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?


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.

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