“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not a few coteries of writers.”

—Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas”

The first course in a two-course introductory sequence to the English major, Literary Analysis is designed to develop interpretive skills, critical awareness and confidence in preparation for more advanced work in English and the humanities.

Literary Analysis invites students to read and discuss imaginative literature; become familiar with key terms, concepts, critical problems, and theoretical debates in English studies; and develop the habits of mind and skills to effectively analyze texts—especially through the process of writing. Students will also learn the protocols for writing with sources, in-text citation and compiling a list of works cited.

Close attention to imaginative writing, and engagement with the intellectual problems such writing presents, will lead you to consider key and contested terms in the discipline; the organization of the current-traditional discipline of English studies; the cultural role of English studies; new prospects in literary and cultural studies; ongoing transformations in the university library, including the fate of the monograph, popular and academic journals, special holdings and archives; changing conditions and expectations for research with the advent of web-based resources, including paper archives, wikis and other sources of electronic information; and the concept of intellectual property and its relation to community standards for academic honesty. These conversations will help you better understand your primary field of study in college as well as get the most out of your English courses.








“Do your own Quarrying”

To describe reading as quarrying, as Emerson does above, is an injunction to put books to the “right use”: to read actively, as he will say. “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.” Emerson would be quite astonished by the digital spaces in which reading unfolds; and his words might serve as a cautionary note. Yet the affordances of reading using computational tools might also align with the ways of reading Emerson endorses in his “theory of books.”

In class today I want share with you a way of using Google Books to search for terms and phrases. These searches can serve to orient you to a text or body of texts that will be useful for your indivudal projects.

Primary Sources

The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (10 Volumes)

  1. 1. Nature, addresses, and lectures
  2. 2. Essays: first series
  3. 3. Essays: second series
  4. 4. Representative men: seven lectures
  5. 5. English traits
  6. 6. The conduct of life
  7. 7. Society and solitude
  8. 8. Letters and social aims
  9. 9. Poems: a variorum edition
  10. 10. Uncollected prose writings; addresses, essays, and reviews

Google Books

The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (10 Volumes)

Other Editions (Examples)

The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2

 (10, 11 and 12 no ebooks)

The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson’s Antislavery Writings

Secondary Sources

What is Nature for Emerson?

Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (225): Nature and conception of religion: nature as source, rather than old texts (scriptures), religious institutions, or reported miracles

Working with text of Nature (1836) Eight sections—–Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects—–each a different perspective on the relationship between humans and nature?

Affinities with Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (on the Nature of Things)

In Nature distinction between Nature and Soul (28)

Nature and the Soul

nature and consciousness

the world and the mind

Not me and me

“Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which philosophy distinguishes as the not me both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, nature” (28).

“We cannot speak of experience without speaking of experience of something, and that something says Emerson is nature” (Richardson 228)

What does Emerson mean by “Soul”?

Natural history (science) as a pursuit of spiritual truth

Look at other writing in 1830s. How does Emerson use the term and concept Nature? (Natural History Lectures)

“Humanity of Science,” a lecture given in 1836, the same year Nature was published, “[that] science is bankrupt which attempts to cut the knot which always spirit must untie”

Also see “The Uses of Natural History” and “The Naturalist.”

Nature is source; of material for life; Of ideas and beauty;

Nature educates us, informs us, endows us

Nature is the means by which the mind expresses itself: material is found by writers in nature, both subjects and language to express them

Nature is source of human potential, not social or economic status

Nature is source for moral action

Nature is source for question, How shall I live?

Words are rooted in nature

(cf twelfth chapter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria)

Chapter One

Words: delight, wild, light, exhilaration, gladness.


How Shall I live?

Emerson spent the fall of 1851 working on the essay “Fate.” The first lecture in the series he delivered in Boston, that would later be published as The Conduct of Life in 1860, “Fate” has been read as signaling a change of heart from his earlier work—analogous to the change of heart often attributed to an essay that appeared in the 1840s, “Experience.” However, this essay was written in the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act as Emerson became increasingly active in the political climate of his age. “Fate,” as Robert Richardson summarizes, is “a vigorous affirmation of freedom, more effective than earlier statements because it does not dismiss the power of circumstance, determinism, materialism, experience, Calvinism, and evil” (500). As Richardson and Eduardo Cadava have noted, it is significant that the most adequate summary of the argument in “Fate” is the second address on the Fugitive Slave Act Emerson delivered in New York three years later.

“Fate” begins by asking the audience to turn from “the spirit of the times” to “the practical question of the conduct of life. How shall I live?” In the following passages from “Fate,” and another essay we are reading this week, “Illusions,” one finds the question of freedom and limitation, power and circumstance, as well as the struggle we all face as we inevitably “grope eagerly for stays and foundations.”

one  method of beginning a writing project is to gather a series of passages from your primary texts. The work is to then put the passages into conversation and to explore the contexts in which the conversation can most productively unfold.

