Monthly Archives: March 2016

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

Literary and Non-Literary

Cover of "Language in the Inner City: Stu...

Cover via Amazon

This week in class we have been discussing narrative as literary form. One way to pursue such a discussion is to examine the continuity between these literary forms and the way we use language in our day-to-day lives. One way to pursue this continuity in narrative is by reading Mary Louise Pratt’s Toward a Speech Act Theory, in which she builds on the research conducted by the sociolinguist William Labov, specifically his “The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax” in Language in the Inner City (1972). Another approach to to read short literary anecdotes and stories, including stories by William Carlos Williams and Italo Calvino.


English: Title page from: Wordsworth, William ...

Title page from William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, with a few other poems. London: Printed for J. & A. Arch, 1798

The other way is to emphasize the differences between the literary and non-literary. Near the conclusion of the eighteenth century, William Wordsworth made a case for the literary as a distinctive mode of cultural production. He proposed to write a poetry that would “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men” (Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads). Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his discussion of Wordsworth’s literary experiment in Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, adds that Wordsworth’s poetry would allow “awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us” (Qtd. in Critical Theory Since Plato 505). A few years later, Percy Byshee Shelley (in response to Thomas Love Peacock’s satire of poetry) composed his Defense of Poetry, in which he claims that poetry “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity” and in turn “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” (542). The argument here for the distinctive power of poetry would be echoed nearly one hundred years hence by the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky who made a case for what he called defamiliarization. In “Art as Technique,” he makes a distinction between artistic language and everyday language, arguing that “the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception. . . (800).

In these comments about the distinctiveness of poetry one hears a broader claim that art frees the mind from convention. In the words of William Blake, “poetry fetter’d, fetters the human race.” My point here is not necessarily to endorse such a position. Rather I am interested in the claim as an example of an answer to the questions about the literary you have been asked to consider in this course. Among the outcomes of taking an undergraduate degree in English is an understanding of the intellectual questions that inform literary studies, and that arise in the ongoing conversations about imaginative thinking and its place in human experience.