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“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.


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.

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,


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

A Note on Poetics

This week we will be working with a distinction between two kinds of textual work: poetics and hermeneutics.1 This distinction is described well by a professor who teaches at Cornell University, Jonathan Culler, in his elegant little book Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction:

Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations. (61)

Most literary criticism will draw on the resources of both kinds of work when working on a text. We might be reading a short story, for example, and  identify (or sympathize) with a character we might discuss how that identification would determine the meaning of the story (hermeneutics or interpretation). At the same time, we might discuss how the language of a story creates associations that undermine a narrative point of view or how a controlling metaphor reinforces gender associations (poetics).

When you are interpreting a text to determine what a text means you are involved in hermeneutics. This kind of writing in literary studies, as Jonathan Culler reminds us, comes out of law and religion, fields in which people are working to establish authoritative legal or religious interpretation to guide action (Literary Theory 61). The other interpretive project is poetics. This kind of writing, associated with linguistics and contemporary rhetoric, sets out to examine how texts are made, as well as to account for how the structure of a text (a sonnet, for example) achieves the effects that it does. Culler describes this basic distinction well. “Taking meanings or effects as the point of departure (poetics) is fundamentally different from seeking to discover meaning (hermeneutics)” (61).

Remember that attention to how the text is put together (poetics) will help you make a persuasive case; in fact, your interpretive writing will be in part judged by how well you reach your interpretive conclusions—what you are able to do with the elements of the text you highlight and use to support your conclusion.

Note The term poetics is used to talk about the theory or principles of making poems and, more broadly, in reference to the aesthetic principles of any subject or inquiry (Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space comes to mind.) Poetics also refers to a body of writing that elaborates on these theories and principles, such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” or William Carlos Williams’ “The Poem as a Field of Action.” The term hermeneutics refers to principles employed in the interpretation (or exegesis) of religious writing or in the field of law (“legal hermeneutics”). The work often discussed in accounts of the hermeneutic tradition include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans Georg Gadamer and E.D.Hirsch.

Work Cited Jonathan Culler,  Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Reading as a Writer

The activity of reading is a complex process involving the formation of and testing of inferences about the internal relations of the work and about the external relations between the work and the world. Much of the activity of reading remains tacit; that is, we do it for the most part without being conscious of what we are doing.

Reading as a Writer most often involves putting the process of reading to work in writing. The process includes comprehension (summary), analysis (recognition and use of features of text), interpretation (construction of meaning from a text and recognize ways of reading), and evaluation (identifying and analyzing assumptions and judgments)


Marginal notes and annotation on section XLVII of Ezra Pound’s Cantos

Summary: the reader formulates a brief restatement that omits concrete details, in the case of a narrative, in order to isolate the significant actions and formal divisions in the work. We summarize a text so that we have a sufficient understanding of the character(s) and action(s) of the work.

e.g. (exempli gratia or for example) here is a schematic summary of Hart Crane’s The Bridge (a seventy-six page poem): The poem begins with an introductory proem and then is divided into eight parts. In the poem, a young man awakens at dawn, gazes out over the harbour and city, and then spends the day wandering in the metropolis, gradually becoming involved in its corruption, and, after agonizing disillusionment and drunkenness—a kind of spiritual descent into Hades—comes, in the final part of the poem, to an apparently illuminating vision of order or transcendence.

Marginalia: the reader is focused on her response to the work—what springs to mind and into body in the course of your reading. Its purpose is to register your feelings and thoughts as you read to examine, deepen and perhaps change them. We respond to texts in the mode of marginalia when we draw on our own emotions, life experience and intellectual competencies


Isaac Newton’s marginal notations

Annotation: the reader brings to the work factual information from an external source. Its purpose is to clarify apparent ambiguities, obscurities and references. We annotate—or at least we should—when a term or reference in the text slows us down, confuses us or presents an interpretive problem


marginal notes and annotation

Explication: the reader proceeds word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, line-by-line, with the intent of describing the work’s formal features—the lexical, grammatical, syntactic and sequential choices of an author. Its purpose is to generate awareness of the formal features of a work so as to be more accountable to how the work is put together. We explicate to make explicit the immediate indices of our attention—the lexical, grammatical, syntactic choices of an author; we analyze, relying on all the previous modes—marginalia, annotation and explication—to communicate to your reader something interesting and significant about the passage(s) under discussion

Address the following short poem by Emily Dickinson using marginal commentary, annotation, and explication:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Analysis: the reader isolates one or more elements of the work for closer attention. We use analysis to separate the work into parts, or into cause and effect relations, in order to probe different relations, to generate questions, and more fully understand the whole.

