Title page for ETD etd-0417102-215906

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Scalia, Bill R.
Author's Email Address bscalia@lsu.edu
URN etd-0417102-215906
Title American Transcendental Vision: Emerson to Chaplin
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Department English
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
John R. May Committee Chair
Bainard Cowan Committee Member
Dave Smith Committee Member
Ronald Garay Committee Member
Miles Richardson Dean's Representative
  • transcendentalism
  • Swedenborg
  • silent film
  • film and poetry
  • American literature
  • film theory
  • American film
  • literature and film
  • American literature
Date of Defense 2002-03-25
Availability unrestricted
Ralph Waldo Emerson's publication of Nature in 1836 began a process of creating a new condition of American thinking, severed from European cultural and intellectual influences. The subsequent lectures The American Scholar and The Divinity School Address furthered this process, calling for an original American literature. Emerson's writing called consistently for poets with the ability to "see" past the material, apparent world to the world of eternal forms, which shaped nature in accordance with a divine moral imperative. Through this connection, man-as-poet would discover God in himself. In short, Emerson effectively transferred divinity from Unitarian doctrine to the individual, thereby asserting each individual as the center of his own moral universe.

Emerson's prose utilizes visual metaphors to express ideas which escape conventional language usage. The poet, according to Emerson, would have the ability to trace words back to their original associations with things, and thus reveal the true world of facts. His emphasis on seeing (in all aspects of that term) dominates Emerson's writing and determines an aesthetic which is as much visual as it is verbal.

Emerson's theories found disciples in Thoreau and Whitman, but the most interesting extension of his aesthetic came with the development of the motion picture. In the early twentieth century, D. W. Griffith singlehandedly changed the status of films from sideshow amusements to narrative art. Griffith's techniques for creating visual narrative were intuitive and inspired from his imagination, an essential quality of the Emersonian poet. Griffith's own moral imperative was similar to Emerson's; he envisioned a medium which could educate more effectively than language.

Charles Chaplin was, from 1920 through 1936, the most recognizable figure in the world because of his unique screen comedies. Chaplin's enduring character, the Tramp, evokes much of Emerson's qualities of the poet in that he envisioned the world beyond the apparent, and creatively reconstituted this world in the way Emerson had done with visual metaphor. Chaplin combined the humanism of Emerson with the democratic possibilities of Whitman to create a uniquely American cinema with universal appeal. Chaplin's body of work remains America's most logical extension of Emersonian philosophy.

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