Comparing Evil in Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville

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Lionel Trilling once said, "A proper sense of evil is surely an attribute of a great writer." (98-99) Although he made the remark in a different context, one would naturally associate Hawthorne and Melville with the comment, while Emerson's might be one of the last names to mind. For the modern reader, who is often in the habit of assuming that the most profound and incisive apprehension of reality is a sense of tragedy, Emerson seems to have lost his grip. He has often been charged with a lack of vision of evil and tragedy. Yeats, for example, felt that Whitman and Emerson "have begun to seem superficial, precisely because they lack the Vision of Evil" (qtd. in Matthiessen 181).

There is no doubt that Emerson was a yea-sayer. He did celebrate the daylight and hope in preference to blackness and despair. At the same time, however, he was not unaware of the existence of evil. He personally went through the agony of unusual poverty and a series of deaths of his beloved ones, and his own health was constantly threatened. He knew life was hard and full of tribulations. But Emerson discovered the key to the perplexing reality in absolute faith in human nature and divinity: A human being is capable of banishing whatever evil with the guidance of divinity that sometimes seems to accomplish the just cause at any cost, even by an evil agent. Throughout 'Self-Reliance' echoes his strong conviction in human nature and God:

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events...And we are new men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and inv...

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.... "Self-Reliance." The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. Sculley Bradley et al. Vol. 1, 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1983. 1036-1048.

-----. "The American Scholar." The American Tradition in Literature. 1080-1092.

-----. "Experience." The American Tradition in Literature. 1126-1135.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Young Goodman Brown." The American Tradition in Literature. 672-683.

Hoeltje, Hubert H. "Hawthorne, Melville, and Blackness," American Literature, 37 (1965): 279-285.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford & University Press, 1941.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 1967.

-----. Billy Budd. The American Tradition in Literature. 997-1054.

Sherman, Paul. Emerson's Angle of Vision Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952.

Trilling, Lionel. The Opposing Self. New York: Viking Press, 1955.

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