Emerson and the Essay

All language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as horses and ferries are, for conveyance, not as farms and house are, for homestead”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet (195)

A note on asynchronous learning

Last night and early this afternoon I read your annotations on Quotation and Originality. If you have not already, have a look at the annotations I have added, mostly in response to yours. Consider adding responses as well. And if you have not yet annotated the essay, add your thoughts to build our collective response to the essay in preparation for your writing this week.

In an exchange with one of you last week I explained the way this class is unfolding in an asynchronous manner. While the change from the synchronous face-to-face meetings in a classroom was unexpected, we have all made the transition to working “remotely.” In some ways, for writers familiar with working on the open web, or experienced with the use of social media, “remote” need not be something that is less effective or less satisfying. Sure, it would be better to be together. On the other hand, we make do–in fact we can make better–by drawing on your experience and skills with digital platforms and tools as well as by learning to make the most of the affordances of digital communication.

Our annotations comprise one form for our conversation about the literature we are reading together. The other way we may converse is through writing on our blogs. You are annotating and writing on your blog; I am continuing my “Teacher Talk” series, too, including the recent post on the term (and threshold concept) intertextuality and the topical essay Plague Lit. We will continue email exchanges, as we have since the first week of classes. And, finally, at your invitation, I remain available for video conferencing. (We will be have video conferences in a couple of weeks, too, and I will be in touch to schedule these conferences next week.)

One way to make the most of our move to “remote” teaching and learning is to approach the “Teacher Talk” posts on this blog as asynchronous lectures. Your role is to show up and listen to the teacher talk, take notes, and continue thinking in the forms of writing we are doing each week (annotation, reading journal, projects). In a post last week called first we read, then we write, I offered my comments and feedback on our annotation process. In another post, Embracing the Common, I commented and provided feedback on your thinking and writing.

horse and buggy

Preparing for your project on Emerson and the essay to be posted on your blog no later than Monday, April 13

In this particular post, what you are reading is my attempt to enact the practical intricacies of collaboration: to begin preparations for writing about Emerson and the essay.

I will begin with a question that we took up at the opening of this class:

What is an essay?

In Why Is it so Difficult to Define the Essay, Nicole B. Wallack writes the following about Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 called his ninety-four nonfiction compositions “essais”:

Montaigne envisions his own goals as the opposite of those scholars—“pedants”—who, “go pillaging knowledge in books and lodge it only on the ends of their lips, in order merely to disgorge it and scatter it to the winds.” However, Montaigne acknowledges how he is implicated in their practices: “I go about cadging from books here and there the sayings that please me, not to keep them, for I have no storehouses, but to transport them into this one, in which, to tell the   truth, they are no more mine than in their original place.” Unlike these scholars who might write articles to assemble their “cadged” quotations as a bulwark for their own authority, Montaigne has the essay, a praxis (in Paolo Freire’s sense) that promotes self-critique: “We know how to say: ‘Cicero says thus; such are the morals of Plato; there are the very words of Aristotle.’ But what do we say ourselves? What do we judge? What do we do? A parrot could well say as much.”

With his own example, Montaigne offers his reader the possibility that the essay itself can protect us from our worst impulses—to “parrot”—and gives us something to do with what we know. We need such outlets, because knowledge can be dangerous: “Knowledge is a good drug; but no drug is strong enough to preserve itself without alteration and corruption, according to the vessel that contains it. A given man sees clear but not straight, and consequently sees the good and does not follow it, and sees knowledge and does not use it.” For Montaigne, the primary way to “see” and “use” knowledge ethically is to filter it through the alembic of his own capacities in essays.

Does Montaigne’s metaphor, “a parrot could well say as much,” sound familiar? If it does, we are on the move. For you have recalled that Emerson in The American Scholar uses this figure:

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.

Emerson is writing with Montaigne. And we know this because we read Quotation and Originality. We also know, or you will now know, that Emerson wrote an essay, published in Representative Men (1850), entitled Montaigne; or, the Skeptic.

Getting started on the project

The project description for Emerson and the Essay reads as follows:

Write a 1000 word commentary on one of Emerson’s essays that takes as its subject Emerson’s essay. Your purpose in this piece of writing is to offer a descriptive account of how Emerson uses literary form, in this case the form of the essay.

This is a different job of work than last week when you were focused on a key term in Emerson and his elaboration of that term or content.