Now consider this annotation and explication or this Explication of “Etymological Dirge annotations

Interpretation: the reader sets forth one or more meanings of a work according to a programmatic set of assumptions or ideological beliefs. We interpret in order to make a persuasive case for a meaning of the work.

Caitlyn’s “English is”

Caitlyn McCain, English 215 Teaching Assistant

Looking back on what I wrote about English as a freshman, I realized that I gave it a very textbook answer. In some ways, that too, is an element of English: formality. However, over the course of my college degree I’ve learned that English allows a person to expand her skills, her mind, her imagination: of all the things that make up English, one’s own genius is at its core: your own ability to make English your own.

True, at the center of “English Studies” is literature and writing. Novels, poetry, drama, non-fiction—you name it, there is a class on it. Understanding how to work with literature, and how to write effectively makes English useful and enriches one’s own experience with it. English taught me everything I could want to know about citations and critical thinking and writing. It taught me how to engage as a student, or interpret a text, or the best ways to convey thoughts and feelings through words. However, what I missed as a freshman was myself. I approached the field of English like an assignment. I thought that if I did the reading, highlighted and annotated passages, and wrote the paper well that somehow my understanding of “English” would evolve and deepen. In fact, the opposite is true. By treating English as merely a discipline, I disregarded the primary element that gave it life: my own experience.

English combines “suppositories of culture” with the people who encounter it. Without the active heart and engaged mind of the student, English is dusty books and fading critical statements. It never comes to life. Around my junior year, I finally realized that by reading and writing without my self, I was missing out on what truly makes English “English.” In my first essay about English I wrote: “People devoting themselves to an English major are opening themselves up to higher thinking, deeper reading, and improved understanding of what came before them and how those ideals remain significant to them.” That’s all true. But even as I wrote it, there was a distance between my self and my studies of what I loved. I’d yet to make it my own, to take ownership of it, and to engage with literature and writing on a personal level.

English is culture, and ideals, and philosophy all bundled up in books that will last through time so future generations will know where they came from. It is the study of language, how it works, how it doesn’t, and the best ways to say things with exactly the right words. It’s about learning how to think deeply and read actively. English is about studying your world through the lens of texts, and applying contexts of the time period to gain a richer understanding of your own (or someone else’s) experience of the world. English is definitely all of that. However, it’s also you.

English is your own experience of a text, your own relation to it, your own feelings and thoughts and how you convey them. However, it’s also taught me about myself—as a reader, a writer, and a thinker. Once I learned that English isn’t a subject outside of myself, but rather, one that includes me and my own thoughts and words, I truly began to engage with it. I found confidence in my writing, and in my own voice. I trusted myself to interpret a text, or to have legitimate ideas of my own, rather than repeating what I’d heard someone else say for fear of being “wrong.” English is essential to who I am as a student and a person, and is far beyond a textbook definition. English is everything a critic can tell you it is, but never leave yourself out of the equation.

Keene is Reading

For the 2015-2016 academic year the Keene State College Keene Is Reading program focuses on two books, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. After a wonderful semester-long focus on Citizen, this Friday we will begin our discussions of Our Kids. All members of the community are welcome to join our book group this Friday, January 29 at noon in the Mountain View Room.

Putnam’s book separates myths from realities about parenting, families, schooling, and communities through careful research. This Friday, we plan to discuss the book’s first chapter, “The American Dream,” as well as the research that went into Putnam’s text, as detailed in “The Stories of Our Kids.”

Please come this Friday at noon whether you’ve read the book, or haven’t even picked up a copy yet. A few copies of the books will be available. Join us for whatever portion of the discussion you can, and please send questions to Emily Robins Sharpe eat or to KIR co-coordinator William Stroup at