We will talk about these passages and the passages you have chosen to highlight in your own reading.


In science, we have to consider two things: power and circumstance. All we know of the egg, from each successive discovery, is, another vesicle; and if, after five hundred years, you get a better observer, or a better glass, he finds within the last observed another. In vegetable and animal tissue, it is just alike, and all that the primary power or spasm operates, is, still, vesicles, vesicles. Yes, — but the tyrannical Circumstance! A vesicle in new circumstances, a vesicle lodged in darkness, Oken thought, became animal; in light, a plant. Lodged in the parent animal, it suffers changes, which end in unsheathing miraculous capability in the unaltered vesicle, and it unlocks itself to fish, bird, or quadruped, head and foot, eye and claw. The Circumstance is Nature. Nature is, what you may do. There is much you may not. We have two things, — the circumstance, and the life. Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn, that negative power, or circumstance, is half. Nature is the tyrannous circumstance, the thick skull, the sheathed snake, the ponderous, rock-like jaw; necessitated activity; violent direction; the conditions of a tool, like the locomotive, strong enough on its track, but which can do nothing but mischief off of it; or skates, which are wings on the ice, but fetters on the ground.

The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages, — leaf after leaf, — never returning one. One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium, fish; then, saurians, — rude forms, in which she has only blocked her future statue, concealing under these unwieldly monsters the fine type of her coming king. The face of the planet cools and dries, the races meliorate, and man is born. But when a race has lived its term, it comes no more again.

The population of the world is a conditional population not the best, but the best that could live now; and the scale of tribes, and the steadiness with which victory adheres to one tribe, and defeat to another, is as uniform as the superposition of strata. We know in history what weight belongs to race. We see the English, French, and Germans planting themselves on every shore and market of America and Australia, and monopolizing the commerce of these countries. We like the nervous and victorious habit of our own branch of the family. We follow the step of the Jew, of the Indian, of the Negro. We see how much will has been expended to extinguish the Jew, in vain. Look at the unpalatable conclusions of Knox, in his “Fragment of Races,” — a rash and unsatisfactory writer, but charged with pungent and unforgetable truths. “Nature respects race, and not hybrids.” “Every race has its own habitat.” “Detach a colony from the race, and it deteriorates to the crab.” See the shades of the picture. The German and Irish millions, like the Negro, have a great deal of guano in their destiny. They are ferried over the Atlantic, and carted over America, to ditch and to drudge, to make corn cheap, and then to lie down prematurely to make a spot of green grass on the prairie.


Thus we trace Fate, in matter, mind, and morals, — in race, in retardations of strata, and in thought and character as well. It is everywhere bound or limitation. But Fate has its lord; limitation its limits; is different seen from above and from below; from within and from without. For, though Fate is immense, so is power, which is the other fact in the dual world, immense. If Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate. We must respect Fate as natural history, but there is more than natural history. For who and what is this criticism that pries into the matter? Man is not order of nature, sack and sack, belly and members, link in a chain, nor any ignominious baggage, but a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe. He betrays his relation to what is below him, — thick-skulled, small-brained, fishy, quadrumanous, — quadruped ill-disguised, hardly escaped into biped, and has paid for the new powers by loss of some of the old ones. But the lightning which explodes and fashions planets, maker of planets and suns, is in him. On one side, elemental order, sandstone and granite, rock-ledges, peat-bog, forest, sea and shore; and, on the other part, thought, the spirit which composes and decomposes nature, — here they are, side by side, god and devil, mind and matter, king and conspirator, belt and spasm, riding peacefully together in the eye and brain of every man.

Nor can he blink the freewill. To hazard the contradiction, — freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all; then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free. And though nothing is more disgusting than the crowing about liberty by slaves, as most men are, and the flippant mistaking for freedom of some paper preamble like a “Declaration of Independence,” or the statute right to vote, by those who have never dared to think or to act, yet it is wholesome to man to look not at Fate, but the other way: the practical view is the other. His sound relation to these facts is to use and command, not to cringe to them. “Look not on nature, for her name is fatal,” said the oracle. The too much contemplation of these limits induces meanness. They who talk much of destiny, their birth-star, &c., are in a lower dangerous plane, and invite the evils they fear.

The revelation of Thought takes man out of servitude into freedom. We rightly say of ourselves, we were born, and afterward we were born again, and many times.

We hear eagerly every thought and word quoted from an intellectual man. But, in his presence, our own mind is roused to activity, and we forget very fast what he says, much more interested in the new play of our own thought, than in any thought of his. ‘Tis the majesty into which we have suddenly mounted, the impersonality, the scorn of egotisms, the sphere of laws, that engage us. Once we were stepping a little this way, and a little that way; now, we are as men in a balloon, and do not think so much of the point we have left, or the point we would make, as of the liberty and glory of the way.