Each of Emerson’s essays might be described as a performance of thought in language. One of our readings for this week in the Norton edition  is Joel Porte’s “The Problem of Emerson” (1973: 679–96). His critical appraisal is that the pleasures of Emerson’s literary work emerge in the discovery “remarkable verbal strategies, metaphoric patterns, repetitions and developments of sound, sense, and image” (685). My project description says much the same thing. “Your commentary will most likely focus on one of Emerson’s essays (a case study, though you can use parts of other essays as well), and will most likely focus attention on one element (a sentence pattern or patterns, metaphor and analogy, paradox, tone, parable and anecdote, etc.). 

The texts we have read (including others that some of you have read on your own) that you might draw from for your essay on literary form

Early Lectures and Addresses
The American Scholar (1837)

Essays: First Series (1841)
Circles (In Norton 174–82)

Essays: Second Series
The Poet (in Norton 183–97) 
Experience (in Norton 198–213) 
The Method of Nature (In Norton 81–93)

Letters and Social Aims (1876)
Quotation and Originality (in Norton 319–30)

Here is Wallack again from the essay cited above:

As accommodating as they are to subject matter and formal experimentation, essays permit no substitutes; every piece of short nonfiction prose is not an essay. . . .It is hard to acknowledge because we do not have a rich and consistent enough language for what it means to ask for essays; the term “essay” is ambiguous and thus allows those who use it to project onto it whatever it is that we either find most desirable or objectionable about certain kinds of nonfiction writing. It is hard to act on because once we say we want to write or read, teach or learn the essay, we feel we must immediately and securely define this kind of writing in some way.

As Phillip Lopate tells us, “It is easier to list the essay’s practitioners than to fix a definition of this protean form.” It is also easier to define the essay by insisting on what it is not. A habitual skepticism and self-awareness are qualities of mind we often associate with the genre’s most famous practitioners—Montaigne, Hazlitt, Emerson, Woolf, White, Baldwin, Didion, and Sontag; these stances tend to ensure that essayists undo certainties almost as soon as they dare to appear in their own minds, or at least on their pages. Likewise, there has been a strong tradition among the genre’s commentators to reject imposters and poor substitutes: genuine essays must not be confused with stories, and formulaic school writing . . . and worst of all, scholarly articles.

As the writer Phillip Lopate argues, Emerson is “perhaps our greatest essayist, certainly one of our finest nonfiction prose writers” (ix). Lopate talks about the journal Emerson began keeping when he was an eighteen-year old college student and continued for fifty-seven years, resulting in 182 individual volumes. Emerson kept at his journals to record what he called “the meteorology of thought.” Lopate makes a case (and you can use this idea in your essay, of course): “Emerson’s basic unit of composition was the sentence, and he committed one amazing sentence after another.

To put it another way: form ever follows function. Let’s see what we find!

The essay cited above above comes from the book Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies (2017), a useful book for students and teachers, that I use in my upper-level Theory and Practice course: The Essay.

photo credit: Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Intertextuality

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)

As Emerson suggests, 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.

Endnote

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).

 

Embracing the Common

“There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication”

-John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Our kudos to Trent (and no foolin’ here) for his comment on April 1 about the challenge of reading texts which are, to use his term, “difficult.” What I most appreciate is his comment that without “the insights and understandings of my fellow classmates I would be having a much harder time getting through all of these pieces.”  I am grateful for the way he links the annotations to the writing, too, which is precisely what our work is set up to do. I use the phrase “set up” here because once the stage is set we need to become the actors using words and moving about on the stage. “Having the ability to see others annotations has really helped me,” Trent remarks.

Reading together: your annotations, and the annotations becoming more as you think first-thoughts in your weekly reflections and then keep thinking in our first project reading together “The American Scholar.” This sequence of activities has been productive for you–or at least this is what I am seeing in your writing. At times the writing drifts off and becomes less focused. But on the whole the writing is deeply engaging and it has inspired me as I learn from you what there might be worth knowing through our individual and collective reading of Emerson’s prose.

The blog post below is a continuation of our thinking that focuses on the terms you have identified and elaborated: the self, nature, the past, influence, the scholar, and culture. The post is also engaged with your thinking as thinking, as well as your thinking as writing.

The Self

The essay Emerson on Self opens with an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (1838). The passage Alyssa chooses in her essay speaks of the “delegated” intellect, a “degenerate state, when the victim of society,” the scholar “tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking” (Norton 57).  Rather than seeking to develop the capacity to call one’s mind one’s own, the individual cedes the self, what Emerson calls a “fountain of power,” and society is diminished. “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk and strut about so many walking monsters,—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man,” Emerson writes.

