Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 3 Comments

No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:

Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]

Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]

I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…

  1. democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
  2. pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
  3. metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
  4. organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” [309]

Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.

His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. [95]

As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?

Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.

[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]


Emerson and the American Ego

September 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

We enter this week headlong into the territory most familiar to people who might have read a bit of Emerson: Emerson’s SELF, lead by the essay “Self-Reliance.” It has become, ironically, perhaps the most conventional of his essays–the one always referred to as evidence of what a literary critic called “The Imperial Self.” A more recent version of this convention, this critique of Emersonian egotism came in 2003, in the celebrations around his 200th birthday. An editorial in the New York Times blamed Emerson for the American tradition of self-absorption, the excessive egotism that leads to greed on Wall Street and go-it-alone foreign policy. Another version of this critique, less aggressive but still distrustful of Emerson, came from John Updike in the New Yorker. A more recent and more positive view of the Emersonian self and its lessons for us today can be found in this Op-Ed by the literary critic Harold Bloom “Out of Panic, Self-Reliance.” And this piece in the Chronicle, “Giving Emerson the Boot,” I think is especially flagrant in its understanding of the egoistic Emerson. And one more from 2011: “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’.”  No subtlety here.

I said irony regarding these conventional views of the Emersonian self: the irony, of course, given that Emerson writes (in these very essays, certainly in “Self-Reliance”) about resisting convention and conformity of thinking. So what do you think? If the convention is Emersonian imperial ego, is this all that we find in this essay–or is there a resisting vision, a contrast, if not a contradiction, that we can read?

One way into this, I will suggest, is to consider more directly what Emerson himself writes and thinks regarding contradiction (and also convention). I think there is more to say than what, traditionally, people have said for Emerson. Emerson, as we have begun to discuss, is interested in a more complex understanding of our language, of or our nature, of our self and its relations. Emerson, I propose, seeks to complicate the conventions that would include the very readings, and what he will call in the essay, the “misunderstanding,” of the essay, and its key term.

Here is an entire issue of the journal In Character devoted to the idea and the word “self-reliance.” On the side of complication, one could also note the way “Self-Reliance” figured into President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural.

And to thicken the irony: here is a commercial I recall from my senior year of high school. Believe it or not, Emerson is quoted from numerous lines in “Self-Reliance” to help sell Reebok shoes. Reebok’s let you be you. Be yourself; look like everyone else.  At first view, yes, this seems to get Emerson terribly wrong. But is some of this irony in the essay itself, in Emerson’s own thinking? Perhaps, since as we learn if we read the essay carefully, the self-reliant self is never an individual, is always reliant on something else.

What’s next: using Whitman to sell Levi’s jeans?

Keywords (and contradictions)

Some of the familiar keywords of “Self-Reliance” and its concerns with the influence of society:original, individual, conformity, consistency, imitation. But our further reading this week (into “History” and “Quotation and Originality”) can help complicate and counter that familiar reading. Other terms we see emphasize not an “individual” exclusively, the self-absorbed ego that is the concern of the various op-eds disparaging Emerson, but a self that is part and particle of something larger. A self who is, by definition, not just himself or herself. These terms include “correlative” (and “correspondency”) in “History” [119], variations on the Emersonian philosophy of relation. And in “Quotation and Originality,” there is the final term of the essay: “recomposition.” There is, we learn, no original composition, no original self, since nature is the correlative of Mind. And perhaps we should already know this from “Self-Reliance,” since the essay argues for self that relies on something greater, called in one phrasing, “immense intelligence.”

Emerson: Nature and Natural Philosophy

September 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

Caricature drawn by Christopher Cranch

Nature, published anonymously in 1836, is Emerson’s first publication. The title suggests the significance of nature in Transcendentalism, as well as Emerson’s significance in early forms of American environmental writing and thinking.  However, Nature–where Emerson proposes a ‘theory of nature’–is more specifically an attempt at philosophy than what we might think of as “nature writing.”

Yet one common response to Emerson from philosophers is that his thought isn’t very systematic: too poetic, too much metaphor, not enough system for a work in philosophy. For the most part, he hasn’t been accepted as a worthy figure in American philosophy (one major exception is the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell; I would  also note that he is included in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Remember, Emerson tells us as much: he has no system. But another way to view this would be to understand that Emerson, in the early and middle part of the 19th century, represents a middle ground or hybrid between poetry and philosophy (also between poetry and science) that is called Natural Philosophy. In this context, before academic specialization separates poets, philosophers, and scientists, one could be all three. So we need to read Emerson, starting with Nature, with this forgotten poetic science and/or poetic philosophy in mind (and the reverse: scientific and philosophical poetics). Nature might be thought of as Emerson’s demonstration of how writing by “Man Thinking” reads.