Just as much intellect as you add, so much organic power. He who sees through the design, presides over it, and must will that which must be. We sit and rule, and, though we sleep, our dream will come to pass. Our thought, though it were only an hour old, affirms an oldest necessity, not to be separated from thought, and not to be separated from will. They must always have coexisted. It apprises us of its sovereignty and godhead, which refuse to be severed from it. It is not mine or thine, but the will of all mind. It is poured into the souls of all men, as the soul itself which constitutes them men. I know not whether there be, as is alleged, in the upper region of our atmosphere, a permanent westerly current, which carries with it all atoms which rise to that height, but I see, that when souls reach a certain clearness of perception, they accept a knowledge and motive above selfishness. A breath of will blows eternally through the universe of souls in the direction of the Right and Necessary. It is the air which all intellects inhale and exhale, and it is the wind which blows the worlds into order and orbit.


We can afford to allow the limitation, if we know it is the meter of the growing man. We stand against Fate, as children stand up against the wall in their father’s house, and notch their height from year to year. But when the boy grows to man, and is master of the house, he pulls down that wall, and builds a new and bigger. ‘Tis only a question of time. Every brave youth is in training to ride and rule this dragon. His science is to make weapons and wings of these passions and retarding forces. Now whether, seeing these two things, fate and power, we are permitted to believe in unity? The bulk of mankind believe in two gods. They are under one dominion here in the house, as friend and parent, in social circles, in letters, in art, in love, in religion: but in mechanics, in dealing with steam and climate, in trade, in politics, they think they come under another; and that it would be a practical blunder to transfer the method and way of working of one sphere, into the other. What good, honest, generous men at home, will be wolves and foxes on change! What pious men in the parlor will vote for what reprobates at the polls! To a certain point, they believe themselves the care of a Providence. But, in a steamboat, in an epidemic, in war, they believe a malignant energy rules.

But relation and connection are not somewhere and sometimes, but everywhere and always. The divine order does not stop where their sight stops. The friendly power works on the same rules, in the next farm, and the next planet. But, where they have not experience, they run against it, and hurt themselves. Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought; — for causes which are unpenetrated.


Fate involves the melioration. No statement of the Universe can have any soundness, which does not admit its ascending effort. The direction of the whole, and of the parts, is toward benefit, and in proportion to the health. Behind every individual, closes organization: before him, opens liberty, — the Better, the Best. The first and worst races are dead. The second and imperfect races are dying out, or remain for the maturing of higher. In the latest race, in man, every generosity, every new perception, the love and praise he extorts from his fellows, are certificates of advance out of fate into freedom. Liberation of the will from the sheaths and clogs of organization which he has outgrown, is the end and aim of this world. Every calamity is a spur and valuable hint; and where his endeavors do not yet fully avail, they tell as tendency. The whole circle of animal life, — tooth against tooth, — devouring war, war for food, a yelp of pain and a grunt of triumph, until, at last, the whole menagerie, the whole chemical mass is mellowed and refined for higher use, — pleases at a sufficient perspective.

But to see how fate slides into freedom, and freedom into fate, observe how far the roots of every creature run, or find, if you can, a point where there is no thread of connection. Our life is consentaneous and far-related. This knot of nature is so well tied, that nobody was ever cunning enough to find the two ends. Nature is intricate, overlapped, interweaved, and endless. Christopher Wren said of the beautiful King’s College chapel, “that, if anybody would tell him where to lay the first stone, he would build such another.” But where shall we find the first atom in this house of man, which is all consent, inosculation, and balance of parts?

The web of relation is shown in habitat, shown in hybernation. When hybernation was observed, it was found, that, whilst some animals became torpid in winter, others were torpid in summer: hybernation then was a false name. The long sleep is not an effect of cold, but is regulated by the supply of food proper to the animal. It becomes torpid when the fruit or prey it lives on is not in season, and regains its activity when its food is ready.



We live by our imaginations, by our admirations, by our sentiments. The child walks amid heaps of illusions, which he does not like to have disturbed. The boy, how sweet to him is his fancy! how dear the story of barons and battles! What a hero he is, whilst he feeds on his heroes! What a debt is his to imaginative books! He has no better friend or influence, than Scott, Shakspeare, Plutarch, and Homer. The man lives to other objects, but who dare affirm that they are more real? Even the prose of the streets is full of refractions. In the life of the dreariest alderman, fancy enters into all details, and colors them with rosy hue. He imitates the air and actions of people whom he admires, and is raised in his own eyes. He pays a debt quicker to a rich man than to a poor man. He wishes the bow and compliment of some leader in the state, or in society; weighs what he says; perhaps he never comes nearer to him for that, but dies at last better contented for this amusement of his eyes and his fancy.