The opposite state would be, presumably, self-determination. But the question, to follow this expression, is how one determines the self. Using the language of part and whole, he rejects the specialist (and specialized understanding) and champions the whole person who comes into being through engagement with the world. “I am a surprised spectator & learner of all my life,” Emerson exclaims in a May 1837 entry in his Journal. “This is the habitual posture of the mind–beholding” (J: 337). Beholden, as Emerson would have known, means “indebted.” What Emerson means by the word scholar, we might conclude, is what we mean by student. At the same time, Emerson’s “The American Scholar” makes it quite clear (let us see him in his school”) that the student is by definition not dependent on the classroom or curriculum, the teacher or the institution.

“The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul,” Emerson writes, and Alyssa responds: “From the way I understand it he is trying to explain the difference between being a part and a whole. And how we as students, or at least having the ability to be students can learn together and share ideas to become a whole. Nothing is more important than how a student themselves perceives everything around them, but how they choose to learn from it.” In fact, the sentence that comes immediately before Emerson proclaims the value of the “active soul” in “The American Scholar” is telling. “I had better never see a book,” Emerson writes, “than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system” (59).

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Note well that I am writing here about your responses to Emerson. I have chosen Alyssa’s post for its willing and open engagement with reflection on language that can present itself as perplexing and hence generate a feeling of hesitation or doubt. We are starting with Emerson’s lexicon precisely because “key words” in Emerson offer a pathway through the complex linguistic and conceptual terrain of literary activity. Emerson’s writing invites a way of reading that begins with humility, curiosity, flexibility, and persistence. This kind of reading, at its most generative, is open-minded so as to engage a particular  mind in a specific reading event. Notice how, for example, Alyssa’s mind goes to the reading situation, the pandemic, and then back to the language of the essay. As it happens, Emerson delivered this address in the first year of a banking crisis in the United States, the panic of 1837, that resulted in a five-year depression and financial hardship.

The work of literary analysis, then, is reading and thinking and writing by making these kinds of connections. The connections come when the mind is at work: problem solving (defining words, parsing sentences, exploring social contexts, considering the text and the reading in a history of reception), knowledge building (learning to follow what a text is saying, considering material contexts, literary production and reception), and making meaning. Know what you are doing, and do it well.

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Nature

“The first in time and the first in importance of the influence upon the mind is that of nature.”

We are grateful to Lauren and to Paige for taking up the word “nature” in “The American Scholar.” In Lauren’s essay she writes that Emerson defines the importance of studying nature and how it relates to understanding ourselves. “He believes that the laws of nature are the laws of our thoughts and our minds. The laws of nature control us, thus if we understand what makes us, we will understand ourselves.” Emerson writes“So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet possess”(58). In other words, Lauren explains, “our knowledge of nature informs our knowledge of ourselves; once we understand what is around us, we can better utilize the full extent of our mind. This concept is emphasized in his essay again when Emerson asserts that in order to ‘Know thyself’ you must first “Study nature” (58). As maintained by Emerson, we cannot truly know ourselves until we study nature and see ourselves in nature.

In commenting on Alyssa’s essay I noted the word “beholden.” Emerson says that “Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden” (57), that is, both being watched and being indebted.

The word nature in Emerson is among the most interesting and engaging and his preoccupation with the concept of nature, and our relation to (and place in) the natural world is, as Lauren’s references suggest, are manifold. What Paige does is take up perception in Emerson. She uses an epigraph from “The American Scholar” that speaks of our place in nature

Thus to him, to this school-boy under the bending dome of day, is suggested that he and it proceed from one Root; one is leaf and one is flower; relation, sympathy, stirring in every vein. And what is that root? Is not that the soul of his soul?—A thought too bold?—A dream too wild?

What an enticing passage! We are a part of and not apart from nature, this passage suggests. And as Paige suggests in passing, we might look to his essay “Circles” (among others) to follow this suggestion of our rightful place. Perception, though, as William Blake once put it, is a Janus process. “We see with not through the eye.” For Paige, the relation to another poet and poem comes to mind as well, in this case the poet Emily Dickinson and the poem Perception of an object costs.

We will do more with nature, as there is more to do. For now Paige’s summation will suggest where we might go:

Man and nature came from the same root, but to also know that its beauty comes from the beauty he already has in his own mind. Emerson makes the claim that a person’s intellect comes from their understanding of where they came from, of how nature pulsates all around them while also understanding they will never know even half of it. It is okay for it to exist beyond the realm of what they know, but take what you do know, intimately, and keep it close. Emerson concludes, “know thyself, and the modern precept,” and “study nature” become a singular phrase. That to study nature is to study yourself.

