The quest for reality in literature was not born with Realism. Antebellum authors earnestly sought "the real" too, but scholars who study these authors have typically argued that they defined the real in terms of the ideal. Not so, argues E. Thomas Finan. While antebellum authors did valorize the realm of ideals, he contends, they also believed that we can understand and access that realm only by encountering the actual. According to Finan, their approach to reality is best understood as "the experiential real," an effort to grasp ideals in terms of experiences with material reality.
Finan's study responds to two notable precursors. Both Elisa New's The Line's Eye (1998) and Branka Aršič's On Leaving (2010) identify in the antebellum real a problematic ideal of transparency--a desire to see past the details of life to its higher reality. Because this process obviates difference in an imperialistic way, New and Arsic favor surfaces and glances. In addressing their arguments, Finan concedes that transparency poses a trap, but he argues that the antebellum authors of the experiential real avoid it by allying transparency and surfaces. Challenging rote interpretations of things, the experiential real inspires an uncommon vision that disrupts the social order and the selves defined by it.
Opening with a chapter on the antebellum concept of the real, this book offers one chapter each on Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, and a closing chapter on a handful of other authors. First of all, we learn, antebellum American thinkers differed over just how "real" literature was. Many of them devalued it on moral grounds, arguing that novels distort reality and thus undermine real world morality. They cited John Locke, who traced all knowledge to sense impressions and scorned Platonic essentialism, which he viewed as "only abstract ideas" that give "us no knowledge of real existence at all" (23). American empiricists also cited Locke's successor Thomas Reid--author of a Common Sense (1764) that antedated Thomas Paine's by a dozen years--who denied that "ideas are eternal and self-existent, and that they have a more real existence than the things we see and feel" (qtd. 25). Yet in the face of American empiricists, who re-affirmed this denigration of abstract ideas, the Transcendentalists distinguished the real from the actual, and they championed literature for its capacity to disclose what they considered the real. Reading, they argued, was a process of testing ideas, the world, and inherited cultural traditions so as to illuminate higher truths. Rather than fleeing experience by means of books, readers were said to converse with it intimately.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is a major player in this cultural contest. While stressing that literature promotes moral action in the real world by disclosing reality, he argues that it does so by unrealizing, by causing readers to see anew what they formerly took to be real but was only phenomenal, merely apparent. As Finan explains, Emerson urges his readers not to negate material things but to view them as steps on a path towards a higher truth. In the essay called "Nominalist and Realist," Finan says, Emerson dialectically contrasts these two ways of thinking. While a realist surveys particular instances in order to grasp general realities, a nominalist finds those generalities disrupted by particulars. Both faculties are essential, Emerson claims; they work in tandem because each needs the other. While all particulars are incomplete, all unities are "seed[ed]" with "disruptive heterogeneities" that fracture the unity (39). To see how limited particulars are and yet also how much they disrupt unity is to see beyond materiality to higher truths. This dialectic, Finan shows, informs both the essays "The Poet," "Experience," "Nature," and "Circles," and the poems "Bacchus," "Merlin I" and "Merlin II." According to Finan, Emerson's ideal is never transparency but instead clearer vision. One does not see Truth; one more clearly sees the path towards Truth.
Finan also treats Whitman and Dickinson as exponents of the experiential real. Whitman's poetry champions material reality: "Hurrah for positive science," he writes in section 23 of "Song of Myself." More accurately, though, Finan argues that Whitman's poetry spurs readers to interrogate experience by creating "a space for interpersonal exchange, internal reflection, and the revision of particularity" (69). This created space is a "vista," meaning a simultaneous grasp of a broad view, the elements that comprise it, and their relationships to one another.
Dickinson's engagement with the experiential real foregrounds the role of consciousness in it. She understands consciousness as both captivity and freedom, a condition that limits our grasp of the real even as it constitutes that grasp. By showing how consciousness structures the real, Finan argues, her poetry opens the eyes of her readers and enables them to re-order their perception. Dickinson's sublime and her indeterminacy are both strategies for such opening.
Finally, Finan suggests that this antebellum tradition of seeking depth in surfaces influenced the Modernist poets William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane. If Thoreau seeks from Walden Pond a point d'appui, something hard that will serve as a foundation for his explorations of the real, he can find it only in surface facts. Paradoxically, then, the surface of Walden Pond is said to be the foundation for his exploration of its depths. Analogously, Hart Crane builds what he called "a bridge between so-called classic experience and the many divergent realities of our seething, confused cosmos of today" (qtd. 138), and Williams idealizes what he calls a "condition of imaginative suspense," which Finan glosses as the suspension of many "faculties and perspectives . . . in a single moment" (152).
