Mutualist and transcendentalist bits — William B. Greene

William Batchelder Greene (1818-1878), the “American Proudhon,” is a strangely underdocumented character, given his importance to the individualist anarchist tradition. He has yet to find his biographer, though many of his contemporaries considered his life interesting enough to mention in other contexts. This entry from George Willis Cooke’s Historical and Biographical Introduction to the Rowfant Club reprint of The Dial gathers some of those accounts (and I have gathered the relevant text in the Libertarian Labyrinth.)

We know that there are articles and letters in periodicals going back into the early 1840s which have, at best, been mentioned as sources for later works. For example, the letters to the Worcester Palladium which formed the basis for Equality and then the various editions of Mutual Banking do not seem to have been reprinted anywhere. There is plenty of reason to be interested in early drafts of Greene’s mutualist ideas, as his rationale for advocating mutualism changed gradually over the years–or at least saw a variety of presentations. There is probably even more reason to lament the obscurity of his theological and philosophical writings. These have hardly been examined by the historians of individualism, despite the fact that many of Greene’s most direct statements about freedom and justice are contained there. In fact, Greene seems to have had a knack for squirreling potentially important bits away in odd corners of his writings. A fascinating passage on human sovereignty, for example, is tucked in a footnote to his version of the Book of Job.

It’s a pleasure, then, to fill in even a few holes in the record on Greene’s early writing, and it appears I may be able to contribute a bit to our knowledge of his brief dalliance with American transcendentalism. “First Principles,” which appeared in the January 1842 issue of The Dial, is noted by Cooke as Greene’s only contribution to the journal, but that same issue also contains a piece by “W. B. G.” entitled “Beauty, Justice and Harmony,” which bears at least some of the marks of Greene’s thought at the time. The editors of The Dial were certainly aware of Greene’s theological work, noting in a later issue that a review of The Doctrine of Life had been crowded out by too-plentiful submissions, and he was running in the same circles as most of the major contributors. More certain is the identity of the author of this piece:

Mr. Emerson and Transcendentalism
The American Whig review. / Volume 1, Issue 3 (Mar 1845). pp. 233-243
Wiley and Putnam, etc., NY

Paul F. Boller, Jr. attributes the piece to Greene in his American Transcendentalism, 1830-1860: An Intellectual Inquiry, and the definition offered, that “Transcendentalism sinks God and nature in man,” is immediately recognizable from Greene’s 1849 pamphlet Transcendentalism. It will take some collating to determine how much of that pamphlet appeared in the earlier text, but, if my memory serves me well, the two pieces are quite similar.

And one to wait for–Proquest has announced the full texts of The Spirit of the Age as “coming soon,” so we should be able to determine the contents of the article “Human Pantheism,” mentioned in Clarence L. F. Gohdes, The Periodicals of American Transcendentalism.

Bit by bit. . .


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.