Tag Archives: literature

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.

Reading in English

“Read as though it made sense and perhaps it will.”

—I.A. Richards

Reading in English is more than finding information as you might, say, in a biology textbook or in a book that describes the major theories of psychology. Reading in English is also more than the act of recording information or summarizing main ideas. Consider what happens when you are faced with reading a poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

To read this poem, Ezra Pound’s  “In a Station of the Metro,” is to become aware of the occasion of reading. That is, a reading of the poem requires a reader to note the particular parts and see how they might come together. Who is speaking? In what context? What about the language? Why “apparition”? What about the two lines of the poem? How do I make sense of the second line of the poem? One of the ways to read the poem would be to write about it. Working on a text by writing about it is a way of reading, or rereading, that will help you practice becoming aware of how you are reading, and consider the consequences in the choices you have made in the act of reading.

Writing becomes a powerful tool for reading texts that do not easily summarize—texts that present readers with striking, surprising, even troubling uses of language. One might cite the philosophical dialogues of Plato or the writing about economics by Adam Smith. Consider the following passage from a lecture by the philosopher William James delivered at the Lowell Institute in December of 1906:

We live in a world of realities that can be infinitely useful or infinitely harmful. Ideas that tell us which of them to expect count as the true ideas in all this primary sphere of verification, and the pursuit of such ideas is a primary human duty. The possession of truth, so far from being here an end in itself, is only a preliminary means towards other vital satisfactions. If I am lost in the woods and starved, and find what looks like a cow-path, it is of the utmost importance that I should think of a human habitation at the end of it, for if I do so and follow it, I save myself. The true thought is useful here because the house which is its object is useful. The practical value of true ideas is thus primarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us.

Or consider the opening of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s astonishing essay on the creative process he titled “Circles”:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . [E]very action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Most readers can follow these passages. But this is not language readily summarized. In fact, placing these excerpts back in the context of the lectures from which they are taken requires the reader to do some work. Marking the text in the margin, or underlining or bracketing phrases or sentences that are particularly difficult or even mysterious, begins the process of making meaning. What does James mean that we live in a world of realities? Why the plural? What does it mean to say that these realities are “infinitely useful or infinitely harmful?” Can I begin with an analogy to a situation that translates the “we” into “me”?

The point is that the reading begins with your encounter with the text and acknowledging that the work of making meaning begins with your thinking. Sure, you could go to a book that summarizes James’ essay (and theory of truth) for you. But in doing so you merely repeat what someone else has concluded from her or his way of reading. More importantly, you miss an opportunity to learn how to read. Working on a text that challenges you is like mastering a sequence of chords on a guitar or learning how to throw a Frisbee. After spending time going over the passage you will be able to do more with that passage. With texts that are well put together, which deserve this kind of attention, you will most likely feel a sense of incompleteness, of not quite being able to sum it up. Not to worry, as this feeling is common in an experience of reading writing that matters.

Literary texts are texts that have mattered to readers. Literature, Ezra Pound quips, is “news that stays news.” The literary texts that remain news in a community of readers are texts that imagine ways of thinking about or being in the world that are useful in some way to readers. Literary texts, in this sense, might be understood as forms of reasoning that we use to reason—to think with, or imagine, our selves and the world. “Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle,” Emerson writes in “Circles,” “through 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.” A comparable case is made by the poet Adrienne Rich in her essay  “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision”: “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Such a use of literature, or a need to know, begins in the act of reading—attentively, as well as with generosity and humility—and the critical activity of thinking and writing that might follow.