Emerson lived and wrote in a time of engaged, intellectual discussion and conversation (in other words, no 24-hour cable news); this was a key element of American Transcendentalism as a social and cultural movement, putting ideas and theory into conversation. In fact, it was a social activity: Emerson founded the ‘Transcendental Club’ that met periodically to present and discuss ideas; Whitman had a more bohemian version of that group in Pfaff’s, a SoHo bar, Dickinson had her letters to Higginson. In all cases, the focus is on an active engagement with ideas, the kind of activity Emerson emphasizes with his notion of “creative reading” and Whitman with his wonderful image of the reader as a gymnast. In “Democratic Vistas” Whitman writes:
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.
We will be exploring this kind of gymnastic and inventive reading throughout the course–interrogating it (what does it mean?) even as we try to model it in our own work. To help us in these efforts, I will be assigning you to be a discussion leader for a particular day/reading assignment. Think of it as leading us in some stretching–especially since the discussions will be Monday mornings. It is not a presentation requiring additional research; it is a way to participate a bit more deliberately in the kind of intellectual conversation Emerson and other transcendentalists were fond of. This means you will be prepared to do the following:
- Identify: After I present some context for the assigned reading–as a way to keep me from lecturing, which I don’t plan to do much–the assigned conversation leaders will initiate discussion of the text by identifying some key points or questions that each thinks we, as a class, should delve into and discuss. Tie these points to some particular passages from the text that you gave some focus to; and to issues/themes that you see emerging or repeating from earlier readings. In class, be prepared to take us back into one or more of those passages or places. What for you are some key lines and why? Note, you may want to coordinate with others assigned that day, but that is not required.
- Speculate: Get creative in your reading and suggest something or someone (beyond Emerson) that might relate to the ideas you have in mind (comparison or contrast), that could be viewed in relation to the text–echoes you hear. For example: Emerson’s notion of creative reading sounds like 20th century theories of reader response criticism–particularly the transactional theory of reading espoused by Louise Rosenblatt. There are no wrong answers on this–and sometimes the more far-fetched, the better, or the closer to home than you might think.
- Question: raise at least one question you have regarding the text–a question we might take up in class about the text, perhaps a larger question for the author that we can continue to consider throughout the week or the term. This could be a question you (or someone else in the class) takes up again for the final project.
- Circulate: before the start of class, post a brief sketch of items 1-3 (identify, speculate, question: 1/2 page in note form is fine)–and anything else you want us to consider as you lead us into the discussion. You can do so by replying to this page: put your discussion text and date in the subject. During the class discussion, I will also expect the conversation leaders to help me keep the conversation circulating (in Emerson’s sense): challenge the rest of us to make connections and elaborate differences amongst the various points of the conversation.
Here are the assignments for conversation leading. If you have not posted by class time or are absent on the day you are assigned and have not communicated with me in advance, you won’t get credit for the assignment:
- 9/14 “Self-Reliance”: Rachel
- 9/21: “Experience”: Adam
- 10/12 Whitman, “Poem of Walt Whitman” (“Song of Myself”): Jake
- 10/21 Dickinson, Fascicle 16: Gray
- 10/26 Selected Poets: Kyle
- 11/9 “Fate”: Erin
- 11/16 “Poetry and Imagination”: Lily