The goal of this panel is to offer new, personal readings of Emerson’s work, pointing toward ways in which these works are relevant to writers, readers, and teachers in the 21st century. I’m joined up here by three other fine scholars and writers….
§ Lindsay Illich holds a Ph.D. in English from Texas A&M University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Curry College in Milton, MA. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, and most recently, Improbable Worlds: An Anthology of Texas and Louisiana Poets.
§ John Domini’s books include the novels A Tomb on the Periphery and Earthquake I.D. In 2009 Tomb was listed with "the best of international publishing" at the London Book Festival, and Earthquake, in Italian translation, was runner-up for the Rea Prize. Other awards include an NEA grant. A selection of essays, The Sea-God’s Herb, will be published in 2014. John will also be appearing tomorrow on a Hawthorne panel—9:00 am—nine in the morning?—in room 303—everyone should go!
§ Amber Foster is a doctoral candidate in English with a creative writing emphasis at Texas A&M University. Her creative work has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, and two of her short stories will appear later this year in Echo Ink Review and the University of Texas Press' Beat Anthology. She is currently working on a novel about a traveling scuba diving instructor.
§ I’m an Assistant Professor of English at Pittsburg State, in Kansas. I’m the author of two books, Long Time Ago Good, a story collection, and That Demon Life, a novel, and I’ll have another novel coming out later this year….
I kind of came up with the idea for this panel last year, when I was teaching an American lit survey course, Colonial through Civil War. One of things I often do in a lit class is ask students to add a question about the text to their reading response. Ideally this gives me a place to start discussion in class. But what I got a lot of last year were questions like “What would Melville think of our modern world?” “What would Poe think of our modern world?” “What would Thoreau think of our modern world?” “What would Phyllis Wheatley think of our modern world?” “What would Emerson think of our modern world?”
This wasn’t a whole lot of help to discussion. I couldn’t get past the image of recently reanimated Thoreau totally freaking out about not being safely dead…while Poe would be interested in the reanimation process….
I felt there was a sense of entitlement and arrogance to these questions—an implication that our modern world is the pinnacle of creation and progress. It seemed like the students were asking, Wouldn’t these long-dead writers be stunned at how cool we all are?
So, late in the semester, in an attempt to turn this idea around on the students, I gave the class an essay prompt: Are Emerson’s ideas relevant to the 21st century? By that time we had read quite a bit of Emerson—Nature, Self-Reliance, The Poet, and parts of his very political essay, Fate of the Republic. I was hoping that the students would reflect on our modern world and what it means, and ponder whether a voice from the deep past, from a time of increasingly cutthroat capitalism and post-Jacksonian white supremacy, had anything relevant to say to us.
One of my students, MK, writes:
Emerson would view our conformed society as blind for we do not see the endless opportunities and freedom that we have been offered in this world. We are limiting ourselves from the unique and creative contributions we could be giving back to our society by conforming “to large societies and dead institutions” (535). Not only would he be thoroughly frustrated with the way our society has turned out, I personally feel that he would feel helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of potential and capabilities that have been restricted to each individual. This issue of conformity relates back to his main idea of perspective. The more perspective we allow ourselves to have, less blind we will be to our society that is constantly progressing.
…The current school system talks like Emerson with motivational posters and the occasional motivational speaker, as well as teams of teachers to pat you on the back the whole way and say “You can do it!” Yet, sadly, it walks very different from its talk. When a single failure in High School made by a budding young man, who is still trying to figure out who he is, will very likely exclude him the top colleges of his choice, there’s no way to get back up to where you were. When a similar young man, in a similar stage of life, has a single failure he is likely to be excluded from many law schools and medical schools, because it’s just so difficult to resuscitate a GPA after a hit like that. If the same mistake is made in law school or medical school and you manage to stay in school your chances to get a good job may have just disappeared.
MK, I think, tries to empathize with what she imagines as the feelings of the reanimated Emerson. He might well think us blind for not seizing the opportunities open to us. But would he really feel “helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of potential and capabilities that have been restricted to each individual”? Maybe not. Emerson felt that each self-reliant person, each non-conformist, created a ripple that could cross and dislocate the pond of society. There are some dark Transcendentalists, like Melville or Poe, who posit a more chaotic world where individuals are often helpless before the forces of nature, but Emerson wasn’t one of them, and he believed in the agency of individuals.
CR worries about the effect—the power—that institutions have over the future of the noncomformist. Emerson anticipated that worry: “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour…[but] when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.”
But I find that anticipation lacking a little bit. Will the “habit of magnanimity” really overcome the power of an institution to screw up someone’s life? Probably not. I think you also have to reject the authority of the institution, and brave the disappointment of family and friends, and live with the consequences.
So, grading these papers, while roughly at the same time putting together this panel proposal, I started thinking that understanding self-reliance and achieving it are perhaps two different things.
