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Toward a More Perfect Engine: Natural Science and Optimism in the American Renaissance




Lisle, Benjamin

Type of Degree





This dissertation examines the discourse regarding the perfectibility of American society among four figures associated with the American Renaissance: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson in English Traits, Nature, and many of his other works suggests that America, because of both its racial and cultural constitution, will reach the endpoint of human knowledge. To a large degree, Emerson bases his beliefs upon the biological concepts of race during his time. His protégé Thoreau, however, consistently argues against the belief in human progress espoused by his mentor. Thoreau’s works from three different genres are explored: journalism, lectures, and non-fiction. Margaret Fuller, in both her journalism and Woman in the Nineteenth Century, argues that by granting equal rights to woman American society will become a utopia. Fuller believes, based on her own experiences with the esoteric practice of mesmerism and her understanding of the theories of the Christian mystic Immanuel Swedenborg, that women have a superior access to divine revelation and, consequently, altruism. Hence, when women are given their due freedom, the world will fulfill the expectations of her Christian millennialism. Nathaniel Hawthorne, on the other hand, is suspicious of the practice of mesmerism and the ability of technology to correct the flaws of human society. Ultimately, this dissertation explores the particular scientific and philosophical influences that fueled Emerson’s and Fuller’s optimism as well as the impetus for Thoreau’s and Hawthorne’s guarded cynicism.