Emerson and the Lyceum; or, Reading Buell like an Emersonian

September 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

We will be using Lawrence Buell’s Emerson as our critical guide throughout the course. Buell is a prominent scholar of Emerson, Transcendentalism, as well as the field of environmental literary criticism; he is also a model student from what I am calling Emerson’s School. He can help us not only learn about Emerson, but learn how others have learned from or related to him, and thereby how we might also learn as scholars, creative readers.

As you read a chapter in Buell’s text during a given week–they are usually due on Friday when your blog response is due, so I recommend reading a bit each day alongside the other reading, not leaving Buell for Thursday night–you can work on forwarding some information and insight into your reading of Emerson. By “forward,” I have in mind what Joseph Harris (in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts) calls “forwarding,” a way scholars engage with other texts, working and reworking its ideas into our responses. You can do this in your notebook, using it as a basis for class discussion: quoting specific passages in Buell (much as you would quote passages from Emerson) that you want to borrow and/or raise questions about. Then, in your blog response, you should weave one of Buell’s insights and your response to him into your response to Emerson (and the other assigned writers) for that week. Thereupon, when you turn to your writing projects, you can further forward and extend, as well as refine, your response and your use of Buell’s critical insight.

You can use this as a basic rubric for forwarding, two key components (adapted from Harris):

  1. Authorizing: Quote and summarize a key passage from the text (in this case, the chapter from Buell’s Emerson) that is of interest, that you would like to bring into class as providing us, or at least you, with some help in understanding Emerson and one or more of the texts we have been reading. This is they way Emerson started with his notebooks. In addition to the quotation, add a 1-2 sentence summary of the context surround the quote. One way to do this with Buell: pick one of the subsections from a chapter that you have a particular interest in or better grasp of: for example, the “Emerson as Public Lecturer” section of “The Making of a Public Intellectual” chapter that focuses on Emerson and the American Lyceum as a key context for Emerson’s thinking and writing. What is that context? What are some keywords that Buell offers us.
  2. Extending: After quoting and summarizing, move toward your interpretation of what the possible insight is, how you as a creative reader (braced by Buell’s labor and invention) might connect that information to one of the texts you have in mind this week. Developing or extending from Buell’s critical insights gives you a way to extend further the emerging insight you are pursuing in your blog–and potentially in your writing project. Make a connection between Buell and a text he doesn’t mention, or another passage from a text he mentions. Explore how this idea collaborates with your idea, or how it complicates it–or possibly, how you would counter Buell. This is a reminder that one effective way to extend and develop an interpretation (and avoid merely continuing the summary) is to raise questions, and seek to answer them, and draw distinctions between what the author argues and what you want to argue.

Scholarship is built upon this dynamic activity of forwarding and responding to reading, both authorizing where our ideas come from as well as extending them into different forms and contexts. I take this to be something of what Emerson has in mind when he refers to “creative reading” in “American Scholar.” This is also how Emerson worked as a reader and writer, as Buell argues in his focus on the Lyceum. Buell insightfully describes the flexibility of Emerson’s composition method (see pages 27-29), the ways he moved from journal and notebooks (authorizing his ideas in relation to what he read), to its extension first in a lecture (something like a weekly blog), then further extension and revision for publication in an essay. This passage offers particular insight that is of interest to me, and to the work on Emerson that I am working on right now with my scholarship:  the insight is that all of Emerson’s work, from speaking to writing, has a distinctively rhetorical purpose. Buell locates this with reference to Emerson’s lecture (and later essay) on “Eloquence” and calls it his “theory of the essay.” Forwarding Emerson from that essay, Buell notes the purpose of “eloquence” (or oratory, or rhetoric) is, “to alter in a pair of hours, perhaps in a half hour’s discourse, the convictions and habits of years” (29). [In fact, rereading this section of Buell, I realize that I should forward this insight on Emerson’s rhetorical “theory of the essay” into my work in progress, my essay on teaching Emerson in a course on the essay.]

This dynamic discourse, altering the audience, is what the Emerson essay, like the lecture, attempts to do. And this is what the scholar, reading those essays, altered by them, also attempts to do in writing her or his own essays.

This is the key rhetorical method that Emerson brought to his work as a public intellectual, or what Buell calls “lecturer-as-intellectual” (29). As we read and practice this in our work, we will give more thought to the rhetorical contexts of our work. One of the ways we will do this: working toward a final project that will reach both toward refined, published work–like an Emerson essay–as well as toward an Emerson lecture, a presentation of our work.

Some related questions I will continue to ask as we engage with the rhetorical Emerson and his legacy as public intellectual: where is the public intellectual today? what is her method of composition? where is the lyceum? where is it missing in our culture?

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