Wednesday, February 18, 2015

February 18, 2015: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Emerson and Thoreau

[Last year, I followed the Valentine’s series with a complementary series analyzing some of the things that just don’t quite do it for me. It was pretty popular, including my biggest crowd-sourced post to date, so this year I’m repeating the series—and repeating the request for your non-favorites for a crowd-sourced post in which we’ll air some grievances!]
On my issue with the Transcendentalists, their greatness notwithstanding.
When I did this series last year and asked for those crowd-sourced contributions, a number of people aired their grievances against those foundational 19th century American authors and philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I certainly get that perspective: not only because the two tended to write in that verbiose, long-winded, dense and demanding 19th century style that doesn’t exactly jump off the page (although Thoreau is much more readable than Emerson); but also because they’re both assigned and emphasized so consistently in American literature courses in both high school and college (including my own American Literature I survey, I’ll admit), and it’s hard not to get a bit tired of authors whom we encounter so frequently and of whom we’re told we have to think so highly. American Renaissance, yeah yeah, we’ve heard it all before.
The thing is, Emerson and Thoreau specifically, and the Transcendentalists more broadly, were precisely as pioneering and significant as we teachers like to go on about. We’ve recovered and remembered enough prior authors, artists, and voices that we can no longer make the case that American literature or culture started in their era; and we’ve similarly engaged with enough contemporaries of theirs, whether under-read Transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller and William Ellery Channing, much more popular writers like Fanny Fern and Harriet Beecher Stowe, or influential activists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, to recognize that they were only one part of a much broader and deeper cultural moment. But if America had a lot of literature and culture, writing and authors, before and during the Transcendentalists’ era, what it didn’t yet have was a homegrown philosophical grounding for that work, and a concurrent engagement with our national identity and community—and these thinkers, Emerson and Thoreau above all, provided that perspective.
So why am I including those two authors in my non-favorites series, you might ask? Because in their advancing of those philosophies and engagements, both Emerson and Thoreau tended to be a bit more preachy than I’d like. Of course arguing for ideas is a kind of preaching no matter what, and Emerson started his professional career as a preacher to boot. But I would argue that there’s a democratic form of preaching that implicates the author as much as his audience, and a contrasting hierarchical one in which the author has the answers and he’s trying to bring his audience to his level; and I’d locate Emerson and Thoreau in the latter category a good deal of the time. Take Thoreau’s stated goal, on the title page of Walden (1854), “to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” It’s a great line, and I take his point, but who says that the neighbors are necessarily more asleep than the author, or any of us? Why can’t we see it as a collective awakening, something that we all share? I’d say we can and should, and that if Emerson and Thoreau had seen it that way a bit more often, they’d be even greater than they already are.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites you’d share for the weekend post?

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