The world rolls, the din of life is never hushed. In London, in Paris, in Boston, in San Francisco, the carnival, the masquerade is at its height. Nobody drops his domino. The unities, the fictions of the piece it would be an impertinence to break. The chapter of fascinations is very long. Great is paint; nay, God is the painter; and we rightly accuse the critic who destroys too many illusions. Society does not love its un-maskers. It was wittily, if somewhat bitterly, said by D’Alembert, “qu’un etat de vapeur etait un etat tres facheux, parcequ’il nous faisait voir les choses comme elles sont.”[ a vapor state is a very untoward condition, because it made us see things as they are] I find men victims of illusion in all parts of life. Children, youths, adults, and old men, all are led by one bawble or another. Yoganidra, the goddess of illusion, Proteus, or Momus, or Gylfi’s Mocking, — for the Power has many names, — is stronger than the Titans, stronger than Apollo. Few have overheard the gods, or surprised their secret. Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle. There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow-storm. We wake from one dream into another dream. The toys, to be sure, are various, and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe. The intellectual man requires a fine bait; the sots are easily amused. But everybody is drugged with his own frenzy, and the pageant marches at all hours, with music and banner and badge.


There are deceptions of the senses, deceptions of the passions, and the structural, beneficent illusions of sentiment and of the intellect. There is the illusion of love, which attributes to the beloved person all which that person shares with his or her family, sex, age, or condition, nay, with the human mind itself. ‘Tis these which the lover loves, and Anna Matilda gets the credit of them. As if one shut up always in a tower, with one window, through which the face of heaven and earth could be seen, should fancy that all the marvels he beheld belonged to that window. There is the illusion of time, which is very deep; who has disposed of it? or come to the conviction that what seems the succession of thought is only the distribution of wholes into causal series? The intellect sees that every atom carries the whole of Nature; that the mind opens to omnipotence; that, in the endless striving and ascents, the metamorphosis is entire, so that the soul doth not know itself in its own act, when that act is perfected. There is illusion that shall deceive even the elect. There is illusion that shall deceive even the performer of the miracle. Though he make his body, he denies that he makes it. Though the world exist from thought, thought is daunted in presence of the world. One after the other we accept the mental laws, still resisting those which follow, which however must be accepted. But all our concessions only compel us to new profusion. And what avails it that science has come to treat space and time as simply forms of thought, and the material world as hypothetical, and withal our pretension of property and even of self-hood are fading with the rest, if, at last, even our thoughts are not finalities; but the incessant flowing and ascension reach these also, and each thought which yesterday was a finality, to-day is yielding to a larger generalization?

In this kingdom of illusions we grope eagerly for stays and foundations. There is none but a strict and faithful dealing at home, and a severe barring out of all duplicity or illusion there. Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth. I look upon the simple and childish virtues of veracity and honesty as the root of all that is sublime in character. Speak as you think, be what you are, pay your debts of all kinds. I prefer to be owned as sound and solvent, and my word as good as my bond, and to be what cannot be skipped, or dissipated, or undermined, to all the eclat in the universe. This reality is the foundation of friendship, religion, poetry, and art. At the top or at the bottom of all illusions, I set the cheat which still leads us to work and live for appearances, in spite of our conviction, in all sane hours, that it is what we really are that avails with friends, with strangers, and with fate or fortune.

One would think from the talk of men, that riches and poverty were a great matter; and our civilization mainly respects it. But the Indians say, that they do not think the white man with his brow of care, always toiling, afraid of heat and cold, and keeping within doors, has any advantage of them. The permanent interest of every man is, never to be in a false position, but to have the weight of Nature to back him in all that he does. Riches and poverty are a thick or thin costume; and our life — the life of all of us — identical. For we transcend the circumstance continually, and taste the real quality of existence; as in our employments, which only differ in the manipulations, but express the same laws; or in our thoughts, which wear no silks, and taste no ice-creams. We see God face to face every hour, and know the savor of Nature.


Emerson on Fate (and more)

“There are two forces in Nature, by whose antagonism we exist; the power of Fate, Fortune, the laws of the world or however else we choose to phrase it, the material necessities on the one hand,–and Will and Duty and Freedom on the other.”

–“The Fugitive Slave Law,” delivered in New York (1854)

“Intellect annuals fate.” Or so Emerson says in an essay he worked on through the fall of 1851. It is the lecture that he delivered in the series in Boston “The Conduct of Life” and that is the opening essay in the collection of essays, The Conduct of Life (1860).

Emerson announces at the beginning of “The Poet” his intention to examine 1) the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty, 2) the means and materials he uses, and 3) the general aspect of the art in the present time. He also conveys an antidote about a shepherd in a snowstorm:

The fate of the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state of man. On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying. The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we are in, is wonderful. What if you come near to it, — you are as remote, when you are nearest, as when you are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison. (302)

The function of the poet is “emancipation.” As Emerson puts it, the poet “unlocks our chains and admits us to a new scene.” As his metaphors suggest, the measure of the intellect is for Emerson not merely a personal but a public power.