The Past

One of the questions that follows from (or that remains in play) in Emerson’s thinking about the self is the relationship to the past. Jamie takes this up, focusing her essay on the section of the essay in which Emerson elaborates “the reasons why the past is an important influence in general as well as the ideas conveyed through literature and how people learn from it to gain knowledge in the present.” This is the section that begins with what Emerson calls the noble “theory of books.” This account of reading is of course of particular interest to us, as students of literature, in a workshop on reading and writing, enacting an English curriculum, at public liberal arts institution dedicated to educating the whole person.

Jamie begins with the following, a passage later in the essay where Emerson is talking about “self-trust”:

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 (65-66)

To awaken from sleep is to be roused from the slumber of the delegated intellect. At the same time, Jamie is taking up what is often misread. For Emerson values the past, and books. Jamie writes:

Emerson cites the mind of the past as the second greatest influence of man. The past is not only a brilliant treasure chest of old ideas, it is also a map to new ones. This sentiment can also be found in the quote by Maya Angelou, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.” The past is one of the greatest influences on the future, making it a heavy influence on man as well. In the introduction of his essay, he mentions that “Thus far, our holiday has been simply a friendly sign of the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters any more. As such it is precious as the sign of an indestructible instinct.” 

Why read? What is the value of books? What does it mean to say “Books are for a scholar’s idle times”?  one answer might be to say, with Emerson, that books are of course the means through which we consider (and reconsider) the raw material out of which we fashion our selves and our sense of the world. The (re)generative power of cultivation is captured well in Emerson’s notion of culture. “Culture is all that which gives the mind possession of its own powers” (CW 8: 113). We will be reading in the late Emerson, I will add here, and Emerson’s claims in his essay “Quotation and Originality” will offer more on this subject of what we mean when we say something is new or original.

Influence

The word Julia chooses from Emerson’s lexicon is “Influence”; and she begins her essay with a question: “Is greatness linked to originality?” To answer this question, she looks to another Emerson essay, Shakespeare; or the Poet

Emerson’s address at the Harvard commencement in the summer of 1837 was an occasion that Emerson accepted knowing that he would be speaking on the theme of the American scholar, a tradition prior speakers at the annual commencement address had dutifully addressed, and the commonplace about listening too long to the courtly muses of Europe. This is interesting because Emerson’s reading and thinking and writing was continually engaged with the mind of the past. Julia puts this well. “He is not necessarily dismissing the work of the Europeans, he simply wants his audience to think beyond the work established overseas.” Just what he means by “think beyond” is of interest as well.

Julia then turns to Emerson’s word influence in a passage from “The American Scholar”:

Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence. The literature of every nation bear me witness. The English dramatic poets have Shakespearized now for two hundred years. (16)

This leads him to speak of a “right way to read” that, as Julia explains, “consists of taking away information from a book and using it in a new way. This way or reading is about shedding the bias of the author and applying the knowledge to the present day in order to continue the path of learning.” Emerson describes this process as “creative reading” in the passage Julia cites:

When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume (19)

It is rewarding to read with Julia as she makes the connection to “Shakespeare; or The Poet,” in which Emerson writes, “In point of fact it appears that Shakespeare did owe debts in all directions, and was able to use whatever he found” (6). Julia then comments,

This revelation in no way delegitimizes Shakespeare’s greatness. Shakespeare was a creative reader, he was able to use the past to create something new, which is exactly what Emerson wants for the young American men he is speaking to. Emerson, as previously mentioned, is a fan of Shakespeare’s work. He thinks he has a brilliant mind and produced creative work. Having references to other works before him only means that he was able to see the past in a way that enlightens the future.Finding inspiration whilst reading is, as Emerson claims, the entire point of academic reading. It is not truly learning to just soak up information with no input of your own.

The Scholar

What very likely was heard as impertinent by members of his audience is for Meeghan a signal moment in the definition of the scholar. “He does not think that intelligent people should be taught the thinking of others in schools and colleges,” Emerson claims, but instead,

that they should be left to use their connection to God and their ability to see the truths about the world because of it to give their own knowledge to others. He compares this to what he calls ‘over-influence’ which is the incessant urge of educators to require their students to read other great thinkers, those who were able to engage in Man Thinking, in order to gain perspective. It is easy to see Emerson’s argument and the fact that he believes this diminishes scholars’ ability to do their own thinking: “Genius is always the sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence.”(60). In many ways, Emerson is trying to say that teaching in conventional ways and the curriculum that education is grounded in is squashing genius in the pupils and expecting them to become one with the intellects of the past.

