On Intertextuality: Emerson, Meet Mumford

Ralph Waldo Emerson, founder of Transcendentalism and philosopher extraordinaire, occasionally amuses me. Take, for instance, this passage from Nature:

Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us. Certain mechanical changes, a small alteration in our local position, apprizes us of a dualism. We are strangely affected by seeing the shore from a moving ship, from a balloon, or through tints of an unusual sky. The least change in our point of view gives the whole world a pictorial air.

Okay, that’s not actually the amusing part yet. Be patient. I really love this concept that a change in perspective makes the world seem new. The amusing part comes at the end of the paragraph. Imagine, if you will, our austere and brilliant Emerson in this position:

Turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years!

Oh, my, gosh, can you imagine Emerson bending over to look over Walden Pond though his legs? Hilarious!

So, now that we’ve laughed at Emerson a bit, let’s move on to something even greater. I was listening to Mumford & Sons this week (as I do pretty much every day), and I thought about these lyrics from their song “The Cave”:

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence when you know the maker’s land

Okay, so Mumford & Sons’ version involves a little bit of gymnastics rather than just bending at the waist, but I love that the idea of looking at the world in a different way appears in both of these texts.

I also appreciate the ideas presented about nature in the two: Emerson talks about freedom (emancipation) while Mumford talks about dependence. [Side note: after reading SPIN’s June cover story on Mumford & Sons in which Marcus Mumford talks about the importance of faith, I’m even more convinced that the biblical references throughout this album are very intentional.] At any rate, I think both Emerson and Mumford might agree that nature points to the existence of a Creator.

Now, for fun, watch this video of Mumford & Sons playing “The Cave” in a bookstore. Go on, you know you want to.

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.


A Dialogue on Poetry between Emerson & Poe

For my grad school class on the American literary renaissance, I was assigned to imagine a dialogue between Ralph Waldo Emerson and another poet on the role of the poet. I had fun imagining what Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe would talk about, and I thought I’d share it here.

* * *

The setting: a darkened restaurant in Boston, circa 1845

The characters: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe

The scene: Waldo slowly drinks a cup of hot tea and munches on bland crackers while Edgar hurriedly downs cups of black coffee, frequently checking the time on his pocket watch. We join in the middle of a heated conversation.

* * *

POE: You have no idea what real poetry is, Waldo!

EMERSON: No idea, Edgar? Whose poetry is imprinted on a monument commemorating the birth of our nation at the Old North Bridge in Concord, within view of my grandfather’s house? Meanwhile, you were paid a mere pittance for that ghastly poem about a bird!

POE: [swigging from his coffee mug, only to realize it is empty before slamming it on the table] “The Raven” is a brilliant poem! Perhaps I have yet to make much money off my work, but at least I have realized the process involved in writing a great poem.

EMERSON: Process? Poetry isn’t about process. Poetry isn’t about rhyme or meter! A poet should convey truth to the masses. A poet should find in Nature all of the experiences of humanity, and his poetry should reveal our shared connection with the divine. The content matters far more than the form of a poem.

POE: The content does not matter at all if the form—the rhyme, rhythm, meter, every word contained therein—is not worthy to convey such truth. And as for your “Nature.” Waldo, nature is not perfect and divine.

EMERSON: A true poet would disagree with you, Edgar.

POE: Oh, really? What, then, would a “true poet” find perfect and divine about a young boy, orphaned and unloved? About a young wife withering away from a heinous disease? Where is the perfection in that, Waldo?

EMERSON: [sitting thoughtfully] “Everything in nature answers to a moral power,” Edgar (214). This darkness you’ve experienced is because you haven’t really understood poetry yet.

POE: I understand, Waldo, that a talented poet realizes that darkness and melancholia can evoke that which is truly beautiful. I’m not lacking an understanding of poetry. I have, in fact, transcended to the level of finally portraying a true picture of humanity.

EMERSON: By inviting a bird of death into your chamber?

POE: I didn’t invite him in. He invited himself into the chamber of my narrator. Besides, is a raven not part of nature?

EMERSON: Perhaps in its natural state, but inside a darkened room is decidedly unnatural. [Waldo patiently sips his tea.]