I recommend that you read “The Poet” (the last essay in the first series) alongside the first essay in the second series, “Experience.” There is a shift in tone of the essay as he attempts to describe the disposition of an argument that is so forcefully laid out in the first paragraph:

All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius! We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams.

 He goes on, in the following paragraph, to continue this astonishing riff:

If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us. All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ’tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue. We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won with dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born. It is said, all martyrdoms looked mean when they were suffered. Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every other sail in the horizon. Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference.

“Experience” has been read over the years as signaling a change of heart from Emerson’s earlier work—as some hope, to explain what some readers call a change of heart in the essay that appeared in the 1840s. However “Fate” was written in the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act, when Emerson was increasingly active in political affairs. “Fate,” as Robert Richardson summarizes, is “a vigorous affirmation of freedom, more effective than earlier statements because it does not dismiss the power of circumstance, determinism, materialism, experience, Calvinism, and evil” (500). The essay begins by asking his audience to turn from “the spirit of the times” to “the practical question of the conduct of life. How shall I live?” As Richardson, and Eduardo Cadava, have suggested, it is significant that the most adequate summary of the argument in “Fate” is the second address on the Fugitive Slave Act Emerson delivered in New York three years later.

It is significant as well that Emerson’s thinking about politics and social action brings the reader back to the most fundamental question about how to live. In “Culture” (1860), Emerson’s essay on education, one then finds a proposal that would be worth remembering for anyone interested in the relationship between fate and what we like to call freedom:

“Let us make our education brave and preventive. Politics is an after-work, a poor patching. We are always a little late. The evil is done, the law is passed, and we begin the up-hill agitation for repeal of that of which we ought to have prevented the enacting. We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education. What we call our root-and-branch reforms of slavery, war, gambling, intemperance, is only medicating the symptoms. We must begin higher up, namely, in Education.”

Open Spaces, Democratic Vistas

“Democracy depends on engagement, a firsthand accounting of what one sees, what one feels, and what one thinks, followed by the artful practice of expressing the truth of our times through our own talents, gifts and vocations”

“Do we dare step back–stretch–and create an arch of understanding?”

-Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of Democracy

“There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time” (113), Emerson remarks in the inaugural essay in the First Series, “History.” His argument that we need to learn the art of reading history “actively and not passively” is not unlike the idea we started with in this class: Whitman’s description of reading as a “gymnast’s struggle” in his essay “Democratic Vistas.” Emerson says, “to esteem his own life the text, and the books the commentary” (115). This is a radical proposition—should we have the ability to read it.

It is a proposition that was radical in Emerson’s time as well as our own. What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” in that estimable Emersonian phrase, is to live a life without the fullness of self at the heart of Emerson’s thought. When he says at the end of “History” that a person is “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” he means what he says.

To read sympathetically, and morally, is Emerson’s way of reminding his reader of the obligations of history. We read history to know our selves. But to know our selves is to know that any mediation on freedom or justice, any affirmation of a liberal democracy, must begin in the soil and with the roots. Here is a passage from the essay “Fate” in which he is thinking through the consequences of Manifest Destiny, and in particular the question of race:

The population of the world is a conditional population not the best, but the best that could live now; and the scale of tribes, and the steadiness with which victory adheres to one tribe, and defeat to another, is as uniform as the superposition of strata. We know in history what weight belongs to race. We see the English, French, and Germans planting themselves on every shore and market of America and Australia, and monopolizing the commerce of these countries. We like the nervous and victorious habit of our own branch of the family. We follow the step of the Jew, of the Indian, of the Negro. We see how much will has been expended to extinguish the Jew, in vain. Look at the unpalatable conclusions of Knox, in his “Fragment of Races,” — a rash and unsatisfactory writer, but charged with pungent and unforgettable truths. “Nature respects race, and not hybrids.” “Every race has its own habitat.” “Detach a colony from the race, and it deteriorates to the crab.” See the shades of the picture. The German and Irish millions, like the Negro, have a great deal of guano in their destiny. They are ferried over the Atlantic, and carted over America, to ditch and to drudge, to make corn cheap, and then to lie down prematurely to make a spot of green grass on the prairie.

The race question was central to Emerson’s time. He had read Robert Knox’s The Races of Men as well as other attempts to make sense of the idea of race. When these lines are fully contextualized in the history of Emerson’s time, as one of Emerson’s readers, Eduardo Cadava writes, it is difficult not to read them as referring to the violent history of American colonization and imperialism, “for they put before us the violence, the inequality, the economic oppression, and colonialist and racist exclusions that affected, and continue to affect, so many human beings in the history of not only America but the earth” (The Other Emerson 106).