In a number of ways this comment brings me back to Meeghan’s own impertinent comment at the opening of our class this semester, when she asked, “Why are we reading Emerson?” As you will remember, I appreciated this comment deeply, and said so. My answer, in what was most likely a placeholder, was that Emerson’s essays had been a generative experience for readers from the nineteenth century to the present. What I could not say is what you are experiencing now as readers of Emerson, most especially when you are, in Emerson’s words, “reading rightly,” for “when the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion” (60).

Culture

The final word in our little Emerson lexicon and commentary is the word culture. Trent addresses the word culture in Emerson by linking the concept to the ideas of Transcendentalism. The link to the entry on Transcendentalism in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy will offer you a primer on this American literary, philosophical, religious, and political movement that emerged in New England in early nineteenth century America.

While there is much to say here–and a course on Transcendentalism is a course that my colleague (now retired) Richard Lebeaux used to teach at Keene State, and that will be a part of the course I am teaching on literature and culture and science in the United States this fall–I will give this brief overview from the Stanford Encyclopedia:

They were critics of their contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “an original relation to the universe” (O, 3). Emerson and Thoreau sought this relation in solitude amidst nature, and in their writing. By the 1840s they, along with other transcendentalists, were engaged in the social experiments of Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden; and, by the 1850s in an increasingly urgent critique of American slavery.

The social and political concerns of Emerson and his contemporaries included the treatment of the Native Americans, the war with Mexico, and, above all, the continuing and expanding practice of slavery. More broadly, they were concerned with culture. As Emerson wrote in a passage I cited earlier, “Culture is all that which gives the mind possession of its own powers” (CW 8: 113).

Let me pivot to what Emerson actually says about culture in  “The American Scholar”:

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.

Just what that first sentence might mean is worth thinking through, as is the idea that the “revolution” to be wrought is “the upbuilding of man,” or that “human mind cannot be enshrined in a person.”

Here is Emerson a later essay entitled “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.

What is interesting for us, and which we will have reason to talk about in the coming weeks, is that Emerson is wrestling with the idea of culture and what I have called the emergence of a democratic culture. Here are two relevant passages from one of the inheritors of Emerson’s thought, Walt Whitman, who writes in “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. . . .

Whitman goes on to say:

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?

Whitman goes so far as to elaborate for a new “programme of culture”:

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.

And so our case study continues, driven by your annotations and ideas as they develop, for each of you, and for all of us, together, enacting what we might mean by common, community, and communication” 

Plague Lit

In this week’s New Yorker Jill Lepore’s essay offers books for a scholar’s idle times. The tag line for the essay, entitled What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About, offers a ready-made lens on the tradition of plague lit: “In the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human.” There is a useful 2016 commentary in Lit Hub by Tobias Carroll entitled On Literary Plagues.

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr. Beak], a plague doctor (or Medico della Peste) in seventeenth-century Rome, with a satirical macaronic poem (‘Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel’) in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Johannes Ebert and others, Europas Sprung in die Neuzeit, Die große Chronik-Weltgeschichte, 10 (Gütersloh: Wissen Media, 2008): 197. 

Below is a list of books–a portal into this literary and historical history, with some links to digital versions of these texts, a version of a list that was recently complied by Bryan Alexander. And if you are interested in the perspective offered by nonfiction, listen to the interview with one of my favorite science writers, David Quammen, Shaking the Viral Tree. The end of the interview includes reflections on human adaptation and resilience, the “stubbornness of hope,” and the opportunities of learning from a crisis. Quammen is discussing his work from his book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). Or, for those interested in the history of science, have a look at Charles Rosenberg’s The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866 (1962).

Book List

Boccaccio, The Decameron (1353) 

One hundred stories about being human, told by people fleeing a plague.  Decameron Webone Project Gutenberg English language translationanother oneLibrivox recording

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

The narrator reflects on his experience of a 1665 bubonic plague outbreak in London. Project Gutenberg editionLibrivox recording

Mary Shelley, The Last Man (1826)

The story takes place in the late 2000s, and concerns a plague that wipes out the human race. Project Gutenberg textLibrivox recording

Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1912)

An old man, survivors of a plague that set human civilization back millennia, tries to tell kids about the world he recalls. Project Gutenberg editionLibrivox recording

Albert Camus’s La Peste (1947); English translation, The Plague (1948)

A plague striking a North African town, seen as an existentialist classic. See recent commentary in Alain de Botton in the New York TimesJonah Raskin in Counterpunch.

