Not your father’s Emerson and Whitman

August 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

This is a corollary to my previous post (Emerson/Whitman today) and a focus we will bring to our study: not just that these two writers are canonical in American literature and culture–familiar names from America’s nineteenth-century literary heritage, America’s “Renaissance”; but they are significant writers whom we seem continually (even still) to misrecognize. [This is a key point that the philosopher Stanley Cavell pursues in his readings of Emerson; should you be inclined to want to pursue Emerson’s neglected/repressed influence in American philosophy, Cavell is a critic to explore]. This is not your father’s Emerson and Whitman–not the dusty versions that you might have encountered in required reading in school, versions that somehow make them safe or seem less controversial than they otherwise might.

So, these aren’t forgotten authors; they are interestingly and significantly (it seems to me) misunderstood or insufficiently understood, grapsed. My personal experience with this goes something like this. I first read Whitman in a high school English class, on Long Island, New York, not too far from Whitman’s birthplace (and now, across the street, the Walt Whitman Mall). Largely unremarkable–a couple poems that get anthologized safely, like “Noiseless Patient Spider.” I then read Whitman (also Emerson) in a college course on the American Renaissance; then Whitman again in a seminar on Whitman and Dickinson. I couldn’t believe what I was reading in Whitman’s poetry, and couldn’t understand how the high school presentation of Whitman had managed to leave all the sex out (among other things).

In the case of Emerson, when I got to reading him in college–more than just the quotable Emerson, usually quoted from “Self-Reliance”–I realized or recalled that in my grandmother’s bathroom, on the wall near the toilet, was a small plaque with this line from “Self-Reliance”:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men–that is genius.

I would like to think that my grandmother believed in this; I am fairly certain, at the same time, that she didn’t know much about Emerson. Perhaps she read him in her high school, but surely didn’t remember him. So, Emerson is “quoted” and framed from the past, preserved like a sepulchre of the fathers–this despite his resistance (as he puts it in the opening of Nature) to such preservations of the past, to building the sepulchres of the fathers.

This has something to do with what makes these writers misrecognized, at once taken up but also in other ways forgotten: they are sometimes with us in words but not in spirit; other times the spirit is there but no specific words marking the presence. It is a problem that they give us in they way they write and think about its relation to us, their readers. An editorial in the NYTimes on Emerson from 2003 even suggests he is with us as patron saint of American self-aborption. I don’t agree with the writer’s reading of Emerson, but the point remains: he is a writer, for better or worse, still with us even if we don’t read him. Of course, our job will be to give our thought and time to actually reading these writers while also looking for them elsewhere.

Where have you seen (and not seen) Emerson and Whitman in your readings? I will start this course with this question.

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