The question that Emerson raises in the first passages of “Fate” is “how shall I live?” can be answered by acknowledging that we might choose to become more aware of the “illusions” or the “hallucinations” that insulate us from the “guano” in the history and destiny of human beings. This is analogous to the central argument of a book I have been teaching for many years by Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America. Lopez speaks eloquently about the need to develop a recognition, much like what Emerson is calling for, of a historical and material and spiritual and psychological dimension of geography—of the place where we find ourselves, as Emerson might say. It follows that any (Emersonian) meditation on freedom and justice, any endorsement or affirmation of the ideals of liberal democracy, must begin with the violent history of colonization (of the Americas) and of imperialism.


Texts are made out of other texts. Intertextuality is a useful term to describe this fact, in part, because it unsettles commonplace assumptions about authorship and originality. Here is how Ralph Waldo Emerson approaches this idea in “Quotation and Originality”:

Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.

At about the same time Emerson was writing his literary essays the natural historian Charles Darwin’s writing was proposing that the essences of things were by definition relational. Darwin’s research led people to become more aware of how things are connected with other things, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. John Muir makes a comparable comment in his journals during his first summer in the mountains of California. “When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he writes, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” (My First Summer in the Sierra 110). Whether it is Emerson writing about quotation, or Darwin or Muir reflecting on the natural world, the study of relationships between things—and of things as sets of relationships—offers a useful analogy for the study of language and literature.

The Latin term intertexto means to intermingle while weaving. The French semiotician Julia Kristeva uses the term(1) in the essay “Word, Dialogue, and Novel” to describe the constitutive process. She argues that any text “is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” (66). Here is how the literary theorist Roland Barthes puts the case:

Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of code, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc., pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot, of course, be reduced to a problem of sources or influences; the intertext is a general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located; of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks. (“Theory of the Text” 39)

The very existence of a text implies coexistence with other texts. Film adaptations of books, cultural references in television and film, remix and sampling in music—all of these practices are intertextual.


1. Literary and cultural theorists that discuss the concept of intertextuality include Vladimir Volosinov, Mikhail Bakhtin, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and Gerard Gennete. Volosinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1986) is a study of the relationship between language and society. Genette’s The Architext (1992), Palimpsests (1997), and Paratexts (1997) elaborate 1) the ways a text relates to other texts (transtextuality); 2) explicit quotation or allusion (intertextuality); 3) prefaces, interviews, publicity, reviews (paratextuality), commentary (metatextuality); 4) the play of one text off another (hypertextuality), and 5) generic expectations (architextuality).


Emerson, Whitman, Culture

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The American Scholar” (1838)

“Men such as they are, very naturally seek money or power; and power because it is as good as money, — the “spoils,” so called, “of office.” And why not? for they aspire to the highest, and this, in their sleep-walking, they dream is highest. Wake them, and they shall quit the false good, and leap to the true, and leave governments to clerks and desks. This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of a man. Here are the materials strown along the ground. The private life of one man shall be a more illustrious monarchy, — more formidable to its enemy, more sweet and serene in its influence to its friend, than any kingdom in history. For a man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men. Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself. The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on. First, one; then, another; we drain all cisterns, and, waxing greater by all these supplies, we crave a better and more abundant food. The man has never lived that can feed us ever. The human mind cannot be enshrined in a person, who shall set a barrier on any one side to this unbounded, unboundable empire. It is one central fire, which, flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.

“Culture” from The Conduct of Life (1860, rev. 1876)

“Culture is the suggestion from certain best thoughts, that a man has a range of affinities, through which he can modulate the violence of any master-tones that have a droning preponderance in his scale, and succor him against himself. Culture redresses his balance, puts him among his equals and superiors, revives the delicious sense of sympathy, and warns him of the dangers of solitude and repulsion.”

Walt Whitman

from Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas” (1871)

“We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word, whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted. . . .”

“We find ourselves abruptly in close quarters with the enemy. This word Culture, or what it has come to represent, involves, by contrast, our whole theme, and has been, indeed, the spur, urging us to engagement. Certain questions arise. As now taught, accepted and carried out, are not the processes of culture rapidly creating a class of supercilious infidels, who believe in nothing? Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp’d away, like the bordering of box in a garden? You can cultivate corn and roses and orchards—but who shall cultivate the mountain peaks, the ocean, and the tumbling gorgeousness of the clouds? Lastly—is the readily-given reply that culture only seeks to help, systematize, and put in attitude, the elements of fertility and power, a conclusive reply?”

“I do not so much object to the name, or word, but I should certainly insist, for the purposes of these States, on a radical change of category, in the distribution of precedence. I should demand a programme of culture, drawn out, not for a single class alone, or for the parlors or lecture-rooms, but with an eye to practical life, the west, the working-men, the facts of farms and jack-planes and engineers, and of the broad range of the women also of the middle and working strata, and with reference to the perfect equality of women, and of a grand and powerful motherhood. I should demand of this programme or theory a scope generous enough to include the widest human area. It must have for its spinal meaning the formation of a typical personality of character, eligible to the uses of the high average of men—and not restricted by conditions ineligible to the masses. “









Welcome Back!

