Individuality vs. Community: A Reflection

It’s been a while since I posted (over a month), and as I don’t have time to write a lengthy, original blog, I decided to post my third reflection from my class on the American literary renaissance. My goal was to imagine a dialogue between Emerson, Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe on whether the individual or the community is more important. I imagined what it would be like if these three people appeared on Oprah’s talk show. Some of my classmates and my professor were highly amused by the results.

* * *

If Oprah Winfrey hosted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Harriet Beecher Stowe on her talk show, the results would be far more fascinating than Tom Cruise jumping on a sofa could ever hope to be.

After Oprah walks onto the stage, twelve minutes of cheering commence before she can calm down her audience, 98% of whom are women. Once the crowd is semi-quiet, Oprah announces that the topic of the day’s show will be on the importance of the individual versus the community. She brings her three guests out for a panel-like discussion, and soon, our three paramours of American literature are seated in chocolate-brown armchairs on the stage.

“Thank you all for joining us today,” Oprah begins. “I’ve brought you all here to discuss the advantages of the individual over the community in society. What are your thoughts?”

Waldo jumps in first. “I am a Transparent Eyeball!” he declares. “’I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God!’”

An awkward pause, and then, the audience begins to whisper. Oprah leans forward in her chair and fixes her penetrating gaze on Waldo. “What exactly does that mean?”

Waldo sighs and glances at Henry, who seems to be slowly petting the arm of the chair. Shaking his head, he painstakingly explains, “Divinity is found within oneself, Ms. Winfrey. The individual is far more important than a community; only through communing with Nature—alone—can one truly understand the world . . . and God.”

Oprah nods emphatically. “Yes, yes, I see what you mean.” She turns to her next guest. “Henry, what do you think?” A pause as Henry kneels on the floor to examine the thread on the chair cushion. “Henry? What are you doing?”

“I am determined to know this chair, Oprah,” Henry replies, finally looking at his host.

“You may have it, Henry,” Oprah replies generously. “Take it home to your cabin.”

“Oh, my cabin is far too small for this, Oprah. Besides, I don’t think it matches the décor.”

Oprah lifts one eyebrow toward her audience, who laugh appropriately and collectively.

“We can discuss the chair later. Now, do you think the individual or the community is to be privileged?”

Henry, now seated, scoffs. “The individual, of course. You realize I live in the woods, right? Alone? Away from the community?”

“Yes, I believe we’re all aware of that. But why?”

“In society, man is just a machine . . . “

Waldo interrupts: “A mere cog in the machine of society! Only Nature can free you from this machine!”

“Yes, Waldo,” Henry breaks in. “In society, or what you may call ‘community,’ man is merely a tool. Alone, in Nature, man is his own being. ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’”

“Oh, that’s good!” Oprah declares delightedly. “I’m going to remember that!”

“Ms. Winfrey, if you start marching to your own drummer, all of these women,” Harriet points to the audience,” will most assuredly follow after you. You do not live in isolation, as these men do. You are part of the community of women.”

“Interesting. Do you believe that men and women, then, live differently?”

“I believe these men need community more than they think. It’s all well and good to go tromping about the woods at Walden, but where would these men as individuals be without the community from whence they sprung? Where would they be without the mothers who raised them and the teachers who instructed them? Where would they be without their scholarly chats in Emerson’s study? Why, Henry even lives on Emerson’s land! They are a part of a community of artists, whether they want to admit it or not.”

Oprah claps. “Well said, Mrs. Stowe. It’s nice to hear a different perspective. Do you have any response, gentlemen?”

Waldo stands. “I’m still a Transparent Eyeball; alone, and only alone, I am a microcosm of God and Nature. As an individual, I am a worthy asset to any community, yet I refuse to be merely a tool of that community, as you undoubtedly are, Mrs. Stowe.” With that, Waldo marches off stage, loudly tapping his walking stick on the floor. Henry continues to examine the chair, oblivious to Waldo’s leaving, and Harriet continues to explain to Oprah and the audience about the necessity of community in the lives of women.