Emerson uses in Nature various words and concepts from the science of his day, generally called natural philosophy or natural history, in poetic ways. Put differently, his writing and his focus on language reveals a “relation” (key term for him) between the study of nature, the study of philosophy, and the language tools of the poet. After all, nature is viewed as in some way emerging through language, a vehicle of the mind. I want to dig in at this point into what emerges from this vision of nature and its language–and how a ‘poetics of science’  figures in Emerson’s thinking. First, let’s consider some of the language he uses (with help from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary)–pierce through some “rotten” and forgotten diction.


TRANSMU”TE, v.t. [L. transmuto; trans and muto, to change.]

To change from one nature or substance into another. Water may be transmuted into ice, and ice into water; the juices of plants are transmuted into solid substances; but human skill has not been able to transmute lead or copper into gold.

A holy conscience sublimates every thing; it transmutes the common affairs of life into acts of solemn worship to God.The caresses of parents and the blandishments of friends, transmute us into idols.

Continuing in the language and tools of transmutation–Alembic:


A chimical vessel used in distillation; usually made of glass or copper. The bottom part containing the liquor to be distilled, is called the cucurbit; the upper part which receives and condenses the stream, is called the head, the beak of which is fitted to the neck of a receiver. The head is more properly the alembic. This vessel is not so generally used now, as the worm still and retort.

E*pit”o*me (?), n.; pl. Epitomes (#). [L., fr. Gr. a surface incision, also, and abridgment, fr. to cut into, cut short; upon + to cut: cf. F. épitome. See Tome.]

1. A work in which the contents of a former work are reduced within a smaller space by curtailment and condensation; a brief summary; an abridgement.

[An] epitome of the contents of a very large book. Sydney Smith.

2. A compact or condensed representation of anything.

An epitome of English fashionable life. Carlyle.

A man so various that he seemed to be Not one, but all mankind’s epitome. Dryden.

Syn. — Abridgement; compendium; compend; abstract; synopsis; abbreviature. See Abridgment.

ANAL”OGY, n. [Gr. ratio, proportion.]

1. an agreement or likeness between things in some circumstances or effects, when the things are otherwise entirely different. Thus a plant is said to have life, because its growth resembles in some degree, that of an animal. In life and growth, then, there is an analogy between a plant and an animal. Learning enlightens the mind, because it is to the mind, what light is to the eye, enabling it to discover things before hidden. When the things which have an analogy follow a preposition, that preposition must be between or betwixt; as there is an analogy between plants and animals, or between customs. When one of the things precedes a verb, and the other follows, the preposition used must be to or with; as, a plant has some analogy to or with an animal.2. With grammarians, analogy is a conformity of words to the genius, structure or general rules of a language. Thus the general rule in English is that the plural of a noun ends in es; therefore all nouns which have that plural termination have an analogy, or are formed in analogy with other words of a like kind.
HIEROGLYPH”IC, n. [Gr. sacred, and to carve.]
1. In antiquity, a sacred character; a mystical character or symbol, used in writings and inscriptions, particularly by the Egyptians, as signs of sacred, divine, or supernatural things. The hieroglyphics were figures of animals, parts of the human body, mechanical instruments, &c., which contained a meaning known only to kings and priests. It is supposed they were used to vail morality, politics, &c., from vulgar eves.2. Pictures intended to express historical facts; supposed to be the primitive mode of writing.3. The art of writing in picture.

EM”BLEM, n. [Gr. to cast in, to insert.]

1. Properly, inlay; inlayed or mosaic work; something inserted in the body of another.2. A picture representing one thing to the eye, and another to the understanding; a painted enigma, or a figure representing some obvious history, instructing us in some moral truth. Such is the image of Scaevola holding his hand in the fire, with these words,”agere et pati fortiter Romanum est.” to do and to suffer with fortitude is Roman.3. A painting or representation, intended to hold forth some moral or political instruction; an allusive picture; a typical designation. A balance is an emblem of justice; a crown is the emblem of royalty; a scepter, of power or sovereignty.4. That which represents another thing in its predominant qualities. A white robe in scripture is an emblem of purity or righteousness; baptism, of purification.EM”BLEM, v.t. To represent by similar qualities.AL”LEGORY,n. [Gr. other, to speak, a forum, an oration.]

A figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. The principal subject is thus kept out of view, and we are left to collect the intentions of the writer or speaker, by the resemblance of the secondary to the primary subject. Allegory is in words that hieroglyphics are in painting. We have a fine example of an allegory in the eightieth Psalm, in which God”s chosen people are represented by a vineyard. The distinction in scripture between a parable and an allegory, is said to be that a parable is a supposed history, and an allegory, a figurative description of real facts. An allegory is called a continued metaphor. The following line in Virgil is an example of an allegory.Claudite jam rivos, pueri, sat prata biberunt.Stop the currents, young men, the meadows have drank sufficiently; that is let your music cease, our ears have been sufficiently delighted.

What about “hieroglyphic”? We find that the 1828 Webster’s defines the word as a mystical character or symbol. It relates, certainly, to the other words that focus on the emblematic nature of Nature that Emerson locates in our language: that is, language is the vehicle of nature, which is itself symbolic of spirit–thus the words we find are analogy, allegory, epitome. Early on this view of  symbolic relation has a spiritualist (and almost mystical) connotation: the occult relation between man and the vegetable world (ie, the living world other than man). Emerson’s tree-waving, as we put it, more so than tree-hugging. (It’s 11 am, have you spoken to a tree today?)

There is a spiritual component to this that makes its way directly into Emerson’s thinking in Nature. The most prominent source that Emerson is working from is Swedenborg, whom he cites at the end of “American Scholar” and in Nature refers to in quoting (without citing him): the visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible. This figure of the dial and the idea of what Emerson also calls “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” is a key to Transcendentalism (and Nature is considered by many to be the ur-text of the transcendental movement in America). But it turns out that all this spiritual-mystical-philosophical-alchemical vision of nature is not just a 19thc. version of a seance. It is also the place, in the very same ideas of relation and correspondence and emblem, where Emerson engages in the science of his day.

This science did not rigidly separate (as we have done) study of the natural world with imagination or poetry or philosophy. So, it makes sense to speak of a ‘poetics of science’–though the combination of poetry and science is strange to our ears. I borrow this phrase from the Emerson scholar Laura Dassow Walls who wrote the book, literally, on Emerson’s significant interest in science and the way natural philosophy of his day informs his thinking: Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. To pick up one piece from this exhaustive reading of Emerson’s work in relation to science: there is the figure of polarity and magnetism that appears throughout his writing; a metaphor that he borrows from his own readings and observations of experiments and discoveries in his day–but more than that (so I would argue): a metonymy  that he focuses on, to the extent that his own thinking and writing is already (in his understanding of nature and writing both) related, correspondent, in a more than metaphorical sense of the word related. With metonymy, we might think of it more in the ecological senses of relation. (More discussion to come about this rhetorical concept, metonymy, of importance to Emerson).

We see this metonymyic (not just metaphorical) vision of nature and language in the “Language” chapter of Nature. We also see it in the lecture “Humanity of Science” where Emerson takes up a prominent theory from natural philosophy made famous by Goethe (a poet-scientist of interest to Emerson):

The order of the world has been wisely called ‘an open secret.’ And it is true that Nature’s mode of concealing a law is in its very simplicity; she hides facts by putting them next us.

The near explains the far. This idea that shows up in “American Scholar” as a vision for American learning and poetry–a poetry and philosophy of the street, of the familiar, the near, the low–is thus also related to Emerson’s understanding of science. And, as Emerson will go on in his “Humanity of Science” lecture, poetry is important to remind science of this poetic/symbolic condition of nature–the open secret, nature as hieroglyphic, emblematic. In other words, he remind us that science needs help from poets to interpret and express nature’s secrets to the public. Emerson’s humanistic scientist sounds a lot like his poet from the later essays. It is a remarkable claim–one that seems very distant to our culture that splits science and poetry, but perhaps all the more relevant because of that.

For those wanting some further reading on Emerson’s philosophical conceptions of science and its relevance for multidisciplinary approaches to nature and the environment, I can send you to T.S. McMillin’s essay “The Discipline of Abandonment: Emersonian Properties of Transdisciplinarity and the Nature of Method” (Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2013). I have a pdf copy of the essay that I can provide, should you want to do more with this for your Writing Project.

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?

