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” 

A Note on Poetics

This week are working with a distinction between two kinds of textual work: poetics and hermeneutics.1 This distinction is described well by Jonathan Culler in 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 (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.