POE: Contrary to what you Frogpondians espouse, a poet need not always seek to reveal nature. Through a properly constructed plot, rendered in an acceptable length, a raven able to speak only one word may be both terrifying and beautiful.

EMERSON: [thoughtfully] It seems we agree on one thing at least, Edgar.

POE: [sneering] What is that, Waldo?

EMERSON: Poetry should be beautiful. A poet should convey beauty to the world.

POE: Perhaps so. But how would you define beauty?

Edgar tosses a coin onto the tabletop, sweeps his jacket off the back of his chair, and strides toward the door without a second glance at Emerson, who turns toward the fireplace and continues sipping his tea.

Beauty and Truth, part 3

One year ago today, I started this blog. Happy anniversary to me! This is my 83rd post, which averages to about one every 4.5 days. Not bad at all. 🙂

My very first post was a memoir I wrote about a year and a half ago–an exploration on beauty–or the lack thereof–in my life. Interestingly enough, that subject is something that still intrigues and perplexes me. A year later, it still weighs on my mind often.

A few weeks ago, I assigned my students the chapter on Beauty from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Before I visited Massachusetts a few months ago, my opinion of Emerson was very different. I respected him for his influence on American literature, but I didn’t really appreciate him for his own literary worthiness. That’s changed so much in just three months. I’ve read Nature in its entirety once and my favorite sections many times since. My copy of Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, bought at the Emerson House in Concord, MA, is battered and worn already. Purple highlighter marks a plethora of worthy passages. Emerson’s ideas are constantly running through my mind.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.

The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. [ . . . ] Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.

When I assigned the chapter to my students, most of them balked at reading Emerson. He uses big words, they complained. Their eyes examined me skeptically as I raved over his genius. But when I gave them a writing assignment and had them give me a definition of Beauty, I received so many insightful definitions. And while they perhaps didn’t enjoy Emerson as I do now, their writing was proof that they were thinking about beauty outside of just my classroom. And they were incredible insightful.

After reading Emerson, many of them listed things in nature as being beautiful: sunsets, the ocean, rainy days. Others talked about beautiful people or love or gave a literal definition. But I also had each of them make a list of things they find beautiful, and as a good writing instructor, I made one in my journal as well, which I’ll  include here.

So what is Beauty? Have I decided? I think so. Beauty is Truth. Beauty is anything that makes me realize how powerful God is, how excellent his creation is, and how valuable my life is as a result. So here’s a very short list of beauty in my life:

1. Mornings on Camp Creek Road on my way to work, which the trees make a canopy over the road, and the Blue Ridge Mountains are enveloped in fog
2. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe; the Civil Twilight album; The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky. Plus, a whole lot more incredible music
3. Driving down a long stretch of road
4. Everything about autumn–the weather, the colors, the scents
5. Renewal and rebirth in spring
6. The ocean at night, stretching to the horizon to meet a sky full of stars
7. Being surrounded by my family at Radius
8. My bulletin board, filled with memories of adventures my best friends and I have had
9. The smell of coffee brewing
10. LOVE
11. Stacks of books
12. The color purple–not the book, which I haven’t read–just things that are purple 🙂
13. Edward Hopper paintings
14. Great works of literature
15. Long, colorful scarves
16. Christmas lights
17. Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC
18. The Concord River flowing past the Old Manse and under the North Bridge in Massachusetts
19. Redbirds
20. Lighthouses

I could go on forever, but twenty is enough for now.

Happy Halloween!

American Bloomsbury

americanbloomsburyIn preparation for our trip to New England, I’ve once again picked up American Bloomsbury, which is about Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Margaret Fuller, the writers who shaped American literature. Susan Cheever attempts to portray the real lives of these auspicious men and women. She states in chapter 1: “[T]his is not only a story about ideas and their power to form a national identity; it’s about love triangles and the difficulties of raising children, about grief and inspiration and bad advice and passionate friendships, about the ebb and flow of daily life in the New England seasons of  a small town.” Sounds good, right?

Cheever has done loads of research, and much of the stories are written in narrative form, which gives the book an air of fiction. She also makes bold statements about their lives; sometimes, it’s amusing (see following quote on Emerson) and sometimes, it’s annoying. I started reading this last year, when we initially planned our New England trip, and couldn’t even make it through part 1. I didn’t want my perceptions of Thoreau, Emerson, and the others to be ruined by her opinions. I have since decided to give it another chance.

