Emergence and Decline of American Literary Personalism. From Whitman to Bowne

Author: Schmidt, Bernard
Personalism was a philosophic movement centered in Boston and led by Borden Parker Bowne. His disciples, Albert C. Knudson, Ralph Tyler Flewelling, and Egdar Sheffield Brightman, gave it energetic if not long life; the therapist-philosopher Carl Rogers is its only well-known, modern proponent. The Personalist Forum is the journal for the small, hardy group of scholars who publish in this field. Dr. Bernard Schmidt argues with telling effect that there were literary precursors to the Boston Personalists whom scholars need to study if the movement is to be thoroughly understood. Walt Whitman published his article “Personalism” in The Galaxy in 1868. Along with his Personalistic declarations in Democratic Vistas (1871), it provokes the idea that Whitman was a Personalist who used his philosophy to undergird “Song of Myself.”

The book stresses emergence rather than decline. Whitman and Alcott were important voices in American Personalistic literature, the former speaking through “Song of Myself,” the latter through a clear and well-reasoned dispute with Emerson. Of course, both had other Personalistic pronouncements. So this study emphasizes the impact of Personalism on American literature; this has not been done before. It shows that Alcott had more to say in his letters, journals, and books than Emerson and more modern critics have allowed. Whitman’s reputation has been made, but his Galaxy article “Personalism” reveals an added dimension of his thought. With its cosmic optimism, it shares the direction of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being. Let not obscurity diminish the value of American literary Personalism, which comes to us in seminal form from Whitman and the lesser light Alcott.


“Professor Schmidt brings an excellent scholarly background to his research. He has studied personalism and the works of Alcott for over three decades. His dissertation, Alcott, Personalistic Idealist,” was completed in 1982 at the University of Miami with the commendation of his advisor, Dr. Francis Skipp. During his career as a professor, Dr. Schmidt authored several seminal articles on the relationship between transcendentalism and personalism. This collection of scholarly works laid the foundation for the current book, which will help several fields of scholarship, by providing analysis of personalism’s early, formative years in Massachusetts, and by continuing through to its decline in the twentieth century. Professor Schmidt has assembled impressive insights based on his considerable experience. The outcome of his effort is an excellent book, which will serve literature, theology, and philosophy.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) David P. Schmidt, Ph.D.,University of Massachusetts, Amherst

“Dr.Schmidt….cogently describes the development of the Personalist thought, particularly focusing on the contributions of Walt Whitman, and provides an insightful commentary regarding the strengths and weaknesses of this movement. In doing so, he ably describes the interactions between the Personalists and other noted figures, such as Emerson, Alcott, and James, thus providing critical context for the underappreciated role of Personalism in influencing related schools of thought.” – Greg Samsa, PhD, Duke University

“Dr. Schmidt’s [book] is an examination of the development of Personalism in literature and philosophy, from Whitman to Emerson and Alcott, to William James and twentieth-century academics. Such a history was needed, as the subject has been neglected for too long. Dr. Schmidt sprinkles his text with enough quotations from primary sources to make the reader grateful that the rococo nineteenth-century sentences and arcane vocabulary have been digested and reduced to graceful and clear modern prose. It’s rare to find a work of the finest scholarship that is nevertheless accessible to the lay reader. This is one such, and its subject is important and not as widely understood as it should be.” – Dr. David Steele

Table of Contents

1. Whitman and American Personalistic Philosophy
2. Bronson Alcott’s Developing Personalism and the Argument with Emerson
3. The Essence of Bronson Alcott’s Personalistic Idealism
4. Bronson Alcott’s Personalistic Church
5. Bronson Alcott and the Beginnings of Personalistic Idealism
6. William James and the Decline of American Personalism