Emerson: philosophy of the street

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

Emerson’s “American Scholar” has long been thought as calling for a break with England and English literature–the symbolic beginnings of an American literature. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a contemporary of Emerson, referred to it famously as America’s “intellectual declaration of independence.” That received viewed tends to emphasize that Emerson’s argument is with English writers. I would argue, in fact, that his concern is with American schools and habits of learning that have (already by 1837) become institutionalized and deadened. For me, this is an argument about American education.

I hear echoes of this argument in Gerald Graff’s notion of “Hidden Intellectualism”: that there is a ‘vernacular’ or ‘street smarts’ that students have and that can be transformed by schools into ways of understanding academic writing and thinking–specifically, how we argue. Emerson gets into this sense of the vernacular at the end of the address–referring to the low, the familiar, the common. All of that, I suspect, is language that would have interested some of the graduating students (Thoreau, in fact, was one of them, though he most likely wasn’t in the audience–had already left) and ruffled the collars of some of the professors in the audience. I recently wrote a piece exploring some of Emerson’s interest in education (including a lecture he gives at a new, progressive school the month before he gave “American Scholar” at Harvard), Education after an Earthquake; if interested in this line of inquiry (Emerson’s vision of education and learning), we can talk more about a possible final project in this area later in the semester.

What about the view of the self/individual in Emerson’s vision of schooling? An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education considers the issue of academic scholarship and autobiographical perspectives. A recent book by Cynthia Franklin, Academic Lives, explores some contemporary examples of academic criticism written from a personal perspective; and also considers how such autobiographical perspectives have traditionally been shunned in the academy.

Emerson isn’t cited. But the author could have cited him, and easily. In fact, I think the reclamation of ‘scholar’ that Emerson is already after in the 1830s (and still at issue today) is to rethink the scholar as “first person.” Think of the passage from “Divinity School,” that comes out of the journal from the summer of 1837, and shows up in his “Greene Street School Address.” The preacher (wonderfully named Frost) he hears and calls a cold ‘formalist,’ he gives his audience no sense that he has actually lived–is less real than the snow storm outside. In the terms of “American Scholar,” this is not the way to “learn grammar,” the dictionary that is not related to life and the near and familiar.

I wonder about your own experience with autobiographical criticism and with hidden intellectualism. In what ways have the academic and the vernacular come together? Have you been taught to keep them separate: never to use “I”? Do you think Emerson is on to something, here? Does schooling, or rather, learning, need to give more thought to the “philosophy of the street”?

Transcendentalism: The Luminous Allusion of Emerson’s School

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Consider this complicated image of transcendentalism, courtesy of Google Books.

There is somewhat in this image–“somewhat” (by the way) is an Emersonian phrasing for some thing, some part–that reiterates and anticipates our focus in this course on “transcendentalism” in the work of a major American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his influence on (his relation to, his “education” of) numerous writers or “students” who read and follow him, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, and others. What is transcendentalism?

The cover of the book, a brief anthology of selected work from Emerson and Thoreau, suggests one primary association. Transcendentalism has something to do with nature–with writers interested in nature, a love for nature.  This interest will indeed be found in Emerson and the writers and artists that follow him. But the tree become head, or the head becoming a tree, offers something other than a familiar image of nature (familiar neither to tree nor to man); it’s interesting, but also somewhat unsettling. It makes me think of Emerson’s reference (in his second essay on “Nature”) to Nature as an incarnation or precipitation of mind.

The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought. Hence the virtue and pungency of the influence on the mind, of natural objects, whether inorganic or organized. Man imprisoned, man crystallized, man vegetative, speaks to man impersonated. That power which does not respect quantity, which makes the whole and the particle its equal channel, delegates its smile to the morning, and distills its essence into every drop of rain. Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time. [Emerson, “Nature”]

That imagery and idealism was caricatured in Emerson’s time, but also embraced. Transcendentalism is a cultural context for these writers (ideas and thinking from the mid-nineteenth century in America, particularly in the northeast where all three live and work); so it is one lens we can use. [and for more background on this lens, I refer you to Martin Bickman’s helpful overview of Transcendentalism]. But transcendentalism is also famously hard to characterize or fix into any final form or definition. That will also serve us as somewhat of a lens through which to read Emerson,  since I will argue that Emerson conceives of a literature and a writing/reading experience that is luminous and allusive. This is the language from “American Scholar” we will encounter in our first assignment:

One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. 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. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,–only the authentic utterances of the oracle;– all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.