Dear class,

May it be that everyone enjoyed a restful and productive spring break. I’m really looking forward to getting started reading Emerson’s writing with all of you!

In preparation for our work I have asked you to begin by reading Emerson’s 1837 essay “The American Scholar.” To focus your attention, and generate material for our class discussion, please post a commentary on one paragraph (your choice) from the essay. Use your creative reading skills (close, attentive, creative) and your reading tools (marginalia, annotation, explication, analysis, interpretation) to write a commentary on the paragraph. Open up the paragraph for a reader. Allow your reading to generate observations and commentary and questions to fuel a discussion of this text. The other thing you will be doing is generating material you will be able to use in your essay on “The American Scholar” due next week.

Also, review Writing with Sources and Your Commonplace Book on the course blog. “Writing with Sources” offers suggestions as we continue working with the prose of Emerson and what Emerson himself called the creative art of quotation. t

Finally, if you want to look ahead to your work for next week, I have posted project #5 on the Projects page.

Welcome back,


Writing With Sources

“The alert reader can discover, and take much pleasure in discovering remarkable verbal strategies, metaphoric patterns, repetitions and developments of sound, sense, and image throughout Emerson’s writing.”

—Joel Porte, “The Problem of Emerson”

Literary analysis involves summarizing, paraphrasing and quoting primary and secondary sources. In the coming weeks, as we read Emerson–and think and talk and write about his words–we will be working on the art of quotation. Here are some simple protocols to begin a larger conversation about writing conventions:

  • Quote only to provide evidence to demonstrate a claim or to develop the argument 
  • Introduce the quotation so that a reader understands your reason for quoting

The most succinct summary of Emerson’s philosophy of education appears in a journal entry dated September 13, 1831. “Education is the drawing out of the soul” (490).

Or, use signal phrases is an introductory clause to signal to the reader a shift from your point of view.

In a journal entry dated September 13, 1831, Emerson defined education as “the drawing out of the soul” (490).

  • Follow the quotation with a discussion of what you want the reader to take away from the quotation.

Calling explicit attention to the root of the Latin word Educare, to draw out or forth, Emerson once again locates learning in a continuum. “Because the soul is progressive,” Emerson begins his essay “Art,” “it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”

  • When you introduce a quotation with a signal phrase, the quotation becomes part of your sentence. Make sure that the sentence is grammatically correct. If you are having difficulty, you can use brackets or ellipsis 
  • The choice of verb in a signal phrase will help you indicate to your reader information about the disposition of the source. Here is an example from an essay about Emerson’s writing by the literary critic Barbara Packer:

“In the late brilliant essay ‘Poetry and Imagination,’ published in Letters and Social Aims, he argues that all symbols were meant to hold only for a moment, and that it is the poet’s capacity to transfer significance endlessly from one symbol to another that makes [the poet] the emblem of human thought. ‘All thinking is analogizing, and it is the business of life to learn metonymy’” (732).

  • Continue to read as a writer. Pay attention to how critics use signal phrases. The models will provide you with examples of the conventions for citation in English studies.

Signal phrases need not all be the same. This injunction is a matter of structure and style. Rather than repeat “Emerson says. . .” or “Emerson writes. . .” use words that indicate what you take to the be the tone of the essay. (Emerson “insists,” or “suggest to the contrary,” or “notes that.” Consider “argues,” “adds,” “contends,” “points out,” “admits,” “comments,” “insists.”) Or, consider the use of a transitional phrase:

“In an apparent contradiction, Carlyle goes on to argue that. . . .”

  • Embed a quotation as a complete sentence in your essay. Or begin a sentence with Emerson’s prose and then add the signal at the end:

Emerson even goes so far as to say that the poetry we once admired “has long since come to be a sound of tin pans” (317).

Emerson is firm about the need to reinvigorate poetic form. “What we once admired as poetry has long since come to be a sound of tin pans” (317).

“What we once admired as poetry has long since come to be a sound of tin pans,” Emerson submits, for “many of our later books we have outgrown” (317).

  • Enclose short quotations (fewer than four lines) in quotation marks. An embedded quotation (that is, a quotation embedded into a sentence of your own) must fit grammatically into the sentence of which it is a part.

A simple formulation of this argument in favor of comparative thinking is provided by Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at Harvard University. Kleinman’s “Eight Questions” do more than merely guide the medical practitioner toward the step of gathering information about cultural background. The questions prompt a reevaluation of one’s own cultural perspective as one that is not universal. As Kleinman explains, “If you can’t see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture?” (Qtd. In Fadiman 261). This position requires a radical reorientation from simply considering “the other” as outside the norm to understanding one’s own normative cultural conventions.