I have a book coming out this summer titled Last Educations. It’s an academic satire. The first section is called “Fate,” and, as you might pick up on, given this panel, the title is a reference to Emerson’s essay of the same title.. The focal character in “Fate” – my “Fate,” not Emerson’s essay—is Tom Holt, a post-doc at a big university in Austin, Texas. Tom has problems with his life—with his circumstance, with his character—with his ex-girlfriend, with his students, with the administration, with Nature—with the world. The epigraph is taken from Emerson’s “Fate”: “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.”
I’ll read a couple of short passages….
At the end of the semester, the week after a cheerless and lonely Thanksgiving, on a dreary, rainy day, I was trudging along with mobs of students through Parlin Hall, the English building, when someone called my name. I looked around. Damp, dripping students were coming and going in the hallway, many chattering chatting texting on cell phones, some hooked up to iPods, alone, jostling along with backpacks and books. Then I saw Dr. Camille Braddock, a professor I’d had in graduate school.
“Tom!” she said. “What luck—I was just thinking about you.”
I felt a sudden wave of guilt and anxiety. She had no reason to be thinking about me. I asked, “What?”
Dr. Braddock stepped between a pair of giggling girls and came over. She was dry—had probably been teaching in one of the classrooms upstairs—and trim and cheerful, carrying an armload of multicolored folders. Student work, probably: even professors had to grade, sometimes, a little.
“Absolutely,” Dr. Braddock said. “I was thinking about you—wondering if you might be able to do me a favor.”
A favor. I looked away, down the hall to the retreating girls—still giggling, and it briefly occurred to me to wonder just what the hell they were so happy about—and I then looked back at Dr. Braddock. It was one of those day-to-day moments that everyone has at times, I think, and seem to happen to me fairly regularly, moments that open up into an eternity, an endless unfillable void where a person can instantly pause to consider just how screwed-up a life can become. A favor. I was already doing too much, and following through on too little. I was a post-doc, a lecturer, an adjunct—a serf. I was teaching two sections of Intro to Literature and a section of Composition and Rhetoric at the university, and three sections of comp at the community college. I was tending bar three nights a week to get enough extra money to at least make payments on my loans. I was scrambling around trying to find a tenure-track job. And Dr. Braddock, who should have known or at least sensed my status and situation, wanted to ask me for a favor.
“A favor?” I asked. I was starting to come up out of the void, and I was pissed, and depressed. A fucking favor.
The void opened up again. Despair seeped out. I do too much, I don’t follow through enough. It was the end of the semester: in a few days I would have 150 or so papers to grade and a job search to organize. A life to lead. Despair seeped out of the void, enveloped me. I was going to say Yes, of course I was—I couldn’t say No, ever. My parents raised me to be nice, to be agreeable, to be helpful, and I am. It’s a quality that has never served me well. When friends need help moving, I move. When students think their grade is too low, I raise the grade. Dentists and doctors schedule my appointments at weirdly inconvenient times. Butchers sell me bad meat. I paid too much for my car, and pay mechanics too much for not fixing it. I can’t say No. If I was a girl, I’d be pregnant all the goddamn time, with a half-dozen or so brats from previous favors—previous Yeses—squalling around unfed in dirty diapers. It’s just the way I am. When I look in the mirror I see a very weak man.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. The void closed. The despair, I knew, would linger. “I mean—sure. I don’t have any plans or anything. I like cats.”
Emerson says, “Tis weak and vicious people who cast the blame on Fate. The right use of Fate is to bring up our conduct to the loftiness of nature. Rude and invincible except by themselves are the elements…Let him hold his purpose as with the tug of gravitation. No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these.”
Emerson argues that this Fate is only half of what goes on in a human life, that people have the power to change their fates, and that fate and power are locked in a symbiotic embrace that functions in all our lives. Emerson says, “We have two things,—the circumstance, and the life. Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn, that negative power, or circumstance, is half.”
But—it’s only half. Circumstance, Fate, is not all
Right now, in America, we are facing one of the great crises of our history. Political stalemate and the forces of anti-rationalism are dismantling the governmental, educational, and social institutions which have served this nation well for the past 80 or so years. It is our fate to live in this unfortunate and dismal time. Yet—if you were to go outside right now you’d see clouds scudding overhead, birds flopping around, cars and buses on the streets—you’d see life going on, people bustling from one place to another, writers talking about poems or stories they’re writing while at the same time fantasizing about hooking up with someone at the bar tonight--
This is our world, our fate. But it’s not everything.
Some of the people at this conference—in this room—are go-getters, hard-workers, while others of us are lazy. Some of us are exuberant and outgoing, while others are quiet and introverted.
This is the fate of our characters. But our characters are not everything.
Emerson says, “…though Fate is immense, so is power, which is the other fact in the dual world, immense. If Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate. We must respect Fate as natural history, but there is more than natural history.”
We are fated to live in this time, this place. We are fated to be who we are. But we’re not limited by our fates—we have power, we have authority, we have agency. And I think this is one of Emerson’s main lessons for us as he speaks to us through the deeps of time—that we can act in opposition to our fate, that we can defy our time, that through power—through perseverance—through self-reliance we can rebuild our institutions, we can act for social justice, we can create art, we can create our own lives….