Some points that Cheever makes:

emerson1. Emerson, with the money left to him by his first wife, who died young of TB, supported all of his fellow thinkers and writers at some time or another. Cheever states:

Emerson wrote some wonderful lines, and some true biographical portraits, but it is as the sugar daddy of American literature that he really takes his place in the pantheon of Concord writers.

Of what I had previously read, this is the statement that I distinctly remembered, one that makes me smile a little every time I think of it. I wonder what Emerson would think of this particular phrasing?

bronson alcott2. I’m not really a fan of Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), so this book hasn’t really skewed my perception of him. Still, I found Cheever’s statements about his marriage with Abba Alcott to be interesting:

Bronson Alcott, in his doomed consociate society, believed that marriage shouldn’t limit a man’s ability to be with other women or a woman’s ability to be with other men, a freedom that rang hollow to his wife, who had no desire to be with other men and less and less desire to be with Alcott himself.

Alcott, though beloved by Louisa May, was not a good husband and father. He spent a lot of time away from home, visiting other areas of New England, and even England on occassion, teaching his radical beliefs on education (not all of which are bad, admittedly), and attempting to persuade others to his ideology of communal living. (Granted, I’m all for communal living, but Alcott attempted to live communally, with far too many social freedoms, and a lack of intelligence about farming and gardening. He didn’t believe in milking the cows or using the animals to plow and was, therefore, a terrible agrarian.)

3. Cheever talks way too much about sex in this book. The way she tells it, the Concord Transcendentalists were all having affairs with each other. The married men Emerson and Hawthorne were both in love with Margaret Fuller, young Louisa May Alcott loved both Emerson and Thoreau, and Thoreau was in love with Emerson’s wife, Lidian. She also even speculates on whether Thoreau was gay.

On that note, however, I tend to agree with some of what she says. While Cheever believes the other authors’ sexuality greatly influenced their word (i.e. Hawthorne’s infatuation with Margaret Fuller was the basis of both The Blithedale Romance and The Scarlet Letter), she states about Thoreau:

[I]t isn’t clear that Thoreau’s sexuality affected his life at all. It’s a twenty-first century question directly at an emphatically nineteenth-century personality. What is to be said about a man whose connections to birds and fish and all living things sustained him in a way that his connections to other people could never do?

thoreauThat seems more fitting with the ideas I’ve had about Thoreau–the man who loved Nature and was so in tune with the trees and the animals that he sort of wandered through the rest of his life in a sort of daze.

Cheever’s discussion on Walden might be my favorite parts of the whole book. She writes:

Freed from his daily indebtedness to Emerson, [Thoreau] wrote as if awakening, and the sense of awakening runs through the book. Walden is the first American memoir, the first book in which the days and nights of an autobiographical, confessional narrator are the central plotline. Thoreau invented nature writing and memoir writing in one swift, brilliant stroke.

In regards to the popularity that Walden has in present-day America, Cheever states:

Walden is a masterpiece, but it is generally cited more than it is read. The mention of Walden in polite society inevitably elicits great praise. “My favorite book,” someone says. Or, “I live by that book.” What they mean is that they know about the book and take it to be a hand book for the simpler life they might want to lead, if they ever got tired of making money and going to parties, or if they ever came to believe that the status in their community that makes them comforatable was really not important at all.

So true. I love Walden–for those reasons. Ideally, I’d like to live a simple life, free of clutter and materialism. But all you need to do is walk in my room, where piles of stuff clutter my life and wonder where the simplicity is.

All in all, I’d say this book definitely improves as one keeps reading. Cheever, I think, sometimes takes too much liberty in telling these stories–I think she assumes too much about the details of their lives that we could never actually know. And as much as I like New Historicism, there’s something to be said for limiting the details of the author’s life–I don’t think knowing every detail about Hawthorne’s supposed love affair with Fuller should in any way influence my reading of The Scarlet Letter. His Puritan ancestry…yes, it’s quite important. I don’t think his sexual life is. And with that, I’m finished.

I read this book over the course of the day yesterday, and this morning, I dreamed that I was sitting in some house in Concord having a fantastic discussion with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Margaret Fuller. I don’t remember what we were discussing, but I know we were all friends. 🙂