This sense of allusive (and elusive?) luminousness suggests both a problem and a potential for reading and grasping and learning from Emerson. That’s our primary goal–to learn from Emerson such that we, liberal arts scholars of the very sort Emerson often addressed in his lectures, may put his ideas to work in our scholarship; our secondary goal is to consider how others’ reading and learning from Emerson has shaped their work and more broadly, the current of American culture. (A tertiary goal, for me, as a scholar doing work on Emerson and his rhetoric of liberal education, is to engage you with some of these educational ideals shared between Emerson and the liberal arts tradition and see what I can learn from you in the process). Those writers and readers and learners have long pointed out the challenge of learning from an Emerson who is concerned precisely with how we learn, worried about the ways we are schooled. One well-known version of this recognition is given by Walt Whitman, who characterized “Emersonianism” in a piece titled luminously “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)”:

The best part of Emeronianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently–no truer evolutionist. (Whitman: Poetry and Prose [Library of America] 1055)

And, always, there is Emerson himself to reckon with. “I have been writing and speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years,” Emerson writes in an 1859 journal, “and have not now one disciple”: “Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me…. This is my boast that I have no school and no follower” (JMN 14: 258).

Our primary critical guide throughout the course, the Emerson scholar Lawrence Buell, characterizes this challenge in this way: “Emerson as Anti-Mentor.”

To begin a seminar in this way is a matter of provocation. This is an Emersonian place to begin.

Transcendental Works and Days: The Theory of This Particular Wednesday

November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

I did some further reading in Emerson. The essay is titled “Works and Days,”collected in the 1870 volume Society and Solitude. I had forgotten that I had read it about two years ago; in fact, I discovered that I had already read it (remembered that I had forgotten it…) by finding some notes I saved on the web. Our thoughts come back to us, so Emerson says, with an alienated majesty.

My current, primary interest in this essay now is that it contains a vision and a vocabulary of technology that the 20th century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, puts to use. Emerson writes of technological tools here as “extensions” of the human body. McLuhan borrows the very word in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. So, one of my current projects is to pursue further this interesting and somewhat unlikely association, Emerson and McLuhan. I have been planning and composting for some time an essay that explores Emerson in relation to digital technology, something I have carried by the handle, Googling Emerson: is the web, I wonder, or Google Books, more specifically, the logical extension of Emerson’s notion of creative reading, of luminous allusion? McLuhan’s connection may give me one way to frame the critical narrative.

Of such stuff critical readings are made. So, for the final project, think about going forward (into unlikely connections and comparisons, links) as well as going back. Critical readings, good arguments, are built upon experiment and surprise.

I would suggest, in the end, that the vision (and version) of transcendentalism we have explored, by way of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, also makes an argument for, and toward, experiencing and experimenting with the surprising and the spiritual–the enigmatical, as Emerson names it–in the everyday world of Wednesday. Here is Emerson toward the end of “Works and Days.”

And him I reckon the most learned scholar, not who can unearth for me the buried dynasties of Sesostris and Ptolemy, the Sothiac era, the Olympiads and consulships, but who can unfold the theory of this particular Wednesday. Can he uncover the ligaments concealed from all but piety, which attach the dull men and things we know to the First Cause ? These passing fifteen minutes, men think, are time, not eternity; are low and subaltern, are but hope or memory ; that is, the way to or the way from welfare, but not welfare. Can he show their tie ? That interpreter shall guide us from a menial and eleemosynary existence into riches and stability. He dignifies the place where he is.’ This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America, studious of Greece and Rome, of England and Germany, will take off its dusty shoes, will take off its glazed traveller’s-cap and sit at home with repose and deep joy on its face. The world has no such landscape, the aeons of history no such hour, the future no equal second opportunity. Now let poets sing ! now let arts unfold !

One more view remains. But life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomize it. You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate it like a college professor. The world is enigmatical, – everything said, and everything known or done, – and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. You must hear the bird’s song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs. Cannot we be a little abstemious and obedient ? Cannot we let the morning be ?

And lest we think that Emerson urges us here into a simplistic view of simplicity, he complicates the picture in the very next paragraph:

Everything in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines…. Well, human life is made up of such transits. There can be no greatness with-out abandonment.

I suggest, in the end, that we find in Whitman and Dickinson, as in Emerson, a practice of indirection (a very Whitmanian word here) and the slanting of no straight lines (Dickinson) informed by a poetic theory of abandonment: understanding and writing and transcending the enigmatical world not literally, but genially.

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