George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949)

Ecological science fiction that traces the collapse of human civilization after a horrendous plague.  Our point of view character studies changes to the natural world and the shift of society to a hunter-gatherer existence.

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain (1969)

An early techno-thriller about stopping a plague before it could go viral.  The story is immersed in science, the military, and technology.

Stephen King, The Stand (1978; revised edition 1990)

A plague created by the American military wipes out most of the human race. 

Frank Herbert, The White Plague (1982)

After his family is killed in a terrorist attack, a biologist creates and unleashes a disease that devastates the human race.

Samuel Delany, Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985)

A linked short story collection taking place in a fantasy world, where a plague breaks out and gradually draws the narrative to contemporary New York City.

Gabriel García Márquez, El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985); English translation, Love in the Time of Cholera (1988)

One conceit parallels love and disease.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992).

Two plagues as they strike Britain in parallel, the Black Death in the 14th century and a new disease in the 21st.

P. D. James, The Children of Men (1992)

Humanity is stricken by infertility and civilization changes for the worse.

José Saramago, Ensaio sobre a cegueira (1995); English translation, Blindness (1997)

A plague of blindness strikes a city and its society falls apart.

Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)

An exploration of the 1665 London plague. 

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002)

An alternate history, wherein the Black Plague utterly exterminates Europe, and the following centuries develop differently. 

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), MaddAddam (2013).

Three visions of the same, shared story, wherein a corporate scientist launches a plague to wipe out a dystopian humanity.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Follows two timelines: the outbreak of a horrific flu and what’s left of civilization, years later.  The latter plot focuses on a traveling Shakespeare troupe.

Short stories

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842)

Poe Museum textmultiple Librivox recordings)

Thomas Mann, “Der Tod in Venedig“; English language, “Death in Venice” (1912)

An older man’s attraction to a youth is paralleled with a disease outbreak.

Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr., “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” (1969). A biologist crafts a plague against humanity.  (Lightspeed copy)

Plays

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991, 1992)

Multiple intertwined plotlines explore the AIDS epidemic, connecting politics, religion, urban life, gender, and more.

Other

Samuel Pepys‘ diary (1660-1669)

During this decade Pepys recorded his daily life, including encounters with a plague.  One list of plague-related entries. Project Gutenberg textsLibrivox readings)

Our Workflow

Thank you for the annotations! Great stuff. If you have not annotated “The American Scholar” please do. We have much to learn from one another.

  • This just in, First we Read, then we Write. The title of the post comes from “The American Scholar.” In the post, I am providing feedback on your thinking and also explaining the essay you are writing
  • Follow the workflow: annotate the essay(s) > write something (a few paragraphs) in the Emerson Notebook on your blog (if you have not created this, make a page, and then write a few paragraphs and date the entries, the most recent at the top) >use the annotations and the Emerson notebook entry as part of the process of getting to where you need to be: complete the essay and post on your blog by Monday
  • The writing prompt for the essay is on the page in the drop-down menu under Emerson, On “The American Scholar”
  • Read and make use of the post on the course blog Writing with Sources, too
  • Go figure: the schedule for this week is followed by the schedule for next week

I’m enjoying reading with you. Please make sure you are on task. If you are having difficulties, or have questions, be in touch!

First we read, then we write

A glimpse through an interstice caught: from our annotations on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s commencement address delivered to the graduates of Harvard College in the summer of 1837

“This book is my Savings Bank. I grow richer because I have somewhere to deposit my earnings; and fractions are worth more to me because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition”

—Emerson, Journals 4: 250

Every annotation we record is a point of origin, a place to begin. When we call attention to a word, phrase, or sentence in a text we are finding in our process of reading something worthy of our (and other’s attention). Literary analysis begins with a mind at work and the impulse to put pencil or pen to the page or, in our case, to the open window in which to type out a response.

Our annotations this week on “The American Scholar” are an opportunity for us to learn how we might read together while we are apart. Such is the act of reading literature in a pandemic. It was exciting to take in the thirty-seven annotations on the essay by Meeghan, Alyssa, Jamie, Lauren S., and Julia; and in every case I was moved to respond.

In my responses, and this is important, I am modeling what I hope everyone will do in the annotations we will be doing for the next five weeks in the course. In addition to the original annotations, we can use each original comment as a point of origin, or a place to begin. Our work is to read the comment back into the essay–or, to make connections to other passages in the essay, to build from and into new contexts—historical information you might know or discover, moments of reception, connections you can bring based on your experiences and experiences as readers. In my comments, for example, I made references to, and provided language from, Walt Whitman, Walker Percy, Aldous Huxley.

