Shout Out and Reminders

First, I am writing with a shout out to all of you for your inspiring writing projects! Our conversations and editorial exchanges give me confidence that the process of reading and thinking and writing you are doing on the final project, and that you have complete din this class, will prepare you for your further work in English courses, in other classes, as well as in your activities outside of school.

As I read your preliminary work, and offer commentary on your ways of reading and thinking about Emerson’s writing, I could not help but recall the title of the essay by the critic Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living.” In this essay and also in his book Attitudes Toward History, Burke proposes that literary genres are strategies—frames of acceptance or rejection, as he puts it—that permit us to assess our range of possible choices in response to the human condition. He is interested in literary forms as strategies that foster dialogue, debate, and self-correction leading to ideas better than any one person might produce alone. And your projects are doing precisely this as you think with Emerson about the literary arts of reading and writing; the relation between historical and social events and Emerson’s essays; the form of the essay and, in particular, Emerson’s last sentences; individualism and the self; the relation between the human and more-than-human world; Emerson’s essays as teaching reading and writing; and Emerson’s thinking about understanding and knowledge.

Second, I have a list of reminders about finishing our work this semester.

  • Final essay will be completed and posted on your course blog by our final examination time block on Tuesday May 5
  • Zoom meeting next week we will meet during our final examination time block on Tuesday May 5 at 10:30. Our agenda is 1) for each of you to share what you have learned in your final project and 2) to consider what we have learned this semester by reviewing the outcomes of the course.

To review the outcomes you will need to write them: to reflect on what you have learned and to write a list of three examples of what you have learned in the course. For example, Here is a list of outcomes that students wrote in an English and Environmental Studies Course that I taught last fall. Another list of outcomes is available on A Brief Debrief that lists what students said at the end of another course I teach on literature and democracy. Remember, too, that in your second thoughts essays you have articulated some of what you have learned; and so you might review your work as you reflect and draw up our list of outcomes. No later than Monday evening please send me three learning outcomes that you are taking away from our work together this semester. Be as specific as possible in your outcomes.

  • Grading Please let me know if you have any questions. The Grading Contract is in the March 24 email in the course update archive on this course site. If you are planning to elect the Pass/No Pass option, you have received from the College links to the Course (In)eligibility Spreadsheet and the GPA Considerations and the deadline for you to select the Pass/No Pass option is the end of Finals Week, Friday, May 8 at 11:59p.m.  The Student Request form is posted on Canvas, requiring your authentication to access the link.
  • Course Evaluations should be completed byMonday March 4th at 6 PM. Thank you for taking the time to complete the online evaluations.
  • Teaching and Learning Survey Will you consider sending me an email with an informal evaluation of the course? The transition in medias res to remote learning has been challenging for students and professors alike. In conversations with my kids (who are both in college, at other universities) I am learning how perceptions of what might work and what is actually working are not necessarily the same. Everyone is doing their best. But I am interested in talking with as many students as possible about their experiences with remote learning to see how we do better. My goal is to inform my own and other professor’s course development as prepare for the possible use of online or hybrid online/face-to-face learning in the fall. Your experiences and your recommendations are extremely valuable. Thank you!

A Note on Burke and Further Reading

Literature as equipment for living is a fascinating essay by the influential literary and cultural critic, Kenneth Burke. You can read Literature as Equipment for Living or read it in the Internet Archive copy of The Philosophy Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Third Ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973. 293-304.) Burke writes that works of literature, single out “a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it. Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary (or, in the case of purely derivative artists, the addition of a subsidiary meaning to a word already given by some originating artist).” Burke also speculates on the value of his proposed method. “The method has these things to be said in its favor: It gives definite insight into the organization of literary works; and it automatically breaks down the barriers erected about literature as a specialized pursuit. People can classify novels by reference to three kinds, eight kinds, seventeen kinds. It doesn’t matter. Students patiently copy down the professor’s classification and pass examinations on it, because the range of possible academic classifications is endless. Sociological classification, as herein suggested, would derive its relevance from the fact that it should apply both to works of art and to social situations outside of art.”

