Date of Award
Master of Arts
Janet Atwill, Martin Griffin
The two major anthologies of Transcendentalism, Perry Miller’s The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (1950) and Joel Myerson’s Transcendentalism: A Reader (2000), illustrate the scholarly divide over whether the movement was primarily religious or social and political in nature. Where Miller’s volume prioritizes the Transcendentalists’ theological radicalism, Myerson’s emphasizes their interest in social and political reform. This paper presents a third alternative: that the Transcendentalists be understood primarily as a community of readers invested in reimagining how and why antebellum Americans read, a concern we can see clearly in the pages of the Dial. Margaret Fuller’s article “A Short Essay on Critics,” the first article in the Dial’s inaugural issue set the tone by lamenting the laziness and passivity of American readers and by calling for a new kind of criticism that met the demands of empowered readers. Positioning herself with all readers, she wrote, “Able and experienced men write for us, and we would know what they think, as they think it not for us but for themselves… We would converse with him [the critic], secure that he will tell us all his thought, and speak as man to man.” What Fuller asked for was an altogether new understanding of the relationship between readers and critics. Throughout the Dial’s fouryear run, the Transcendentalists used it to propose and practice a radical new theory of reading, one that departed from models dominant in the university and the church. Dial editors and contributors rejected hierarchical models of reading that located authority in a text, an author, or a critic. Instead, they insisted that the individual reader determine the meaning and value of literature through an intuitive connection with “Spirit.” Proper interpretation, they argued, is not strictly personal, but transpersonal, with the best interpretations emerging dialectically from sympathetic “conversations” between the author and the individual reader, and between the individual reader and a community of inspired readers. Because they imagined reading as conversation, the Transcendentalists constructed the Dial as a virtual salon, a place where these personal conversations could become communal.
Cope, Emily A., "The Dial and the Transcendentalist Theory of Reading. " Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee, 2008.