Finan persuasively shows that "the experiential real" is a main theme of antebellum literature, and I think future scholars would do well to adopt this term. But I also hope they will pursue some of the questions it raises. Is it hard to comprehend larger patterns and individual details simultaneously? Which arguments might this approach to reality help us resolve, both today and in the past? Finan might be a little too willing to defend the authors he loves. For example, in my own recent reading of "Nominalist and Realist" in Rethinking Sympathy and Human Contact in Nineteenth-Century American Literature: Hawthorne, Douglass, Stowe, Dickinson (2019), I argued that while Emerson does indeed value both universals and particulars, he loves universals more, which causes him to devalue sympathy (which he associates with particulars) in human relationships. Since his theories of human contact are--in my opinion-- correspondingly cold and intellectual, his thinking raises questions that Finan leaves unresolved.
The "both/and" argument of this book tends to occlude the trauma and complexity of the topics it probes. In Moby Dick, for example, consider what Ahab says about the binarism of appearance and "the little lower layer" on which Finan is surprisingly silent:
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. (Chapter 36)
This famous passage articulates the infuriating experience of trying to get through surface appearances to deeper truths, all the while suspecting there may be "naught beyond." One could argue that Ahab confronts "the experiential real" as he grapples with the pasteboard mask of the whale even while seeking the Truth beneath it. Yet insofar as Ahab exemplifies the human condition, Melville is not sanguine about it. The whale "tasks" and "heaps" Ahab. Rather than opening his eyes to ever wider vistas, it drives him insane: "I'm demoniac," he cries, "I am madness maddened!" (chapter37). If this is the traumatic result of confronting the "experiential real," Finan elides the trauma. He does likewise in claiming that Thoreau finds his point d'appui in the surface of Walden Pond. To my mind, it is both infuriating and intellectually demanding to interrogate a surface in quest of deep understanding. Finan under-reports the traumatic and demanding details of this quest.
Also, in bypassing the historical and political contexts in which this quest takes place, he understates the high stakes of his own compelling argument. In My Bondage and My Freedom, for example, Frederick Douglass describes how a church pastor named Father Bonney treated "colored" members during the communion service:
after a long pause, as if inquiring whether all the white members had been served, and fully assuring himself on that important point, [he] then raised his voice to an unnatural pitch, and looking to the corner where his black sheep seemed penned, beckoned with his hand, exclaiming, "Come forward, colored friends! -- come forward! You, too, have an interest in the blood of Christ. God is no respecter of persons. Come forward, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort." The colored members poor, slavish souls went forward, as invited. (My Bondage and My Freedom. The Frederick Douglass Papers, Ed. John W. Blassingame [Yale UP, 1982] 203)
While voicing an "ideal," Father Bonney blithely ignores just how much "appearance" undermines it. (What Bonney calls "persons" are what Finan calls "appearances," and to say that "God is no respecter of persons" is to express what Finan calls "idealism.") Douglass clearly grasps that the ideal of transparency is an ideological screen covering up oppression in the name of equality and allowing those in power to believe in theory what they deny in practice. As I show in my own book cited above, this anecdote spotlights how the cause of justice requires us both to envision an ideal truth (all human beings are equal) and to recognize the potency of surfaces (racism belies idealism). The stakes of "the experiential real" are high indeed, alive today in the Black Lives Matter and other social movements. They also offer a useful vantage point for interrogating antebellum complacency. While Emerson may theorize in "Nominalist and Realist" that truth requires both universals and individual persons, he belonged to an all-white social club from which Frederick Douglass was barred. Did he ever ask himself if "surfaces" like skin color could undermine his own quest for "higher" thought?
Finan's book shines when he celebrates the role of reading in the experiential real. While some critics find in texts only the ideological effects they are hunting, Finan thinks reading should transform readers. He is not anti-Theory but, like Rita Felski in The Limits of Critique (2015), he stresses that literary experience is irreducible to literary theory, and that our approaches to literature should remain open to the "suggestion of some richness of life that transcends our surfaces of discursive thinking" (158). While theory helps us think critically about our reading, immersive reading liberates us, offering opportunities for enchantment, recognition, surprise, and change. In a passage Finan quotes, Felski stresses that literature "is a potential source of knowledge rather than just an object of knowledge--one whose cognitive impact and implications are tied up with its affective reach" (qtd. 15). We do not simply study a book; we feel it. I appreciate Finan's argument that whole-souled reading changes us, and hopefully our society, if we open ourselves to the expansive experience it avails.
Marianne Noble is Associate Professor of Literature at American University.