We need your mind toengaged in this process. For the question is not only what can you do with what we are reading but what we can do as we read together. We all benefit from your attention and intelligence. Just as Emerson called his journal a “Savings Bank” through which he becomes “richer” because he has “somewhere to deposit my earnings,” so too our annotations are “fractions” worth more “because corresponding fractions are waiting here that shall be made integers by their addition.”

Our annotations on Emerson’s “The American Scholar” are, by design, at the same time a working space for your first essays on Emerson’s essays that will be posted on your blogs next Monday, March 30, by 12 noon. As is elaborated in the Project Description, we are practicing close attention to the language of the essay and engagement with the art of selecting and quoting relevant passages—an intellectual activity Emerson describes in an essay we will read in the coming weeks as the “assimilating” power of the mind.

A few words about the essay. Your starting point is to chose a term or concept that interests you in Emerson’s writing and then to elaborate on Emerson’s way of thinking about the term or concept. In the annotations (and in my responses) we have already identified a number of them. For example, here is a marginal note of Meeghan’s and my response:

mas1195
Mar 20
English 215

sluggard intellect [20] of this continent

Emerson is casting a lot of judgement at people here

marklong
2 hrs ago
English 215

Indeed. One of Emerson’s commitments is to what he calls in a journal entry “the infinitude of the private man.” What is education for? he is asking the group gathered for the address. What will you do to free yourself from dependence on the achievements of others?

In this particular case, one way to proceed would be to choose the word education. What is education to Emerson? What is he saying about the institution of education—to a group at a college that he graduated from himself? Consider the next essay, the 1938 “Divinity School Address” that Emerson addressed to the six graduates of the Harvard Divinity School and the other assembled parents, families friends, and teachers. Consider his admonishment to “dare to love God without mediator or veil” (79) and what he calls “the falsehood at our Christianity” (78). Or in your reading in the journals note well what Emerson says about education in the entry of September 14, 1839 (in Norton page 501):

“We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation -rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.”

A second example of a term for the essay is the past. Here is Jamie’s comment, and my comment on her comment,

Jaimelyric22
Mar 21
English 215

The next great influence into the spirit of the scholar is the mind of the Past,—in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past, and perhaps we shall get at the truth,—learn the amount of this influence more conveniently,—by considering their value alone.

In order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. The past is always an important part in interpreting the present and future. We see it in our everyday lives, how people are raised will influence the type of adult they become.

marklong
1 hr ago
English 215

This is great, Jamie. Perhaps you should write your essay on the Past in “The American Scholar.”

In this example, an essay might develop that would address the “mind of the past” of which Emerson speaks, the relation of the past to the mind engaged with the world, and the ways Emerson talks about looking back and looking forward.

A third and final example comes from Alyssa’s interest in Emerson’s use of the term “genius”:

AlyssaHamilton
Mar 23
English 215

Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius

I’m not sure if this is right but in my perception and belief this means that sometimes trying to learn from others can be harmful because you might be comparing your work to others, or not thinking you are as good because you are not as experienced or have as much knowledge

marklong
 1 hr ago
English 215

Emerson talks about “Culture” in the essay, in a brilliant redefinition, on page 66 in the Norton edition, that attempts to “domesticate” the idea by making it consistent with a democratic society. Emerson’s argument is developed by the poet Walt Whitman, and here is a relevant passage from his 1872 essay “Democratic Vistas” that will help with making meaning of Emerson’s theory of books and reading:

“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 frame-work. 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 on a few coteries of writers.”

For Whitman, the problems of democracy might be addressed by reading differently–by learning to wrestle with authors and the cultural authority of authorship. The idea is that the reader would bring as much to the event of reading as the book brings to the reader. For both Whitman and Emerson, the sine qua non is not accepting “author-ity” and thereby awakening (or democratizing) the imagination.

A preliminary list of the most salient terms and concepts in “The American Scholar” might include the terms learning, scholar, thinking, “Man Thinking,” the “whole man,” intellect, intuition, institution, nature, power, books, “theory of books,” creation, reading, history, culture, action. Another approach would be to dig into the paragraphs in one of the primary sections of the essay. You would choose one of the terms: “nature” or “books” or “action.” Or the terms “labor,” “thinker” (“mere thinker,” “Man thinking”), “mind,” “thought,” “creation.” Each of these terms can be explained in a close reading of the essay. What will be fun is that once you have explained to others (and to yourself) the way the term is working in Emerson’s thinking you will then see how these terms will prove useful coordinates as you begin to find tour way in Emerson’s corpus.