  • Set off long quotations (more than four lines) in wha tis called a “block quotation.” To set off a long quotation, begin a new line, indent ten spaces from the left margin, and double space throughout. Do not use quotation marks. Block quotations need adequate introduction and are most often immediately preceded by a full sentence ending in a colon. Too often the reader will get lost as you transition from your own writing into a long quotation. It’s better to use a short introductory tag (as described above) and then follow the quotation with your discussion.

Whitman Ah Sing’s resistance to a “hyphenated identity” is further illustrated near the opening of the final chapter in the novel, One-Man Show”:

There is no East here. West is meeting West. This was all West. All you saw was West. This is The Journey In the West. I am so fucking offended. Why aren’t you offended? Let me help you get offended. Always be careful to take offense. These sinophiles dig us so much, they’re drooling over us. That kind of favorableness I can do without. They think they know us—the wide range of us from sweet to sour—because they eat in Chinese restaurants. . . .  I’ve read my Aristotle and Agee, I’ve been to college; they have ways to criticize the theater besides for sweet and sourness. They could do laundry reviews, clean or dirty. Come on. What’s so ‘exotic’? (308)

Here Whitman is offended by the “sinophiles” who consider themselves knowledgeable about the experiences of the “Chinese.” Of course as the language of this passage suggests, Whitman is performing—he is on stage, speaking to the audience, waving the reviews in his hand. His veiled reference to Wu’s The Journey to the West reminds his audience, as he puts it elsewhere, that “we allthesame Americans” (282). His rambling monologue therefore has a very particular rhetorical end” to challenge his audience to see how easily they construct a binary opposition that forces him (“I’m common ordinary”) to be either American or Chinese.

  • Check your quotation for accuracy at least twice. If you intend to add or substitute a word in the quotation, enclose the words in square brackets. Indicate omissions of material with ellipses (three periods, with a space between each). If you omit words at the end of sentence, indicate the omission with three periods (an ellipses) and end punctuation (a period) 
  • MLA Persnickities: Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. Semicolons and colons go outside quotation marks. Question marks, exclamation points and dashes go inside if they are part of the quotation, outside if they are your additions.

Your Commonplace Book

As you become immersed in Emerson over the next few weeks I would like you to begin keeping notes in your “commonplace book.” You are looking for quotations that capture something worth capturing–statements, provocations, aphorisms, and so on. Below I have gathered a few that stand out to me, first from Emerson, and then from some of his readers:

“Literature is a point outside our hodiernal circle, though which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.”

—“Circles,” 178

“All thinking is analogizing, and it is the business of life to learn metonymy.”

—“Poetry and the Imagination”

“One must be an inventor to read well.”

—“The American Scholar”

“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it”

—“Quotation and Originality”

“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.”


“The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action”

—“The American Scholar”

“Where do we find ourselves?”


“In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal. . . .”


“Cannot I conceive of the Universe without a contradiction?”

—“Journals, May 26, 1837?

“This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of man. Here are the materials strewn along the ground.”

—“The American Scholar,” 66

“What seemed, then, to be the more earnest and less critical of his hearers a revelation from above was in truth an insurrection from beneath, a shaking loose from convention, a disintegration of the normal categories of reason in favor of various imaginative principles, on which the world might have been built differently. This gift of revolutionary thinking allowed new aspects, hints of wider laws, premonitions of unthought-of fundamental unities to spring constantly into view. But such visions were necessarily fleeting, because the human mind had long before settled its grammar, and discovered, after much groping and many defeats, the general forms in which experience will allow itself to be stated. These general forms are the principles of common sense and positive science, no less imaginative in the origin than those notions we now call transcendental, but grown prosaic, like the metaphors of common speech, by dint of repetition”

—George Santayana, “Emerson,” Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 634

“Our philosophical habits will prompt us to interpret the surface of writing as its manner, its style, its rhetoric, an ornament of what is said rather than its substance, but Emerson’s implied claim is that this is as much a philosophical prejudice as the other conformities his essay decries, that, so to speak, words are no more ornaments of thought than tears are ornaments of sadness or joy. Of course, they may be seen so, and they may in a given case amount to no more; but this just means that expressions are the last thing to take at face value.”

—Stanley Cavell, “The Philosopher in American Life,” 740

“His writing dramatizes his agitations when confronted with the evidence that the words he is putting down on paper, including words of resistance and dissent, are themselves products of ‘previous human thinking,’ including his own. . . . Emerson is forever trying to liberate himself and his readers from the consequences of his own writing, not merely the consequences of other people’s writing. . . . He is saying that his own acts of composition, the very efforts at non-conformity that result in his troping of previous truths—that these fill him with apprehensions about encirclement and fixity.”

—Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism, 767–68

“The primary aim of Emerson’s life and discourse is to provoke; the principal means by which he lived, spoke, and write is provocation. At the ‘center’ of his project is activity, flux, movement, energy.”

—Cornel West, “The Emersonian Prehistory of Pragmatism,” 743