Leigh Eric Schmidt. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality [Chapter 2: "Solitude"]. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.
Although Schmidt's entire book is highly informative about a historical subject not well covered elsewhere, it is Chapter 2 entitled "Solitude" that is especially interesting.
Schmidt's thesis throughout his book is that American society evolved a particular rationale to its nineteenth-century liberal and democratic ideology by refocusing on religion and the individual. Solitude had an integral place in the eclectic spiritual thought of the era. Not quite a syncretism because it retained the strong features of its nineteenth-century origins, this American spirituality evolved organically from the social and material conditions of the country, especially New England, and evolved under the tutelage of a consensus of powerful and often eccentric thinkers.
Chapter 2. Solitude
The author opens Chapter 2 evoking the image of Henry David Thoreau's famous morning reverie in his cottage at Walden Pond "amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness." Thoreau protested that he was "naturally no hermit" but wrote that
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
The significance of Thoreau is not simply his Walden experiment but his articulation of values learned and exercised there, and his linking them to universal religious practices: his pond-bathing as ablutions, his food and material possessions conscious and deliberate expressions of an ascetic self, his evocation of Hindu and Buddhist discipline, his discovery of meditation as a method of understanding, and -- above all -- his praise of solitude.
Thoreau's transcendentalism and his concept of solitude grew within strong currents of Christianity that inevitably could be evoked as historical precedent. But, as author Schmidt explains:
Thoreau and company revalued solitude, opening it outward from specifically Christian forms of retired devotion into more diffuse forms of aspiration, religious and artistic. ...
Solitude, in effect, underwent a post-Protestant transformation in which the search for isolation and retreat became the spiritual motto for more than one generation of seekers. Thoreau and his circle managed to leave a lasting mark on American imagings of spirituality, evident in a long train of figures from John Muir and John Burroughs to Thomas Merton and Annie Dillard who make the solitary life an object of meditation and desire.
The rest of Chapter 2 is therefore essentially an exploration of how the concept of solitude evolved in nineteenth century American spirituality, thought, and expression.
A long tradition of Protestant and Enlightenment hostility toward eremitism was well established in this era, focused specifically on the early Christian desert hermits. Edward Gibbon, the quintessential Enlightenment historian, had blasted the "savage enthusiasm" of the desert hermits, writing that "These unhappy exiles from social life were impelled by the dark and implacable genius of superstition."
Of course, Gibbon would have applied this sentiment to any Christian, but he reserved special scorn for the hermits for what he called their "blind submission to ecclesiastical authority." Representative Protestant thinkers such as Henry Coventry dismissed hermits as "mystics." Nineteenth-century successors like Henry Ruffner linked the "saintly savages" to monasticism: "the monstrous system of Popish tyranny and persecution."
More conciliatory Protestant views criticized solitude as alienating and disaffected. Non-sectarian thinking evolved this perspective. Schmidt notes:
Popular tales that circulated in the first half of the nineteenth century about more recent hermits reinforced the low and fearful standing of solitude as destitution. In the lore of contemporary wonders and marvels, hermits were known far more for lost love and unredeemed suffering than spiritual potential.
Thus we have narratives of the afflicted black man Robert Voorhis of Rhode Island, a former slave; of John Conrad Shafford, made solitary by a life of sorrows; and Sara Bishop of Long Island, who fled the shame of rape into solitude and life in a cave. As Schmidt sums it: "Pity and Protestant polemic ... were less than promising bases for Thoreau's revaluing of solitude."
But not all views of eremitism were hostile. An undercurrent of thought appears in the German Johann Zimmerman, the translation of whose book "Solitude" was popular in the first half of the nineteenth century in the U.S. Methodist editor John Eyre advocated solitude for a life of quiet retirement and spiritual reflection. And mitigating the harsh image of the desert hermits and cultivating the virtues of solitude became the chief ambition of Catholic writer Orestes Brownson and in part Quaker authors like the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
The true reconciliation of solitude and spirituality remained the provenance of the Transcendentalists. Transcendentalist thinkers were schooled in traditional theology (usually at Harvard Divinity School), acquainted with the texts and ideas of world religions, and eager to address the phenomenon of American individualism.
What Schmidt calls "the fullest American exposition of the subject in the nineteenth century" was William Rounseville Alger's "The Solitude of Nature and of Man" published in 1867. Alger had already published an anthology of poetry from China, India, and Persia, much praised by Transcendentalists, and his book on solitude was nothing less in universal scope. Alger studies the interaction of people and wilderness in the American experience, the ills of modern social settings, and the value of solitude as "therapeutical instruction." He has no patience with the value of solitude as egoism or narcissism but insists on solitude's moral function in the soul. Alger's cautionary notes lend a measured approach balanced with romantic touches, an attractive non-sectarian defense of solitude compatible with the popular consciousness of the day. Concludes Schmidt:
Thoreau's "Walden" and Alger's "Solitudes of Nature and Man" were telltale markers of the emergence of a spirituality of solitude and fugitive serenity in American culture.
Chapter 2 then moves quickly through the landscape of American thinking about hermits and solitude projected into the twentieth century. Various perspectives tumble forth.
First, a significant transition between Transcendentalism and appreciations of nature is evidenced in the development of nature writing in John Burroughs. Secondly, in the social sphere, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's speech "Solitude of Self" effectively links the status of women, "democratic individuality, and self-reliance, but also ... the spiritualized solitude of each human soul." Stanton rejects romantic or sentimentalist notions of solitude by presenting the suffering of women as an existential reality that a concept of egalitarianism -- based on the solitude of self -- can address.
Third, eccentric religious expression firmly links to solitude, as represented by John Chapman, better know as Johnny Appleseed. Usually identified as a backwoodsman and itinerant, Chapman was in fact motivated to propagate Swedenborgianism as much as apple trees. His selflessness, simplicity, solitude, and reverence for animals elicited praise from many quarters. One contemporary observer described Chapman as a "New England kind of saint, much like a Hindu saint, akin to Thoreau and Emerson."
Religious excursions into solitude were extended by other representatives of the new spirituality, such as the prototypical Indian lecturer Chunder Mozoomdar, popular in New England Transcendentalist circles. The series of turn-of-the-century lectures by psychologist William James published as "Varieties of Religious Experience" reflect an apex of American interest in this eclectic and home-grown spiritual movement. It is not difficult to project this interest into the twentieth-century, from Paul Bruton to Thomas Merton, as author Schmidt does.
The place of solitude and spirituality in the trajectory of American thought "first took flight on the Transcendentalist wing of nineteenth-century religious liberalism," concludes Schmidt. The role of solitude in this tradition diverges into various expressions of cultural creativity, often diverging from the core observations of Thoreau but always in sight of his important influence. Schmidt's thesis, that this movement sought to address if not reconcile the unique American experience of individualism, wilderness, spirituality, and egalitarianism, is imaginatively developed in his book, an important and informative resource.