Grammars of Time, Senses of the Past

  • Peter Rawlings


In The Philosophy of History, Hegel consigned America to the future and thereby rendered it intensely susceptible in speculative and aesthetic realms to present vicissitudes and the contingencies of an ever intangible beyond.1 Hegel could argue, at least in the early eighteenth century, that ‘the general object of the existence of this State is not yet fixed and determined’, for ‘a real State and a real Government arise only after a distinction of classes has arisen’ (85). ‘America is therefore the land of the future’, a ‘land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical lumber-room of old Europe’:

It is for America to abandon the ground on which hitherto the History of the World has developed itself. What has taken place in the New World up to the present time is only an echo of the Old World—the expression of a foreign life; and as a Land of the Future, it has no interest for us here, for, as regards History, our concern must be with that which has been and that which is. (87)

Emerson’s reaction to the ‘historical lumber-room’ of the Old World, which included Shakespeare and that pressure to cower imitatively in his wake surveyed at the outset of the last chapter, was to seize with great alacrity on the apparent detachment of America from history. For Emerson and his Transcendentalist fellow-travellers, the local and particular were valuable only as the means to, or types of, the universal; and temporal sequence, let alone the specific narratives of history, was a distraction from the progression, however inchoately expressible, to things spiritual and divine. America, and its cognates of poetry and ‘wonder’, like the Shakespeare Emerson had envisaged, could ‘spring’, ‘from the invisible, to abolish the past’ (‘Shakespeare; or, The Poet’ 119).


American Literature Creative Evolution Indirect Speech Liberal Imagination American Scene 
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© Peter Rawlings 2005

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  • Peter Rawlings

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