Striking similarities in the philosophical views of American transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and French writer Victor Hugo are examined in a new book by a University of Missouri-Rolla lecturer. The book examines a connection that had previously gone unnoticed in literary criticism.
"The Romantic and Transcendental Quests of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Victor-Marie Hugo," by Dr. Regina Young, will be published this fall by the Edwin Mellen Press in Lewiston, N.Y.
Hugo, best known as the author of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Les Miserables," is often described as a moody, eccentric megalomaniac and superficial trifler. But Young disputes that view.
"Hugo was anything but superficial," Young argues, "because his mind delved deeply into the most profound questions of existence: Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the purpose of life? What should a government do or not do? He dedicated his life to the exploration of these questions.
"Hugo has been misunderstood in literary criticism so far because his pantheistic philosophy has not been recognized," Young says. Against the backdrop of American Transcendentalism, a new understanding of Hugo emerges. "As it turns out, he has spiritual kin across the Atlantic in New England, in Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson."
It is the connection with Emerson, in particular, that Young focuses on in the book.
Emerson, a leading figure in American literature, advocated transcendentalism through his poetry, lectures and essays the most famous of which are "Nature" and "Self-Reliance."
"It is Emerson’s transcendental philosophy that makes him so typically ‘American,’" Young says. "He is sometimes seen as a precursor of modern psychology with its emphasis on self-responsibility and accountability."
Young says that transcendental philosophy is shared by Hugo.
"The French writer Victor Hugo, like Emerson, had a pantheistic understanding of the world," says Young, and both shared a profoundly positive understanding of the human being. "They both saw what human life and human beings could and should be. They believed in the goodness and great potential of humanity."