There is a notable tendency amongst intellectuals in the United States to simultaneously bound and ground their discussion of any field with reference, vague or otherwise, towards transcendence, whether intellectual, moral, or aesthetic. This feature on average distinguishes American writers from their British counterparts, who are much less likely than American authors to invoke such absolutes when pulling their punches and blunting their knives, or at least British writers do this with much less conviction. The English in particular only indicate the absolute in a casual manner if at all, and over their shoulders, resentfully as it were, rather than hailing it as an authoritative justification for the otherwise arbitrary limit to their analysis.
This phenomenon is evident in many areas, and I have been reminded of it recently by resuming my reading of evolutionary biology, where even in Britain and in rather hard-headed writers such as Dawkins, the will to transcendence is by no means absent. But hardly anywhere is it so full-throated as in American authors, for example those asserting the significance of emergence, discontinuity and holism. Gould is of course the obvious type specimen.
The variation is, in my judgment, real without doubt; but the fact is perhaps surprising and its origins certainly obscure. The US, you might think, is at least closely related to the British tradition. Why are they now so different, in such a crucial locus? No one should dismiss the creative pressures of recent, local social dynamics in the US, but the character of nineteenth century American writing, which is already vastly more strident in its assertion of the Absolute, suggests that the divergence is of long-standing. We have no Emerson, thankfully, or at least not one we talk about.
Two candidate explanations suggest themselves: those leaving England in the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not a random sample from the population. Their religious and their political views were unusually strong, and unusually hostile to the world, to flesh and the devil. This must have had some relevance, and has perhaps left a lasting mark. But it seems to me inadequate in its strength, and inappropriate in the strong individualism of its character. Something else must have been added to result in the present state of American transcendentalism, which has more collectivism than is typical, I think, of British protestantism. Instead, we should look, perhaps, to those parts of European thinking where the supervenient is combined with a belief in its ubiquity and omnipresence, namely in the philosophy of spirit, as manifested in idealism, particularly German idealism, and in Roman Catholicism, both of which were established in the US during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by immigration from central Europe, from Scandinavia, from the Mediterranean, from Ireland and from Scotland, amongst other relevant locations.
As a result, American literature, construed in the broad sense which includes history, fiction, belles lettres, journalism, verse and philosophy, is much more European than the English expect it to be on the basis of the bare historical outline and the matter of an apparently shared linguistic instrument. Churchill's shallow witticism - "two nations divided by a common language" - does not recognize that the language in common, and by the way not all of it is, is used, frequently enough and on average, to articulate views that are rooted in almost antithetical traditions. This may account for the striking and I think incontestable fact that American writers never seem entirely comfortable or satisfied with their own articulations, frequently reaching for neologisms or, and this is for me a giveaway, the quote, particularly the quoted epigraph, which pared of context has a less focused, sublunary field of reference. – It gestures beyond itself, as A.C. Bradley once acutely remarked of successful poetry. Perhaps as important is the possibility that, protected by a famous name, Dostoevsky as it might be, the epigraph carries its sententious burden without exposing the quoter to direct criticism. English is not as a literary and linguistic tradition of discourse well adjusted to the expression of transcendental views. In England, if we start to talk of the "The All", in a rich Emersonian dialect, we feel that the medium itself, to say nothing of the society around us, is laughing and laughing very unkindly at our naivety. The society does not laugh in the United States, it is very serious about these things, but the language resists and the resonance of its semantic hinterland returns a hollow and mocking echo. No wonder that American writers seem determined to reinvent the whole thing. However, it might be quicker just to learn French, or German.