, nor erase, the nation’s many regional characters. In that perspective, Emerson’s region was not so much a “part” of the nation envisaged as a “whole,” as a “line” that circumscribed and defined, thus reactivating the etymological meaning of the word; it became a moving frontier whose limitless expansion would adumbrate the nation’s manifest destiny. New England could therefore be thought as the “idea” of the nation, its “measure,” the “third abstract term” via which every other place could be translated into America, at least until this conflictive yet functional articulation between region and nation was shaken by the inescapable, inacceptable and untranslatable reality of the “particular institution” of slavery. With the “Fugitive Slave Act” (1850), the promise of the Union as abstraction was turned into an all-too concrete compromise, a despicable trade-off that forced Emerson to reconsider one more time New England’s place within the nation.
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Thomas Constantinesco, Cécile Roudeau. Limning New Regions of Thought: Emerson’s Abstract Regionalism . ESQ : a journal of the American Renaissance, 2014, 60 (2), pp.287-328. ⟨10.1353/esq.2014.0008⟩. ⟨hal-01378885⟩



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