As it happens, years ago, a friend of mine, Randall Roorda, wrote a Burkean inspired essay for a book I co-edited that he called “Living as Equipment for Literature.” This idea aligns well with our conversations earlier in the course about meaning and interpretation and how we might define the reader of a book, with Whitman. “Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing,” Whitman writes, “but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not a few coteries of writers.”

Emerson on Fate (and more)

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

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

My conversations with each of you about your final writing projects on the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson have been inspiring. Many of you are considering the ways that thought and language offer freedoms as well as constraints. The question of fate and fortune, of the laws of the world and the power of the intellect is (once again) at hand.

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

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

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

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

When we read “The Poet” (the last essay in the first series) alongside  “Experience” (the first essay in the second series) readers will often hear a shift in tone as Emerson attempts to describe the disposition of an argument that is so forcefully laid out in the first paragraph:

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

 He goes on, in the following paragraph, in an astonishing riff:

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

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

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

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

Emerson on History and Reform

“Language has lost all its meaning in the universal cant. Representative government is really misrepresentative. . . . Manifest Destiny, Democracy, Freedom, fine names for an ugly thing. They call it otto [attar] or rose and lavender––I call it bilge-water.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Speech on Affairs in Kansas”

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 the germinal idea behind Emerson’s understanding of history and social reform.

The proposition that most of what we know is not fixed but fluid was unsettling in Emerson’s time––as well as in our own. “I unsettle all things,” Emerson writes. “No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back.” And in Circles, “Nothing is secure,” writes Emerson, “but life, transition, the energizing spirit. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” in that estimable Emersonian phrase, is to live a life in transition, to know that our knowledge is incomplete and that one of the joys of life is to pursue the incompleteness at the core of Emerson’s proposition. 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 precisely what he says. The active and dynamic relation of self and world implies an understanding of what we know as provisional––constructed and reconstructed by the mind in perpetual interaction.

We read history to know our selves. To read sympathetically, and to read morally, is Emerson’s way of reminding his reader of the obligations of history. 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 in Emerson’s time. He had read Robert Knox’s The Races of Men and was familiar with 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 simply by acknowledging that we might choose to become more aware of the of the “illusions” or the “hallucinations” that insulate us from the “guano” in the history and destiny of human beings. This is the central argument of a book by the writer 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.

What emerged late in the nineteenth-century, and persisted through the middle of the twentieth century, was an understanding of Emerson’s life and work as disengaged from the social and political and moral questions of his time. What we now know, and can now read in his writing, is how engaged Emerson really was. In An Address on the Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies (348–59 in Norton) and Address to the citizens of Concord on the Fugitive Slave Law (359–72 in Norton) Emerson makes the case for what he calls in the Concord address a “Higher Law.” His belief in a moral universe that transcends existing laws begins in the idea that there are unjust laws. In other words, as he says at the opening of his essay Politics,

In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.

Emerson believes in the fluidity of institutions based on the conviction that they are constructed or made. The expediencies of laws led Emerson to disagree with Daniel Webster, for example, who supported the Fugitive Slave Law to preserve the Union. What Emerson sees and is willing to make visible is that the law is a product of the materialism Emerson abhorred. The institution of slavery was perpetuated (both in the South and in the North) by the expediency of sustaining economy. Material prosperity and individual comforts are valued more than social justice. The dissent is clear: morality is not subordinate but primary. As Emerson says of institutions (including slavery): “all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better.” As Emerson wrote elsewhere, “If resistance to this law is not right, there is no right.”

Photo credit: Mark C. Long

Reading Emerson: Criticism and Theory

In the first few weeks of this class we talked about the English department’s four program objectives:

Production and Reception: The program teaches how historical, social, and cultural contexts shape literary works-including those works produced by cultures whose humanity and identity have been devalued, denied, or dismissed;

Language and Poetics: The program introduces students to the major genres of literature, rhetorical and literary strategies, and the ways in which literary works relate intertextually.

