‘A Backward Glance O'er’ the (Dis)United States: William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the ‘Authentic American Religion’


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Abstract

This article begins with a brief consideration of the resurgence of religious rhetoric as currently used by George W. Bush. It discusses this alongside what Harold Bloom terms an ‘authentic American religion’ in his article, ‘Reflections in the Evening Land’ (December 17, 2005). Bloom looks retrospectively at Emersonian self-reliance as the ‘authentic American religion’ and he urges contemporary American readers to remember this as a truly American religion. An exploration of this apparent correlation between self-reliance and an authentic American religion uncovers the somewhat unnoticed influence of William Blake's poetry on Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. A close analysis of Emerson's early reading of Blake beside a consideration of Blake's ‘London’ (1794), ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ (1794) and Emerson's ‘Self-Reliance’ (1841) and ‘Society and Solitude’ (1870) documents the development of Emersonian self-reliance into a more assured term. This is accounted for by Emerson's growing interest and immersion in the poetry of this English poet, William Blake. The article concludes, contentiously, with the declaration that it is only through this transatlantic study of Blake's and Emerson's writing that Bloom's ‘authentic American religion’ can really be understood.

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