Hermeticism in Expect Great Things by Kevin Dann

A new study of Henry David Thoreau sheds more light on the Hermetic underpinnings of Transcendentalism. In Expect Great Things, Kevin Dann notes that the figure in the Concord milieu most influential in promoting Hermetic ideas was Bronson Alcott, who was clearly the transcendentalist held in greatest esteem by Alexander Wilder– who in turn was the strongest influence on Thomas Moore Johnson. In the book’s second chapter, “Seeing the Unseen,” Dann writes:

Alcott’s Hermeticism today seems aberrant, but the esteem with which he was held by Thoreau, Emerson, and others suggests that behind the transcendentalist’s principal initiative of working out a practical ethos for living in the modern world was a vast cosmos of esoteric thought. (p67)

In the same chapter, Dann comments that

Whenever Thoreau turned his thoughts explicitly toward the question of destiny, stars appeared. “My fate is in some sense linked with that of the stars, and if they are to persevere to a great end, shall I die who could conjecture it? It surely is some encouragement to know that the stars are my fellow creatures, for I do not suspect but they are reserved for a high destiny.”(p82)

Reviewers have widely agreed that Dann brings a new and fresh perspective to Thoreau and finds esoteric themes throughout his life and work. The book was edited by the estimable Mitch Horowitz and published by Penguin/Random House late last year. The New York Times Book Review commented:

Far from the well-worn paths of academic scholarship, Dann acquaints his reader with a protagonist who is an American mystic, a new-age prophet, a cosmic explorer … Dann takes the road less traveled, leading a reader into out-of-the-way places, through hidden passages in Thoreau’s personal life … Expect Great Things is eccentric, strange, even far-fetched, but nonetheless admirable — a bit like Henry David Thoreau.” –John Kaag, New York Times Book Review