Criticism and Theory: The program introduces students to historical contexts and critical theories that shape literary analysis and inform scholarly debates in the field of literary studies.

Reading and Writing: The program teaches careful reading, the use of literary vocabulary, an orderly critical approach, and the use of writing for a range of purposes.

All of these program outcomes are in play in English courses all of the time––at least to some degree. But at this point in the course, our case study of Emerson is moving in the domain of literary production and reception. On the one hand, learning more about Emerson and his milieu will give you greater appreciation for his contributions to literary and cultural history; on the other hand, as you join other readers in the study of Emerson, you will find that your reading will become more informed and your writing about (and with) Emerson more productive.

I recommend that you think about our current work in two ways. First, you are continuing to read in the primary work:  Emerson’s journals and letters, as well as his lectures and essays and poems. Second, you are reading in the history of commentary on Emerson’s writings, what we call the secondary materials. The goal is for these two areas of reading and study to come together in your thinking and writing.

The Norton Critical Edition gives you a glimpse of the corpus of materials in the vast archive of secondary writing on Emerson’s works. We are sampling the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Reviews and Impressions––by practicing poets and essayists; people trained in history and historiography or literary and cultural studies; and philosophers, theologians, literary critics, sociologists and political scientists.

Last week, for example, the literary historian Perry Miller’s “New England Transcendentalism: Native or Imported?” asked you to think about the “ism” in its title. Miller’s question helps us to understand Emerson’s “heresy” in the mind of his mentor in the Harvard Divinity School, Andrews Norton—that is, his pupil’s “trust in intuition, in direct perception of truth” (668). One suggestion Miller makes is Emerson’s 1842 lecture, “The Transcendentalist,” in which he exclaims in the opening to his audience at Boston’s Masonic Temple, “What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842” (93). Another recommendation was to return to Emerson’s essay “Nature.” The “Contexts” section in the Norton (573–83) lists four additional resources, comments by Madame de Stael, William Wordsworth, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Sampson Reed. Have a look at Russell Goodman’s entry Transcendentalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Table of Contents of this Encyclopedia will also lead you to other entries if you become interested in the philosophical context for reading Emerson, such as “Idealism” and “Materialism.”

The Reviews and Impressions from Emerson’s contemporaries will be useful for you as well. So will the reception of these ideas in the next generation of American writers and thinkers. Perry Miller, along with Steven Whicher, Joel Porte, and F. O. Matthiessen reset the terms of the critical discussion of Emerson; and excerpts from this body of commentary is included in the “Criticism” section of the Norton––from the 1930s (Firkins) to Hyatt H. Waggoner’s assessment of Emerson as a poet in the 1970s. These writers make up the historical contexts and critical theories that shape literary analysis and inform scholarly debates in the field of literary studies that we describe as criticism and theory.

Reading the primary and secondary work offers you the opportunity to place your own experiences and assessment of Emerson’s writing into the arc of commentary by other readers. The pleasures of reading may even become the pleasures of reading about reading. From words to words about words. Then comes the important questions that arise in any course of reading and reflection in a community of readers, the pursuit of which some people call theory, or what might be described as words about words about words.

As you continue your writing about Emerson, consider developing your first thoughts (or first impressions) into second thoughts (more developed thinking). One way to do this is to follow the strategy Emerson himself used in the essay Quotation and Originality: make a case and then argue the opposite of the case. That is, Emerson may offer in one sentence or section of an essay what you think is a position or case; but then, and this happens again and again, the position becomes less reliable, more uncertain, even difficult to hang on to. “I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition,” Emerson says in his essay Experience.

Photo credit: Mark C. Long

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


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.


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).


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.



“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.


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).


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)


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.


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:

Mar 20
English 215

sluggard intellect [20] of this continent

Emerson is casting a lot of judgement at people here

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,

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.

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”:

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

 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.”