As Emerson says, ”do your own quarrying.”  

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 what is 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.

Keeping On

Due to the rapid unfolding of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the College has suspended in-person classes until two-weeks after spring break. As a result, we will have no face-to-face meetings until April. Our earliest class meeting would be Tuesday April 7th. However, it remains possible that we will transition to an online course for the remainder of the spring semester.

The notes below will outline our reading and discussion, writing, and office hours in the weeks following spring break. Note well that much of what follows is predicated on the assumption that you have access to the internet; if you do not have access to a reliable internet connection, please let me know, and we will make a plan for you to take an active role in the work ahead.

Reading and Discussion

  • Our classwork will continue with no interruption following spring break. Before the College made the decision to suspend face-to-face classes, I asked you to read Making a Case: Ralph Waldo Emerson and to complete the annotation assignment on “The American Scholar” before we return from Spring Break.
  • Your Hypothes.is annotations on “The American Scholar” will model the reading and discussion going forward. The course timeline will include links to the Emerson essays we will be reading together. All Hypothes.is work will be in the English 215 Group. You may either follow the link or, after logging in to your Hypothes.is account, use the pull-down menu to select the English 215 group.
  • Before each class, please make sure that you write marginal comments and annotate the essays in the digital archive Emerson Central. These digital texts will allow us to use the annotations as a space for discussion. We will be reading in the Norton Critical Edition as well, especially the journals, notebooks, and correspondence.

Writing

  • By Monday, March 23, you will have completed your writing as outlined in Read This: Writing as Revision
  • I recommend that you keep a reading journal on your blog to explore and document your response to Emerson’s essays. These journal entries will be very useful as part of your process of written response that will be developed in the longer projects on Emerson
  • The description of the first writing project on Emerson is now posted. We will talk about this assignment when we resume classes. Please let me know if you have any questions. I’m looking forward to seeing what you are able to do with your writing and to beginning to open up Emerson for study.

Office Hours

  • During the two weeks following spring break I will be available for office hours. These hours will be by appointment. Email me with your preferred day and time. Once we have settled on a day and time, we can determine whether a phone or video conversation will be most useful to you.

Please be in touch if you have any questions. I will be returning to the US from Lapland at the end of spring break. And I will be in self-quarantine until Saturday, April 4th. When I return to the US, I will be reviewing the revisions you completed during week 8 (or over spring break, if you chose to complete the revisions then).

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.”

—“Circles”

“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?”

—“Experience”

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

—“Politics”

“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

Making a Case: Ralph Waldo Emerson

The interim period in our course is designed to ease you into the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. We will be working with Emerson’s Prose and Poetry (Norton Critical Editions. Paper. ISBN: 978-0393967920. You need a copy of this book if you do not already have it. We will also be working with digital texts, as you will see below. Here is what you need to do:
  • Get to know Ralph Waldo Emerson. Read in Emerson’s Poetry and Prose. I encourage you to get to know Emerson by spending some time with his writing. Browse the early sermons, his addresses and lectures, his poems, and the excerpts from his journals, notebooks, and correspondence.
  • Read “The American Scholar,” 56–59
When we return from Spring Break we will start by reading this text together, using the marginal comments and annotations you will have put up for all of us to consider.
  • Here is what you need to do
No later than Monday March 23 write marginal comments on the digital text of The American Scholar. Log in to hypothes.is and in the drop-down menu in the upper right, choose the “English 215” Group. Each of you will take responsibility for marginal comments and explication in one paragraph. The digital text has annotations, but if you need to do more—such as looking up terms—go ahead and do that. In your marginal thoughts and explication, generate as much commentary as you are able.
  • Paragraph 1 Meeghan
  • Paragraph 2-3 Lauren (Simmons)
  • Paragraph 4 Jaime
  • Paragraph 5 -6 Lily
  • Paragraph 7 Julia
  • Paragraph 8 Trent
  • Paragraph 9 Jake
  • Paragraph 10-11 Preston
  • Paragraph 13-15 Alyssa
  • Paragraph 16 Lauren (Degnan)
  • Paragraph 17-18 Paige
Once you have worked on your paragraph(s), then read and add marginal comments from paragraph 18 to the end of the essay. Have fun. As Emerson says, “Do your own quarrying.” And finally, over the spring break, do give back to yourself, and to your loved ones. Be well.