Emerson’s influence

September 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is a course about three very important writers in American literature. Arguably, the most influential in terms of American poetry and prose. It is often argued that all American poets after the 19th century respond in same way to Whitman or Dickinson. And many prose writers, both nonfiction and fiction, in some form respond to Emerson.

But we begin with Emerson, who influences Whitman and Dickinson. Note how the biography at the Poetry Foundation represents Emerson’s importance.

No one has a better claim than Ralph Waldo Emerson to being the central figure in the whole history of American literature. All artists distill influences from the past to become, themselves, influences on the future, but in Emerson’s case the affiliations reach farther back and farther forward and more generally and consequentially in both directions. He inherits, for example, the inwardness of his Puritan ancestors—their struggle to adjust their lives and the world itself to an order above nature, their fear of losing touch with the immanence of the divine, and even their contempt for formalism in religion and their belief that each particular self is at last the only scene of regeneration. Emerson’s nineteenth-century reformation of such seventeenth-century motives was decisively influential on poets such as Walt WhitmanEmily DickinsonRobert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. His presence and example were deeply felt in American philosophy, religion, music, and education, both during his lifetime and into the twentieth century.

And those are just the poets. Fiction and nonfiction writers are another matter.

What, then, does Emerson represent? Frequently, critics assert the overwhelming influence of Emerson in the process of suggesting that it, the influence, like the writer himself, is hard to pin down. Often, metaphors of climate (a favorite figure of Emerson) are evoked. Here is Harold Bloom, a famous critic and long ago Sophie Kerr speaker:

Emerson is the mind of our climate, the principal source of the American difference in poetry, criticism and pragmatic post-philosophy…. Emerson, by no means the greatest American writer… is the inescable theorist of all subsequent American writing. From his moment to our, American authors either are in his tradition, or else in a counter-tradition originating in opposition to him. [originally published in Bloom’s 1984 article in The New York Review of Books, “Mr. America”]

In addition to viewing Emerson as the exponent and prophet of American individualism, another prominent way Emerson has been received is as the intellectual removed from society and the common, his head in the clouds. This despite the argument he makes for the scholar in “American Scholar” as a philosopher of the street. Does Emerson not live up to his own ideal; or is it a case of critics and the culture misreading his work?

Along this spectrum of Emerson’s prominence and the potential for misreading him, there is the problem of the quotable Emerson–evident, or represented, in this citing from a book titled My Organic Soul: From Plato to Creflo, Emerson to MLK, Jesus to Jay-Z.  I can recall that on the wall of my grandmother’s bathroom, hanging right next to the toilet, was a small plaque of the sort one buys at Hallmark, with a famous line from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” printed on it: To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men–that is genius. My grandmother, so far as I know, never read Emerson, and never went to college. Does the quotation on her bathroom wall get Emerson right or wrong?

The middle ground that I see and hear in Emerson’s call for the “American Scholar” (and cognates for scholar: thinker, poet, writer) is what we might call “public intellectual.” As we discussed in class, they are not so easy to find these days. I think of it in terms of where the writer appears and publishes. It is a writing and thinking that is not strictly journalistic or general audience; and not specifically academic (specialization). As an example, I think of the publication named after Emerson’s address, The American Scholar.

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